Sep 02, 2020

The Agency-Client Relationship, with Drew McLellan

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For 30+ years, Drew McLellan has been in the advertising industry. He started his career at Y&R, worked in boutique-sized agencies, and then started his own agency (which he still owns and runs) in 1995. Additionally, Drew owns and leads the Agency Management Institute (AMI). Through agency owner peer groups, consulting,  coaching, workshops, and more, AMI teaches hundreds of small and mid-sized agencies how to grow their businesses and profitability.

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • What trends Drew has identified in the agency world, and how small agencies have shown to be particularly nimble and able to adapt to today's unique challenges
  • What qualities clients are looking for in agencies, and what key questions Drew recommends prospective clients ask in the vetting process
  • Why it’s important for agencies to ask about their clients' concerns and be prepared to address them as the relationship develops
  • Why good agencies are also evaluating prospective clients for fit, and why great agencies should be ready to turn away prospects if necessary
  • Why businesses often take their work in-house during strong economies, and why the pendulum swings toward outside marketing partnerships when the economy struggles
  • How to build a trusting agency/client relationship
  • What key mistakes agencies and clients often make, and why having ongoing, meaningful conversations is crucial to resolving differences
  • Drew shares examples of truly collaborative relationships between agencies and clients, and why being well-aligned and communicative is the key to collaboration
  • What changes have happened in the business landscape since the start of the global pandemic, and what lasting changes Drew expects to remain after things go back to normal

Additional resources:  

Show Transcription:

Intro: Welcome to A Brave New Podcast, the podcast all about how brave entrepreneurial companies are unlocking their business potential using inbound marketing. Here is your marketing expert and host, Polly Yakovich.

Polly Yakovich: Hi, everyone. Polly here. Welcome back to another episode of A Brave New Podcast. In this episode, I get to talk with one of my mentors, Drew McLellan, who is also the owner of Agency Management Institute. Drew is an agency owner, and he also works with over 300 agencies a year as part of his consulting at Agency Management Institute, which he's owned for 15 years now. Drew is a pretty incredible person. He's the author of "Sell With Authority", his most recent book. He's a host of a really amazing podcast. Drew and I really dig into talking about the agency/client relationship.

Polly Yakovich: We talk about when to hire an agency, some key considerations, how to as a client look for an agency that's going to be a good fit for you, what kind of questions to ask. We talk about getting really honest about your process and what your needs are going to be, particularly in this economy when you're looking for partners, we talk about what's going to make a great partnership and why smaller agencies are really getting the edge right now.

Polly Yakovich: Without further ado, I want to welcome Drew to the podcast. Drew, welcome to the show.

Drew McLellan: Oh, thanks for having. I'm excited to be here.

Polly Yakovich: Tell us, rather than me going through your whole bio, give us the high level. What are you doing? What do you do with your day?

Drew McLellan: I'm an agency guy. I've been an agency guy my whole life. I went to college, got my first job from an adjunct professor while I was still in college. I worked for super large agencies like Y&R, and then smaller agencies. Then 25 years ago, in 1995, so 25 years ago this year, I started my own agency which I still own and run today. Early on, I realized I started my agency when I was 30 years old. It was sort of this perfect combination of arrogant and ignorant. I had no idea how hard it was going to be to run a business. I was really good at the work, but I didn't know how hard it was going to be to run the business.

Drew McLellan: I found this organization that helped agency owners run the business of their business better. I became a member, and it completely changed the way I ran my business. It helped me be successful. Fast forward to about 15 years ago, the guy who started that business approached me and said, "Hey, I want to retire. I think you should buy and run this advisory business." So, I ended up doing that. Now, I split my time between my ad agency and Agency Management Institute, which is an organization that helps agency owners run the business of their business better.

Polly Yakovich: How do you split your time? You're probably what, 20% in your agency now?

Drew McLellan: Yeah, I'm really fortunate. My agency, my average staff tenure is about 18 years.

Polly Yakovich: That's insane.

Drew McLellan: They can do a lot of what they need to do without any interference from me. Actually, I think they do it better when I don't stick my nose in it. I will caveat this with saying I don't work 40 hours a week. So, I work more than that. But, of the hours I work, probably 20% of that time is spent inside the agency, and the other 80% is spent on the AMI side of my world.

Polly Yakovich: Just for people listening who might not know, how many agencies would you say you work with in the course of a year?

Drew McLellan: We, at some level, consult with or serve 250-300 agencies a year. They're all small to mid-size agencies, so under 200 employees typically. Many of them, less than 50 employees, which by the way, a lot of people think, "Oh, an agency of 50. That's small." Actually, the average agency in the US is about eight people.

