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Agency roles and what they mean for your agency’s structure

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Updated on:
February 24, 2024
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There’s a lot of confusion surrounding the roles people play in a business.

It seems like there shouldn’t be, right? In your agency, you’d like to think that everybody you hire has a distinct role – with attached responsibilities – that they understand. You may have even defined those roles in your project management software, using them to assign people to tasks.

But the reality may be much different from what you imagine.

Various statistics suggest that your agency may have issues both with assigning people to roles and those people’s understanding of their roles. Gallup highlights this when it points out that around half of employees aren’t exactly sure what’s expected of them at work.

That’s a worrying statistic.

If your people don’t know what you expect, that’s only going to lead to inefficiency when providing services to your clients. However, the problem could be even worse. According to Gartner, 80% of employees don’t have the skills needed for their current roles. That could purely be an employee problem – they’re not capable of doing the work assigned. But it could also be a sign that a capable employee has been misassigned a role or isn’t certain what they’re supposed to be doing.

Either way, it’s clear that defining agency roles could become a problem for your business. So, let’s hone in on some of the key roles you’ll likely need to fill, along with some hierarchy structure examples.

What is the agency role meaning?

We’ll start with the absolute basics:

What is an agency role?

Though a role starts with a job title, it’s more encompassing than a handful of words. A role is essentially the list of responsibilities an employee takes on – relevant to their job title – to help your agency. Those responsibilities vary widely depending on the role.

For instance, an accountant’s responsibilities will be data-driven. They’re in charge of tracking the agency’s financials, developing reports, and ensuring you submit the right documents come tax time. Contrast that with a content writer, who’s more service-oriented. Their role is all about producing a deliverable that meets your agency’s standards and satisfies the client.

Ultimately, agency roles define the types of jobs people do in your agency. Defining what they are early is key in what can be a chaotic – and creative – environment. When people know what they’re supposed to be doing, and aren’t distracted by work that doesn’t fall under their remit, they produce better results.

Manage your roles and permissions in Bonsai

There are four user roles that you can create for your team members to manage your agency efficiently:

  • Owner - The owner is the one who creates the company account and has full access to everything.
  • Partners - They assist in managing the company but cannot access banking details or delete the company account.
  • Project Managers - They handle project management tasks, including clients, projects, tasks, and time tracking. However, they do not have access to financial data like revenue or invoices.
  • Collaborators - They work on assigned projects, tracking time and adding tasks. They cannot edit or delete projects or access client details and financial data.

To add or remove team members, navigate to the Team page in your company settings.

Watch the short demo below to get an overview of the different roles and permissions in Bonsai.

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What are the 5 key roles of an advertising agency

Now comes the hard part – defining roles in your business.

First, a preface.

The heading of this section mentions “5 Key Roles,” and that’s what you’re about to discover. However, it doesn’t mean that there are only five roles you’ll assign in an advertising agency, or any other agency for that matter. These are just the five that you need to have in place to give your agency a foundation on which to build, starting with…

Key role 1 – Account manager

Think of account managers as your liaisons between your agency and its clients. They’re not the people who get business for your agency. That’s covered by the next role. Instead, your account managers are typically the first port of call for a client once you’ve sold a service to them. As a result, they slot somewhere in between sales and customer service, with their key responsibility being to communicate with the client.

They’ll also work with your project teams.

Often, it’s the account manager who onboards a new client and gathers requirements for projects. They then relay those requirements to a project team – while ensuring that team stays on track – while staying in touch with the client. Or “clients,” as the case will likely be, as the average account manager oversees between four and eight client accounts.

A good account manager needs amazing interpersonal skills, especially when it comes to verbal communication. They’ll be heading or taking part in a lot of meetings. Ideally, you’ll also support them with appropriate software, such as client portals, to make it easier for them to manage multiple accounts.

Key role 2 – Business developer

Where an account manager oversees the clients you already have, a business developer’s main job is to bring more clients into the agency. Typically, this will be the person who oversees your sales and marketing teams. If you have a smaller agency – 88% of companies have 20 employees or less – they may handle the sales and marketing themselves.

So, your business developer needs to handle the big picture of bringing clients in.

Sales pipelines. Marketing funnels. The specific campaigns – and possible scripting – that goes into each. This role is all about understanding and creating these things to generate demand for the agency. Like an account manager, a business developer will have excellent verbal communication skills. They’ll need them to talk prospects around and train sales and marketing teams.

Key role 3 – Operations

Think of operations less as a specific role and more as an umbrella term under which several other roles fall. For instance, a project manager is an operations specialist. So are several of your agency’s directors, including the Director of Finance and the Director of HR. You may also have operational people in place to oversee what your accounts managers and business developers are doing.

