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Agency Unions: The View From Ground Zero

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For roughly 5,785 days, I built and ran a company called Ground Zero. On March 1, I found myself at WongDoody with a new set of partners, a new roster of accounts, a new building full of employees and, well, a very dry mouth.
 
From the beginning, all of us in management saw the good sense of this union. The question is, would we be able to communicate that to the staff, the clients and the rest of the ad world?  Or, would we pull a Van Hagar and turn two perfectly good entities into one hot mess of mediocre advertising and bad hairstyles?
 
When you're in the midst of a dramatic business shift, there are moments where you feel rather alone. But the fact is, as our industry continues to change at an exponential rate, more heads of traditional advertising, digital, social media, analytics, production and technology companies will find themselves in my position than not over the next five years. They'll discover they have to merge their culture and resources with another entity if they wish to not only hold onto their piece of the pie, but also warrant another piece or two and maybe even a little whipped cream.
 
So, I thought the following tips might be helpful -- with the caveat that we actually Forrest Gumped our way through much of this endeavor.
 
1. Turn two groups into one agency: I know common practice on Survivor is to wait six weeks to merge the tribes, but we suggest melding two camps into one agency as quickly as possible. By pairing creatives who haven't worked together, giving account managers new accounts, etc., you'll inevitably create more headaches for yourself on day one. But the move will more than pay for itself in the long term and you'll be amazed by how it facilitates the sharing of new technology and new ways of solving business problems.
 
2. Sever ties with the past: Once the blood has been mixed, the next job is to exorcise the ghosts -- including the old agency. You want to make sure everyone is focused on the road ahead rather than what's been left in the rearview mirror. As fond as I am of my former company, I don't believe you can inspire others by spending your time waxing nostalgic over how great things used to be.
 
3. Be mindful of the little things: I don't have a special coffee mug or know whether the deductible on my new health plan is higher or lower than the old one. But I've learned the hard way that things I might not pay much attention to can be quite important to other people. For example, an agency can be undone by the cost of parking spaces and lack of sandwich room in the refrigerator. The fact is, a new environment is inherently stressful, so do everything possible to ease people's discomfort -- including arranging personal consultations for each new employee with the head of HR to discuss what's on his or her mind.
 
4. Walk the walk: Business isn't really any different than sports or politics. The effect of a rousing speech lasts a good solid week. After that, people expect to see action. I did whatever I could to be available, engaged and show that I wasn't just in the boat with the rest of the crew. I was willing to pick up an oar and help row.
 
5. Don't force it: Tread lightly with clients; show them that you see your role as adding incremental value rather instigating wholesale change. I know that for those of you who are used to being integral to the company's success, this goes against every fiber of your being. But think about it from a client's perspective -- they love additional firepower; they don't love people fixing things that aren't broken.
 
6. Look for the best in people: I realize this sounds more like something from Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten than a guideline for the successful integration of two agencies. But our industry is littered with creative departments that have been decimated by new creative directors. So it's vital that folks know you're not there to clean house, but to help them rebuild it.
 
Will these six steps ensure success? Hardly. But just maybe, they'll help you avoid a few pitfalls.

Court Crandall is partner, ecd at WongDoody. can be reached at court.crandall@wongdoody.com and at his new blog, courtcrandall.com.