Polly Yakovich: That's crazy. That's good perspective. For our conversation, that sets us up nicely because we want to talk about the agency/client relationship. You definitely, talking to 250-300 agencies a year, are getting a very wide variety of information about what those relationships look like, what's successful, what's not successful. I want to really dig into that with you.

Drew McLellan: Okay.

Polly Yakovich: With all the agency owners that you work with and advise, with everything going on in the world right now, blah, blah, blah, what are some trends that you're seeing? I know you talked in a recent eNews about this trend to smaller agencies, which has been kind of happening for a while.

Drew McLellan: Sure. I think, like any purchase, I think sometimes an inexperienced buyer goes to a brand name that they recognize because they have confidence in it. If you're shopping for an agency, a lot of times companies or brands will gravitate to a larger agency because they recognize their name. What they don't realize is that the fit has to be right. If you're a small client and you work in a big agency, what happens is you end up getting the most junior people who have the least amount of experience because in their pond your kind of a small fish.

Drew McLellan: Part of the seeking out an agency is finding an agency that's the right fit for you, that size-wise is the right fit, that you're going to be an important client to them, that has the skill sets that you need ideally, that has experience in the industry that you work so they can really talk to the specifics of who you sell to, and how you sell. But, pre-COVID and certainly during COVID, a lot of the larger agencies, who by the way predominately make their money by buying mass traditional media for their clients, well a lot of that media buying went away.

Drew McLellan: A lot of those agencies ended up laying off a third, a fourth, a half of their staff because they just didn't have the revenue anymore because they weren't making the commissions on the media to keep paying for people, where most small agencies, typically their clients don't have the budgets to spend a bazillion dollars on a Super Bowl ad or something like that. They're doing what I call more sort of "blocking and tackling" types of marketing strategies where the clients' budgets stretch a lot further. Smaller agencies are just better suited to do that kind of work.

Drew McLellan: You're already seeing some of that. Then, I think part of what COVID did was, for a lot of businesses, they in essence shut down or certainly their cash flow was truncated. They didn't have enough business. Now as they're coming out of that season and kind of going into the, if you want to call it the "post-crisis" part of COVID, they're very concerned about making sales. They want to make sales today. They need to make that cash register ring. Small agencies are more nimble to sort of execute a tactic, measure the tactic, change the tactic and really help those clients get where they want to go faster.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, I would say some of what you're saying really rings true for us, because as we brought on a new client in the last few months during this season, it was surprising. This is the first time we encountered how sophisticated they were about what our size and experience meant for them as far as who'd be working on their account.

Drew McLellan: Right, true.

Polly Yakovich: They knew that Josh and I, as owners and principals, would be involved. It was part of their factor for, "You're at the right size where you have enough support, but you are still going to be involved." It was kind of almost eerie that they knew what they were going to be getting just from sort of our size and makeup, and current clients we had.

Drew McLellan: When you think about it, the one thing every client wants is they want experienced, seasoned people on their team. In a small agency, the way to guarantee that is that it's the owners, because in most cases they are the most experienced person who works at that agency. Even if the agency owner is just involved at sort of a strategic sort of setting the plan level, that gives clients a lot of confidence that the work that they're getting and the results they're going to get are going to be better because you've got seasoned veterans who are driving the plan.

Polly Yakovich: Right.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: How are people finding agency partners now? We'd already been kind of trending away from big RFPs. How are people finding options?

Drew McLellan: I think the big brands are still doing sort of an agency search. They might hire an agency search firm, but they're certainly sending out an RFP or an RFI, or Request for Information or Request for Proposal for people who aren't familiar with those terms. More and more what's happening... It used to be that agencies found clients by going out and in essence kind of cold calling, or going to networking meetings or things like that.

Drew McLellan: Now what's happening is a lot of clients are finding their agencies long before the agencies even know they're out there. They're looking for certain things. They're looking for thought leadership around marketing in their industry, or marketing to the audience that they served. They're looking for people who... Like we shop for everything today, they're shopping for agencies. They're googling. Whatever shows up on Google, now they start paying attention to that subset of agencies. They start watching their content, their social.

Drew McLellan: At the end of the day, the agency that demonstrates that they're smart, that they're helpful, that they teach in a way that I can understand what they're saying, those agencies get on the short list and eventually the client will call sometimes one, sometimes three agencies and say, "Hey, we're looking for an agency. We'd like to come meet you, or can you come to our place and have a conversation." Then it's really a chemistry check. They've sort of done their due diligence already to see that you know your stuff.

Drew McLellan: For the agencies that are not producing any content, that aren't really demonstrating what they know and how they serve clients, they're at a market disadvantage in today's marketplace.

Polly Yakovich: Right. For us too, I would say we're HubSpot partners. Sometimes we get people coming through networks because they're dealing with HubSpot, they're evaluating the software and they're asking for recommendations of agencies, or looking in their marketplace to see what agencies are in their area. Do you see clients finding agencies that way too through maybe their platforms or other tools?

Drew McLellan: Sure. If they're already committed to a Salesforce, a HubSpot, a fill-in-the-blank, and they all of a sudden need an agency that is proficient in working in that platform, then a lot of the platforms will have sort of a referral service. However, I don't think that HubSpot, or Salesforce, or anybody is going to just give them one name. They're going to give them multiple names. They're still going to do their Google due diligence, and they just kind of scope out your site, see what you talk about on social-

Polly Yakovich: Follow you a while. Yeah.

Drew McLellan: Pay attention to what you're saying on LinkedIn. I think what I said still applies, but you might be on a shorter list to begin with because of that platform recommendation.

Polly Yakovich: What would you say to any clients that are looking for an agency partner? What are sort of, besides what you've talked about, what are sort of three key things to be asking in part of that introduction process, or looking for? How would you recommend clients when they're looking for an agency partner?

Drew McLellan: I think it starts with going in with a commitment that you're trying to create this longterm relationship. Just like you wouldn't get an eHarmony account and go on a bunch of dates and just not bother to mention that you're married. I think the client has an obligation to go in and A, know who they are and what they want and be really honest about that. "Look, we are looking for an agency that's going to be able to... Here are our three big problems: it's lead gen, it's closing the sale, and it's client retention," say.

Drew McLellan: So, we're looking for agencies that have experience in that. Here's the ballpark amount of money... One of the biggest challenges from an agency perspective is when a client is skittish about talking about money. If you said to me, "Hey Drew, will you go buy me a car?" And that's all you said to me, I might feel bad and only get you a [Yugo 00:12:52] because I don't want to bust your budget, or I might go get you a Ferrari. But if you say to me, "Hey Drew, I've got $40,000.00 for a car. Can you find me the best car for $40,000.00?" Now I can actually be helpful to you.

Polly Yakovich: Exactly. Exactly.

Drew McLellan: So clients have to come to the table willing to be a great partner. Assuming that they've done all of that, then I think what they're looking for is they're looking for someone who has experience in solving the kinds of problems they need to solve. I'd be asking for examples and case studies, and "Can you introduce me to a client who had a retention problem that you solved this for? Can you tell me a story about it, or a time that you did this?" I would be looking for proof points that way.

Drew McLellan: Certainly part of it is talk to me about the process you take a client through. When you onboard a new client, what does that look like? How many months of thinking, discovery planning does it take before we're out in the marketplace? How quickly can I expect to see some sign that it's working? No agency is going to be able to say, "Look, you're going to have 24 sales of at least $10,000.00 by September 15th." It doesn't work that way. But I do think an agency can say, "You know what, typically our discovery process time is two or three weeks, assuming that you're pretty accessible for our questions. Then we want to come back to you and we want to give you a plan. Boy, we want to be out in the marketplace by X. We think you're going to start seeing increased web traffic," or whatever it is that the agency is trying to do for them, "By this date. Here's how we see this playing out."

Drew McLellan: So, if I'm buying an agency's services, I want to know what I'm buying and how it's going to play out. I would be asking that. I certainly would be asking, in some cases, and again this is why working with a smaller agency is often preferable in a large agency. Many agencies have what they call "pitch teams", which means you're going to meet a group of people who are going to tell you the plan, and they're going to woo you. You're never going to see those people again. They're not your actual account team.

Drew McLellan: One of the most important questions I think to ask is, who would we be working with day to day? If I have a question, who do I call? Who's actually behind the scenes? I may not meet more than twice a year, but actually doing the work. How often will I expect the owner's fingerprint on my account? Those are really fair questions to ask, and important questions to ask.

Polly Yakovich: I agree. I also think this takes a little bit of emotional intelligence, but oftentimes people have worked with agencies in the past, or making an agency change. It was sober assessment of what's worked in the past, why relationships have worked or not worked, why they've broken down is really helpful because if you truly believe no one can write for your voice because only your CEO can do it in the perfect way, your agency needs to know that because they need to be actively syncing into that issue from day one. You can't surprise them with that on day 45 when they're starting to copy to review.

Drew McLellan: Yeah. I think the agency has to be good about asking questions, too. Are we your first agency? If not, what did you love about your previous relationships? What didn't work about your previous relationships? Whether you hire us or someone else, where is likely to break down? What are you concerned about? How can we plan for those concerns now? I think it's also about scheduling regular conversations just like in a regular relationship. How is this going? How are you feeling? Are you feeling heard? Do you feel like we're responsive? All of that.

Drew McLellan: I think all the soft conversations around the relationship are as important as the conversations about the work.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, and I think from the agency perspective too, being really honest about the parameters. I think often in the onboarding process we hear a lot of aspirational kinds of things like, "Oh, only two people need to look at this, and they can turn it around same day." Well, turns out that's just not true. That might have happened once, but you have a team of 10 people that need three weeks for review.

Drew McLellan: Oh, and by the way the CEO [inaudible 00:17:19] in his email every two weeks, and you need his blessing on big things before we can green light it.

Polly Yakovich: Exactly.

Drew McLellan: Absolutely. It's important to understand how it's going to work.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, and to be really super honest and straightforward. I think as a client, you're the one shopping and the agency wants to work with you and win you. The more specific you can be, then you can really learn a lot about that agency even how they respond to some of those, "Hey, we're high maintenance about X, Y and Z. Can you handle that?"

Drew McLellan: Yeah, but I also think that smart agencies are also shopping.

Polly Yakovich: Yes, 100%.

Drew McLellan: They're also assessing the client to see if they're a good fit for them, because it's not a one way street. Every client is a great client, but every client is not a great client for every agency. The good agencies will be really candid about, "Here are the kind of clients we work best for." A great agency will say, "You know what, I hear that you need those three things, and that's not in our sweet spot. We don't do that kind of work all the time. So, I would love to introduce you to someone else who I know does that work all the time, but we're not the right fit for you."

Drew McLellan: When both sides of the party are really discerning about the decision, that's when you have the best chance of the relationship being good and lasting a long time, and being profitable for both sides of the equation. That's when it works the best.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, that's great. I totally agree. Pivoting from the hiring, sort of onboarding side, what kind of trends are you seeing with the kind of work people are hiring agencies for, the kind of working relationships that work the best?

Drew McLellan: What I'm seeing is that there is less "set it and forget it" kind of work, that clients need tangible results. Not necessarily sales, but they need to be able to show that what we're doing is moving in the direction we want to move, because in many cases they're not the business owner. They're reporting up to a C-Suite, or they're reporting up to somebody, a Board of Directors. Or maybe they are the business owner and they have to explain to their husband why they're spending all this money on marketing because the husband at the dinner table is going, "I'm sorry, you're paying the agency what?"

Drew McLellan: What clients need right now is they want short spurts of activity and then pivot. Shorts spurts of activity and then pivot. Like "Let's do something, let's learn from what we did, let's adjust. Let's do something, learn from what we did, adjust," the constant tweaking that gets you to your end result as efficiently as possible. They don't have time right now to wait because they're making up for lost time because of the COVID shutdown.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, yeah. That's true. We see that too. What would you say is the mixture that is evolving right now between in-house teams and what they do? The trends are always vacillating between people taking their stuff in-house to their marketing team versus outsourcing it. Where are we at right now? Are we still kind of swinging on the pendulum a bit?

Drew McLellan: Pre-COVID, through 2019, the pendulum had swung pretty far. Whenever the economy is good, businesses of a certain size say, "Should I pay an agency? Or for X number of dollars, I can have in-house person, or team, or whatever?" When companies are doing well, one of the things that they just historically, and we see this... This is just a cycle that we see. They'll invest in in-house talent because what they'll say is, "Look, these people are going to focus on us 40 hours a week. When I do the math it's cheaper per hour," fill-in-the-blank.

Drew McLellan: The minute there's an economic event where all of a sudden things get tight, companies need to trim, the in-house department is the very first thing that goes because they're an expense. They don't make money for the company. They're an expense. Then the thought pattern is, I don't need those people. I can hire an agency. I'll only use the agency for little bits and pieces. I'll manage to my budget, but I don't have to worry about people getting sick, or taking time off, or benefits or whatever. I'm just buying the brain and the hands of the agency.

Drew McLellan: Right now what we've seen over the last six months is a huge shift. The pendulum has swung way to the other side where most companies and brands have either completely eliminated or greatly reduced their in-house marketing department.

Polly Yakovich: Do you expect to see that continue then?

