Conference Room Tables Are Turning – A Q&A with Jeff Graham, President and CMO of Cactus, Denver

Jeff Graham, President and CMO of Cactus, Denver

Jeff Graham, President/CMO of Cactus, Denver Talks About the Changing Dynamics That for the First Time in Years Are Working for Both Creative Talent and Agencies

Much has been said about The Great Resignation and the mindset change that has led many employees to reconsider their work/life balance and led many business owners to a near-constant state of stress dealing with more customers than they’ve ever had and not enough staff to handle them. But, says Jeff Graham, President & CMO of Denver-based agency Cactus, there is perhaps a silver lining to all of this, particularly in the advertising industry.

Advertising Week spoke to Graham about what he’s seeing at Cactus when it comes to talent acquisition and retention and how this post-Covid moment affords agencies the chance to do things differently in their new business development that will likely benefit adland overall in the long run.

Q: In your role as president of Cactus, how have you seen ‘the great resignation’ play out?

JG: As president, I’m on the hook for making sure we’re resourced appropriately for the work we have flowing through the agency at any given time. And the ‘great resignation’ has of course made that super challenging for anyone running an agency. Day to day we see it in the form of fewer applicants for open roles than we’ve seen historically, higher salary requirements from candidates who are interested, not to mention higher salary demands from our current staff as well. So the cost of talent is definitely going up, which puts a strain on agency profitability. We’re also seeing freelance resources we’ve typically relied on to get through busy periods booked out months in advance. It’s an absolute knife fight for talent that has put the candidate / the employee / the freelancer squarely in the driver’s seat. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in 30 years of agency work.

Q: That’s interesting. So how has Cactus dealt with all that change?

JG: We’ve tempered our net profit expectations a bit to account for what looks to be another rough year of cost increases. Our talent team does an annual agency-wide compensation assessment at every position, compared to industry benchmarks to make sure our comp ranges are competitive for an agency of our size. And while we’re hiring like crazy, we’re also doubling down on our existing team. We’re proactively taking action on their pay based on our annual comp assessment, to keep them happy and thriving at Cactus. We’ve grown a lot in the past 2 years and that’s resulted in some crazy, challenging workloads at times. It’s on me to resource the agency to get those normalized, so we do a couple of staff surveys a year to check in with folks and hold our leadership team accountable. Not just about workloads but gauging the agency culture as well. Now that we’ve returned to the office (3 days a week), we’re seeing a lot of the benefits of being together for certain types of work and also just that camaraderie of agency life. We want to make sure that every member of our team is feeling that sense of belonging. So we’re starting to measure/track it and really pay attention to that NBS (net belonging score) as an indicator of staff retention. It’s a lot easier, less costly, to keep the folks on your current team happy and thriving than it is to have them leave and then have to go out and replace them.

Q: You’re also CMO and responsible for new business development. What’s that been like?

JG: I have to say, the velocity of pitch activity, the volume of inbound new business inquiries and the percentage of opportunities we’ve had to say ‘no’ to due to team bandwidth are like nothing I’ve seen before. Clients are facing the same grim labor market math we are, something like 10.5 million open jobs for 8 million people looking. Just like agencies, clients’ businesses are thriving, they have more work coming at them than ever and not enough people to do it. They’re scrambling for talent to get all that work done, just like I am. What’s interesting is, in this context agencies are the “talent” – clients need agency help like never before.

Q: So you’ve got all these opportunities coming at you but not enough staff to take that work on. That must be frustrating?

JG: Actually, it is and it isn’t. While it is tough to say no to work that may have been interesting creatively or at the least, financially lucrative, there is something about this moment agencies are in that offers the industry a chance for a long-overdue reset. We all know it’s a seller’s market for talent, which means we, the agencies, can play the role of the picky, demanding job seekers for a change. The very forces that drive agency leaders nuts in trying to recruit and hire people to fill all the open roles in our agencies, can actually work in our favor when it comes to new business. For a business so often characterized by quarter-to-quarter, hand-to-mouth existentialism, we agency folk now get a chance to step back and make some intentional decisions about the opportunities we want to pursue and the ones we don’t.

Q: ‘Ones we don’t,’ that’s a radical thought in advertising. How does the idea of turning away business sit with you and your partners at Cactus?

JG:  It’s rarified air, but we’re getting to it. The pre-pandemic approach to new business, pitching multiple opportunities at the same time in addition to staying on top of current client work has always been a meat grinder. It’s guaranteed to burn out your teams at the very moment they’re demanding more flexibility and work/life balance from agencies. Right now, agencies really don’t have to play that game, we are the pursued versus the pursuers. That creates some space to make some principled choices to help us both protect our people and build the kind of client roster we want at Cactus.

Q: So how are you approaching business development at Cactus?

JG: Our agency is really strong in some key verticals: healthcare & behavioral health; financial services; travel & outdoor rec; state lotteries; retail & CPG. So we look for opportunities to expand in those practice areas where we have great stories and expertise. The filters we use for scrutinizing RFPs have never been more important. At Cactus, we use what I call ‘The 5 F’s’: ‘Fit,’ meaning the client is a fit for Cactus – they have a positive impact on the world; ‘Fame,’ in that the creative/client/category will raise our profile as an agency; ‘Fortune,’ we can get paid fairly and make a profit; ‘Fun,’ it’s something we think the Cacti will be excited to work on; and ‘Future,’ there’s multi-year partnership potential there, a case study in the making. If a prospective client doesn’t give us at least 3 of those, it’s a pretty easy no for us.

Q: How would you advise other agencies during this rare period where agencies might have the upper hand for a change?

JG: Stick to your guns on pricing, you cost what you cost. And those costs have gone up, so you probably need to ask for a raise. We need to be unapologetic about the value breakthrough creativity creates for clients and defend the time it takes for your team to make it. If you don’t already have a policy about doing spec work in pitches (or not), now would be a good time to create one – to give you another helpful filter to qualify/disqualify a prospect. Agencies can be bolder now to dictate the level of spec thinking they are willing to do to participate in a pitch. Speaking of the pitch process, now is the time to ask for process steps that allow your team to do their best work. If there aren’t a few checkpoints built-in, client/agency work sessions before the final – and your team thrives on that sort of collaboration – then ask for those meetings. If you don’t like the process that’s outlined, ask for things you think will improve it. Finally, I think good client organizations are already in the habit of providing some sort of nominal pitch stipend to help cover costs of travel, research and video assets. If that’s not outlined in a pitch you’re considering, ask for it.

Q: How about advertising job seekers?

JG: Over the years, when talking about our industry with young people just breaking in, I find myself saying something to the effect of ‘there’s never been a better time to be in advertising.’ Sometimes I think I’m actually just saying that out loud to motivate myself to keep going. But honestly, when I think back on 30 years of agency work, this is one of those times when that phrase might just actually be true. My own daughters are looking to get into advertising and surprisingly, I’m not frantically trying to persuade them to consider something else.

Agency work has always been fun, something that feels different/better than getting “a real job” – but today there’s a lot more care and attention paid to agency employees and their work/life balance, workforce diversity, reducing burnout, mental health, providing fair compensation and clearly defined growth paths. It took a global pandemic and an unprecedented labor crisis to make it happen but it’s happening. And that’s an inarguably good thing for agency employees or job seekers looking to break into the business.