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The 12 Lessons Learned In 2020 And How I’m Doubling Down On Them in 2021

Posted by Mike Lieberman on Dec 31, 2020 9:30:55 AM

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Digital Agency Advice for 2021There are a couple of sayings that I tend to lean on when times are tough. These have gotten me through some challenging times in the past. I’ve shared these life lessons with my children and they seem to be doing pretty well, even reminding me of these sayings from time to time.

“Be bold and mighty forces will follow.” William Benjamin Basil King (1859–1928) was a Canadian clergyman who became a writer.

“It’s ALL about the recovery.” Pat Croce, entrepreneur, sports team executive and owner, author, and TV personality. He served as team president of the National Basketball Association (NBA)'s Philadelphia 76ers from 1996 to 2001. He also built and sold a physical therapy business, NovaCare.

“If you’re not remarkable, you’re invisible.” Seth Godin. If you don’t know Seth Godin, he’s probably the father of inbound marketing. Yes, he’s the actual father. His book, Permission Based Marketing laid the groundwork for inbound marketing. His books Purple Cow and Free Prize Inside are must read.

It seems like these quotes are even more relevant this year and going into next year than perhaps in other years.

At Square 2, we had a good year. We grew, we innovated, we had client successes and team successes. All in all, I’m not complaining and if you were to have asked me in March, “Would I be happy with a year like this?” a resounding YES would have been my answer.

However, along the way we learned a lot. So, in my final blog article of 2020, I share with you the 12 lessons I learned during what many people will consider the worst year of their lives.

Our Team Doesn’t Have To Be 100% Full Time

For 17 years we ran our agency with only full-time people. When we started the agency, we started it with part-time and contractor resources. I found it difficult to control and difficult to deliver a consistent experience to our clients.

In January, pre-pandemic, we made a strategic decision to build the agency with a hybrid model. Part full-time people and part contractor/freelancers. The goal was to create a better financial model and improve profitability.

Mission accomplished. This was our best year in many, many years from a profit perspective. We hit that high level of profit even after a rough first quarter.

We learned a lot this year, but our biggest lesson was we can run a dramatically effective, client intimate, high quality, dynamically creative, results oriented agency with both full-time and part- time team members.

The Retainer Is Dead

Sorry folks, but yes, the retainer is dead. Clients don’t like it. We don’t like it. The experience is horrible. Even the concept, now that I look at it 18 years later, is flawed. We’ve been using the retainer model long before HubSpot convinced agencies to move to it. It made sense early on, but today it doesn’t.

The retainer simply puts in conditions to monitor and meter the work we do for clients. It limits what we can do and when we can do it. It spreads the work out over the course of the year based on the client's understanding of their budget, not their understanding of their investment's relation to their desired results. That has to change. 

Instead, we created and continue to create different models that allow us to get more work done with dedicated client resources, in a much shorter amount of time. This gives the clients an amazing experience and this type of experience can be delivered month over month in 2021.

In 2021, we have a major company initiative to “kill the retainer” by literally eliminating it from our offerings and substitute in its place an engagement that gets clients results faster and gives them an amazing experience. Stay tuned for more on this.

Senior People Drive Results

It’s a tough pill to swallow. Most agency owners like the idea of hiring low cost team members right out of college or using interns. I remember visiting one of the top HubSpot shops, years ago, and seeing a room filled with interns. They soon learned that didn’t work.

In 2020, we focused on a smaller group of senior people as the core team at Square 2. That paid off in spades this year. Our team has been with us for an average of 8 years now, and these people work together like a championship sports franchise.

The clients notice it, they comment on it, and they get the benefit of it. We no longer focus on small and focused account teams. Today our clients get the benefit of our entire senior team.

In 2020, we’ve had the highest level of client retention, revenue growth and advocacy in the history of Square 2. This is 100% because of our focus on a senior team of people to deliver an amazing experience and fast track client programs towards results.

Culture Is More Important Than Ever

This year challenged everyone’s culture and I’m happy to say ours stood up. We went back and looked at it closely during the spring and made decisions that helped us navigate some challenging times. We’ve been a distributed team for years, so moving to 100% remote was a non-issue.

