Why Adapting to Change Is the Secret to Longevity in Agency Life

By Jason Swenk on November 10, 2021

Forbes has called Nancy A. Shenker a “bad girl” because she selectively breaks rules and takes calculated risks to help companies innovate and grow. Nancy had worked as a CMO for big brands like MasterCard and Citibank when she ventured to start her own business, TheONswitch. That was more than 18 years ago and she credits her client side work for providing the insight needed when she first started. Those experiences are what contributed to her still being in the agency world today. In her conversation with Jason, they talked about how staying in business through the years has meant adapting to different challenges. They also touched on some of the lessons learned in more than 18 years of owning her business, and why people shouldn’t underestimate experience and the wisdom that can come from it.

3 Golden Nuggets

  1. On adapting to changes. Nancy actually credits the hard times of the 2008 recession for preparing her for the pandemic. “When the economy takes a downturn, you’re sort of stuck throwing all of this stuff overboard,” she recalls. When it came time for everyone to welcome the new digital and minimalistic model, she had already adapted to it years ago. “I’ve been co-working and managing a virtual team for the last decade, so I was good.” In her opinion, the pivoters were the ones surviving and thriving. It was a time to do market research, to find out how customers were behaving, but many went into a state of inertia.
  2. Lessons learned over the years. After 18 years in the business, lesson number one for Nancy has been to always trust her gut. She doesn’t have a lot of regrets, but she always regrets moving forward with projects where she felt like something didn’t seem quite right. Another important lesson is to always watch your P&L. Hope is great but money in the bank is better. Always make sure to have that cushion because you never know when things can go south. Also, remember that a good profit margin for your business should be an average of 30%. And finally, invest in things that will bring you long-term value.
  3. Don’t underestimate experience. Nancy is very passionate about calling out ageism in business. “I now bring to the table wisdom that I didn’t have even 18 years ago,” she says. She calls for people not to assume that an older person cannot understand technology. She even challenges anyone a social media strategy contest, since she’s been in the social media and digital media realm since the late nineties and feels that, at 65, she can offer a unique perspective.

Sponsors and Resources

Gusto: Today’s episode is sponsored by Gusto, an all-in-one people platform for payroll, benefits, HR where you can unify your data. Gusto automatically applies your payroll taxes and directly deposits your team’s paychecks, freeing you up to work on your business. Head over to gusto.com/agency to enjoy an exclusive offer for podcast listeners.


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Lessons Learned After 18 Years in the Business & Why We Shouldn’t Underestimate Experience

Jason: [00:00:00] All right. What’s up, agency owners? Today I have an amazing guest who has been in business for over 18 years. Actually, today is their 18th birthday. We’re going to talk about the lessons learned about growing their agency. And let’s go ahead and jump into the show.

Hey, Nancy. Welcome to the show and happy birthday to the business.

Nancy: [00:00:25] Thank you. How are you doing?

Jason: [00:00:28] So, uh, tell us who you are and what do you do?

Nancy: [00:00:32] Sure. My name is Nancy A. Shenker. And as you just said, today is the 18th birthday, so it’s fortuitous timing, um, of my consulting company slash agency called TheOnswitch.

Um, I was an early-stage entrepreneur. I left corporate life and started my own business long before it became popular to do that. Um, and previously I was a CMO at a company called Reed Exhibitions, the producers of Comicon. And then before that I was at MasterCard and Citibank. So the first part of my career was on the client-side. So when I got ready to start my own consultancy, I sort of knew what things look like from the other side of the desk, which gave me tremendous insight and probably contributed to my still being around 18 years later.

Jason: [00:01:26] Yeah. What were… Going back to when you were the CMO and working with a lot of different agencies over the years, what were some things that really pissed you off?

Nancy: [00:01:39] Um, I think that, um, account people who had never really worked in or on the business, um… Always seemed sort of whimsical to me. Like if you couldn’t tell me specifically what was going on with a project or why I should be spending my money on direct rather than conventional print… Then you were really just like a host or a hostess.

So that was like number one, that stuck in my craw that I didn’t really need somebody to take me out to lunch or invite me to parties. I needed a person who was going to give me creative ideas to grow the business.

Jason: [00:02:22] A strategist.

Nancy: [00:02:22] Um, yeah. Yeah. The other thing, um, was, um, paying for people who weren’t actually working on my account and the recession was a tipping point for me when I really had to take a long, long, hard look at my overhead as a business and to say, whoa, whoa, like my clients are paying for my equipment. They’re paying for my toilet paper. They’re paying for, you know, all of this stuff.

