Twelve years ago, we started Questus with a team of people who had never even been inside an advertising agency. This month, we won iMedia’s Agency of the Year. In my mind, our unconventional background is directly responsible for our current success. It takes a team of people who aren’t saddled with the old way of thinking to create a revolutionary approach to growing brands.
We counsel our clients to understand that brands now operate in an age of transparency and that marketers must proactively engage in open business practices. I believe in doing the same for our agency, so here is the inside scoop on exactly how we won iMedia’s Agency of the Year—warts and all.
Ironically, our recent success started with a major failure. About four years ago, we were growing rapidly and hired a few senior members to help manage the team. We had a solid interviewing process, but made some terrible hires. Thankfully, we managed to insulate our clients from the subsequent issues, but internally we were miserable. We lost our culture. We lost our smiles. We lost our mojo.
It was from that low point that we began our assent toward Agency of the Year. We learned from our mistakes. The major finding was that a great agency really just comes down to great people and great culture. To succeed in advertising, you need a team of risk takers, innovators, disruptors and creative geniuses. You also need amazing human beings—believers in a mission and in the power of positive teamwork. So, we initiated a three-pronged approach to creating such a team.
Step 1: Create an Uncompromising Hiring Processes
Our first step was to quickly remove the bad hires from our agency. When I was younger, I hated terminating employees. After 20 years in the industry, I now realize that this “filtration process” is one of the key aspects of creating a great agency. Then, we reached out to friends and mentors for advice, and we read books on the best practices for hiring. We learned from the book “Who: The A Method for Hiring” that a bad hire can yield a negative financial impact on the bottom line of 15 times the person’s salary. More importantly, we learned that bad hires steal the fun and that without a fun, positive environment we couldn’t do our best work. So, we developed a 14-step process for hiring, which is extremely tough on prospective new team members. It includes hours of interviews, a “black ball” clause and in-depth skills tests.
Some job openings take as long as a year to fill. Sometimes the team doesn’t agree on who to hire and we default to prudence (not hiring at all), which is tough when you need a position filled and you truly like a candidate. These uncompromising hiring practices have financial implications. We regularly turn down work when we are too slammed and unwilling to make a quick hire, but we believe strongly in our focus on building the best team in the business. We’ve found that we can absorb the short-term financial implications to reap the long-term gains. As Steve Jobs frequently noted, A Players only want to work with A Players. Without a diligent process, that’s just a meaningless plaque on the wall.
Step 2: Develop Challenging Long Term Goals
World-class teams want to know exactly what they are working for. They don’t want to be good. They want to be great. They want to have a clear direction towards a challenging, inspirational goal.
The goal for us was simple. We told the team that we would be the best agency in the United States. I distinctly remember the incredulous looks on the faces around the room when I said that. We were going through tough times and they were looking at the same partners who had made the bad hires that created the problems they faced daily. But, we knew we had an incredibly strong foundation and simply needed the processes in place to build upon the foundation.
We also defined what we meant by “the best.” We clearly stated we don’t want to be the biggest or the most profitable. Rather, we developed three clear pillars: First, we want to deliver the best work in the industry—work we are extremely proud of and produces dramatic results. Second, we want unparalleled relationships with our clients—relationships built on trust and a willingness to challenge each other aggressively. Third, we want the best culture in the industry—a culture based on positive reinforcement but also an unwillingness to accept anything less than our best effort every day.
Step 3: Create a Leadership Team to Build Culture
The final stage was to develop a Leadership Team to help run the agency. It consists of team members that have been at the agency for multiple years and have demonstrated an incredible ability to lead. They make decisions on who to hire, how to ensure uncompromising work and how to meet the agency’s financial goals.
We meet as a team to discuss strategies and provide them with the autonomy to run their teams however they see fit. By bringing the Leadership Team into key internal decisions and client opportunities, we ensure that we don’t create silos. They report to the Partners but, perhaps more accurately, we believe the key role of the Partners is to support the Leadership Team by providing whatever resources they need to succeed.
In a Nutshell
Conceptually, it’s not complicated to develop a strategy for being a leading agency:
Build a team of the best in the industry, give them the tools to succeed and get the hell out of their way. For the competition reading this, I can’t claim there is any other secret sauce.
I readily admit that we don’t always meet our goals: We occasionally miss a step or two in the hiring process; sometimes the Partners micro-manage rather than provide full autonomy; sometimes we get stressed internally. And, to be completely candid, we don’t feel like we have met our goal of being the absolute best agency in the United States—yet. There are some amazing agencies out there and while we truly appreciate this incredible award from iMedia, we know there’s a lot of work still to be done. It is the daily commitment to our goals, culture and processes that will ensure we reap the rewards. By focusing relentlessly on the quality of the team, we will avoid the temptation to make an easy hire, compromise on quality or let stress dictate our culture. I recommend you steal a page from our playbook and do the same.