However, the pandemic stressed the system in other ways. We made sure people took time off. We made sure to get together as a team, at first weekly, but now monthly.

I made it my personal mission to check in with everyone on a regular basis and plan to continue doing that in 2021.

We also focused on everyone’s families. We sent baskets, gift cards, and other items to their homes. We celebrated Thanksgiving together by sending big family-oriented gift baskets. We got together remotely for our Holiday Party. We played games and we continued our all-hands Friday Show format meeting with a twist on brightening up everyone’s day.

I’d like to think it worked. We’ve had very little attrition this year and more comments on the soul of the company than ever before. Our culture now has a life of its own and the people who work at Square 2 are the caretakers of it.

I know this will help us get through 2021 and when we can return to our office and party again as a team, it will be that much sweeter.

The Right Clients Will Invest In Strategy

One of the major milestones for us in 2020 was our first consulting only client. Yes, this means no deliverables, just consulting. This is a major global professional services firm and there are many other companies out there who also need help, advice, guidance and direction.

They can handle the website, the content, the emails, the social, and the SEO work, but they need help creating the messaging for those campaigns. They need help designing the campaign. They need help tracking and analyzing their efforts and they need help selecting, installing and configuring the right technology.

Companies who understand that you need to think before you act and see that strategy lays the groundwork for their campaign execution will always outperform their peers. It’s our job to continue to share with them our experience and educate them around the importance of strategy.

It’s also our job to select the clients who align with our approach of strategy before tactics, and pass on working with those companies who feel strategy is a waste of time and money.

We’ve done OK in 2020 on this point. In 2021, we aspire to do even better.

Clients Want Results FAST

Yes, they do. They want to wait months to get started but then want us to work miracles and deliver results in no time.

Instead of fighting it and explaining why inbound marketing takes time and how marketing builds on itself and how they need to be patient, in 2020 we gave in and created an engagement that delivers six months of work in just 30 days.

It’s been roughly 50% of our business in 2020 and could most certainly push 80% in 2021.

We are expanding this offering, creating additional ways for clients to get 30 days of work in 3 days and giving clients the ability to work with us in almost any configuration, assuming it aligns with this dedicated team approach.

We have yet to have a single client who’s worked with us in this way NOT be 100% happy and even happier to share their story with other people as well. We're going to continue to push the limits of how we work with clients in 2021 for sure.

Advice, Guidance and Coaching Has Value

I haven’t talked much about trends, but there is one that continues to be challenging for agencies. Despite the pandemic, 2020 continued to see clients hiring in-house teams to handle their digital marketing work.

This means agencies have to be smart about finding their lane and making sure that the value they add can’t be replicated with in-house teams.

What in-house teams can do is build websites, create content, handle social, run email, work with HubSpot, optimize SEO performance and manage paid advertising.

What they can’t do is bring 15 years of experience across multiple industries and hundreds of companies to quickly assess what a program should look like, what results it should be producing, and how to optimize that program to get it back on track or improve performance.

This advice and guidance is valuable to almost any company under pressure to generate leads this month and turn those leads into sales opportunities.

This type of service can be delivered for almost any size company and for a reasonable investment, helping them get to their goals and continue to improve performance over time.

If You're Not Remarkable, You're Invisible

I’ve been saying this for years. I quote Seth Godin above, but now it is more important than ever for agencies. If you’re not remarkable, you look like every other digital agency on the planet. I don’t care what Partner Tier you’re in, how long you’ve been in business, how many people work at your shop, or what industry you focus on.

There is another agency willing to do the exact same work for less and happy to undercut you.

Instead, you have to stand out. You have to offer something no other agency offers and you have to do it better than any other agency out there.

At Square 2, we work tirelessly to find these elements of our business that are remarkable and we never stop working to make sure we can charge what we want, because we do things that no other agency can or is willing to do.

One of our Core Values is Remarkable or Nothing. We live by that everyday and will continue working on this in 2021.

