So you just got a new agency job. Terrific! Congratulations.
Have you read The First 90 Days yet? If not, I encourage you to get a copy. It’s a really good book — written for leaders at all levels — who are just beginning their next new gig. This post will summarize Chapter Two, “Accelerate Learning.” And I’ll throw in some useful agency context.
One president’s “listening tour” is an account director’s “walkabout the agency”. Are you on a plane or walking down the hall? You may be the new CEO, visiting the agency’s offices around the country. Or you may be the agency’s latest account director, assigned to a specific piece or two of client business.
Your challenge is the same: learn. Fast. As you read the following, think about your learning as it relates to your specific role and your goals. Things like why you were hired and what you’ll be working on.
Pull together a Learning Agenda
The book’s author defines an agenda as what you need to learn. Makes sense to yours truly. I emphasize the “what.” And think about it as a working document that gets sharper over time.
You can define your agenda by asking some smart questions about the past, the present and the future.
- Questions About the Past – identify agency performance, root causes and history of change
- Questions About the Present – explore vision & strategy, people, processes, land mines and early wins
- Questions About the Future – understand challenges, opportunities, barriers, resources, culture
Agency “performance” is a pretty broad area. Typically, it’s things like the work, client satisfaction and retention, profitability, incremental revenue growth, new business success, staff turnover, utilization ratios, profitability, and more. Again, think about your role. Are you talking about these issues at the agency level, or just the business?
To develop these past / present / future questions, think like the highly paid, billable marketing consultant you already are. In a very real sense, you’re going to treat the agency like a client. And like always, keeping this client happy keeps you around and gets you promoted.
You’ll find answers in some of the agency’s hard data, like agency credentials and RFPs responses, processes for making the work, financial and operating reports, client status reports, strategic and departmental plans, staff surveys, press stories, social media presence and industry reports. But you’ll want to augment this information by talking with people both inside and outside the agency.
- Internal agency information resources: billable departments (account/planning/creative/digital/media, etc.), HR, finance, office services
- External information resources: key clients, key suppliers, press, search consultants
If you have direct reports, you should meet with them, one-on-one, relatively soon after starting. And if you work on a piece of business, I suggesting talking with your peers in the other disciplines with whom you work.
Michael Watkins of The First 90 Days suggests asking the same five basic questions to everyone:
- What are the biggest challenges the agency/department (or the account) is facing?
- Why is the agency facing these challenges?
- What are the more promising unexploited opportunities for growth?
- What would need to happen for the agent to exploit this potential?
- If you were me, would you focus attention on?
That is some kinda listening, right? Hearing the answers — and the ensuing conversation — can save you a ton of time and build valuable relationships. It can also give you a sense for agency politics and culture.
Once you’ve completed your one-on-ones, get everyone together as a group and share what you’ve learned, your impressions and further questions. This demonstrates you’re listening. It can also foster teamwork and communication.
Have an agenda? Now craft a Plan
The second part of Accelerate Your Learning is about building a plan – details on HOW you’re going to learn the WHAT. The template in the First 90 Days book lays out three periods of time:
- What you can do before you start the job,
- What you can do soon after entry,
- And what you should do by the end of the first month.
You’d read more detail about these, but you really should invest the $17.22 and buy the book. It’s well worth it. A couple of things in this section are particularly noteworthy:
- Consider asking external agency observers some open-ended questions about agency history, reputation and culture. (You should have done this before you took the job, but maybe you weren’t working with an external recruiter). Consider including your predecessor these questions, particularly if they’re now working somewhere else.
- There may be agency improvement opportunities (read: opportunity for you) when you look at connections and hand-offs between disciplines. Meaning, how the job internally goes through the shop. But this can also include client / agency interaction. And prospective client / agency interaction in either prospecting or closing opportunities.
- You may find additional room for improvement in areas like top/bottom staff alignment of vision and strategy. Or shared understanding of challenges and opportunities through the ranks.
- Make sure you connect with your boss and your team about what you’ve learned.
This chapter also makes me think about a couple of other things:
- You can learn a lot about the agency by looking at four things in particular: the agency’s social media profile; key decision-makers’ social media and thought leadership profiles; inter-office communication and how decisions are made (and who was involved).
- Context matters here. HOW you go about executing your plan is important. Look for cultural cues. Tap into your spidey sense.
And now for something completely different
Yes. More unladen swallow talk. As a consultant working for agencies that hired me to help them in new business, I’d ask these kinds of questions you’re reading about. But to make sure I wasn’t telling the agency the time by asking for their watch, I added a crap-ton of external intel.
I used a classic, big agency-think Company / Competitor / Customer framework to pull together agency positioning, new business strategy and tactics. Two of those “Cs” are outside any shop. This fueled a smarter, more informed perspective. It also got heads nodding and built alignment. The more senior you are, I think the more helpful that immersion framework can be as you start your new job.
(Side note: if you happen to work in new business, I have several question lists and templates for this kind of thing. Give me a shout.)
The First 90 Days book gets at all of this and more. Something I can’t stress enough is that as you learn more about the agency and it’s opportunities: pay special attention to the agency’s culture and the political environment. To me, these two areas are just as important as the agency’s facts & figures. You gotta figure out how the place is wired. What kind of tribe have you joined? And where are the opportunities for the agency and where can you play?
Executing a learning agenda and plan and will help you figure that out.
Congrats again on the new gig! Thanks for reading.
Other articles you might find interesting: