Agency owner business problems: Don Draper from Mad Men

Sorry, Don—when it’s your agency, business is part of your work. You have 5 options.

When people outside the marketing industry ask what I do, I ask if they’ve seen the show Mad Men. If they have, I say, “It’s like I’m Don Draper’s business consultant.”

Except, of course, Don would be a terrible Sakas & Company client, because he wouldn’t listen to what I recommend.

His character is terrific at coming up with creative ads, but not so good at the day-to-day realities of being a partner at a marketing agency.

The Wrong Attitude About Business (NO SPOILERS)

On last week’s episode, “Waterloo”—the mid-season finale of the final season, he told Roger Sterling (spoiler free, even if you haven’t seen the episode yet):

“I just want to do my work! I don’t want to deal with business any more.”

–Don Draper on Mad Men

Sorry, Don—when you own the agency, business is part of your job.

What about you? You probably started your agency because you love design, development, marketing strategy, or some other aspect of the work—and you figured you could do it better than other agencies out there.

Yet once you got into running your own agency, you hit the hard realities of being a business owner—payroll, hiring, firing, client service, sales, project management, and more. Most of my clients don’t like those things, or at least not all of them. Fortunately, I like them, and I like helping people figure them out.

Not liking business is totally fine—many of my clients don’t like the business side of their agency. But you have to do something about it.

Five Options When You Don’t Like the Business Side of Your Agency

If you don’t like dealing with the business side of your agency—if you’d rather be doing design, development, marketing, or something else—you have five options:

  1. Ignore it, and risk your agency going under.
  2. Hire day-to-day operations help, to handle things like bookkeeping, invoicing, HR compliance, project management, and so on.
  3. Recruit a partner who likes the business side.
  4. Study what you don’t know, to get up to speed.
  5. Hire an agency consultant to figure out the best solution for you.

Each has their pros and cons.

Option 1 (ignoring it) is easy, but I don’t recommend it. Ignoring a structural problem isn’t sustainable.

Option 2 (hiring day-to-day help) can be very helpful but you want to be strategic about hiring the right person (or people) to do the right things. Saying you don’t want to do sales and then hiring the first salesperson who comes along rarely works well.

Option 3 (recruiting a business-oriented partner) can be helpful in reducing your long-term stress, but like hiring a contractor or employee, it’s going to cost you money (in salary, but also in future profit distributions). Getting a business partner is like you’re getting married—you want to be absolutely sure, or at least as sure as you can be.

Option 4 (study what you don’t know) can help you fill in a lot of gaps, but it still doesn’t mean you’ll actually enjoy implementing what you learned. And you have to make time to learn it and practice it. For instance, I help my clients on high-level finances, but I don’t prepare my annual corporate tax return—my accountant does it faster and for less.

Option 5 (hiring an agency consultant) can transform your agency so you enjoy getting up most mornings (not just Saturday morning and Sunday morning), but it does require an investment of money and time to get the best results.

Moving Forward at Your Digital Marketing Agency

If I were Don Draper’s business consultant, I’d consider him a brilliant ad man but not the best businessperson. When you own an agency, you’re a businessperson first—don’t fall into the same trap he does.

Question: How do you handle the business side of your marketing agency?