Drew McLellan: I think it's a pendulum that... I think for a couple of years it'll be that. If you look economically, about every decade we have some sort of an economic event that shuts things down for a while, not like COVID has. COVID has been an extreme, but nonetheless, whether it was The Great Recession, or whatever it is, every 10 years or so, the economy, in the US we're talking about, the economy tanks for a period of time and then we have to rebuild.

Drew McLellan: Over the course of the 10 years, for two or three years, nobody has in-house people, or they have a very skeleton crew of in-house people. For the next three years, the pendulum sort of sits in the middle where it's sort of a hybrid. For the last three years of the 10 year cycle, all of a sudden in-house departments are getting built up, they're growing bigger. They're literally building agencies inside their organizations. Then on your 10, we hit the skids and it slides all the way and we do it again.

Drew McLellan: I think we will see fewer in-house marketing people for the next two to three years, and then it'll sort of middle out, which will sit in that for another two three years. Then all of a sudden agency owners will be complaining because all their clients are building up in-house departments [crosstalk 00:23:22]-

Polly Yakovich: And hiring their people.

Drew McLellan: Yeah, yeah, and hiring their people away. Right, yep. That's just the way it goes. Right now, I would say that most businesses are skinny on in-house people.

Polly Yakovich: If you are looking to hire an agency, and you are looking at... Recently, agencies have gotten a lot more specialist, right?

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: What do you normally advise people on going for more of a standard semi- I don't think anyone's full service anymore, but semi-broader services versus a network of specialized agencies and freelancers particularly right now assuming there are people available? Are you seeing more contractors? What are the considerations for companies? Obviously, you have to manage a network if you decide to go that route.

Drew McLellan: Right. The other thing that happens during an economic event like we've gone through is agencies also let people go. There's both from the client's side and the agency's side all of a sudden you've got a bunch of one man bands who have a laptop, can't find a job, and so now they're the Agency of the Day. I think the danger in piecing together a team is that A, it takes a lot more management on your part. If you're not a marketing person, it's hard... If that's not your background, it's hard to really know who's blowing smoke up your skirt, and what is real, and what hype are you getting. When somebody, especially today, if somebody says they're an agency, are they really an agency? Or are they somebody sitting in their basement and working on a laptop because that's right now how they're trying to cover for their family.

Drew McLellan: Which, I'm not saying is a bad thing, but it just puts more of the burden on the client. You're right. I think it's pretty hard to be a full service agency, but I think it's easy to find an agency that offers some core things that are important to you. One, they are not a team of one. They are a group of people so that if one person goes on vacation, or is sick, you're not left hanging. Two, ideally they have subject matter expertise in something that matters to you. It might be your industry. It might be the audience you talk to. It might be the platform you work on.

Drew McLellan: Whatever it may be, they have a depth of expertise that is going to be valuable to you, and odds are equals, rivals or dwarfs your knowledge about that. And, they offer a core set of skills, which are the most important skills that you know you're going to take advantage of every day. Then, I would say that the ideal agency has strategic partners in place that can do the things that maybe you don't need that often-

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, absolutely.

Drew McLellan: But on occasion you do. Now it's their job to manage those resources, and to make sure that they're vetting those partners and saying, "Look, these guys are great at PR. I know they can place these stories where we want them to be." Or, whatever it may be. Now all of a sudden your agency is managing that team of people, internal and external, and you the client get to actually just run your business. If I were on the client side, that to me sounds a lot more appealing than me having to try and find, vet, manage, oversee five or six different companies all piecemealing my business.

Polly Yakovich: There may be still smart things to keep inside the business that nobody else can really do if you're not [inaudible 00:27:00] every day, but it's still-

Drew McLellan: Well-

Polly Yakovich: Yeah?

Drew McLellan: Your agency should be saying to you, "You know what, you can pay us to do this, but we could also teach so-and-so on your team how to do this, and then you guys could do it yourself." A great agency is a great steward of the client's budget, and will say to a client, "It's kind of crazy for you to pay us to do this. Let us teach you how. Let us set this up as a template. Let us use AI," or whatever the solution is, but "Let us do this more efficiently for you so that you have more money to pay us to do the stuff that we're the only ones that should be doing." And you're getting the biggest bang for your buck.

Drew McLellan: That's how you're a great partner in the long run with your clients, from the agency perspective.

Polly Yakovich: I would say the best relationships are that way, but they are built on sort of, for most people, years of experience and relationship, and trust.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: How do you advise both agencies and clients to get to that place and build that trust from the beginning?

