I help run a creative agency. Our business model is super simple: we solve problems with ideas, stories and art. That's what we sell. And we're pretty good at it. Sure, we have firm values and ways of doing business. But at the absolute base level, businesses pay us for our ideas, stories and art. You can go through our business plan and every proposal I've ever written, and you'll never find:

  • Presentation communication skills: $***.**
  • Super polished internal decks: $***.**
  • Ability to make you like me: $***.**

These things matter. In fact they matter A LOT. But we fell for a trap a while back, so we felt like writing about it. As we grew, we started to hire, pay and elevate the talkers and presenters. We equated these skills with leadership ability, professionalism and even worse, with the ability to make stuff. We looked up and realized that our hero had become the presentation of the thing we're paid for--not the actual thing we're paid for.

Our business model is entirely built around people who may hate talking in front of clients or even be awful at it. If you've ever been a client of ELL, you've paid for what goes on in their brain and how they make it tangible--not my presentation of it. So who, or what, is the hero then? Certainly not me. I'm just sprinkling glitter on it.

Here are a few symptoms we identified that helped us see the problem:

  1. Our clients never met our makers. We rarely go to a restaurant for the phenomenal waitstaff. We go for what the chef is going to create for us. The quality of the waitstaff is tremendously important, but they're powerless without the kitchen. Our clients need to know our makers whether they're quiet and awkward or not.
  2. Our best talkers were our leaders. This is easy to fall for. Talkers instill confidence, and we want to be around people that instill confidence. But if our business is built around ideas, stories and art, and our leadership team is made up of folks who have never done those things...whoops.

  3. Our talkers made the most money. Okay this one is sensitive, but we're nothing if not candid. And communication skills have value--I'll reiterate that again. But it's so dangerous to put a career cap (whether title or salary) on someone because they don't want to manage others and they're not natural communicators. If we trust them to develop the ideas and things we're selling, their career path should be every bit as clear and have a ceiling just as high.

  4. We had as many talkers as we had makers. This one may sting a bit. If your agency, like ours, sells solutions, art and stories, and yet less than half of your team actually develops these things, you're probably over-charging to make sure the presentation sounds better. Ouch. Sorry, I'll move on.

Our organizational structure is muddy and confusing (and ever changing). So are our processes. You know why? Because people and art are unpredictable. If you value the right things, you're going to live in nuance. I only say that because you may have to break up the cleanliness of your organizational hierarchy to make room for this kind of thinking.

I don't know your organization and industry. But I know ours. If you look up and have 2 talkers for every 1 doer, you may actually be selling something else entirely.