And when the economy takes a downturn, you’re sort of stuck throwing all of this stuff overboard that you just bought in the previous 10 years. So I was actually really in great shape to handle the pandemic. Because I went with this minimalistic virtual model back in 2008, which suddenly became popular in 2020.

And I’m like, whoa, I’ve been doing this for 10-15 years. I’m all good. I don’t have any stuff to throw overboard at this point. I’d been co-working for the last decade. I have been managing a virtual team for the last decade. So I was, I was good. I mean, no one was really good in the pandemic, but I was better than most.

Jason: [00:03:47] Yeah. I saw a lot of agencies growing actually in the pandemic, just because, you know, there were so many businesses that… Traditional, their traditional way of getting business they couldn’t get anymore. And they really needed, you know, that digital, um, expertise in order to reach their customers and really kind of make, get, get them through because you know, the, the loans of the government only goes so far.

Nancy: [00:04:15] Yeah. I mean, I would say probably, you know, 20% of clients said… Oh my goodness, the world is changing. Human behavior is changing and my customer’s changing and I’m going to get first-mover advantage by dealing with that. And then there was a whole other swath of the population that went into this like inertia state.

So the nimble, the strong, the… I hate the word pivot, but the pivoters are surviving and thriving. And those people who sort of… pause. I mean, I just saw this statistic that was shocking that two-thirds of companies, you’re talking about major companies, postponed or canceled market research during the pandemic.

And I would argue that that was the time to really be all over how are my customers behaving? What are they buying? What are they clicking on? How are they shopping? Because if you understood that, like, if you really understood, basic human behavior, which shifted largely to digital… Um, you were way ahead of the game if you were on top of that.

Which is what taught us this lesson that, you know, I’ve learned starting in, when I first started my career in the 1970s. You know, our tagline as a business is bright and timeless marketing. I’ve seen media change radically. Um, but, um… What has stayed the same is your understanding of basic human behavior.

Um, that’s timeless, whether it’s B2B or B2C, if you really are inside the head and heart and wallet of your customer, you’ll never be wrong.

Jason: [00:06:08] Yeah. What were, what were some of the things that you’ve learned over the years of running your business?

Online Training for Digital Agencies

Nancy: [00:06:15] Um, well, my lesson number one for today, I’m doing a series of nine lessons learned over 18 years. And lesson number one, which is live on my LinkedIn profile today is trust your gut.

You know, and I think that it’s very easy when you’re a business owner to be swayed by clients, by your team members… But at the end of the day, you know, if you’re a successful business owner, your intuition is usually pretty good. So if you have the heebie-jeebies, as I say, about a client or about a prospective employee or a current team member. You know, the chances are probably better than even that your gut is right.

So, um, you know, the biggest mistakes I’ve made or learning moments I’ve had in the last 18 years have been when something didn’t feel right to me and I moved forward with it anyway.

Jason: [00:07:14] Yeah, exactly. Cool. And what are, what are some of the other nine? Obviously we, we don’t have time to go over all nine.

Um, and I’m not gonna put you on the spot for that, but look, give us a hint for some other ones.

Nancy: [00:07:26] Um, always watch your P&L. You know, especially if you’re a creative, um, and a storyteller, it’s pretty easy to delude yourself and say, well, things will turn around tomorrow. Or, you know, I’m, I’m spending $10,000 on this because I think it’s a good, calculated risk.

But, you know, that’s one of the big lessons I learned from the recession is that, um… Hope is great, but money in the bank is better. Like always have that cushion. Also because you never know when things could go south and you don’t want to be too leveraged when that happens. So, you know, as I like to say, especially for women, business owners, PNL does not stand for purses and lipstick.

Um, when you’re in a service business and your biggest expense is people, um, you really have to spend very, very wisely.

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Yeah, I always, when I work with agencies, I’m always surprised about how low their profit margins are. And they think in the agency business that 10% is good or 15%. I’m like the average is over 30%. And then they kind of get shocked a little bit and I’m like, that’s the average. I was like, you can go over. And they’re like, but when you get bigger, it goes down.

I’m like, no, it doesn’t. Only if you’re, if you get dumber.

Nancy: [00:10:02] Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. And, um, you know, when I first started my business, I think I was more into the creator comforts. Um, you know, I’d mentioned to you that I just moved to Arizona about three, four years ago. And I was kind of shocked at how many agencies have big spaces and their names on the door and big staffs.

A lot of them did have to do some serious bloodletting when the pandemic started, you know. And you’re right, there are some who didn’t miss a beat and whose clients really needed them. And there are others that just could not sustain their expense base when things took a turn for the worse. So I’m a, I’m a minimalist both personally and professionally these days.

