Opinion

The accidental CEO: 10 lessons I’ve learned running an agency

How did I get here and what have I learned? Mark Jones, CEO at Filtered Media, places a road map over his career from journo to agency boss, letting us in on lessons he’s learned on the way.

mark Jones CEO filtered media

So here’s the honest truth: I never wanted to run a marketing agency.

Think about the Mad Men clichés – or even just the Surry Hills advertising agency clichés, with their beards and almond milk, ¾ full lattes – there wasn’t much about agency life that appealed.

You see, I’ve spent the best part of my career in journalism. It’s obviously the other side of the tracks from the world of marketing, agencies and brand messaging.

Journalism is a heady world of writing, deadlines, a secret roster of industry contacts, the pursuit of page 1, and the necessary hassle of managing a team of cats, err, other journalists.

And it’s highly addictive if you’re half-way good at it. Simply seeing your name in print or online is a buzz that never completely fades. It’s the satisfaction of knowing you did something today. The internal monologue whispers, “See that story? I wrote that. Not bad. Wonder if I should tell mum about this one?”

There were plenty of other upsides, too, like junkets, free stuff, and long lunches. But those things are now a relic of yesteryear. Sorry kids.

Anyway, fast forward to the present and I’m the chief storyteller and CEO of a brand storytelling agency. Two things: yes, I’ve got an awesome title, and yes, brand storytelling is a thing – but more on that later.

How we got here

My wife and I began the inevitable trek towards agency land when, some eight years ago, we combined her awesomely-sharp PR and communications skills with my love for journalism and storytelling.

It was the days before content marketing, inbound marketing and our obsession with social media. It actually felt a little bit naughty. PR and journalism also lived on opposite sides of the track yet here we were, hunkered down in our home office, busy turning an idea into something.

That something, we soon discovered, was an agency.

It all began innocently enough. One of my journalism contacts at Telstra heard I was freelancing and asked if I’d write some stories for a customer newsletter. That, in turn, introduced me to Telstra’s procurement team, one of whom dropped a thought bomb on me. Our invoice would be processed the same way as “all the other agencies,” she said. Gasp.

Until that point, I’d naively considered our little business to be outside of that “agency” world. After all, we were pioneering a new form of brand journalism where corporate stories were written by real journalists.

Filtered Media screen grab Mark Jones

Our PR and social strategies were underpinned by a deep understanding of how media, communications and audiences function. In short, we were different.

In truth, those things still make us different. It’s just now that we’re all grown up with 20+ staff, solid seven-figure revenues, a proper office, and a very serious looking printer that politely beeps when it runs out of paper. Clearly it’s the small things that make me happy.

So what’s my point, I hear you ask?

In agency land, appearances can be quite deceiving. Look past the hipster uniform and feigned indifference, and there’s a sea of creativity and very sharp business minds.

Now, I’m not about to fawn and coo all over the place like the recently converted. That would be way too uncool.

Instead, I thought to offer some big lessons I’ve picked up along the path. Sharing is caring, and all that.

Lesson #1

Marketers always have a problem that needs an answer and a solution that actually changes something. That’s not a news flash, but it’s something you can never forget. If you’re an agency, you exist to serve your clients, not the other way around.

Lesson #2

People matter, because that’s the business. The business model is astoundingly similar to that of lawyers, consultants and accounting firms. All we’ve got to sell are time, materials and solid ideas. We’re not selling widgets, so the only way you can scale is with more people. So look after them like your life depends on it.

Lesson #3

Given most people crave certainty, systems and processes are your lifeblood. When you start out, the ‘way’ you do business is inevitably locked up in your head somewhere. The question then becomes how quickly can you translate those marvellous ideas into a set of cultural practices and workflow systems that other people can follow? Fail to get that right and you’re inviting chaos, doom and gnashing of teeth.

Lesson #4

News flash: Your agency doesn’t need an office in Surry Hills. Clients don’t actually care, staff will travel, the rent is much cheaper elsewhere, and great coffee actually exists in the ‘burbs. Trust me, I live “over the bridge” and we’ve got bearded baristas with aprons, too.

Lesson #5

Business plans make the world go around. If you’re not a hardcore numbers guy like me, find people who are and pick their brains. Then set aside time every week to make sure you’re tracking according to plan. Work on the business, not in the business, and all that.

Lesson #6

Humility goes a very long way. When you start out feeling like an industry outsider as I did, there’s an immediate consequence. You’re open to new ideas, different ways of thinking, and a very client-centric approach. Assume you’ve got it right all the time, and well, you’re an ass.

Lesson #7

There’s no such thing as dumb questions. Ignorant perhaps, but not dumb. The inquiring mind is always learning, growing and stretching. The CEO of our accounting firm told me: “I’ve never met a growing business that wasn’t led by a growing leader”. Turns out, a background in journalism is ideal. If you ask the right person the right question, you get fascinating answers you didn’t expect.

Lesson #8

Big agencies were once small agencies. Ditto for every large company on the planet. It therefore follows that you’re just as entitled to apply your creative brilliance to client problems as anyone else. In fact, playing up your (lack of) size can be a great asset. Clients love agencies that are responsive, flexible and offer a clear value proposition. Darren Woolley’s description of marketing funds spent on smaller agencies as “procurement leakage” rankles.

Lesson #9

Play nice with other agencies, even if you get burnt. Marketers expect agencies to collaborate, and I’ve seen them set clear boundaries around responsibilities and deliverables to help smooth the waters. The risk is always there – what if another agency says bad things behind your back? Well, it’s happened to us and it sucks. But to quote Bono: “Instant karma’s gonna get you”. We’ve been the happy beneficiaries of that, too.

Lesson #10

An agency isn’t some special unicorn business. Sure, it’s a hothouse of ideas, creativity and pressure that’s like no other, but it’s still a business that needs to think, feel and run like any other. Money coming in should always be greater than money going out. Give away too many billable hours and the irony is clients will ultimately think less of you – if you can’t manage their account properly, are you doing great work?

Finally, the other thing that springs to mind is a Warren Buffett’s advice to do what you love. Journalism was my first love, and as it turns out, this one’s right up there. I never dreamed I’d enjoy running a business with my wife, assembling a team of great people and digging deep into the marketing universe.

But now that I’m here, hey, the water’s fine. In fact, it’s a bit cheesy to admit you’re having the time of your life. But hey, I’m over 40 now which means I care less about what others think – yet another lesson that’s paying dividends in agency land.

Mark Jones is the chief storyteller and CEO at Filtered Media.

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