MAY 17, 2024

Getting a Clean Bill of Health for Your Agency with The Agency Doc


John Moyers knows agencies. For over three decades, he’s successfully started, built, managed, and scaled numerous agencies, helping to enhance effectiveness, streamline operations, boost profitability, and foster cooperation, collaboration, and camaraderie. 

He also knows in-house marketing and creative services teams. He spent the last five years on the client side, building and leading high-performing marketing and creative hybrid work teams, which gave him an invaluable perspective on the increasingly multifaceted demands placed on brand leaders.  

Today, John is the founder and CEO (that’s Chief Encouragement Officer) of The Agency Doc, an advisory, consulting, and coaching practice. He leverages the knowledge and experience gained in his 30+ year career to help agencies find effective, efficient, and practical ways to improve their overall health, performance, and profitability.   

We sat down with John to learn more about the importance of employee satisfaction on the bottom line, the differences between agency teams and other team structures, and how he leverages his “ambidextrous brain” to provide equal parts creative and analytical thinking to help agencies. 

WPI >> Tell us about yourself and your company. What types of agencies do you work with? What services do you provide? 

John >> I've worked in agencies or other marketing-related businesses my entire career. My background includes being part of multiple agency startups, launching a variety of internal new divisions, and as an executive leader within multiple large agency organizations, running large global brands. Most recently, I went client-side and spent 5 years leading marketing departments and building in-house creative agencies at two cannabis companies. 

In January, I launched The Agency Doc. I decided it was time to do what I loved the most, most of the time—advising, mentoring, and teaching—so I started a consulting practice to help agencies with the “inside stuff” that often gets overlooked in favor of a singular focus on the revenue side of the business.

From an “ideal agency client” perspective, I’d say my sweet spot is agencies in the 75-plus people category. I like agencies that are big enough to have multiple cross-functional teams working on client business and an organizational structure that has grown to include departments of specialization.

From a services perspective, I lead with advisory services – providing executive-level support for overarching agency issues, including agency organizational structure, process, and culture. 

Additionally, I offer mentoring and coaching to mid-level managers and senior executives. I particularly love working with new leaders. 

Finally, the area I'm really excited about revolves around the development of high-performing teams. Based on my work in a variety of different agencies, I created an approach called The Team Wellness Project. It is a comprehensive program for team leaders and team members designed to help create high-performing and happier teams. 

WPI >> What are the biggest challenges you’re seeing agencies face today?

John >> One of the biggest issues agencies face is that clients' expectations (and needs) from agencies are changing dramatically. For the last 5-10 years, there's certainly been a move toward bringing more creative services in-house. But the speed with which this is happening is daunting.

With the arrival of new services like Canva, ChatGPT, Fivver, and various automated tools, clients aren’t looking to agencies for many of these services. One of the consequences of this move to “in-source” certain activities is that most of the more tactical and production-related services that agencies have traditionally provided were high-margin services. That means the agency's ability to offset other high-cost activities – like putting your most expensive creatives on a piece of business – is more difficult. It also impacts the types of people an agency has on staff and the workflow process within the agency and between the agency and the client.

Another significant change for agencies is adapting to and managing the expectations of the new talent entering the agency. The latest generation of creative people has a very different set of expectations than we did when I started in the business, and it’s understandable why. When I started in the agency business, we didn’t have the technologies or infinite communication channels we have today. Nowadays, everyone you hire has some level of digital and creative skills. After all, they’ve likely been producing social media content for themselves prior to joining the agency. And they probably are better at it than some of your more “seasoned” employees.

Not long ago, when an entry-level employee came to the agency, the expectation was that you would work your way up from the bottom. You learned most of what you needed to know “on the job,” and the rest from senior agency people along the way. I think the people joining agencies today believe they already know a lot and want to be given responsibilities from the get-go. 

Much has been written about this new generation, and the difference in experiences between those running the agency and those joining has never been further apart. How an agency adapts is critical and requires being open to new ways of working while not completely throwing out the baby with the bath water. I especially think we need to continue to find ways to mentor and share knowledge from the veterans in your agency, but it’s harder to do today when you’re not in the agency every day.

