Agency Partnership

How Might We Rethink the Agency Model?

By Kari Hernandez

We hosted a two-day retreat in Austin for the whole staff last month. For some new folks, it was their first chance to meet colleagues from other offices in person. For others, it was the chance to be with their everyday companions with a different agenda. (Or, how about no agenda for a change?) For me, it was an opportunity to test out our new Think Wrong chops with our whole team. Together, what could we dream up for the future of PR – and INK?

Our mission is good work with good people makes for a good life. It’s a balancing act. And sometimes, in our fast-paced agency world of client service and media relations, that good life side can take a hit. We all felt that coming out of a very busy Q1 and Q2. As a group, we discussed it a lot over the last few months. How were we living our mission and when were we not? A lot of our woes and challenges came back to the same thing: not enough time in the day.

We were recently certified in Think Wrong, the radical problem-solving system that helps you imagine, create, and operate what’s next. When the group would break during the training, our team would rush to their computers and pound away for as long as possible. While we did this, other students would chat, step outside, or have a snack. This prompted us to ponder something. Why is PR, more than any other creative service, so “always on”? The obvious answer is that it’s because of media cycles. The news is always on; therefore, so are we. But then, what is driving this for our digital, design, and content teams?

We put the traditional agency model to the test on the first day of our retreat. The challenge of the day was, “How might we rethink time and space, in a way that allows us to live our mission, so that we might do more thoughtful and meaningful work that inspires ourselves and others?” We wanted to look at agency life with an open mind, unrestricted from how it is now and has been, outside of structure and rules.

We used a drill called Moonshot, inspired of course by Kennedy’s original moonshot as well as Google X. (In this TED Talk from 2016, Astro Teller discusses Google X’s moonshot strategy and the amazing things that can happen when you reward failure.) In this exercise, teams are challenged to think of the most astounding thing they might do together that would have an impact beyond our walls and lives, based on the challenge.

Our teams took on the status quo of agency life.

The first idea? Eliminate timesheets!

That might not be astounding or impact millions of people (or would it?). But it gets at a bigger opportunity: changing we way we value our work. We thought through the absurdity that every hour of work is worth the same amount of money. We asked how we might instead set a budget through the potential value of the impact we’re making for a client. Or the value of the team of specialists needed to attack a particular campaign strategy.

Other teams looked beyond the billable hour at how we form our teams. Two groups rethought our semi-permanent team structure and argued for the benefits of a more dynamic ecosystem of talent. One where people move more fluidly between clients and projects and even between specializations. We definitely see the value at INK of breaking down silos – between offices, communications specializations, and accounts to share value and experience and form truly integrated programs and cooperative teams. (Our one big happy family “1BHF” approach.) But this is taking that much further. We’re interested to look at how we can continue to meld our skillsets and make them available to our clients more dynamically.

Another interesting concept that bubbled up was eliminating the stigma of stress, anxiety, and depression in our industry. If change is a constant in life, and certainly our industry, and anxiety is a natural brain reaction to change and uncertainty (damn lizard brain), then how we all deal with that is a skill we should teach, and a normal part of being human. It’s certainly not something to hide or feel alone about. We all feel it in some way. We’ll definitely be thinking through this more within our culture at INK. As we do this, we’ll be looking for opportunities and resources to help us navigate change, and the stress and anxiety it brings, more peacefully.

Overall, we knew an hour-long drill or a day-long discussion wasn’t going to map out the future of the agency. But it was a great way of setting up some themes that we can continue to explore and discuss. In short, our goal is to make INK – and hopefully other agencies – a place where you can do good work with good people. And at the same time, live a great life.

What do you think? How might we, as an industry, rethink the agency model to allow for more thoughtful work and eliminate the “always on” mentality in areas where it no longer serves a purpose?