The Future of Agency Ops with Melanie Chandruang
On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by accessiBe — Kelly and Melanie Chandruang discuss both the connection and distinction between the people within our agency and our operational strategy.
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Kelly: Welcome to Thrive, your agency resource, the only podcast for creative media and technology leaders who are ready to dive deeper into conscious leadership and agency growth. I’m your host, Kelly Campbell. Thrive is brought to you by accessiBe, the leading web accessibility solutions provider. Join thousands of agencies that are already incorporating web inclusivity into their service offerings. Visit accessiBe.com today. So welcome back to Thrive. I’m really excited to talk today about the future of agency operations and what that actually means versus what we might think it means, with my good friend, Melanie Chandruang. She’s the founder of WeConsult. It focuses really on helping agencies across the country to streamline their systems and get productivity humming at agencies. Melanie, welcome to the show. I’m so excited that we finally got to connect.
Melanie: Thank you. I’m excited too. I’m excited for all these interesting conversations that are about to unfold.
Kelly: Absolutely. So we were chatting a little bit earlier about this idea that agencies have a little bit of a tough time, kind of grasping what operations really means and what it is. Why do you think that is? Let’s kind of start there.
Melanie: Yeah, I think operations is such a broad term. And even the title operations manager or director of operations is such a broad title. Within every industry, if you type in, Operations Manager, you’re gonna come up with an operations person that works at an agency, or it could be someone that works in a production, focused company where they have like a tangible product that they are manufacturing and selling. And so I think that’s the start of it. It’s just operation is very vague.
Kelly: And so with clients, I imagine you have this conversation all the time, especially at the onset of the relationship. What are kind of the top, let’s call them, operational challenges that agencies have been facing over the last two years? Obviously, the pandemic threw everything for loop. And I’m imagining that maybe the challenges have been a little bit different for the last two years than they were prior.
Melanie: Yeah. I mean, the biggest one that is top of mind right now, I think is hiring in our industry. Yeah, it’s just so challenging to find quality people. And that, I mean, they’re all being competed for. And right now those people are creatives and developers and project managers, and they’re all highly coveted roles, within not only agencies, but other industries as well. And so these, say it’s a designer, for example, they could go work in house at a product company, and quite frankly, they could make more money than they would at an agency. And so agencies are finding it really difficult to compete. And so, my solution is always make sure your operations infrastructure is really solid, and that you have some well-crafted HR strategies to really recruit those people and also keep them satisfied at your organization.
Kelly: So it’s interesting, where you go from operational challenges is immediately into recruitment, candidates HR strategy. And I think that in and of itself is kind of interesting, because I think it rubs up against the understanding or the maybe the misconception that agencies have over operations being this kind of bucket and not necessarily touching the people. They think about it more like the systems and I know that you do focus on financial systems and project management systems and things like that. But it’s almost like those are the tools of the trade. But the actual, like, what makes it all work are the people right? So have you ever have situations? I’m just curious about this, where you’re having maybe a prospective client call and you go to like, HR strategy, when they’re talking about their challenges, and they’re like, wait, why are you bringing up HR? This is an operations call. Like, do you ever have things like that?
Melanie: I mean, I try to do a pretty good job of addressing my area of expertise in the beginning and one of those areas is going to be the people aspect of operations. And like we talked about just now, the operations is so broad. And so really, it’s just making sure that things are running efficiently across an organization. And so I mean, for us in this industry, the output is the service and the service is provided by the people. And so for me, I need to make sure that the systems are in place for the people to make sure that they’re empowered and set up for success. And that, they’re going to want to stay at the agency for a long, long time, because hiring is really, really difficult. And then turnover is very, very expensive, right? So yeah.
Kelly: Do you find also that a lot of agencies get the correlation between focusing so much on the people, making sure like you said they’re supported, they’re set up for success, totally speaking, my love languages, and how that correlates to retention, and lack of attrition and all the things that we’re kind of talking about. Do you see that they make those correlations? Or is that something you have to actually educate on?
Melanie: I have to educate quite a bit. And sometimes I’m not able to really get through, and they really just want the metrics to be improved upon, right? They say, okay, I want these metrics. And they don’t really understand sometimes that in order to address metrics, you have to address any people problems. And for me, those are the types of clients that aren’t a great fit for me. I need to make sure that they value the metrics aspect of operations as much as they do. The people side. They go hand in hand from my perspective.
