Industry Vet Phil Waggoner Explains Why Agencies Face an 'Invent-as-You-Go' Proposition

In his book, Street Tricks, he offers tips on how brand-builders can thrive

Smaller can work better when it comes to advertising agencies.

Phil Waggoner makes the case in his book Street Tricks, sharing the wisdom that he has gathered about building successful brands through 40 years in the advertising business. Published last year, the title will soon hit Audible.

Waggoner made a name for himself during his 23-year-run at Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis, where he rose to senior partner, and used his strategic skills to tout Harley-Davidsons, Schwinn bicycles and Avia athletic shoes, among other products.

For the last 16 years, Waggoner has worked with his son Brady at Hook, a Charleston, S.C., agency. Both are partners, with Waggoner heading strategy and Brady as creative director. Hook clients include Jimmy Madison's Southern Kitchen & Whiskey Bar, the South Carolina Stingrays and Health First.

Waggoner chatted with Muse about what makes client/agency relationships work, assembling together a small but mighty team, and how agencies have become "invent-as-you-go" businesses.

Muse: You work with your son and daughter-in-law [director of media Jennifer Waggoner] at Hook. For those who can't draft family members, can you share some tips on how to put together a winning team?

Phil Waggoner: Someone in the agency business said, half-jokingly, "Always have one pair of really good shoes." Mine were Gucci loafers. They were great shoes of high quality. I think the same applies to people at start-ups.

The founder's initial partner, partners or employees must be the absolute best talent you can find and afford, be it an art director, writer, or account person. You and that first one or two people are the agency. And those first few must be really talented, high-quality people. The standard is set once the initial one or two stars-to-be are on board.

At Carmichael Lynch, we were taught to "hire people bigger than ourselves." Don't hire anyone who is not capable of replacing you. We were expected to have at least one candidate in a queue for every job in our purview.

Make sure new people understand your culture and want to be part of it. No matter how small you are, you've got to figure out what you stand for, what your culture is, what you expect of employees and vice versa. You must write it down and put it in their hands.

What can someone who runs a small agency do to keep their team motivated and get the best work out of everyone?

Make it clear that all employees must work hard for their money, and be generous in rewarding them when they do. Be genuinely appreciative of employee efforts and love them to death. Give staff members every opportunity to win awards. Pay entry fees. Help them win. Then, make sure they get their own trophy.

Encourage them to share their work to build social accounts, and use your shared reputation to build their reputations—because we want to be associated with them just the same way they want to be associated with us. This takes effort, but it's worth it. Sharing rewards and pushing them into the spotlight builds trust that bond fast, like super glue.

Awards work for the agency as well. We like awards. Awards attract talent and clients. If a prospective client doesn't appreciate that we want to win awards for and with them, we don't want to be their agency.

Don't pit one creative against another. Winning the creative department isn't a competition in small agencies. It is in big agencies—at least it used to be. We think it's much better to foster trust and friendship among them, and between departments too.

There's so much to say about how brands should choose the agencies they work with. But it's a two-way street. What factors should agencies consider before they take on a brand as a client?

We believe client/agency relationships only happen when both sides genuinely want the other side to succeed. When that happens, magic happens. Long and rewarding relationships are shared. It's easy not to push new clients to share their annual budget levels. It's a mistake not to get a number to plan against. Without it, there is no plan. Sadly, it happens, especially with smaller clients.

Good clients want to know what their customers like and dislike about the product or service they sell. No one knows more about how the product or service performs than the people who spend hard-earned money to buy them. We don't want clients who won't let us do quantitative research among their customers.

We've learned to discover as best we can if a prospect will be a good client or a bad one. Good clients challenge you to give them your best ideas. Bad clients challenge you when you give them your best ideas.

Toward the end of your book, you write about how an agency is like an "invent-as-you-go" group. Can you tell me about the services agencies need to offer these days, and why small shops must always be on the lookout for new ways to help brands?

There is a creative director/copywriter named Jeff Eaker. He began his career in the mid-90s with Leo Burnett. He wrote a post I read a year or so ago. I think it was on LinkedIn. It was entitled, "There Used to be This Thing Called Advertising." In it, he describes what the pre-digital days in this business were like, and what has happened since. It's super funny, but I also think it's true. Back then, advertising was mostly logo design, magazine ads and 30-second TV spots. It was art and emotion. Then it turned into science and performance.

Now, it's everything from SEO to pay-per-click, web design, social media, content marketing, email marketing, e-commerce, influencer marketing, programmatic buys, etc. This stuff is all science—a stack of technology.

We don’t know what a given client needs to invest his dollar in until a strategy is developed and approved. Until then, we don't really know what to expect. We must keep our heads on swivel, be ready for most anything. We must be flexible, nimble, affordable and ready to invent as we go.

It's obvious that you genuinely love this business. What is it about this industry that keeps you, well, hooked on it?

I've always loved being around creative people, and I've been fortunate to have worked with some of the best in the business. I still work with some of the best. What I really enjoy now are the younger creative folks. And being around them has a way of keeping me younger, too.

The work being done today is as good as the work when I was starting. Art and copy drew me to this business in the first place. It is magic. One of the rules that guides us here at Hook says, "Grab the consumer by the heart and don't let go!" Present the product, but sell the emotion behind it. That's what we try to do every time we create, and that's the big reward for me.

Another thing that keeps me hooked are the relationships and friendships that have come my way because of this business, and the relationships that still come our way. Trusted, valued friendships that cannot be denied. Clients, colleagues and workmates. Relationships are what this is all about. As I say in the book, "Chase the money? I don't think so. The cash will pass. Relationships last."

And the last thing that binds me to the agency business? It's fun.

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