Your Sales Process Is Everything

When I ask new clients why they chose us, they almost always say, “Your sales process was the best, it made us feel comfortable. It was clear you heard us and could deliver what we wanted.”

Mic drop.

You need to create a sales process that is unique in its own right. It has to be highly educational and one that guides prospects. It has to be filled with little wows, it has to practice what you preach, and it has to get them to know, like and trust you as fast as possible.

You should be working to improve it every single month. Where are the weak points and how can you sure them up? What is your close rate and how can you improve it?

If it's not documented in visual form, then you don’t have a sales process. If your prospect asks for a proposal in the first meeting and you say “ok,” you don’t have a sales process. If you’re not close to at least 50% of the formal proposals you do, you don’t have an effective sales process.

We learned in 2020 that this is one of the most important areas for our company and as we continue to optimize ours in 2021, you should be doing the same.  

Be More Selective With Prospects

I was talking to a few agency owners in one of my cohort groups and they asked, “What do we do when we know the new client is not right but we need the revenue?”

It’s a difficult question, but one that can be answered like this. You should pass. And while that’s not the popular answer, the results are always the same. When we take a client who we think isn’t a great fit for us, we end up losing money or wrapping up the engagement with one or both of us unhappy.

Why work for months with a client to produce an experience like that? Instead, say no. Be smaller, but when those great opportunities come along, go all in with them and win those. I’ve always believed that being smaller  with a better group of clients is far better than being bigger with a bad group of clients.

In 2020, we were more selective, but not as selective as we could have been. Going into 2021, we’ll continue to be even more focused on ONLY working with clients who are going to be highly referenceable when we’re done. That’s it.

Build Solid Technology Partnerships.

In 2020, we started doing something we should have done years ago. We began building additional partnerships with more technology companies. While we’ve had a great run with HubSpot, but today there are more and more technologies that our clients should be considering and we should be helping them with.

Our biggest new effort is with e-commerce technology firm, Big Commerce.

They have been a wonderful partner in 2020 and remind me of HubSpot ten years ago. They are excited to share our capabilities with their clients. They have a comarketing program that gives us access to 100,000 companies that perfectly fit our profile for new clients and their team is responsive and helpful.

Their technology platform is second to none, their commission plan is excellent and there is no reason why we wouldn’t be able to continue our new relationship well into 2021 and beyond.

I’d like to find one or two other technology partners to bring on board in 2021 and continue to create this portfolio of vetted technology partners that we can easily recommend to our clients and then help them get the most out of their investment in these new technologies.

Don’t Underestimate Methodology

Finally, we’ve seen the Cyclonic Buyer Journey model get traction inside companies across the globe. This means that our approach and our methodology is one of the reasons companies search out Square 2 and why they want to work with ONLY us.

We learned in 2020 that this methodology can help keep us differentiated and we need to work harder to share it with more people in 2021.

Attract, Engage, and Delight is not a methodology. Even if it was, it's used by thousands of other agencies. You have to create your methodology. Brand it, train on it, create content around it, and use it to separate your company from every other agency.

In 2021, we’re going to expand the Cyclonic Buyer Journey into a certification, and a training program. We’re going to be cross promoting it with our publishing partner to bring it to more people than ever before.

Your own approach to working with clients, your own approach to creating your engagement, and your own approach to how you deliver results can be used to help your agency stand out.

The hard work comes in creating that methodology but now more than ever, the time is right for you to do it. Make 2021 the year your methodology becomes front and center at your agency.

A few final thoughts. 

It’s very likely that 2021 isn’t going to be any easier than 2020, but what year has ever been easy for agency owners? What you need now is to take a deep breath and get back to it.

If you’re not sure what to do, choose the bold path. You will be rewarded by mighty forces coming to support you.

If you get knocked down, bet back up. It’s ALL about the recovery.

And remember, if you’re not remarkable, you’re invisible. Use these mantras to help you get through 2021 or create your own mantra that works for you, but never give up and never give in.

There is plenty of business for smart, aggressive and passionate agency owners. Why shouldn’t you make 2021 your best year ever?

Have a Happy New Year!

Topics: agency business strategy, digital agency strategy, digital agency team models

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