Jason: [00:10:52] Yeah. I, I would always invest in anything that would be for the long-term that they would generate. And then personally, I would only invest in things, um, that were related to experiences. I would never buy a $50,000 watch, but I would buy a $50,000 experience.

Nancy: [00:11:14] Oh yeah. I mean, you’re talking to a woman who spent an insane amount of money on a 12th-row seats to see the rolling stones when they came through, um, a few years ago, pre-pandemic. And I will never, ever regret that expense.

So, yeah. Memories, travel, experiences… And talent, you know, if you find people… I’m working with a couple of women now who I’ve known for years who are worth every penny, I pay them and then some. Because they are helping me scale the business and deliver great quality work and enabling me to sleep better at night, which at this stage of my life is super important.

Jason: [00:11:58] Yeah, exactly. Uh, give us two other tips that you’ve learned over the years.

Nancy: [00:12:04] Um, build a really… Another people tab is build a really strong inner circle. And that inner circle can change or evolve over time, but you really have to have people in your life who will tell you the truth, who aren’t just bobbleheads.

Um, operations is really key. You know, you could be doing the best creative in the world, but if stuff isn’t happening on time and on budget, you’re screwed. Um, and then, you know, this isn’t one of my nine tips, but it’s my, you know, one mini regret, in terms of how I started and scaled the business… I think having product, having tangible product is super important. Because being exclusively in a service business, no matter how much you productize your service, it’s still a service.

So, I mean, I’m not done yet. I have another 18 years at least ahead of me. And I have a few product concepts that I hope to launch over the next five to 10 years. Including, you know, I, I’m a writer and I have a bunch of books on Amazon and I have, um, some courses I’m developing. So yeah, I’m really into passive revenue these days.

Jason: [00:13:24] Well, let me, let me tell you, the grass is not always greener on the other side. It’s greener on the side you water. When I sold my agency, I thought just like you, I was like, ah, I’ve been in the service business for 12 years. Let me go develop a product. And I developed an iPhone app and I hated it. I literally wanted to… I put a gun to it and just blew it up behind the shed. And…

Nancy: [00:13:46] Yeah, and that’s one of the reasons why I haven’t launched my… I have one product idea that’s actually a physical, tangible product, a household product. And when I started delving into manufacturing and trademarking and distribution, I’m like, nah, I’m not, I’m not doing that.

So I think that there is an opportunity and I think you’ve actually done it really well. You know, and I’m not just being, you know, a sycophant here. But like developing products that people in your industry truly need, you know, it’s productizing your service, which is also a form of a product. I think smart, digital marketers are doing more and more of that these days.

So kudos to you on that.

Jason: [00:14:32] Thank you. Well, uh, is there anything Nancy, I did not ask you that you think would benefit the audience?

Nancy: [00:14:39] Um, yeah, I mean, something that I think a lot about these days is, I turned 65 last February. Um, I have been very often told that I don’t look 65, but what I say is this is the new 65. I would like to see the agency world and the marketing world become more age diverse.

Um, it’s something that I’m passionate about and you know, I now bring to the table wisdom that I didn’t have even 18 years ago. So when you see that person who’s old enough to be your mother or your grandmother, don’t assume that they don’t understand technology. Because I challenge any millennial to a social media strategy contest because I’ve been in the social media and digital media realm since the late nineties, early two thousands.

I helped build the first website for MasterCard. I was on Twitter day one of the Twitter launch. And it’s funny cause I recently said to one of our associates I’ve been using social media since 2005. And she said, oh my God, I was only six years old then. So yeah, don’t assume that because somebody is older doesn’t mean that they can’t understand new tricks.

So that’s my final bit of anti-ageism bad-ass wisdom.

Jason: [00:16:15] Awesome. And what’s the URL. People can go and check the business out?

Nancy: [00:16:20] theonswitch.com, T H E O N S W I T C H.com just like a light switch, but not. Um, my daughter actually helped me name the company and, um, feel free to follow me on LinkedIn because I’m, as I said, I’m a storyteller and that’s where a lot of my content goes.

Jason: [00:16:39] Awesome. Well, thanks so much, Nancy, for coming on the show. And if you guys want to really be around an amazing inner circle, kind of like Nancy mentioned, where they’re all digital agency owners and we’re all wanting to grow and scale up faster. I’d love to invite all of you to go to digitalagencyelite.com.

Go and check that out and apply. And if we think it’s right for you and vice versa, we’ll have a conversation. So go to digitalagencyelite.com. And until next time have a Swenk day.

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