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Agency Advice Agencies Agency Leadership

How to get more budget out of your agency boss to invest in staff

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By Sam Bradley, Journalist

February 6, 2024 | 13 min read

Ad agencies can, at times, appear allergic to investing in themselves. Here’s some sage advice for winning your arguments with the finance department.

A person doing a mathematical equation on a notebook

Arguing for your company to invest in a new initiative can be difficult / Unsplash

Whether it’s miserly pay reviews or an unwillingness to pay for training and development, plenty of agencies aren’t investing in themselves. If that sounds like your employer, you needn’t lose hope. Rational employers will listen to staff suggestions if you take the right approach. We speak to more than a dozen agency leaders about how to solve a problem like arguing for more investment.

Focus on the immediate effects

Chris Camacho, chief executive officer, Cheil UK: “While 2024 is characterized by uncertainty and volatility, growth is still very much on the agenda. For that reason, it’s a year of framing investment conversations around making smart bets, not taking wild swings, to drive clear and tangible returns.

“This focus is in line with where most businesses are at in their transformation journeys, with many spending the last few years reworking their fundamental infrastructure around long-term visions. Now, the conversation has moved on to how those structural changes pay off in the here and now. In this context, investment should be asked for – and allocated – with a laser focus on clear and immediate returns in terms of capabilities and commercial performance. Ultimately, it’s about finding investments that will drive an immediate advantage for the business and for clients.

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Rachelle Hansen, vice-president of client leadership, Croud: “First off, you’ve got to define where that investment will translate to growth and also identify where that growth is coming from so you can quantify it (in terms of revenue, value, etc.). This is how you sell it into stakeholders. Next, map out the short-term and mid-term return to immediately show value. Plan ahead, and foresight ‘scenario B’ and what your plans would be to manage that (eg, people quitting or economic headwinds). Next, identify the long-term return and sustainability of that investment and ultimately map out the revenue growth over that.”

Andrew Southcott, managing director, Captivate Europe: “Most agencies are frugal on cost but generous on investment, so a rejected funding request is usually due to a failure to show a direct and timely line from the investment to sufficient incremental revenue or the source of the incremental revenue sits outside the risk profile the approver is happy with. In most companies, the decision-makers are salaried people, mortgaged up to their eyeballs, keen to not get fired, and failed investments are the sort of thing that can do exactly that. Help them to a ‘yes’ by reducing the bet size and showing a clear path to payback.”

Neil Henderson

Neil Henderson, CEO, St Luke’s: “Investment decisions are hard in an uncertain environment. However, the junior talent problem faced by the industry is urgent. We had talented people saying they were considering leaving the industry because they couldn’t afford to live on an entry-level salary and pay student loan bills, or others who had to live out of London but couldn’t afford the train to get in on time. This tough reality convinced us that a relatively small investment now would ensure we retained brilliant people – and would pay dividends in years to come by attracting the best of the next intake.”

Sophia Goernerr, European strategy director, Innocean Europe: “Present hard evidence showing how the investment will lead to improved performance or profitability. Use benchmarks or case studies if you can. Demonstrate how the investment aligns with the company’s overall strategic objectives. Emphasize the expected benefits. Involve key stakeholders in the discussion early, incorporating their feedback to build consensus.

“Propose scalable or phased approaches to minimize initial financial risk and demonstrate fiscal responsibility. Keep it simple and direct. Position yourself as part of the solution. Don’t just demand and complain. And, ultimately, make friends with the CFO, understand who in your company can help you influence the decision makers and, of course, make them think it was their idea in the first place.”

Chris Woodward, CEO, CTI Digital: “I wish staff would come to me with investment proposals more often. It’s one of the easiest decisions I have to make as a CEO. By definition, an ‘investment’ needs to generate a return, then – providing any proposal clearly outlines how the investment will pay back, whether that’s financially or in staff morale, client goodwill or reputational enhancement – nine times out of 10, the answer will be ‘yes.’ Tech investments are even easier decisions to make because they normally attract R&D tax breaks. A well-thought-through business case that clearly demonstrates how the investment will pay back will prise open budgets from even the most miserly of CFOs.

Robert Douglas, CEO, Left Off Madison: “As with any investment, it all comes back to measurable ROI, which requires even the simplest business plan. Because Left Off Madison is a small, full-service integrated agency, we must prioritize soft costs, especially talent and time, over cash. Ultimately, the decision to make an investment rests on whether it’s good for our business and people and, sometimes, it’s just picking the better or right time. Our proprietary tools, 40+Madison and Tiendita, were built to fill a gap in hyper-targeting audiences and understanding their purchase behavior -- crucial investments because we see it as the future of shopper marketing. And no, it’s no AI. We also take everyone on a company offsite to the Caribbean annually. It’s the perfect break for people who live their lives on video calls. That time together is priceless.”

