This post was jointly agonized over by Joe Lazar, President, & Andrew Kessler, CEO of Article Group
This has been a good year at Article Group.
Creatively, we’ve made some impressive work for clients like Google, Amazon, and Salesforce, and more. We even created a non-profit that is focused on bringing our agency skills to bear on hard problems in human rights and the environment.
Revenue-wise, our numbers are up.
And we’ve grown! We have almost double the number of employees compared to this time last year.
But here’s the thing — and it’s a thing that agencies don’t like to talk about. Along the way we’ve made a lot of mistakes.
Now, I’m not sure who needs to hear this, but: it’s okay to make mistakes! It’s natural. After all, the only way to improve is to error correct.
So we don’t want to pretend those mistakes didn’t happen — we want to learn from them, we want to improve, and we want to share what we’ve learned in the hopes that it’ll help you improve, too.
So, in accordance with our annual leadership meeting tradition — we wrote an article like this last year, too — we made the following list.
You’ll see our mistakes cover every possible function of our business. Some mistakes concerned leadership basics, i.e., how we consistently communicate to our team. Other mistakes concerned our offering, i.e., productizing what we sell and how we communicate that to clients.
The full list is below. We bucketed them by business function, but they’re in no particular order. We said it last year and we’ll say it again: We hope this list is useful to other leaders out there, or gets business owners to chuckle knowingly with the memory that yes, building a client services business is hard … and you’re not the only one who’s slipped on the banana peel.
This year we made a big change to our leadership structure. This was good and necessary to align our business offerings. Unfortunately, those changes led to an absence of consistent communication to our entire team. That led to confusion, anxiety, and a downturn in productivity. We learned that smart people who care about their workplaces want to know what the strategy is (doh!), and we need to make it clear for everybody, and we have to put our people at the center of everything we do and actively participate in an ongoing conversation about the good, the bad, and the hard. It’s a compounded mistake because we know we need to do this. And we didn’t. This article is part of that process!
Didn’t clarify what we were selling
We relied on our personal connections and didn’t rigorously define what services we sold or what our capabilities were. This led to two subsequent challenges: a) our business development team wasn’t focused and couldn’t create an efficient sales motion; b) our creative teams became exasperated at the wide variance in project proposals. We’ve since aligned on our offerings and we’re developing action plans.
Let emotions override business decisions
On at least one occasion this year, we accepted a piece of exciting work even though we knew that a) it was a very atypical project for us, and b) the client wasn’t accustomed to working with agencies. These factors put us at a high risk of under-delivering. We justified the decision by putting a tight time bound on the work. But that time boundary crumbled and our workflow became compromised. This created stress on our team, which had been wary of the outcome from the beginning. We learned we can’t take on risky projects just hoping everything will work out. It doesn’t!
We were afraid of having tough conversations with clients
We’ve honestly gotten a lot better at this over the years, but challenges remain! When a client relationship isn’t progressing in a healthy manner, the best thing to do is have a frank and respectful conversation about the challenges. At least one time this year we were afraid to have that conversation. We tried working around the challenges. That didn’t work. We learned, once again, that we need to have those difficult conversations, no matter how uncomfortable they make us. At the end of the day, it only helps us and the client, both.
We underestimated how hard it is to integrate workflows
Our leadership team all are accomplished professionals who are great at their respective skill sets. But we’re trying to build new ways of working to solve interesting kinds of problems in a shifting marketing landscape. We caused a lot of needless heartache and friction by not caring enough for the challenges of melding different working styles and needs.
We could disagree and commit, but wouldn’t revisit
We steal the “disagree and commit” principle from our client Amazon. The idea is pretty simple: there will inevitably be disagreements in decision making, but when a decision is made, we all have to commit to it. The purpose of this principle is to keep alignment among leaders, so we’re all rowing in the same direction and at full strength. Of course we did the disagreeing pretty well. We actually committed pretty well, too. But what we didn’t do is revisit the decision at the appropriate time, and adjust. It was commit, commit, commit. We needed to insert a moment to say, “hey, turns out you were right, I was wrong, let’s adjust to the other way.” That takes a lot of self-confidence and humility, so yeah, it’s hard.
Tore down our financial analysis without a solid plan for rebuilding
We had a loose handle on our finances. We knew we needed to improve. And so we went about a process of dismantling the analysis we had, without a super solid plan for rebuilding. We’re fortunate our financials are good!
Mixed business development and project management
This has been an ongoing challenge for us. We thought we had fixed it, but occasionally it crops up again. A few times this year when we won new business, BD would slide into a quasi-PM role on the project. This created disorder and organized the project around new business opportunities, instead of around getting the deliverables right. We learned that we need to invest more in project management, and that BD should roll off constant client contact after new business is won.
Didn’t invest heavily in growing our existing business
We are very fortunate to have great relationships with several clients. We continue to take on new projects with those clients each year, growing those relationships organically and in incremental, responsible steps. Because we are successful with this type of business, we should devote resources to selling a) more services to existing clients, and b) similar services to similar brands. But we didn’t do enough of this. Instead, we devoted more energy to new business. This created some confusion internally, and left opportunities on the table. We learned that we need to balance resources so that we’re growing our existing lines of work *and* pursuing new types of business.
Didn’t share the right lessons from losing
We made decisions to participate in pitches that were of strategic value to the company but didn’t have a huge chance of winning. If we lost these pitches, instead of looking at the strategic win (new potential clients met and impressed!), the team was left with the feeling that their hard work was done in vain. Because we have decided as a company that pitching isn’t great for us — we think it’s a flawed model and prefer to start with a small engagement to see if we’re a good fit with our clients — we don’t have the institutional knowledge for the unique chaos pitching brings. So when we do a pitch we need to do a far better job communicating with the team working on it and to the wider organization about the rational and impact.
