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6 Tips for the Independent Agency Strategy Leader


INFLUENCER: Strategists really can be an agency's secret weapon, writes Edward Cotton

6 Tips for the Independent Agency Strategy Leader

For the past 20 years I was the strategy lead at BSSP - an agency awarded Small Agency of the Decade by Adweek and was named 2018 Small Agency of the Year by Advertising Age. 

I started at BSSP when there were 25 employees and at one point we grew that to close to 200. Over the years, I learned some lessons about the things that matter for agency CSOs and heads of strategy that I thought were worth sharing.

1. Operate with an aligned vision 

Agency founders and leadership have often made significant investments in building their strategy departments with high expectations for the department to deliver and achieve multiple objectives including; improve the work, enhance client relationships and bring in new business. 

None of these objectives is the sole domain of strategy. But, without alignment between strategy and the other departments none of this can happen. Helping run the 4As Leadership Forum and four Strategy Festivals has taught me that 99.9% of the challenges of agency strategy leadership - regardless of size - are internal. Without alignment and a vision that is agreed to across departments all the hopes and objectives of agency presidents and CEOs will never be achieved.  

Today’s market is a challenging one for all agencies and to effectively compete strategists and strategy leadership needs to be operating at a high level despite the obvious constraints of being small or even being big. 

2. Cultural Alignment

In an independent shop every person and everything you do seems to have greater internal impact. There simply aren’t any places to hide. It is critically important that the role and purpose of the strategy department aligns with the mission of the agency. In fact, the tighter the two pieces of this are, the better. For example, if your agency has proudly declared itself to be a creative shop, then your strategy department better be helping fulfil that mission. Staffing your dept with ex-management consultants and data analysts will certainly not align with that mission. 

3. Be a Scrappy Hacker

It is obvious, but you do not have the budgets or resources of your larger counterparts. So, you have to hack your way to success. Consider - what can you learn from doing two groups vs. eight? Can you create a fast-track way to get to an insight vs. a predictable process? We all know strategists cannot operate without certain tools, but you are going to have to be adept at explaining ROI to those that hold the purse strings, which demands you find the ones that you can extract the maximum value from. 

4. Use Each Other

Agency employees can be highly competitive with each other and, in a culture that rewards authors, this sometimes is heightened to the point that internal competition can be your own worst enemy and quickly lead you down blind alleys and derail progress. You need to work hard to get over this and to use the power of smart minds working together to crack problems. Sometimes this means turning everyone in the agency into a strategist, and other times, it means bringing your strategy team together to work together to crack a problem.

5. Be Opportunistic

Think for ways you can punch above your agency weight class. What POVS do you have that can be shared with a wider audience? Could you do consulting work for clients with the team you have to serve as an additional revenue generator for your agency?

At BSSP, we started a printed magazine called Influx, which morphed into a blog, which became a consulting group and also a bi-annual conference that we even invited our competitors to.

There are advantages of being independent that you can use. You can get things done faster and you can draw upon the creative resources that you have close by in ways that are impossible for your larger competitors to do. You can use this to create a differentiated consulting offering and to give more impact to your products and perspectives.    

6. You are New Business

Agency success, morale and momentum is driven largely by new business success. You have to be tied at the hip to your new business people and you have to be helping them at every turn. As new business gets more challenging, it is imperative the strategy leader is thinking of a constant stream of ideas and perspectives to help the agency get on the radar screens of potential clients. 

Strategists are frequently called an agency’s secret weapon. Your insights and contributions can bring significant results to clients and the agency itself. 

Edward Cotton is a strategist and serves as chair of the 4A’s Strategy Council.

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The Marketing Standard, Wed, 13 Mar 2019 11:33:48 GMT