Agency Journey Episode 16 (Y15M7)

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The last month of the year really felt like an all-out sprint at Barrel. We launched websites for clients, began new engagements, and closed new deals–a mad dash to set ourselves up for a strong start in 2022. Thankfully, we have some time to rest up and recuperate before things pick up with full force in January.

About Agency Journey: This is a monthly series detailing the happenings of my agency Barrel, founded in 2006. You can find previous episodes here.


Working in New Team Members

We welcomed several new team members to our Client Services and Project Management teams in the past couple of months. It’s been great to infuse new talent and perspectives to these roles. And it’s also been a luxury to have people available to staff on new engagements, something we always struggled with when it came to account or project management roles.

The onboarding hasn’t been without its challenges. A few areas that are works in progress:

  • The split between Client Services and Project Management, which we rolled out in early 2021, still has unresolved issues, especially around which discipline owns which part of projects and how we can closely collaborate together throughout the project vs. keeping each other out of the loop.
  • Processes across the board–things like how project schedules are structured, getting new projects started, talking clients through requirements, doing QA, and other major components–lack consistency and standardization. Our year of brain drain from attrition has hurt us here. Rebuilding this up with a new team will simply take time. Retention is paramount for this to take root.
  • Everyone brings different communication styles and varying levels of familiarity and habits when it comes to tools like Slack, Asana, G Suite, and even email. Making clear agreements on what’s expected and providing support for those who need training and guidance will be important. For example, it’s very possible that someone might get labeled as “unresponsive and slow” because they don’t check Slack as frequently as you might, but aligning on what is an expected response time (e.g. 10 min? a few hours?) can save a lot of unnecessary resentment and ensure the person is set up for success.

For Barrel to fully realize the upside of our new hires, we’d best keep these behaviors in mind:

  • Have patience, understand that it takes time for people to get familiar and comfortable in a new situation, and expect people to make some mistakes along the way;
  • Be supportive, especially when it comes to providing both positive and constructive feedback, so they know where they are doing well and where they can do better;
  • Be clear, communicating proactively as much as possible what’s expected of the new hire over the next 30, 60, and 90+ days and how their contributions will evaluated

I can already think of instances with some new folks where we’ve fallen short of these behaviors, but where we’ve put in the full effort, we can already see people start to blossom.

New Launches & New Wins

agency journey, barrel project launches

In December, we launched website projects for Square Roots, Fisher Center at Bard College, The Asian American Foundation, and Well+Good.

We wrapped up 2021 with a handful of launches:

  • Square Roots, an indoor urban farming company co-founded by Elon Musk’s brother Kimbal, worked with design agency COLLINS on their rebrand. Barrel was brought in to design and build out the website using the new branding.
  • Fisher Center at Bard College, a Frank Gehry-designed performance arts center in the Hudson Valley, launched their long-awaited website. We worked with them for close to a year to bring the website to life, which introduced a more robust content management system and a better way to showcase their live and virtual events.
  • For The Asian American Foundation (TAAF), we launched their 2021 Year in Review website, which highlights all the many accomplishments the org has been able to achieve since their founding in May 2021.
  • For our long-time client Well+Good, we launched their Well+Good Trends 2022 microsite, showcasing “the biggest trends and most groundbreaking innovations that will dominate the wellness conversation.”

It’s always exciting to see our various efforts go live and have positive impact for our clients. It’s also a great feeling to see these go live right before the holiday break.

Likewise, we closed on some new deals right down to the moments leading up to break. We landed a website project for a new spin-off brand for an existing fashion client, a UX/SEO audit project for another existing client in the home security space, and a website redesign engagement with a fine foods brand. We also have some other compelling deals that are far along enough that the early weeks of January may be fertile ground for additional wins.

One more thing: we lost out on a CPG food brand website redesign bid that had felt pretty good. It was yet another deal, perhaps our fourth or fifth this year, where we were told that it was “down to you and another firm” but ultimately lost. Our team has been upbeat and positive about these situations, but I find these losses worse than those where we’re eliminated right off the bat.

We always ask these brands for feedback on why they went in a different direction. They reasons are often very specific and, in my opinion, immaterial, things that should not really be deciding factors but sound more like polite answers to a losing team seeking explanation. Of course, we take the feedback seriously and do our best to address whatever they may be, but my hunch is that winning firms often have some kind of pre-existing connection with the brand, either through someone on the brand’s team who is familiar with the agency already or via a warm intro/recommendation from a respected source, like an investor or a founder’s friend. The reason I feel this way is because we’ve won precisely for these very reasons over other very qualified agencies.

