11 lessons I’ve learned from 20 years of agency life

By September 8, 2020 General No Comments
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This summer marked my 20th year in the agency world. I could probably write a book about all the stuff that’s gone down since that day I started as a bright-eyed account executive at a small agency in a St. Paul suburb. Coming from the corporate side of things, I didn’t know much about what I was getting into. I just knew I wanted to be involved in creating things that companies could use to promote themselves.

Thanks to technology, the way in which we conduct business has changed dramatically since then, but the basics of agency life haven’t. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned over the years that might be helpful to those who are just starting out. And familiar to those who’ve been at it as long as I have.

  1. Sanity comes with patience and flexibility
    My first month in the trenches taught me that a client can change direction faster than a teenager changes their mood. And the only way I was going to survive in this business was to be okay with that. That took some practice (and many deep breaths) in the beginning. As a hardcore planner and organizer, I lived for creating timelines and managing details. When those details went sideways because of last-minute changes, it was frustrating at first. But it didn’t take long for me to learn this was a common occurrence and accepting it with a good attitude was the only way I was going to survive. 20 years later, my clients consistently thank me for my patience and flexibility. It seems all that practice has paid off.
  1. The client isn’t always right
    No matter how many questions I ask or how much research I do into the business of a client, I’ll ever know as much as they do. So, when they ask me to make changes to images or terminology that would make more sense to their audience, who am I to argue? However, if they ask me to make a change that would directly affect the success of their campaign (for example, adding too many fields to an online lead capture form), that’s where I draw the line. Because I know that will instantly scare away 90% of the people who might otherwise complete the form. I know this because I’ve done the research. And I’ve seen it happen.
  1. The client has the final say
    If I push back with the best of intentions on a decision a client makes, but they still want us to do it their way, I’ll make it happen. Because, after all, they’re paying the bill.
  1. Agencies are just another vendor
    In every single proposal I’ve ever written (and there have been plenty), I’ve written something like “hiring us as your marketing partner will be the smartest thing you’ve ever done”. Thanks to my friend and coworker Beth, every time I write this I think of a blog she once wrote. It was about how clients—no matter how much we see ourselves as part of their team—will always see us as just another vendor. It’s a sad realization that’s tough to stomach. Because we believe in what they do. We care about their business. We care about them as people. And we want them to be successful. But it’s their name on the door, not ours. So, we understand. Mostly.
  1. There’s only so much an agency can do
    Agencies used to be the place where clients went for creative ideas/design/strategy and media planning. It was our job to learn about their target audience and craft relevant, engaging messaging to get their attention and convince them to take an action. Our success was measured by landing page clicks, phone calls, or BRCs (remember those?). When a prospect made contact, it was up to the client to close the deal. Nowadays, our success is measured in sales dollars. I’m never one to step away from a challenge, but I’m also a realist and I know my place in the world. As much as I’d love to offer a guarantee to my clients that our work will result in overwhelming sales, there are too many factors out of my control. I’m an outsider with no direct influence on things like brand reputation, length of the sales cycle, lead nurture, and sales follow-up.
  1. Treat vendors how you want to be treated
    Our vendors love us. We speak their language. We bring them business. We deal directly with the end client. And for that, they are very grateful. Which means they’ll put up with a lot of abuse (like short deadlines and last-minute changes) without a lot of complaining. Knowing they’ll take most of what we dish out, it would be easy for us to take them for granted. But that’s not how I roll. I’ve always believed in the more-bees-with-honey mantra and having endured some abuse myself over the years, I know how rare it is to hear words of thanks and praise. So, I dole out those words whenever I can. Along with general respect and compassion. And a healthy dose of high expectations.
  1. Trust your creative team
    Everybody wants to be a designer. Or a writer. And everybody thinks they’re good at it. Even those of us who don’t hold those titles. I used to create silly hand-drawn/folded mockups for my creative team to show them my vision for a mailer or brochure. They would come back to me with a design that followed my mockup, and then one of their own. Guess which one was better. They are called the creative team for a reason. Trust them to do their thing. They’ll always knock it out of the park.
  1. Trust your gut
    After the creative team has done their job, it’s my turn to do mine. The longer I work with a client, the better I am at knowing what they’ll like and not like. Makes sense, right? It’s like any relationship. So, even though the creative team might have a strong opinion about a certain headline or layout, if my gut tells me to go a different direction, I listen. I’ve tested this theory over the years, sending out something I didn’t think would go over well, and I’m almost always right. Now, I don’t test. I just go with my gut.
  1. Don’t take anything personally
    I’ve put a lot of hours into proposals that never get won and estimates that never get signed. And I’m not the only one. The SCA (creative awards given to small and mid-sized agencies) has a category called “The Best Idea That Never Happened” (or something like that) specifically for this reason. Creative teams everywhere put together incredible designs that never see the light of day. If we took it personally, we’d spend more time at the bar than we already do. And that’s not good for anybody. Except maybe the bartender.
  1. It’s just marketing—nobody’s going to die
    I used to possess many characteristics of a classic Type A personality. I was highly ambitious, impatient, and fast-talking. And with that came a lot of self-induced stressed. I still have some anxiety around the stressors that come with agency life, but I’ve learned to let most of it go. After all, it’s just marketing.
  1. Have fun
    See #10. And then go to happy hour.

Author Danette Knickmeier

Danette is an account executive at d.trio.

More posts by Danette Knickmeier

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