Facing and Embracing Risk in Your PR Agency’s Growth Strategy

Our July monthly webinar featured

Keith Speers - life and business strategist

Kate Snyder - Piper & Gold Public Relations

Heather Whaling - Geben Communication

Two very different types of agency leaders discuss their approach to PR agency growth. Here's what they had to say: 

First, where do you lie on the risk continuum. Are you risk tolerant? Or risk averse? Either way, this doesn’t impact your ability to grow your agency, but the way you do it changes.

Kate Snyder is risk averse and Heather Whaling is very risk tolerant. See how two different scaling agency leaders approach the many challenges.

If we look at the diagram above, there is a cycle to scaling your business from the leadership perspective.

  • First - agency leaders start by innovating to decide what product/service they deliver.  
  • Then deliver - in order to do that, one must enroll people, clients and employees
  • Delegate - you can’t do it all yourself anymore. You have to let someone else do things in which case your challenge becomes quality.
  • So you coordinate - to get better quality, and that leads to bureaucracy
  • Collaborate to combat the bureaucracy which leads to autonomy problems.
  • Encourage your people but then they forget about accountability
  • So you end up enforcing which affects morale.
  • Which makes you a leader - but you often don’t have the capacity to lead as the agency grows
  • and it brings you back to innovate so you can find that capacity.

This scaling challenge happens at every stage of growth. so you have to make it over to leadership to continue to progress.

Two Different Agency Stories

The moment you start a business involves risk. Typically, you are leaving something comfortable for something that costs money.

Heather didn’t think through all the risks and challenges and took a blind leap. She knew if she took the leap, there was a lot of work to be had. She started her company in 2009, at the height of the recession. Many companies were questioning the work their agencies were doing at that time, creating an opportunity for smaller firms like hers to win work away from the bigger players.

On the other hand, Kate never meant to start a business. She started small, in her house, no expenses, while looking for a full time job. After six months, she realized she had a job even though she was still looking for one. After a year, she realized she needed to either build a company and add staff or to stay as a consultancy and weed out client accounts. She decided to grow a company.

How does quality and risk play out when you add staff?

Kate: This has been a personal evolution as a business owner. I don't do much direct client work anymore other than overseeing content, direction and strategy. Of course, quality is something we want to control. Being risk averse, I take great comfort in process. Operations processes provide quality control as it relates to client deliverables.

  • Clear and defined client process
  • Rigorous on-boarding program for employees
  • Constantly re-evaluating systems and processes to make sure they have the best systems in place.
  • Matrix for quality check

So yeah, this is bureaucratic, but our clients reflect that and my staff works well with the direction.

Heather: We try to limit bureaucracy as much as possible. We hire for people who deal well with ambiguity and are self starters. Expectations are clear at the beginning what quality looks like. We show examples of quality work, such as successful plans, and launches. We let people run with it and make sure the team is collaborating. Our clients come to us because we are fast and nimble and flexible so we have to be able to adapt quickly and balance that without losing quality.

This underscores the importance of client fit, and how it translates to culture.

Hiring Processes

When do you commit to hire someone?

Heather: We hire ahead of where we need to be. I watch numbers carefully and project closely but I never want to have to say no to a client. Things move so fast, and we need to have staff because our sales cycle is fast.

I watch things like capacity - how much time do we have available at what level” We then hire ahead of where we need to be instead of waiting for signed contracts. This allows us to train and onboard and start dipping them into projects and getting them up to speed, before maxing out their capacity.

Kate:  We play a long game at everything we do. Most of our clients are predictable for the most part in that we are looking at fixed, long-term retainer relationships that give us stability. When we put in for a significant project, we have a contingency plan ready on where to hire from. It takes usually at least six weeks for a contract to kick in so that gives us time to bring someone in.

Terminating Employees

Kate: I had to let someone go and it sucked but it was the right decision because we gave that individual every opportunity to succeed. When it was time to do it, I didn’t feel bad about it. Because I knew we had done everything we could.

For clients who need to get fired, we have a low tolerance for bad behavior. If no one on our team wants to work with the client, that’s a good sign we shouldn’t work with them.

Heather: We work very hard to make sure we are bringing on the right people but it isn’t failsafe. If I think someone isn’t a fit, odds are, they think the same. In some cases, after we’ve talked about parting ways, I’ve even helped them find their next job. That said, splits aren’t always amicable; however, we’ve fine-tuned our recruiting and interviewing process to minimize these kinds of hiring issues. (link to last week’s article on terminating employees)

Policies and Policy Abuse

Heather: If you have a person who is abusing a policy, it’s a personnel problem not a policy problem. We have a program called Design your Day, where employees are encouraged to work when and where they’re most productive. We don’t work in a 9-5 industry where you have to be chained to your desk all day. If i need people to be flexible and available at times during off hours, I need to give them flexibility during the day. Even as we’ve grown, we have never had anyone abuse that policy. If you are hiring the right people, you won’t find this problem.

Kate: If I trust you enough to represent us and our clients, I should trust that you can manage yourself like a grownup. If we aren’t seeing eye-to-eye on something or you aren’t meeting expectations, I assume positive intent. Perhaps we weren’t clear on priorities. When lines of communication are open, it eliminates risk. If someone is abusing or taking advantage, it doesn’t matter how many policies you have in place, they will take advantage of it.

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