Drew McLellan: I think it starts with being the first one to be trusting. I think the way you build trust is by trusting, and then seeing that that trust was respected and earned, and honored. Then you trust some more, and then you trust some more. That's how all of our relationships work. If you assume somebody's out to screw you or take advantage of you, and so you're keeping all your cards close to the vest, you're not sharing your budget, you're not telling your clients that one of your writers actually isn't an employee, but they're a freelancer, whatever it may be, if you are not willing to be full disclosure, and you're not willing to be the first one to trust, then why would they?

Drew McLellan: I think it takes a bit of courage, but if the agency or the client, whoever I guess steps out into it first, whoever steps out first encourages the other one to step out. I think that's how you build trust. I also think the other part of being trusting is being able to have good, candid conversations when things don't go well. To be able to say, "You know what, I am getting a Spidey Sense that you don't love this. Can you talk to me about it? It's been really hard to get ahold of you this week. Have we done something that disappointed you?"

Drew McLellan: Or, being the one who's proctored and saying, "You know what, I have to be honest with you, I feel like you guys dropped the ball this week. We need to talk about it so it doesn't happen again." What happens a lot of times in relationships is those conversations aren't had because they're difficult. Then they fester. Then they become a bigger deal than they were. Now all of a sudden trust starts get eroded. Then I think sometimes it starts to skid backwards so fast that it's hard to save.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: I would say it's sort of common and a little bit mythological, this adversarial relationship that can develop between the agency and the client sometimes.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: I had a client one time who things were sort of starting to go that way with some members on their team, and they just always would advise them, "Treat our agency like they're your coworkers, because if we don't treat them like they're on our team with the same expectations, but also trust and also understanding that they're humans too, there's no way that they'll treat us that way and that we're going to be successful." It doesn't benefit you at all to win a point over them. We're here together trying to move toward a common goal.

Drew McLellan: I think a lot of times, that's around money. I think a lot of clients go into the agency relationship fully expecting the agency is going to try and take advantage of them. The more transparent the agency can be about what they charge, and how they charge, and what you get for that money, the better it is because it relieves the biggest fear.

Polly Yakovich: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. That's fantastic. We talked a little bit about it, but what you would say are some common mistakes that agencies and clients make in their partnership together. What are some things to look out for?

Drew McLellan: I think the biggest mistake agencies and clients make is that they don't communicate. They don't actually have conversation. They communicate by email or text, or whatever. They're not physically in the same place, or they're not talking on a Zoom, or on the phone, or whatever. They're eyeball to eyeball communicating. Email is great for passing data, but it's not great for having a relationship conversation. It's not a great methodology for saying you're disappointed, or you're frustrated or whatever. I think agencies and clients need to set a cadence of conversations that are A, the schedule is honored, but B, they're true conversations where ideally you're sitting across the table from each other.

Polly Yakovich: Or over drinks.

Drew McLellan: Oh, for sure. I was going to say with wine-

Polly Yakovich: Cocktails.

Drew McLellan: With wine, cocktails or coffee in between you.

Polly Yakovich: I miss cocktails with people.

Drew McLellan: Yeah, I know.

Polly Yakovich: Those were the days.

Drew McLellan: Zoom cocktail parties are just not quite the same.

Polly Yakovich: No, they're terrible.

Drew McLellan: Yeah, yeah. Anyway, we digress. I think it's about scheduling these ongoing conversations and making them meaningful. I think it also is about asking questions that maybe you don't really want the answers to like, "Are you happy with what we're doing? Are you so excited about our work that you want to hang it on your fridge or show it to your mom?" Is it that level of excitement, or are you like, "Yeah, it's all right. We checked the box."

Drew McLellan: I think as an agency, really probing and making the client comfortable giving us feedback, and also giving clients feedback about, "You know what, it's really hard to get ahold of you guys. We're trying to honor these deadlines and we get really jammed up at the end because nobody answers their email, or their phone," or whatever. I think there has to be space to have those relationship-based conversations that make the work better on both sides.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, that's great. I will say too, not to always pick on the same cliché, but it's something that I think oftentimes on both sides we need to remember some of our younger employees, just they don't pick up the phone. I will say, "Did you speak with them?" They'll be like, "Yeah, I sent him an email." I'm like, "That is not what I'm asking you." You do need to look them in the face sometimes and say whatever it is. Sometimes it's "We messed up," or sometimes it's "We're going to be late," or sometimes it's whatever it is.