Kelly: Yeah. This is why I am always happy to make a referral to a client who’s looking for operations, consulting, because we’re very much aligned in that way. Yeah. So let’s go back to this, like the concept of the people are the product, right? I’ve been saying that a long time. You’ve been saying that a long time. And that those people are actually the what? What comprises a system? Right? So here, we’re not talking about tools. We’re talking about the people who are actually helping all of those gears turn in the right ways. Right? Can you talk a little bit about why you in particular are so passionate about this? Because you could have gone in lots of different directions from an operational standpoint, but you chose to focus, really zero in on the people. And I’m curious about that.
Melanie: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the first agencies that I worked at, I was in house at agencies for a long time. I was really lucky that I got to learn the value of process at that organization. I mean, it was a little bit overkill. They had process for everything. And so in that aspect, it did stifle creativity of it, but from my kind of admin operations mindset, I was like, oh, my God, this is music to my ears. This is amazing. But where the agency didn’t shine was managing people. And that was a really, really difficult experience, part of my career kind of trauma, if you will. There was the owner of the business was really, not that he wasn’t a great manager. He wasn’t great at managing people. And I was, unfortunately, one of the people that were his direct reports. And so I think, part of me, it kind of fights for the people. When I do work with an agency, I have this passion that burns inside that I need to make sure that the people of that agency are taken care of, and that leadership, view it as an important aspect as well. And so, yeah, it’s something that I can talk all day about, making sure people are taken care of. And so, that is really what kind of seared it in for me, and I’ve talked about this before that I almost feel like I’m kind of doing the work to kind of heal my past self a little bit. And so, yeah, it was really something that’s just seared into my memory forever. And that kind of made me who I am today.
Kelly: So interesting, and I love kind of hearing those backstories. Because we all have those stories as to like how we got into what we’re doing now. Mine is very similar to that. But I love the fact that your realization around kind of healing this traumatic experience is like, oh, this is maybe part of my purpose in the world, is to get in from the operational consulting standpoint, and then kind of advocate for the people, by way of the people comprise the systems, and it leads to better output, more innovation, more collaboration, the whole thing. It does kind of, if I would say disappoint me, or makes me a little sad or wish things are different, though, there has to be so much education around this. Because for you or for me, many of the people listening, it just makes sense. Right? I think this is obviously on the show. I talk about conscious leadership all the time. This is the basis of conscious leadership, right? Especially in the services industry. Whether it’s creative services or other. So yeah, just fascinating. So thank you for sharing that story.
Melanie: Yeah, of course.
Kelly: So I would imagine that there are some conversations that you have, where I know, this is the case for me. There are agency leaders, agency owners, founders who come to you and say, we screwed things up, like things are broken, we have no idea either it was like we grew too fast, or we just never set up things properly, or people are leaving, like there’s lots of kind of symptoms of our broken agency. What do you typically recommend when leaders kind of say, does this make sense for us to engage? When is the right time? Is now the right time? What should we be thinking about? What are the criteria? I mean, there’s a lot to that question, but I think it’s kind of important because it may be on the minds of the people who are listening or watching.
Melanie: Well, I think the first thing that I like to dig into is how ready are they for change? Because when there are those types of symptoms that you listed, that it’s pretty clear, what’s the word I’m searching?
Melanie: Indication. Yeah, that something needs to be fixed. And so my responsibility coming in and engaging with an agency is to fix those things. But it can be disruptive for an agency. And so really just having those conversations really early to gauge, are they ready for that type of disruption? Are they ready for that type of change within an organization? And how is the team going to respond as well? I like to gauge, are there any, do you think how’s the team going to respond if we rolled out a whole new process for, X, or Y, or Z, and then I like to, also when I come in, I do interviews with someone from every team, just to make sure that all the information is there, I’m getting every aspect from every department. And so yeah, that’s one of the first things I like to do is, are they ready for change?