We’ve put in some new measures to be better about exploring any pre-existing connections for all of our leads: the Barrel Partners will do our part to check and see if we know anyone working at the brand or if we have any common connections with founders, leaders, and investors of these brands. If we do, we’ll work to better nurture these connections and to work in parallel as our Business Development team makes their way through the deal process. A best-case scenario would be where a mutual connection with the founder or a key investor helps to shed a positive light on Barrel and to help us become a more serious option. Every bit helps, especially where social proof comes into play.

Top of Mind

Keeping It Simple in 2022

Last month, I mentioned the key areas that I felt needed to be my focus as a leader:

  1. Removing roadblocks for the team
  2. Deepening relationships with clients
  3. Sales and marketing strategy
  4. Honing and repeating the Barrel story and message

It’s been helpful to revisit these in the weeks after I wrote them. They’ve helped me to prioritize my activities and to also de-prioritize tasks and initiatives that don’t fit these areas.

In similar fashion, we’re working to simplify our company-wide priorities for 2022. The theme we have in mind is “Focusing on the Basics” – a reminder to do the core things really well and with consistency. We’ll be spending the bulk of January aligning on the language and turning the theme into concrete, actionable steps.

One model I have in mind as we work through our 2022 planning is the framework that entrepreneur and TV personality Marcus Lemonis uses on his show The Profit, which features turnarounds of struggling businesses. Lemonis approaches each new challenge with “The 3Ps of Business”–People, Process, and Product.

It’s a very simple and clear way to address the most core components of the business. Applied to Barrel’s agency business, I can see the 3Ps working like this:

  • Having the right number of people in the right roles doing the right kinds of projects
  • Having a robust recruiting, hiring, and onboarding process and keeping a strong talent pipeline
  • Providing ongoing training, support, and mentorship to ensure everyone is set up for success
  • Having clear, repeatable, and well-documented steps to getting projects done
  • Having quality control checklists and check points to ensure consistency across all departments
  • Conducting project debriefs and other meetings to surface issues and roll out process adjustments
Product (Services)
  • Having well-defined services that reflect the firm’s expertise and solve a real problem for clients
  • Finding opportunities to provide complementary and recurring services to clients
  • Delivering excellent and thoughtful end-to-end service to win client loyalty & gain referrals

The pieces are straightforward and almost obvious. The hard thing is to put in the time and to do the hard work. The steady patience and consistent execution make all the difference. Hence, “Focusing on the Basics” for Barrel is really about doing what we know to be the right things over and over again, even when the going gets tough.

Let’s check back in a year to see how we’ve done here.

Shared with Partners

“Here at Zagrum, we use the term ‘what-focus’ to describe whatever a person is focused on achieving. Out of the box, my what-focus at work is results. In the box, by contrast, my what-focus is justification. That’s the first reason why the box always undercuts results.” (The Arbinger Institute , Leadership and Self-Deception)

No matter how “results-oriented” I may think I am, I know I’m vulnerable to the desire of “wanting to be right”, the “justification” mentioned in this quote. Being aware and catching myself in these situations as much as possible is key to not getting in the way of our company’s success.

“Years ago, Peter Drucker said that ‘making money for a company is like oxygen for a person; if you don’t have enough of it you’re out of the game.’ In other words, profitability is a performance requirement for all businesses, but it is not a purpose. Extending Drucker’s metaphor, companies who take profit as their purpose are like people who think life is about breathing. They’re missing something.” (Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline)

Two important sides to this quote: 1) you need profits as a business to survive, so you can never overlook that; and 2) you need a purpose beyond just making money because without it, the entire endeavor will lack meaning. One thing I’m glad we did this year was to think through the wording of our mission (“Build meaningful connections.”) and to relate it to the day-to-day activities we engage in (e.g. with team members, clients, our clients’ customers, etc.).

“Essentially we decided that an organization’s strategy is simply its plan for success. It’s nothing more than the collection of intentional decisions a company makes to give itself the best chance to thrive and differentiate from competitors. That means every single decision, if it is made intentionally and consistently, will be part of the overall strategy.” (Patrick M. Lencioni, The Advantage)

Amen. Timely quote to surface as we think about our strategy for 2022.

“Like a dead branch falling from a tree, which then decomposes and nourishes the soil, your disappointments can transform into the elements of change and growth.” (Ethan Hawke, Rules for a Knight)

I love this quote because this year, especially when it came to my performance as a leader, was filled with disappointments. There were many actions I could have taken that I didn’t and numerous tough decisions I could have made that I didn’t. And there were also actions and decisions that I did pursue which I should have avoided. From these many mistakes, may there be fertile soil in the long run.

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