The Agency Growth Blog - For Owners Who Want Growth

The Proven Recipe For Owners of Digital Agency Growth Going Into 2020

Posted by Mike Lieberman on Oct 2, 2020 8:30:00 AM

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The Digital Agency Growth RecipeIt’s Not Easy, But Growth Is Definitely Possible If You Have These Ingredients In This Mix

I’ve been running and growing a digital agency for the past 18 years. We started in 2003, before Facebook was even a company. We’ve had our ups and downs like every business. We’ve had some great years and some tough years. We’ve managed through the financial crisis, a major recession, and now a pandemic.

We’ve partnered with technology companies, redefined how we deliver services, doubled down on strategy, acquired six other agencies, and reorganized our team more times than I can remember. This is all because we wanted to be better.

I think I have some experiences that make my perspective relevant and I think I know what the recipe is for growth. While this won’t guarantee growth, if you can achieve this mix, I think you’ll grow your agency well beyond your expectations.

What I can tell you is that if you want to grow, you’ll need this mix of skills and expertise:

10% Stamina

I’m going to start with this because I think it's one of the more insightful ingredients. I’m also going to give credit to Mike Skeehan from Salted Stone for mentioning this during a meeting with HubSpot leadership. I agree with Mike and think it’s one of the more important ingredients.

I've always known this was important, Mike’s candid comment made it more real for me. “Hey, other agency owners are feeling the same thing.”

Stamina is key to growth. You can’t quit and you have to keep plugging away. You’re going to have good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks, good months and bad months, good years, and bad years. You have to keep going.

Not only do you have to keep going, but you have to keep going in a positive way or your team is going to feel it. You can’t let them know you’re frustrated or tired. You can’t let them know that you might be a little uncertain around the future  You can’t let them know any of that.

You have to show them unwavering confidence and leadership through good times and tough times and you MUST have the stamina to never give up, to keep working on improving your agency, to keep working on differentiating your agency and to keep working to grow your agency in any way possible.

10% Creativity

How embarrassing would it be if I didn’t put this in here? After all, we do creative work all day, every day. But it’s a small percentage of what you need. Perhaps this would be bigger if you’re the owner and creative director. Most of the owners I know are more business-aligned and less creatively aligned.

Regardless you DO need to be creative.

You need to be creative for clients. You need to help them create their stories, their messaging, their differentiation, and their missions. You need to be able to help your creative teams push their own ideas and you need to be able to challenge them creatively.

“What if we tried this crazy idea?” We once did a Zombie website home page design for a client just to push ourselves and them to the edge. Take a look at Seth Godin’s Edgecrafting concepts. We use them regularly at Square 2 to challenge our own norms.

You have to be creative when it comes to problem-solving. There are going to be challenges that pop up, some of them expected and some unexpected and you’ll have to attack them creatively if you want to solve them.

I don’t think this is an issue for many of you. I find most of the agency owners I meet and talk with to be highly creative.

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20% Process Thinking

This ingredient is going to be more challenging for a lot of you, primarily because you might have come from the creative side of the business. Designers, writers, even web folks are usually freer flowing and less process minded.

To run an agency today, you have to be ALL ABOUT the processes. That’s why this is one of the two biggest parts of the puzzle.

Everywhere you look you should see process. Every time I talk to agency owners and they share their challenges the answer is almost always process.

You’ll need processes for some of the items on this list, but in reality, there are probably many more processes that should be defined, in place, and practiced every day.

  • Your sales process documented on paper
  • Your own agency marketing processes, blogging, content creation, email campaigns, website upgrades, etc.
  • How you onboard clients from the time they sign to the first ongoing meeting
  • How you off board clients when it’s obvious they’re moving on or they’re not a great fit
  • How you bill clients and how you follow up on payment
  • How you develop their marketing strategy
  • How you train them on HubSpot or other technology
  • How you create content, long-form, short form and micro-content for social media
  • How you report results to clients
  • How you handle advocacy

This is far from a complete list. I could probably come up with 100 more operational aspects that need processes like hiring, financial review, working with contractors, team member reviews, rewards, and many more.

5% Risk Taking

This might be one of the more obscure ingredients for agency success but it’s key. Without it, you won’t grow.

There won’t be any major rewards if you play it safe. Take risks with your own marketing and try tactics you’ve never tried before.

Take risks and hire that new person even when you think you might not be able to afford it. I’ve been rewarded over and over again in this scenario. Adding that extra person has allowed me to work on something more strategic and the agency has grown.

Take risks and try new technology. Take risks and work with new partners. Take risks and offer services that you know other agencies are ready to deliver.

The more you take risks, the more you’ll be rewarded and even if not all the risks pay off, you’ll have learned something valuable that will make you a better agency owner and make your agency better for your clients and your team members.