Created an inefficient proposal process
Writing by committee never works. Too many times when we approached work to new prospects, the default was to create a new proposal from scratch and brainstorm that creation live, which was frustrating to all involved. We’ve addressed this by creating proposal templates for certain types of work, and assigning a proposal creator role to individuals.
Didn’t unify our creative functions
This is a continuing challenge that we’re consistently improving against. Last year, one side of our agency (b2b brand creatives) didn’t know what the other side (advertising creatives) was doing. We fixed that. Now we have a more precise challenge: some of our creative disciplines haven’t been consolidated underneath the right creative leaders. That led at times to disparate and sometimes confusing workstreams. We’ve realigned some roles internally to address.
Allowed teams to use an inconsistent vocabulary
Even with an experienced team, you can’t assume that everyone means the same thing when they talk about what we do. It’s incredibly worth it to take the time to iron out a basic understanding of how we work, and what we mean when we say things.
Really botched our case study process
Creating case studies is a job that straddles multiple departments. The more hands on the project, the more points of view, the longer it takes. We made a couple of errors this year. At first, we were allowing case studies to be requested ad hoc — BD needed a case study, and creative made that case study as if they were a short order cook. That was disruptive. So, we created a case studies creation work plan, in which case studies would be created in priority order. That’s worked a bit better, but hasn’t prevented BD from ordering up different versions of case studies at random intervals. We’ve learned that the job of creating case studies is actually the job of understanding departmental needs and creating a process that satisfies those needs without disrupting other workflows. Work in progress.
Didn’t manage our PR firm very well
We hired a talented PR firm before we had a strategy for how to use them, and whose role it would be to manage them. I think we expected the PR firm to do our thinking for us, but that’s not their job. Their job is to know journalists and pitch journalists. Our job is to feed them ideas. We fell down here, but we’ve learned what we need to do and we’ll be better next time.
Didn’t use our content to effectively target potential clients
For an agency of our size, we have a robust content offering. We publish a weekly newsletter, which includes resources for making better creative decisions in marketing and beyond (and which has been steadily growing in subscribers, OR, and CTR). For much of the year we’ve also run a popular twitter account that hosts weekly creative challenges (and which has gone viral several times). But we have been remiss in developing content that speaks directly to the buyers of our services. We’ve learned that we need to dedicate more internal resources to understanding what kinds of content those buyers might want, and then execute on that.
Didn’t productize our content strategy offering
We didn’t define terms, create a product, create a pitch process and deck, generate a proposal generation process, or develop a unified staffing plan for our content strategy offering. We’ve fixed that problem!
Didn’t educate the BD team on content strategy capabilities
This is connect to not productizing our offering. Since there was no defined product to sell, BD operated at an inefficiency. We’ve corrected this problem and we’re in the middle of educating the team as we speak.
Didn’t accurately count the number of ways we screwed up last year
In the first version of this article, we published it as “39 screwups…” when really, we only listed 37 screwups. We fixed the title, and this year, have enlisted a mathematician to proofread our work.
Didn’t invest early enough in training and mentorship for junior employees
We need to put our own people first and give then useful tools and ongoing coaching to unlock their potential — to become the best version of themselves and to level up their unique superpowers.
Didn’t listen actively enough and were often too easily distracted
Listening, REALLY listening is key to deepening our relationships with colleagues and clients, prevents misunderstanding, and forges respect and trust. stop being distracted, look up, be present IRL — make beautiful, useful, strange things together.
Didn’t prep our people
We asked people to do things they have not done before, without providing the structure to set them up for success. We learned that leadership isn’t just about creating opportunities for people. You need to do the work of preparing them and creating the conditions for them to succeed
Didn’t hire where we needed it most
We have a few teams — notably our keynote creative and core B2B collateral teams— that are killing it. Top notch work every time, happy clients, every time, growth, etc. And they also happen to be amazing people, who are fabulous colleagues and rarely complain. Thing is, they needed help. There was too much work on their plates, with clients across different time zones exacerbating the problem and making their days super long. So while we got better at hiring in general, we didn’t address our biggest need effectively enough.
…And some things we fixed from last year!
Fixed our crappy meeting culture
Party poppers! Instead of allowing meetings to run wild like kudzu, we invested time to understand strategic needs and created a more sane meeting schedule.
Fixed our 1-on-1 meeting process
This headline undersells what we did. We created a staff growth and mentorship program called Heads Together. It provides a framework for helping staff articulate their goals and work together with managers and mentors to achieve them. Our approach to the team has always been that people leave our company better than they came, and a big part of that is being able to receive and give useful feedback.
Created a staffing pipeline
We’ve been very diligent in defining roles we need to fill, consistently interviewing candidates, and keeping a full pipeline. Significant help with projects.
Created an onboarding process
We now have a consistent onboarding process with guidelines and tools.
Created a post-mortem process
We developed an after-action process that allows staff to communicate their experience during a project. We hold a post-engagement meeting to review those experiences and memorialize lessons learned.
Started raising our hand for more work at existing clients
We’ve begun to codify an approach to growing our business responsibly within some of our clients. These has led to better client relationships and more business!
Began involving strategists at the beginning of projects
In the very early years of this agency’s operation (when we were, like, two people), we didn’t include strategy in our projects. Now we include them early and often. The strategist becomes the expert on the business. Then, if the engagement expands or we start a new project within a client, that strategist becomes even more useful.
Began hiring against roles
Here’s what we said last year: “We hired against needs and processes that we hadn’t really defined, so we ended up hiring the wrong people. We had to let some people — good people — go because they didn’t fit with our business.” Well, we stopped doing that! We have a very defined staff growth plan now.
Thanks for keeping us honest. And here’s to next year’s mistakes!