Drew McLellan: One of the things that I teach and talk about in the AE Bootcamps that we have is... So, I'm talking to a room full of account executives. I said, "I guarantee you, you are not talking to your clients often enough." What they will say back is, "I can't even get ahold of them. I can't get them to get on the phone or come to a meeting." So part of the client obligation is making yourself available.

Polly Yakovich: Absolutely.

Drew McLellan: This is the equivalent of getting married, and then one of the people saying, "I'm going to live in a different house, and I'm going to ping you a couple times a week if we want to have dinner together." There is a responsibility on both sides to be available, and to be ready to communicate.

Polly Yakovich: What factors make the agency/client collaboration most successful? What things do you see, or some examples that you see, that you're like, "Wow, that is a really collaborative partnership." Because that's what we all want, or at least we say we want.

Drew McLellan: It's very simple to say. It's difficult to do.

Polly Yakovich: Yes.

Drew McLellan: It's what you said earlier, which is, when you all feel like you're on the same team, working towards the same goal, that's when collaboration happens. When you're feeling like you have to be cagey about what you say, or "Boy, I wonder if the agency's just suggesting that so they can charge us more money." Now all of a sudden it's difficult to be collaborative because you are on opposite sides as opposed to sitting on the same side both aiming at the same goal. It really is about the more the team can feel like a gelled team, and everybody feels like they have each other's back... Part of that is, are we reporting data? Are we measuring properly? Are we demonstrating to each other that...

Drew McLellan: I'll have agencies say, "I would love to be able to do a case study that actually showed sales results, but our clients won't share that." Well, how can I do good work for you if I don't know if we're ringing the cash register?

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, exactly.

Drew McLellan: It is about being willing to be open on both sides.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, that's great.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: We've talked a little bit about it, but just as we wrap this up, I'm wondering what you think the horizon looks like for the next couple years. Do you think that we're going to continue this trend of people needing to slough off internal teams and moving toward agencies?

Drew McLellan: I think the big slough off is going to happen in 2020. I think we saw a lot of it in March and April, and then here in the US I think with the PPP funds, that sort of staved off some of those layoffs. Now that most companies are getting to the end of, or have run through the PPP funds, as soon as they get forgiveness for those loans I think you're going to see a second wave of layoffs.

Polly Yakovich: Right. Right.

Drew McLellan: Then I think it's going to be kind of done, because I also think that by 2021 the economy is going to be on an uptick again. We're going to be rebuilding. Companies aren't going to be in crisis like they have been in the past few months, and like they may be as we go into fall and the PPP funds have dried up.

Polly Yakovich: Do you think there's lasting changes on people being more comfortable with remote, and this dramatic shift to remote? Do you think people are more comfortable hiring people that live remotely rather than available to come into the office? What are some of the business landscape changes looking like for you?

Drew McLellan: It'll be interesting. Right now, everybody's all giddy about work from home, and "We can cancel our lease, and we don't ever have to-" I think we have to forget that the last four months have been the most artificial environment of our professional lives. One of the reasons why work from home worked was because everyone was home so you didn't have this hybrid situation. Two, no one could go anywhere. So, you couldn't go see a client, but also "I was working 15 hours a day because I couldn't go to yoga class. I couldn't go have lunch with my friends. I couldn't leave early to grab cocktails with a buddy. And by the way, I'm afraid for my job."

Drew McLellan: So, of course I'm going to work 15 hours a day. I'm going to show my boss that I am dedicated-

Polly Yakovich: And your kids are maybe home and you have to work 15 hours.

Drew McLellan: Right. Right. Assuming that it worked really well in that abnormal environment, assuming that it will work equally well let's say in January 2021 when most of the world and most of the US has gone back to some sort of quasi normal... Most of the agencies we work with, I would say at least 50-60% of them are already all back in the office. The world is going back to "normal", pre-COVID normal.

Drew McLellan: I do think that certainly companies that were skittish about hiring agencies that maybe weren't in their backyard, or skittish about hiring a virtual agency versus a brick and mortar agency, I certainly think some of that worry is going to be reduced because of the experience we've had over the last six months. I think a lot of agencies and clients probably are a little more open to the idea of remote employees. I'm not talking about people who all live in a city and just don't go to the office. They all work from home. I'm talking about you have a business in Tupelo, Mississippi, and you want to hire someone who happens to work in Austin, Texas.

Drew McLellan: I think that we're going to see more of that. Honestly, that was already trending prior to COVID.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, it just got a little punch in the bum.