WPI >> What excites you about working with agencies to improve their overall agency health?

John >> For me, the idea of “agency health” goes back more than 15 years, to when we began implementing employee satisfaction surveys within the agency network. It was the first time we started looking closely at how satisfied our employees were with their work by asking them about various aspects of their jobs. The survey we used was based on research done by some Harvard professors and published in a book called The Service Profit Chain.

The research included various service-based industries, of which ad agencies were included, and it looked at successful companies that over-indexed on profitability, employee retention, and client retention versus those that under-indexed on the same factors.

They learned that the key variable differentiating successful companies was employees' satisfaction with their roles and the company. It proved that employees who feel good about what they're doing, who they're doing it for, why they're doing it, and who feel supported within the environment do better work and stay at the agency longer. And consequently, better work leads to happier clients, who spend more money and stay longer at the agency. Ultimately, all of this leads to greater profitability for the agency. And it turns out they were right! We found the same to be true at our agency. 

So, how does an agency do it? I believe it starts with the team. Agencies aren’t monolithic corporate structures with departments. They are a collection of teams made up of cross-functional experts who must work together to solve client problems. 

WPI >> You discuss the differences between agency teams and teams found in most other traditional organizations. Explain more about these differences and the unique challenges and opportunities that exist because of the distinct structure.

John >> I think of a traditional team as one you might find in sports, manufacturing, production, financial, or sales environment. Teams in this context typically have a structure with a singular team leader. A leader who can choose the team members, set the standard for how things operate, decide what will be measured, dole out discipline, and decide what’s rewarded. 

What I’ve seen that is unique about an agency team is that there typically isn't a singular team leader. In other words, it’s more of an arbitrage of sorts regarding how the team functions and how decisions are made. 

It’s true that an agency might lean in one direction—they might lean more towards account management or more towards creative—but that doesn't ultimately result in a singular team leader. You still end up with shared responsibility, and as a result, for that team to function at its optimal best, it must be aligned at the team leadership level. This is where I think I can help. I’ve done it successfully on all my teams, and I believe I have a program to help other agencies do the same thing.

WPI >> You have an extensive background working both agency- and client-side across various roles. How do you use this experience to help other agencies drive overall performance?  

John >> Most of my experience has been on the agency side, in various positions within the agency. I started as a project manager and worked my way up through account management, eventually ending up in an agency operational role, responsible for a variety of different functions within the agency—everything from production to IT and even HR.

From a client-facing perspective, I’ve had numerous roles responsible for new business development or running a large client account. My broad agency background gives me a thorough understanding of the agency and how it operates. 

My client experience began five years ago when I left Chiat/Day/LA and went to work for a cannabis company out of Arizona. Cannabis is a fully integrated vertical and horizontal business. If there was such a thing as a fast track to understanding a client-side organization, cannabis is probably one of the best places to do it because I learned everything from manufacturing to product development to distribution to wholesale and retail sales. I was responsible for building brands we could sell in your retail operations and other retail operations and for all the branding and marketing for our retail stores.

When I sat in the client's seat, marketing and advertising were just a few of the many things I was thinking about. Most days, my priorities weren’t marketing at all. Instead, it might be manufacturing, sales, legal or financial issues. 

Ultimately, I think the client-side experience gave me a more well-rounded perspective. One that allows me to have a conversation with an agency leader about how their agencies operate and where opportunities exist to optimize it. At the same time, I’m able to give them some perspective on what clients are looking for and the challenges that clients face that they may not be aware of so that they can position themselves to be a better resource. 

WPI >> Former colleagues of yours have applauded your “ambidextrous brain,” stating that you’re incredibly analytical and creative. How do you apply this combined thinking to help agencies? 

John >> I've received some interesting comments from a few of my references, and that’s certainly one of them. One of the main reasons I went to work in advertising, and more importantly, why I stayed in it so long, was because I think I have a combination of skills that seemed useful there. 