Use a risk-reward framework

Claire Humphris, chief executive officer, Iris: “When it comes to reviewing a request for investment, anyone holding the financial purse strings is assessing risk and return (or, in other words, value). This year, Iris has invested in three areas – social, data/performance and healthcare, because these things are in demand from clients and, therefore, growth drivers. To get investment signed off, here’s a simple format to follow. What’s the opportunity, and how does it align with our business strategy? What’s the ask?

”What’s the likelihood of success? What are the timescales? How can you create more certainty around success? What’s the risk in not doing this? You should also be prepared to show the business what you learned from the venture if it doesn’t come off, as these learnings are valuable.”

Corel Theuma, chief executive officer, NMBL: “For us, this is a simple conversation – show what value the investment will have to the business, just like we do when selling an idea to clients. From there, whether it’s actioned or not often comes down to the business priorities of the agency much more than it has to do with how you asked.”

Ella Kersey, growth director, Brandwidth: “In crafting a persuasive case for increased investment, research is essential to understand the business’s current state, priorities, and potential obstacles to secure approval. Use this research to demonstrate the jeopardy if the business doesn’t invest in the initiative. Don’t be afraid to start small. Create a phased approach that demonstrates the effectiveness and impact of results and shows how you could scale if there’s success. Be innovative with your funding by leveraging internal skills, resources, partnerships, or seeking external support. Then, to secure additional investment, address business concerns while emphasizing the investment’s vital role in agency growth and success.”

stacey boney

Tie it to your agency’s philosophy

Stacie Boney, president, Hanson Dodge: “Make a case for how the investment lines up with the strategic intent of the agency. For example, at Hanson Dodge, we invested in a year-long training program using a live project, where the agency absorbed half the fees. It allowed for a cross-functional group to slow down, take more ownership, and learn HD’s proven process and tools while helping a purpose-driven client achieve their business outcomes...true to our mantra of helping good people and brands make the next great leap”

Jef Loeb, creative director, Brainchild Creative: “In some ways, ad agencies making investments are like any other razor-thin margin businesses daring a bet on growth. We all do it for the usual Maslovian suspects of necessity, opportunity, and/or fear. The simple advice for supplicants is to know thy company’s culture and thy management’s personas and shape your case accordingly. That said, in other ways, the investment proposition is different for a business where, as Fairfax Cone famously observed, “the inventory goes down the elevator every night.” Unless it no longer does – and isn’t that what the holding companies have in mind with their AI investment, replacing wetware with silicon and turning advertising from selling creativity to marketing shrink-wrapped silicon solutions?”

Camm Rowland, chief creative officer, Kepler: “As a leader proposing new initiatives, it’s crucial to outline a clear, strategically aligned vision, the steps to achieve it, and the consequences of inaction. For example, in advancing an AI-related initiative, clarify the expected outcomes, such as improved client outputs, efficiency, cost reduction, etc. Showing concrete examples, like process diagrams or digital prototypes, can ground abstract ideas, making them easier for others to buy into. This also demonstrates your preparedness to pursue the investment. Finally, while good ideas often gain consensus, emphasizing the need for action and the risks of delay ensures prioritization isn’t just theoretical but actionable.”

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Daisy Benn, managing director, WMH&I: “Start by explaining why this investment is needed to support the agency’s overarching growth plans and how it aligns with the agency’s purpose. This shows that you understand the business strategy and are looking to strengthen the brand, not just grow revenue. Get your audience excited about being part of the story. Emphasize how vital their role is within it, not just financially but also having the backing and confidence of a senior director will help ensure that this investment is a success. Don’t skirt around the risks; explain how each risk will be mitigated or why you have determined that this potential threat should not impact the overall decision of whether to invest or not. End your pitch on a positive, why making this specific investment, with their backing and support, will help the agency excel.”

Sarah Engel, president, January Digital: “Efficiency or revenue… Which will your requested investment drive? Be ready to prove it. How does the investment align directly with agreed company goals? Not vaguely. Not if-you-squint-and-look-at-it-just-right. Direct alignment. Heads of finance and executive teams have jobs to do: driving the company’s growth and sustainability, optimizing asset allocation and mitigating risk. A manager who can clearly articulate the alignment to company goals and show data to support the projected efficiency improvements or revenue increases are bound to make headway towards further investment.”

Want to join in next week’s debate? Give me a shout: sam.bradley@thedrum.com.

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