What The Marine Corps Teaches Us About Building A Better Marketing Agency

Posted by Chris Kapsalis / November 4

At first glance, there may seem to be little correlation between the Marine Corps and the marketing agency business. However, the Marine Corps has 11 leadership principles and they have some surprising applications to our business. As a former Marine, I am not a fan of military clichés; they are overused in our business and hold little weight.  That said, leadership is critical in any organization and here are a few tips from some of the best.

Principle 1: Be technically and tactically proficient

What the Marines say: Maintain a high level of competence in your Military Occupational Specialty. Your proficiency will earn the respect of your Marines.

How it applies to agency business:  Too many senior people in our business are theorists: they know what to do but don’t know or have forgotten how to do it. Get out there, mix it up with consumers, be there for a 4:00 am load in and hang with the clients until last call.  If you know the details you’ll be a much better and more respected leader.

Principle 2: Know yourself and seek self-improvement

What the Marines say: Use the leadership traits to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. An accurate and clear understanding of yourself and a comprehension of group behavior will help you determine the best way to deal with any given situation.

How it applies to agency business:  Know what you don’t know. The world is changing fast and no leader can be up on every emerging trend or new media, so lean on the young people in your organization for guidance.  Be an old dog that isn’t afraid of new tricks.  Hey, I’m writing a blog, so anything is possible.

Principle 3: Know your Marines and look out for their welfare

What the Marines say: You should know your Marines and how they react to different situations. This knowledge can save lives. Knowledge of your Marines' personalities will enable you, as the leader, to decide how best to employ each Marine.

How it applies to agency business:  You should take the time to really get to know your people.  Agencies are diverse, just because someone can write a presentation doesn’t mean they can present.  Know the one person you want in the room on a pitch or who your go to is when the pressure is. Sure, it won’t save lives, but it might save business.

Principle 4: Keep your Marines informed

What the Marines say: Informed Marines perform better and, if knowledgeable of the situation, can carry on without your personal supervision. Providing information can inspire initiative.

How it applies to the agency business:  No matter if your agency has 10 people or 1,000, most agencies fall into the information silo trap.  Senior leaders spend so much time on the big issues they think everyone around them is immersed in it as well.  Let your people know what is going on, good and bad.  They will be better prepared to help you tackle the next challenge.

Principle 5: Set the example

What the Marines say: Set the standards for your Marines by personal example. The Marines in your unit all watch your appearance, attitude, physical fitness and personal example. If your personal standards are high, then you can rightfully demand the same of your Marines.

How it applies to the agency business:  This one is pretty obvious.  Young people in organizations will emulate our behavior.  I hear many of my counterparts complain about “kids today” as has every generation before us.  Display the behavior that you hope to see from your employees: client communication skills, writing skills, initiative, and anything else that helps them succeed further.

Principle 6: Ensure the task is understood, supervised and accomplished

What the Marines say: Before you can expect your Marines to perform, they need to know what is expected from them. Communicate your instructions in a clear, concise manner, and allow your Marines a chance to ask questions. Check progress periodically to confirm the assigned task is properly accomplished.

How it applies to the agency business:  Delegate is not a synonym for lead.  We all complain about bad briefs or direction from clients and then turn around and do the same thing internally.  Stop and think about how you are communicating and realize that if the task is misunderstood it’s usually the fault of the person giving the task.  An open door policy will get you better work, be available and encourage.

Principle 7: Train your Marines as a team

What the Marines say: Train your Marines with a purpose and emphasize the essential elements of teamwork and realism. Teach your unit to train, play and operate as a team. Be sure that all Marines know their positions and responsibilities within the team framework.

How it applies to the agency business:  Breakdown silos and embody a sense of agency, not department or account team.  Make sure everyone knows the job of those above and below them and those of their peers.  Respect for and understanding of the roles others play will lead to better teamwork. 

Principle 8: Make sound and timely decisions

What the Marines say: Rapidly estimate a situation and make a sound decision based on that estimation. There's no room for reluctance to make a decision; if you make a mistake, revise it. Marines respect the leader who corrects mistakes immediately.

How it applies to the agency business:  Don’t get paralysis by analysis.  Gather information quickly and make the damn decision.  In this economy, you need to move quickly. If you fail, fail fast and course correct.

Principle 9: Develop a sense of responsibility in your subordinates

What the Marines say:  Show your Marines you are interested in their welfare by giving them the opportunity for professional development. Assigning tasks and delegating authority promotes mutual confidence and respect between the leader and the team.

How it applies to the agency business:  Don’t be an enabler.  Sure, it’s harder to teach a young AE how to do something, but if you take the time and develop talent you will have a stronger, more loyal staff.

Principle 10: Employ your unit in accordance with its capabilities

What the Marines say:  Successful completion of a task depends upon how well you know your unit's capabilities. Seek out challenging tasks for your unit, but be sure your unit is prepared for and has the ability to successfully complete the mission.

How it applies to the agency business:  This one goes back to Principle #3. You have to know what your people are good at and what types of assignments they excel at in order to assure they can achieve the goal.  More opportunities are missed because of misallocation of resources than any other reason.

Principle 11: Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions

What the Marines say:  Actively seek out challenging assignments for your professional development. Seeking responsibilities also means that you take the responsibility for your actions. You are responsible for all your unit does or fails to do. Stick by your convictions and be willing to accept justified and constructive criticism.

How it applies to the agency business:  This maybe where the Marines and agencies differ the most. We need to cultivate a culture of responsibility not blame.  The basic rule here is if you win, then the team is to be congratulated; if you lose, it’s on you.  Lead from the front and cop to your mistakes and you will have a better agency.