Drew McLellan: Yeah, right. Yes, I think we will see some loosening of some preconceived notions about how that works. I don't think for most of us we are going to work from home forever, and we're never going to sit across the client over a cocktail, or we're never going to go... I keep reading people are saying, "Trade shows are dead." That's ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. Virtual events have been great, but I've never had someone say, "You know what, that virtual event was so much better than being there in person." I've never heard anybody say that.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Drew McLellan: They're a fine substitute because we have no choice. The minute we can start safely being in a conference center, or an exhibit hall, or whatever-

Polly Yakovich: We're there.

Drew McLellan: We're there. Right.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Drew McLellan: That's all coming back. People are saying cities are dead, and industry... All of that is ridiculous talk by extremists.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, yeah. Personally, have you been in one location for the longest period of time in your professional life?

Drew McLellan: Oh, without a doubt. Remember prior to COVID, for the most part, with some noted exceptions, I was in a different city every week. I'd be home every week for a day or two, or three maybe, but I was... In 2019, I was on 220 planes.

Polly Yakovich: Crazy.

Drew McLellan: From March 15th until I think it was July 9th, I was home. That was the longest stretch that I can think of that I've been home without being on a plane or getting in a car and going to see somebody. Yeah, it was very weird for me. There were parts of it that I liked, but as you know, I'm coming to you from a hotel room in a city that is not my hometown, because I'm back on the road a little bit, certainly not at the same level that I was pre-COVID, but I fully anticipate getting back to that.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: Thank you so much for your advice. It's so valuable to hear from somebody whose interacting with people at the scope that you are. I think it's really helpful for clients that are listening that are thinking about how to partner with an agency, and some sort of tips and tricks. What are you working on now? Where can people find you? Where are you speaking, teaching, podcasting, authoring? All the things I don't know how you do them in a day.

Drew McLellan: The easiest place to start, and with all of that, is to go to, and you can find the podcast there. As you might imagine, I'm speaking at a lot of places, but I'm doing most of it virtually, so content marketing world and other places like that. Most of those conferences have gone virtual, so "I'll be there", but not there the way I want to be. I'm Drew McLellan on all the social channels. I'm happy to answer any questions that your listeners may have about finding the right agency partner, or if they're an agency, how do they position themselves to be found by the right fit clients. I'm always happy to have those conversations.

Polly Yakovich: Do you respond on LinkedIn? I think your most active there, or is the email the best for you?

Drew McLellan: In the ideal world, there would only be one place where you had to check every day to see what the messages are.

Polly Yakovich: I know.

Drew McLellan: But LinkedIn's a great place to start. Typically, if someone sends me a message on LinkedIn, we may have a brief conversation there. Then if I think it's going to go on for a while, I will say, "Hey let's move this to email," and then just give them my email address, which I'm happy to have you share all of the links to all of the-

Polly Yakovich: Yep, I'll put them all in the show notes.

Drew McLellan: In your show notes, and certainly my email address is just You can share it there too.

Polly Yakovich: Awesome. Well, I close all my interviews with a question that I learned from a research friend of mine- learned, actually stole, which is that what would you say is your super power? What is one thing that you do that really is unique to you?

Drew McLellan: My super power is I am an amazing guide to any of the four parks at Walt Disney World. I've been to the Magic Kingdom at least once a year since it opened in 1971.

Polly Yakovich: At least once a year? Do you have any idea how many times that is?

Drew McLellan: Oh, I've been there thousands. My goal, which I have accomplished for the last decade, is to spend at least one month a year, not usually in a row, but week at a time, on Disney property.

Polly Yakovich: Amazing.

Drew McLellan: Yeah. I believe that you could blindfold me at the base of the Magic Kingdom and say, "Drew, walk to any attraction in the park. Or, by the way any bathroom or food kiosk" and I could get there without bumping into anything.

Polly Yakovich: Oh my goodness. Well, I'm committed to not taking my child until he can make it through a day without having a nap and a colossal meltdown, but I have to reserve you three years from now-

Drew McLellan: I'm game. Any time.

Polly Yakovich: To take our family on a trip through. That would be amazing.

Drew McLellan: Any time. Yeah, no happy to. I have done it all the time. I love to do it with people with kids, because it's really awesome to see the park through a kid's eyes.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, there's nothing better.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: Well, thank you so much. I appreciate you more than you could know. Thank you for taking some time out of your day to share with our audience.

Drew McLellan: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Polly Yakovich: Thank you.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of A Brave New Podcast. Go to for more resources and advice. If you enjoyed this episode, show us some love by subscribing, rating and reviewing A Brave New Podcast wherever you listen to your podcasts.


Polly Yakovich

Polly Yakovich



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