I think the “ambidextrous” comment refers to my having a very creative side and, at the same time, an organization and process orientation. In college, I minored in fine arts, so I understand the creative process. However, I also have a business management degree focusing on operations and organizational dynamics. 

My operational bent grew out of working in retail and restaurants. That experience gave me an understanding of the mechanics of operationalizing something. I took that experience and applied it to the creative process.  

For example, an idea follows a process very similar to that of a product. A product has the raw materials that go into it, and so does an idea—like the brief, the strategy, the insight—and then you've got the outputs, which might be a package good in the case of a product. But in the case of a creative product output, you might have a TV commercial, a print ad, or a social post. So, I believe there are parallels between those two things. The ability to understand both procedurally and operationally how things work, as well as the unique nature of idea creation, has helped me be think through both creative and operational needs and develop solutions that achieve the goals of each.

WPI >> A key principle of yours is that employee satisfaction = client satisfaction = agency profitability. I imagine few agencies would disagree with this idea, but the CFOs are going to want proof. What do you tell them?

John >> I say read The Service Profit Chain. You’ll find demonstrable proof that service organizations with high levels of employee satisfaction are disproportionately profitable and have disproportionate employee and client retention. 

However, in all honesty, there’s still a bit of a trust fall for agency leaders to buy into the concept. It’s not about ping-pong tables and free food. Ultimately, the investment is not in dollars as much as in effort. This is more of a philosophical approach. The foundational elements of what make employees in any organization, but certainly in a service organization, satisfied or happy are the same things that make humans satisfied and happy. 

We all want to understand our role in any situation. So, an employee who understands their role on a team, knows what's expected of them, and is given the tools and resources to do the job they've been asked to do will be happier than somebody who doesn't have those things. 

In addition, the individual operating on a team is looking for things “from” the team – starting with respect. When team members respect your role and allow you to do your job and contribute, you feel “valued.”  

I also think individuals are looking for relationships. They’re looking for camaraderie, collaboration, and cooperation amongst their team. The leadership within a team plays a critical role in establishing the ground rules for what is expected of team members when engaging with one another and creating an environment that fosters relationship building that extends beyond the office. 

Most of these things don't cost money but require a commitment to those behaviors. When you do that, you produce teams that feel good about themselves and work well together. The result is they do better work, and better work leads to happier clients, and happier clients stay longer. 

WPI >> Is there such a thing as a “clean bill of health” for agencies? If so, what does it look like?

John >> I have intentionally included this notion of wellness and health in my marketing and social media, and obviously, it's built into the name The Agency Doc

I believe a clean bill of health includes a healthy work environment, healthy work relationships, and, ultimately, a healthy bottom line. When this happens, it is because an agency is intentional about making sure there's clarity of vision, that everybody in the organization or within a team knows exactly where you're going, and that they have the support to get there. 

Healthy agencies ensure a clear understanding of the team's individual roles and the activities for which they're being held accountable. They also foster open communication and ensure that it is effective. This means communicating the right things at the right time and in the right format. 

Another aspect of a healthy team is one that knows how to handle conflict. Invariably, you're going to have conflict, people disagree. In fact, you want that. If we're not challenging each other's ideas or pushing to get to a better solution, as opposed to the simplest solution, we aren’t doing our best work. So, when you push, you’re going to have conflict. When a team operates in a healthy way, it learns how to manage conflict productively by respecting each other, asking good questions, being good listeners, and ultimately arriving at a place where there’s collective support for the outcome.

I also think a very important attribute of a healthy team is one that celebrates and commiserates.  That means taking time to stop and acknowledge the wins AND the losses as a team.  How you do that will vary greatly, but some form of acknowledgment at these stages in the life of a team is an important part of developing team cohesion.

This article is an installment in a series where Worldwide Partners speaks with experienced consultants and service providers that are part of our WPI Faculty. Check back for more interviews with our industry’s leading consultants in PR, business development, financial services and more.

Written By:
Angie Pascale
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