Account Director Reflections: Flat Organization
By Jenna Hasenkampf
At MKG, one of our standout attributes is that we hire subject matter experts, people with 8+ years of experience. We’re a flat agency with a senior staff which resonates with clients because there’s no bait and switch, the A-Team is who you get 100% of the time. And as an Account Director, this has meant some big adjustments in my role compared to my previous agency life.
I work with a team of peers. Some of them have more than ten years more experience than I do, so these aren’t people I manage, they’re people I partner with. I handle one-on-ones with two of them and it’s a very different relationship than I’ve had previously in agencies. I provide feedback and my perspective and in-turn I listen to their feedback and concerns. They’re smart senior people who are not just automatically going to hand over authority to a title, so I’ve had to earn their trust when it comes to prioritizing requests/workloads, advocating for them with our executive team, and providing feedback. The more trust I earn, the more it frees them up to focus on their work because they’re not stressing about client expectations or addressing work issues. That’s my job.
I work on a number of clients, as does most of my team. The only way this is possible is through everyone doing their job without needing micromanaging and appreciating each other’s strengths and understanding roles. We’re agile so we set priorities as a team each week on Monday and everyone manages their assigned tasks for the week. We have a 15 minute morning standup that we cover anyone being overloaded or stuck and we don’t have formal work reviews as a team, these are managed as individual tasks. This leads to major efficiency through way fewer meetings and duplication of effort. But what about collaboration/brainstorms you ask? This leaves more time for collaboration and brainstorming through not having to fight for time in a schedule full of meetings and allowing them to happen more organically. We are currently a team of 8 and it’s staggering at time how much work gets done in a week.
Rather than play an inefficient game of telephone, relevant team members are on every project related call with the client(s). They’re all experienced enough to be in front of clients and this way they’re able to hear everything firsthand and ask questions/provide feedback in real time. (Here’s a secret clients, having stakeholders hear what you want first hand actually saves time from the meetings and discussions that I’d need to have otherwise). This also allows clients to hear from the experts rather than an Account Director on their specific ideas/questions. It can also cut down on work because questions/problems can sometimes be handled live. It also goes back to trust, they trust me to lead the conversation and drive discussions around timing and scope, and I trust them to own the conversation around their areas of expertise.
One of the biggest issues agencies face is turnover. When I worked in San Francisco, staying at an agency for 18 months was considered a reasonable amount of time. That can be really tough on a team because you’re constantly spending time and resources on boarding new team members and losing the strategy/vision that those team members had. As an account person, clients have always been my first priority, and working at MKG I’ve had to shift that. Yes I want to do great things for our clients, but at the end of the day my main priority is to do right by our team. At first I had a lot of clenched stomach feelings as I pushed back on some requests or enforced our work hours and our availability times, but to my surprise it’s lead to much healthier and productive client relationships. The proof in this is the vast majority of our clients come through referrals or clients moving to other companies and bringing us in. Through not overpromising I’m able to set realistic expectations with clients and they feel like they can depend on us to do great work when we say we’ll be able to. In turn, my team gives me the autonomy to manage client’s requests and our workload and make strategic decisions on how to best balance things because they see that not only am I looking out for them, but I’m also looking out for MKG with our clients. I used to struggle to get team members at other agencies to take a lunch, now I’m pushing my team to make sure they use all 20 of their vacation days. Turns out that people get a lot more done when they have regular time off to recharge.
There are no departments at MKG and this is really a game changer. Previously I’ve had to manage company goals, department goals, team goals, personal goals, and client goals. A sure way to never feel like you’re doing a great job, because how can you possibly be exceeding at that many different priorities and your day job? It’s also probably why goals for the year wouldn’t end up being set until about half way through. Plus department goals differ department to department and are frequently in direct odds with each other. We actually briefly tried to segment things as we got a little larger and the team rebelled, they didn’t want to be part of separate groups, they wanted to be one team, so we went back to doing things in a more unified way. Maybe someday we’ll get large enough to need some more segmentation, but I don’t see departments being part of MKG’s future because they run counter to a flat organization and at the end of the day we measure our success as a whole.
I’m coming up on a year with MKG in August and the changes in my day-to-day have been significant, but all pointing to what I think Account Management and agency life can and should be. Change can be really hard, but it’s not impossible, if your agency needs a baby step maybe just start with having less meetings?
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