Agency Employees Will Forgive Bad Decisions, But Only If You Make Them

I'm getting more calls than usual from agency principals who are nervous about their businesses. It's a combination of three things, it seems:

  • An election cycle in the US and the uncertainty and distraction that it poses. Some agency clients have hit a collective “pause” button as they look for the fog to lift. Clients are doing the same things they always do, but they aren’t launching big initiatives like before.
  • The economy shows a few cracks. Or maybe we should just say that broad stock categories have taken a beating and tech valuations aren't as stupid as they used to be. It's one thing when Twitter can't seem to unlock value, but it's another when the world's most valuable industry sector (energy) is in the tank. Literally, it seems, in that 98% (the highest in 80 years) of the oil storage capacity is spoken for because there aren't many buyers.
  • We see peace breaking out every so often amid the stream of what I now call "spot terror." When there was a war with ground forces and outposts and embedded media, you could turn it off a little and watch from afar. Today, there's something in Paris or California or down the road at a strip mall in Chattanooga or the EU capital. Even Canada! What's next? I grew up in a long Civil War in Latin America where terror was a part of life, but that world seems so simple compared to this one. This world is forever changed when perpetrators are so committed to their causes and so under the radar that we haven't really learned how to effectively defend ourselves without rolling personal freedom and privacy back 300 years.

Those are the three external factors that are bringing some agencies back to their home bases where--truth be told--they are doing really good things:

  • Deciding why they exist.
  • Understanding their businesses like they never have before. How do we make money? What levers should we pull to impact this particular result
  • Being disciplined in running their businesses.
  • Starting to realize that they don't want as much to do with the bullshit that surrounds marketing. The Emperor has fewer clothes.

Having been in this field in various roles for nearly three decades, I think the current agency leaders are the best leaders we've ever had. I like how they think and how they make decisions. They are more transparent and collaborative. They are more connected to their worlds and their employees. They understand business better than ever.

What they are still struggling with a bit is leadership, and that's why I penned the headline above. To put it a little differently, think of it like this. Your employees will forgive the occasional wrong decision, but they will not forgive you for not making tough decisions. The main problem with leadership isn't bad leadership but lack of leadership.

Here's an example. Say your sales trajectory is taking a hit, maybe based on the two factors above. You hate debt, your cash cushion is getting a little thin, you're doing the right things from a marketing standpoint, and you've even cut your own pay. But the lines are still converging and you're not sure when to act or even what your next moves should be.

One obvious choice is to lay off a person or two. But what will that do to your culture? Is it fair to that person? How will you get the work done with a leaner staff?

Here's the thing. There is no right answer to that question, but there is leadership and lack of leadership. Holding the staff together is a wonderful result, but that's not your job. Your job is to make the right decisions for the business, even when that requires tough choices about them or about you.

There are helpful ways to think through these decisions, but letting your circumstances float you down the river is never smart. Here's a raised glass to your renewed commitment to listening to good advice and then acting on it. You have one person in your corner, at least, and that's me, simply because you're being a leader. I am proud to be in this business and to be a part of their business lives.

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