Kelly: Yeah. I’ve had, and I start my process the same way. I typically work with agencies that are 50 people or fewer. And so as part of my first phase, I’m interviewing, in many cases, almost everybody at the agency, but if it makes an agency of 50 or more. I’m going to probably interview half of them, send out a survey for the rest, that kind of thing. Yeah. I’m curious about if you’ve ever gotten any pushback, because that’s one of my initial questions is like, this is how I start my process. It’s really important to get that holistic perspective of how everyone views what’s working, what’s not working. Where are their opportunities for improvement from their perspective, especially because they’re the ones doing the work? Have you ever gotten pushback to say, wait, why do you want to talk to all of these people? It’s really the leadership team who has all of the insights that you’re going to need. Have you ever gotten that?
Melanie: I have. Yeah.
Kelly: Fascinating to me. To me, that’s a red flag. I don’t work with an agency that way.
Melanie: Exactly. I have that same criteria. Yeah, I’ve had owners and leadership come to me and they say, well, we already know what all the issues are. We just need to execute. And that really doesn’t give us credit for our expertise and what we can provide. Because I think, and I don’t know, I’m making this assumption that part of our kind of superpower is to really get down to the nitty-gritty of what is going on. Yeah. And like I said, I’m kind of trying to heal this past self of mine. And I like to make sure that it’s clear that I’m advocating for them, and also looking out for what’s best for the agency at the same time. So having that kind of conversation with people. They usually do open up quite a bit. And it’s almost like, oh, finally, I have someone to talk to that really understands and can do something to help.
Kelly: Yeah, I have the exact same experience. We’ve had other conversations, we’ve never had this particular conversation, and I find it so fascinating that your experience is exactly the same. And with those discussions with the employees, they feel so seen, so heard, like you said, it’s maybe the first time that they’ve even been asked some of these questions. Yeah, I’ve had employees from agencies just end up in tears in conversations with me. It sounds like you have to get your head nod. And I take that, like, it’s a sense of responsibility, I guess, in a way to say, yeah, I’m going to hear you. And I’m going to kind of bring this into the consideration for recommendations that I might make, because something is clearly wrong. If you are to the point where you are breaking down emotionally because of your job, right? Super fascinating. This is not the direction I thought this conversation was gonna go in. But I love it even more.
Melanie: Yeah, I know. Also, that aspect of it gives us a little bit of skin in the game too, right? You’re connecting with the people that are on the ground floor, doing the work, and this is their livelihood. They’re providing for themselves and sometimes their families. And so that just gives us more motivation to do our job well. And so yeah, hopefully, that if anyone’s listening, and you’re hesitant to do it, just have us do the stakeholder interviews.
Kelly: Super important. So we were setting out to talk about the future of agency operations. And I’m wondering if what we’re actually coming around to, is, the future of agency operations is not about systems in terms of tools, right? So much as it’s the future of agency operations is your people. Right? And that’s not kind of a way to back out of getting to oh, what does the future look like? I think the whole economy is changing so much. And so employees are literally just not going to stand for certain ways in which they were treated before or having leadership that doesn’t support them, that doesn’t care about them, and sees them as expendable, sees them as only metrics and not as humans. And so I kind of like this idea of where we’ve arrived as like the future of agency operations as people. Yeah, it’s always been people, but you actually don’t have a choice anymore. Because you used to be able to replace people really easily. And you no longer have that option.
Melanie: Yeah, which is great. I think it’s kind of forced agencies to really take a good look at themselves, and to analyze how they can treat their people better. I’ve seen agencies where it’s like, that’s the name of the game is to just burn and churn. And they go through employees, and they say, oh, well, there’s another person waiting in the wings, and we’re just going to pull them in when that other person burns out. And it’s just so unfortunate, sure their agency can be profitable and successful in many ways. But my indication of success is also just how employees experience a company when they’re at it, so important as well.
Kelly: Yeah, how they experience it, and to come back to your story, so that they’re not feeling like going forward in their lives that they have to like, heal from this experience, right? You want to create, I think, I imagine I hope you want to create positive experiences for people who are under your leadership, under your stewardship. And I think that actually has to be part of the metrics conversation, right?
Kelly: Yeah. Melanie, I love this conversation. I could talk to you for three more hours about it. Let’s leave it there. Maybe at some point we’ll do a part two. But thank you so much for coming on the show today. I really, really appreciate you.
Melanie: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for having me.