Agency Smarts: “Creative people aren’t supposed to know business, and that’s bullshit.”

This is the first in a series on “Agency Smarts” by George Swisher, a management consultant focused on helping agency creatives succeed in business.

There’s a reason why we call them “suits.” They’re the starched collar, bottom line kind of men and women who sit on the other side of the shop and speak a different language than “creatives.” They speak the language of 1s and 0s that makes sure the checks get signed and the lights stay on.

Creative people get into this business to make cool shit. It’s an emotional, passionate business. But “the work” is literally 1/20th of what a company is. It may be the core driver. It may be what’s visually exposed, but it doesn’t make the company tick. So creatives can enjoy their “cool” factor all they want. When it’s time to break away and start their own shop, or even move up to the management suite, they’ll find themselves at a loss. Creative people aren’t supposed to know business, and that’s bullshit.

It’s a shame, too, because business smarts are really just about performance. And it starts with four very simple questions: How do we make money?; Who are our customers?; How do we get customers?; and How do we make what we make? This is basic information often not taught in ad school. In fact, 70 percent of agency folks don’t really learn business until they spend seven to 10 years in the industry. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Basic questions aren’t stupid questions, especially in an industry where the suits and creatives are siloed. Whom do you ask? Start with your manager. If they can’t answer those questions, move up the food chain. If your agency executive won’t answer them, they’re missing out on an opportunity to help the agency grow, and that’s short sighted. But it shouldn’t stop you. Walk across the carpet to—gasp!—accounting and say, “I want to understand budgets because I’m tired of my budget getting cut, which means I can’t create cool shit. How does it work? How can I help?”

You’ll probably find you’ve been doing “business” all along. The producer who’s managing vendor relationships? That’s business. You need those relationships to be solid so you can produce solid work. The copywriter who puts hours into an account? The marked up hourly rate that’s passed along to the client represents net revenue. That’s business, too.

If you’re reading this and you’re a manager or an agency executive, understand this: We have a massive number of millennials in the community now who care so deeply about their work beyond the next client project. They care about where they work. They care about the people they work with and—here’s the important part—they care about the company they work for.

Every creative person, junior or senior, who is armed with business skills performs better. They’re better at understanding company goals, at creating work that hits a client’s business objectives and at speaking to that client about those objectives, in turn building that relationship.

The only downside is that come raise time, the copywriter armed with business smarts will know her hours logged on an account, the percentage markup on her time and the revenue she brought in for the year. And you might have to pay her more. But she’ll be worth it.

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