What’s the common thread between all of these roles?

They all serve as the “glue” that keeps your agency running. Most deal with internal and external issues, which is most easily demonstrated with a project manager. Internally, they’re responsible for setting up project timelines, managing budgets, and assigning resources to tasks. Externally, they’ll have occasional dealings with the client – often alongside the account manager – and have to ensure the project delivers on requirements.

Some project managers even focus solely on internal processes, especially in larger agencies.

So, the operations agency roles are a little less defined than the other two covered so far. As a general rule, if it’s somebody who keeps your business working on a day-to-day basis, it’s probably somebody in operations.

Key role 4 – Creative

You can create an ad – or any form of digital marketing – without creative people who make it all happen. The people in this role are responsible for taking the instructions they receive from a project manager and actually delivering what the client requires.

Like operations, this is a category that can cover several agency roles.

Your copywriters, for instance, are all creative people. The same goes for your designers, video producers, editors, and anybody else who contributes to the final “product.” Naturally, this means your creative people need extensive knowledge of the software they use. They’ll also need to understand the niche in which their clients work, though this information can be offered by a project or account manager.

On the customer side of things, the people in these agency roles rarely deal with clients themselves. They’re the behind-the-scenes magicians who turn a client’s vision – communicated through an account manager – into a reality.

Key role 5 – Technology specialists

Data and software are the technology specialist’s port of call.

They’re responsible for building the tech stack your agency uses, and will often cooperate with every other role. For instance, your tech people will research and pick out the agency management software you use to oversee operations. They’ll also find appropriate project management software, a CRM, and may even contribute to the specific software your creative people need.

That’s not all.

They’ll also be the people who keep your network going and ensure any new software you buy is implemented properly. So, they fall into the support category. Technology specialists keep the business functional – crucial in the digital age.

In some cases, you’ll have tech-heads who specialize in different departments. One may handle tech for accounting, another dealing with the software creatives use, and yet another focusing on the company network.

Other key marketing agency roles

Think of the five agency roles shared above as the essentials because they keep the business running. The client-facing roles – such as account manager and business developer – ensure clients come in and stay once you have them. They’re supported by the creatives, who deliver on your agency’s promises, who in turn are supported by operations.

And the tech specialists will usually have their fingers in almost every department pie.

But as you grow – scaling is the top priority for 45% of CEOs – you may find the following supplemental agency roles become vital.

Additional role 1 – Strategy

Somebody has to focus on the bigger picture in your agency.

In the beginning, that’ll likely be you, as the owner. But eventually, you’ll need to delegate strategy creation so you can keep your focus on making sure all departments run effectively. That’s where strategy roles come into play.

You can often split this role into two.

Some of your strategic personnel take an internal focus. They’ll plan out your branding, for instance, or work on aligning everybody in the agency behind a vision.

Other strategists are client-focused, essentially helping those clients to grow through the work that your agency does. These roles often involve working alongside business developers to provide the data that supports a sales pitch. Think competitor reports, industry stats, and target audience selection, all feeding into business development’s ability to sell your service.

Additional role 2 – Media

Like strategists, those with media roles can straddle the line between in-agency and client work.

In both cases, they’re the people responsible for bringing advertising creation to life. They’ll book ad space – be it TV, radio, or online video – and manage marketing-specific campaigns. In some cases, your media team may even handle SEO and social media campaigns themselves.

That doesn’t mean they handle the creative side.

You already have people in those agency roles.

Instead, they’ll serve as intermediaries between project managers and creatives. Marketing budgets, target audience selection, and campaign analysis tend to fall under a media person’s remit.

Additional role 3 – Freelancers

The “wildcards” of the agency game, freelancers are the people you hire on a per-task basis. There are 76.4 million of them in the United States alone, each with a specific skill set that may serve your company’s needs.

Common uses for freelancers in creative agencies include copywriting and minor design. The key with people in these agency roles is that you provide your freelancers with the information they need to do the assigned job well. That means providing brand guidelines – both yours and a client’s. It also means managing the freelancer’s availability as it applies to your project timeline. Agency and project management software can help there.

But don’t assume freelancers are limited to creative roles.

You can find freelancers to help with accounting and other operational tasks, too. Some agencies even use hiring freelancers as an extended form of vetting, with high-quality freelancers eventually landing full-time jobs.

The marketing (or advertising) agency hierarchy options

You’ve filled the key roles in your agency, at least to an extent. As you’ve noticed, several agency roles actually encompass several jobs – each going to an individual – which is why structure is so important.

