Five Strategies for Prosperity in 2012

A recent headline from the International Herald Tribune buries any hope for easy success in 2012: “Europe starts a tough year faced with double peril.”

The articles focuses on the risks posed by a cycle of cuts and deficits across the European markets, but you don’t have to be an economist – or a European – to see that business success in the year ahead will be of the do-it-yourself variety.  No free lunch, no tail winds and lots of danger standing between today and December 31st.

But there are steps agency leaders can take to be as successful as possible or, dare I say, prosperous.  They may be obvious, but bear repeating: put your clients’ interests first, take care of your best people, keep an eye on your dashboard, be selective in new business, and – sounds odd but might be the most important of all – stand for something your people can rally around and your clients can value.

Looking further at each…

Put Your Cients’ Interests First

It’s easy to confuse what’s best for a client and what’s best for your team –sometimes you just need a little more time to get the right solution in place and sometimes we’re not sure the client even knows what’s in their best interest.

Doesn’t matter.  The client’s need must always come first, must always get your full attention and must never be distorted to justify short-cuts, and your need for revenue must never get in the way of providing the best possible solution.

Easy?  Of course not.  Taking care of clients while running a profitable agency is one of the hardest (and most stressful) jobs around.  Without trying to oversimplify the enormity of the challenge, we encourage leaders to do three things:

  1. Listen fearlessly.  My colleagues Jerry Olszewski and Sabine Stadel-Strauch (global and European chief client officers, respectively) stress the need to really hear what the clients are saying – about their business, about their communications and about how the agency is really doing.  This requires discipline and courage, but it’s the only way to get at the heart of things.
  2. Put your best team forward.  For more than 20 years, we have been committed to the concept of “best teams” – assembling the best-suited talent for a specific assignment.  You don’t have to be part of a global network for this to apply; in simple terms, it means looking beyond your immediate team or profit center to find the best people for the job.  Or, in simpler language still, it means not hoarding opportunities for yourself or your team.
  3. Look around corners.  It’s easy to lose sight of the larger opportunities or challenges confronting our clients, especially when we feel we have our hands full with the current work, often on reduced budgets with stretched teams.  Tough it out.  Easier said than done, of course, but clients will value – and retain – the agencies that help them look into the future.

Take Care of Your Best People

Every member of the team is valuable, and it can be hard to discern between the “best” and rest.  But let’s be honest: the people who get the most time and attention from agency leaders are often those who make the most noise in demanding it.  Perhaps they run large assignments, or play a particularly valuable role. Or maybe they just draw more energy than they give, and that’s the way it has always been with them.

But the very best people are often the least noisy or demanding.  They advise clients, run projects and develop teams without drama or grandstanding.  They keep you informed, involve you appropriately and share credit generously.  They’re probably on your “no need to worry about” list.

Worry about them.  Or least start giving them the time and attention they deserve.  This doesn’t always more money (although it might), but we find most top-performers do want some of the same things: autonomy in their roles, recognition for success, a real say in how the business operates, and a clear view in how their careers can progress.

Most agencies have tools in place to help deliver these, and I believe Rachel Wallins and Sarah Barrett (heads of global and European HR for Ketchum respectively) have with their teams developed some of the best in the business.   But the point is, these tools need to be put to use, especially in years as challenging as 2012 looks to be.

Keep an Eye on the Dashboard

Several years ago we introduced a “dashboard” of metrics to show the health of our businesses at any given time.  These aren’t secret – like the instruments on car’s dashboard, they indicate the agency’s performance in key areas of operation: client satisfaction, talent engagement, revenue and profitability, and new business opportunities.

There are of course a number of more specific metrics to keep track of, but the “big four” above are what will help guide you down the autobahn at 120 kph.  It’s tempting, especially in challenging economies, to focus on one – say, new business – but this is like looking at the fuel gage without an occasional glimpse at the speedometer.  Not safe at any speed.

Be Selective in New Business

The hardest thing to do when business is tough is to say no to a new business opportunity.  Big mistake.

Our head of business development, Peter Fleisher, likes to say “pitch less, win more.”  And he means it.   By reducing the number of opportunities that get the agency’s full attention, we’re able to spend more, better-quality time on those that do.  And the success rate improves accordingly.

This doesn’t mean we don’t look at every opportunity.  We do – but through a filter of criteria that indicate whether we’re likely to be able to help them (see Put Client Interests First, above), whether we’re likely to win, and whether they are likely to offer a real opportunity for a healthy, growing partnership.  If the answer is no to any of these, we’ll generally pass and put our eggs in more promising baskets.

Stand for Something

And this leads to a fifth strategy for agency prosperity in 2012: standing for something your people and clients alike can embrace and value.

Different agencies will stand for different things in different ways.  For many, it’s about their brands in the marketplace – perhaps they’re known for social media expertise, good connections, deep industry knowledge, or to borrow a phrase, “break through” results.

For many, it’s about their culture: the way their people collaborate, a strong sense of ethics and a commitment to doing the right thing, their investment in learning and development, or their citizenship within their communities.

And for others, it’s about the added value they bring to their engagements: measurement, innovation, global media expertise or deep local market knowledge.

At Ketchum, I’d like to think we stand for all of these things, and in fact for the most part I think that more than standing for each; we actually live up to them all.

Of one thing I am certain, however: standing for being the cheapest, or the one most willing to take ethical short cuts or the one willing to promise anything in a pitch – these are not strategies for prosperity in 2012, or any other year.

So yes, Europe – and the world – starts a tough year with many perils.  But with a little bit of focus and discipline, and a whole of courage and humor, I think we might just get by.

Best wishes for a happy and prosperous 2012.