As a kid, I loved Batman and Robin. Batman always had a plan, and by contrast, Robin would jump off buildings and figure out how not to get killed on the way down. In the comic, Robin’s recklessness very rarely lead to a dramatic, predictable death. But sometimes people and businesses use the leap first, look later approach, and without comic-book magic that often doesn’t end so well.
I’ve worked with staffing agencies that frequently filled roles for positions ad agencies desperately needed. When I’d get called for interviews, the story was almost always the same. Some big ad agency won a bid on a project for a large brand and now needed to find a way to provide the services they sold. That meant finding people with the skills to deliver everything for which the agency was now under contract.
Sometimes you can metaphorically (or literally) jump off a building and not die purely because of your cunning and guile. Most of the time, however, you will belly flop onto the pavement. For many agencies staffing new projects in a hurry leads to projects failing or being only marginally successful. Usually, these failures were obscured by or blamed on rapid client-side changes. But if anyone were looking, the problems could often be traced to starting with a bad plan.
Agencies much like marketing books all describe themselves the same way. They universally seem to pitch “the amazing team” and “unique process” — often even when the service in question is well out of the agency’s preview and no one on the team has a deep topical understanding. It’s shockingly common for agencies not to have anyone with subject matter expertise involved in the sales and scoping out of work. If that sounds ridiculous, it is. But I can easily explain why it happens.
Most executives of a Fortune 500 company don’t need to understand highly technical aspects of analytics, search engine optimization, or usability testing. Put simply, the VP of Operations may well have more say over what vendor will handle PPC management than a Manager of Media Planning. Most VP’s have a few consulting firms and agencies they try to use for everything. So when an agency currently doing great branding work says, “We can do an amazing job with *blank* too!” it’s easier for a busy VP to believe them.
In my experience, agencies frequently brought in large portions of the team in a hurry right before work started, and the process relied a lot on the competence of these new hires. As with everything, not everyone was competent. Even if a dream team was assembled, it sometimes seemed like no one with the requisite skills to scope the project had been involved in the bidding process. Much of the time, waters were muddied enough by convoluted vendor management processes, client-side staff changes, and poor initial goal-setting, that these agencies were not buried alive by large brands with well funded legal teams. Sometimes though, I’d watch service companies enter a spiral towards their death.
When I first started Push ROI, we subcontracted for another agency. This agency sold work outside of their core competency and well outside their ability to deliver. They sold it because they needed the cash flow, and for reasons like those cited above (doing high-quality work at some other task. Having an executive who trusted them, etc.), they got the project.
When Push ROI began a three-month consulting engagement for this other agency, one of the conditions was that at the end of the contract, they would not resell the services we were providing. The owner of the agency even agreed to help move the client into a Push ROI contract. Each of our agencies would still work with this client and would each only offer work that was inside of our capabilities.
The agreement sounded good until the day this agency’s owner walked into the office we had in the client’s building and told me he’d sold a full year. He wanted to talk about renewing our contract. I told him that wasn’t what we discussed, and we needed to speak someplace else. We didn’t leave. Four minutes later, half the people in the office and I heard him yelling, “I don’t give a f**k about this client. I’m not letting you poach s**t from me. Get the f**k out.”
I finished the exact amount of work I was contracted for than left. The agency I worked with lost that client within a few months and went under within two years. Many of the former contractors and employees of said agency have similar stories. Each story is an extreme example of why not to sell work you can’t deliver.
Those of us who became Managing Directors when Push ROI restructured had all watched companies evaporate from failing to deliver on something they sold. We’d all also seen companies become successful playing games of business Russian Roulette. We made it a core value not to sell anything we couldn’t deliver on with confidence and to never white-label others work as our own.
That decision came with both ups and downs. The obvious upside is not having the risk of getting sued into oblivion. And we don’t have any colossal failure stories of having to pay a contractor more than we’d bid because we didn’t set a reasonable goal or timeline for a project.
The downside is that fake it ’till you make it is so prevalent that not everyone views our not selling as a sign of competence. Since we are rarely pitching someone who is an expert at the service we’re selling, not selling aggressively can be perceived negatively by some. It also put us in a place where explaining our actions may indirectly call some executive’s favorite vendors liars.
With all the options weighed, I’ve made it a hard and fast rule not to sell what I’m not sure I can deliver. You could argue that rule comes at a cost, but it also comes with no risk. More often than not, saying “no, we cannot do *blank*, but our friends *so and so* would be worth talking to” makes us seem like real experts. Even a referral that goes terribly will never be held against you the same way your failures and broken promises will.
A lot has changed over the last year. My original partners have moved all on, and while Push ROI still offers services, it may shift fully to software products at some point. As that shift occurs I’m aware during every investor meeting, that we are pitching something we cannot confidently deliver. We can pretty confidently guarantee the design and development of a product, but can only guess at market adoption.
At best, as with all market forecasting, some of what we present centers around highly educated hope. Still, I do my best not to oversell. I’d much rather work in an industry where being honest about the maybes in life is valued as transparency and integrity, not perceived as a lack of confidence.