As your agency grows, you and your employees tend to become increasingly specialized.
For instance, a designer might stop doing project management on top of their design work. Instead of handling account management and client strategy, you’ll handle just one of those areas.
Every agency role fits into one of six categories—and your choices impact team structure, profitability, and more.
Eventually, you might choose to delegate day-to-day work entirely, so you can focus on working “ON” the business. But in the meantime, you and your team might need to make some compromises.
What’s “normal” for agencies? I’ve identified six combinations to consider… and a specific order as you “drop” your extra duties. What do I recommend? Read on!
Can agency employees fill more than one role at once?
In a smaller agency, employees will often serve in 1-3 roles at once. It’s a common practice—but it’s not always a good idea. Here are some common “wearing multiple hats” combos I see at agencies:
- AM + Strategist: Here, the day-to-day client contact (AM) also creates the client’s long-term strategy (Strategist). Clients like having continuous access to their strategist, but this can make the strategy seem less valuable because you’re so familiar to them.
- AM + SME: Here, the client contact also does the execution work. This is the norm within PR agencies, where the AM is also doing SME work like media relations, writing copy, and placing press releases. I see it at many PPC agencies, too—where the person running campaigns is also the client’s direct contact. Clients like the access, but agencies tend to make a compromise—an AM-oriented person may not be a great SME, or an SME doesn’t love that clients keep interrupting their “Maker” time.
- AM + PM: Here, the client’s day-to-day contact (AM) is also coordinating everything with the internal team (PM). This is efficient—because there’s less “lost in translation” between client requests and the internal task assignments. But it’s not always effective—since employees tend to lean toward keeping clients happy (AM) or doing work as-scoped (PM), they tend to well in one role and poorly in the other. I strongly recommend splitting this role ASAP, to avoid creating profitability and/or client retention problems.
- PM + Support: Here, someone does internal coordination (PM) and operations (Support). It tends to be a good match, because PMs and Operations people tend to have the same “detail-oriented” profile. I did this as an agency Operations Manager—where I reduced my client work and increased my internal operations work. The risk is when client work leads to neglecting internal work, or vice versa.
- AM + BizDev: It’s normal for AMs to focus on upsells with existing clients. But in this combination, AMs also do sales for new business. The biggest risk is that employees ignore current clients in favor of sales opportunities, or vice versa. Be extra-careful about incentive alignment if you choose this combo.
- AM + PM + Strategist: I did this role as a Director of Client Services at a small agency. Since we didn’t have dedicated strategists, I did strategy… and was a client-facing AM… and did internal PM coordination. After hiring a junior Account Coordinator, I reduced my client workload so I could focus on helping larger clients (AM) and improve our profitability (Support).
These combinations are often out of necessity, rather than desire—you know it’s “better” to have specialists, but you can’t currently afford to hire more people.
As you grow, you’ll want to increasingly “split out” the roles so that people can specialize—from three to two categories, and from two categories to just one. This helps people focus on what they do best, which helps you grow your agency.
What about agency owners? Where might (or “should”) they focus their time? Read on.
Why isn’t there an “Agency Owner” role category?
There isn’t an “Agency Owner” category in my list of six—because as an owner, you get to choose what you do. Your ideal role typically combines work from 1-3 role categories. Here are some common combinations for agency owners:
- AM + PM + SME + Strategist + BizDev + Support: When you started your agency, you were doing everything. Ideally, that’s no longer the case.
- Strategist + BizDev: I call this aspirational combo the “Don[na] Draper.” Like Mad Men character Don Draper, you do sales and high-end client strategy, but your team handles the day-to-day client details and SME execution.
- Strategist + AM + PM: You’ve offloaded self-marketing and sales to a business partner, and you focus on doing client work—including strategy as well as AM and PM coordination.
- AM + Strategist: You’re the client contact and strategist, and your team helps with PM, SME billables, and operations. And someone else is doing marketing and sales—competently, I hope.
- Support + BizDev: You’ve offloaded all client billables, your team handles AM and PM, and you focus on agency strategy and sales (and potentially self-marketing). This is especially helpful if you want an Equity-oriented agency—to prepare for a future exit—since you’re increasingly Optional.
Priority Order: How to Delegate Day-to-Day Work
Speaking of making yourself “Optional” at work—if you want to reduce your day-to-day involvement as an agency owner, consider dropping things in this order:
- SME (since you typically can hire or outsource SME work without impacting client-facing relationships)
- PM (even if you’re detail-oriented, there are more important things for you to run… and if you’re not detail-oriented, delegate this ASAP because you’re probably not doing a great job at PM)
- AM (clients love coming to you with requests, but this won’t scale; start by introducing a backup contact, and then move smaller clients to them over time)
- Strategy (it’s hard to find qualified strategists who aren’t you; at many agencies, the owner continues to be the senior strategist, after they’ve first delegated non-strategy SME work, PM work, and AM work to other team members)
What about BizDev and Support? That’s up to you; I’d certainly delegate lower-level Support work, but you’ll likely hang onto aspects of BizDev (especially thought leadership marketing and the “sales closer” role”). But if you dislike operations, marketing, and/or sales, you can certainly delegate them sooner.
Question: How do you approach multiple roles and other “combo” jobs at your agency?