Enter the agency hierarchy.

Your hierarchy is the structure you build into your agency to ensure all roles work fluidly together. Typically, it involves group employees based on their specific responsibilities. The agency roles highlighted so far can even serve as categories for those responsibility clusters. You’ll also use hierarchies to determine the flow of accountability in your company. As a super basic example, a copywriter may answer to a head of marketing, who answers to the CEO.

As an agency owner, you have some flexibility in how you arrange your hierarchy. However, most use one of three common models:

  1. Traditional
  2. Matrix
  3. Pod

The traditional hierarchy model

The traditional model is likely the most familiar to agency owners, and with good reason:

It works.

With this hierarchy, you create a clear chain of command flowing from the top of the agency to the bottom. Each person in the hierarchy knows their position in that chain, as well as who they command and who commands them. The definition of that chain brings with it faster decision-making – 37% quicker according to Harvard Business Review – for this reason.

So, how does it work?

You break your agency down into different divisions, with the agency roles defined earlier being a great starting point. So, divisions could be operations, accounts management, creative, etc. Each of those divisions falls under the direct management of the agency CEO, i.e., you. And underneath each division is the staff – or sub-departments – that operate under the head of that division.

Let’s take creative as an example.

You may have a creative director or head. Underneath them will be anybody who handles content creation, design, and video. You may even incorporate your freelancers – assuming they’re creatively focused – under this hierarchy. Rinse and repeat for each division, each feeding up to a head and then the agency CEO, and you have a traditional hierarchy.

This model works well for an agency that specializes in a specific service. But as soon as you get into multiple services – not all of which could fit under the same category – you may find it’s too rigid.

The matrix model

With the Matrix Model, you still get a defined hierarchy with separate divisions. However, you also build into that hierarchy the ability to create cross-divisional teams as necessary. A perfect example comes from the likelihood that people in media roles in your agency will work with those in creative roles. For that, you’ll need a cross-divisional team – your media people handle strategy while the creatives handle…well…the creative side!

A common way to arrange this model is to start with the agency’s president or CEO. Underneath that person are the divisions of the business, similar to a hierarchy. However, the first of these divisions will be project management, or something similar.

Under that first division, you’ll have a list of project teams, each overseen by a project manager. From there, you highlight which of the other divisions will work as part of the specific project team within the matrix. In some projects, you’ll need people from all departments involved. In others, you may only need a handful – such as creative and media – without having to bother operations.

Thus, you create flexibility.

Rather than creating a rigid hierarchy, you create a project-dependent one. With the Matrix Model, you’ll likely also find resource management easier because it involves specifically assigning people to project teams. Unfortunately, confusion can also arise if you end up with employees bouncing between departments as part of a project.

The pod model

Finally, there’s the pod model.

Though not in wide use, this model intends to account for the specific hierarchical challenges you’ll face in an agency. However, it also brings an interesting twist to agency roles:

It eliminates account managers altogether.

That could prove a step too far for those who rely on their account managers to liaise with clients. Still, the trade-off is that you create a more fluid hierarchy that encourages communication between departments.

The pod model was created by Leeann Leahy, who’s the CEO of the VIA agency, and it’s simpler than it sounds.

With account managers gone, all clients receive access to four “project leads” covering every aspect of their engagement. These leads are as follows:

  • Business Strategy
  • Creative
  • Planning
  • Project Management

These leads manage their own “pods,” which are collectives of employees focused on a specific area. As for the client, they get access to people at every stage of a project. If they don’t like a design, for instance, they can speak to a creative head without disrupting anybody else. Similarly, if they need more information about project progress, they can speak to the project management head without halting creative.

These pods also intermingle.

As needed, each head can delegate tasks to people inside your agency based on available resources and client needs. Ultimately, the model shortens approval process times by stripping away bottlenecks. However, it can also lead to confusion and a lack of accountability, especially if the various leads try to pass the buck for client issues.

Define your agency roles to build structure into your business

What’s the true purpose of understanding agency roles and hierarchy?

The knowledge will lend itself to your future scaling efforts. When you started your agency, you may not have had enough employees to fill all of the roles mentioned here. You may not have even had a hierarchy. Rather, you had skilled people working overtime to deliver projects and find new clients.

That can work for a while.

But it’s also a recipe for burnout.

That’s where knowing – and assigning – agency roles comes into play. With people in the roles discussed here, you have the ability to delegate work. You also create a more efficient agency, especially when supporting these roles with relevant agency management software. With that structure comes consistency. Processes. And – ultimately – an agency that’s capable of finding clients and delivering a quality service every single time.

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