15% Originality

I see this everywhere. Agencies are doing exactly what HubSpot prescribes and exactly what they see other agencies doing. This isn’t going to help you. There are no shortcuts. Borrowing what someone else is doing isn’t a short cut.

Instead, I highly recommend you step out on a limb and do something no one else is doing. Your clients are asking you to be creative and original, and you’re telling them that’s one of your superpowers, but I rarely see agencies practicing this when it comes to their own shops.

This could be how you position your agency, how you deliver services, what technology you use, what specialty you lean into or perhaps a unique aspect of your culture.

Thought leadership, take a stand, grab a position and defend it to the end. Whether you’re right or wrong, whether people agree with you or not, don’t bend.

When we created the Cyclonic Buyer Journey, a few of my team members (now ex-team members) thought it was stupid, or obvious. But I knew that people needed that map to figure out the strategy, tactics, analytics, and technology that makes up today’s revenue models.

Today we get business because of that buyer journey model and the book that went with it. You have to take original thinking and step out from behind the shadows if you want to grow. Not everyone has to agree, not everyone has to like you, but you have to do it.

New Cohort for 2020 - The "Next Normal" Agency Cohort

20% Expertise

This is one of the biggest ingredients. It might seem obvious, but in all the agency coaching and consulting I do, I still find it lacking in many agencies.

You need your 10,000 hours.

Specifically, you need deep and comprehensive expertise in the following areas.

Marketing Strategy – I’m not talking about the tactics here. Almost everyone knows how to do email marketing, social media marketing, content marketing, video marketing, etc. I’m talking about creating a marketing strategy that includes the personas and targeting insights, the message and story creation, the differentiation strategy, the plan to orchestrate all the appropriate tactics, the investment considerations and the expected results.

That package is missing in almost every single prospect that arrives on our doorstep. Some of these have come for other agencies who missed this step. Others come with an internal team that missed this important part of the puzzle.

I think this is especially hard for web dev owners, owners who are designers, owners with PR background, owners with backgrounds in SEO or paid search and owners with technical backgrounds.

This is not about filling in a template. This is not about just creating personas and doing a HubSpot deck on marketing strategy. This is about working intimately with your client to walk them through a series of challenging workshops and in some cases difficult discussions to help them help you to create their story. Not any story, but a disruptive, emotional, and compelling story that gets attention.

Without this, your engagement and ultimately your client will likely never achieve their full potential from a marketing perspective.

Sales Strategy - This is a bit narrower than marketing strategy but equally important. In short, sales strategy means understanding exactly what experience you want your prospects to have with your sales team. This almost always includes sales process but also includes sales tools, sales communication, sales analytics, and sales technology.

Some people have been referring to this as Sales Operations. Perhaps it’s a Sales Operations Plan or Strategy.

Again, almost none of our prospective clients come to us with any of this planned out or documented and it's critical to ensure that the organization knows what to do with the leads marketing creates for them.

If you’ve never worked in or with sales, this is incredibly difficult to create. Very few agency owners have this experience which makes it even more challenging for traditional marketing agencies to even consider delivering this type of service.

But it's mandatory today. Unless your clients are closing 90% of the proposals they submit, they need help with the Sales Operations items identified above.

Finding Insights In The Data - This is newer expertise. The sheer amount of data available to agencies today is 100x the data we had just 5 years ago. Agencies are already awesome at creating data, dashboards, and reports but knowing what the data is telling you, well that needs significant improvement.

Being able to uncover insights buried in the data, present those to clients along with recommendations and an action plan designed to improve performance is the essence of what excellent agencies do and I find that most companies are missing this skillset and many agencies are as well.

This is one of the reasons we created MAXG, the AI-powered, insights, and recommendations engine that processes HubSpot data and kicks out insights and recommendations in a prioritized list for people to act.

Today it’s almost impossible to sift through all the data in HubSpot quickly. MAXG does it for us, every single day.

Without MAXG, your agency would need someone that has managed hundreds of engagements. That takes time, experience, and discipline. Without the 10,000 hours of background on this, you’re likely to get limited insights and less than expected results for clients.

Marketing and sales strategy, along with the ability to pull insights from data make up the key to driving ongoing, repeatable, and scalable results for clients. This set of skills is rare in most agencies and why so many agencies have trouble keeping clients and so that makes growing your agency much more difficult.

10% Confidence

Be bold and mighty forces will follow you. It’s a saying I’ve been trying to live by for many years and I’ve seen it work. You and your team have to be very confident in what you’re doing day in and day out for clients.

I know many of you are learning along the way, but clients can never know that. I’ve encouraged everyone to experiment on their own agency, generate leads for your own agency, and learn how along the way, so you can apply that to client engagements.

Choose your words carefully and train your people to stop using the words “think” or “hope” or “might.”  No one is paying to hear a consultant say, “this might work” or “I think this is going to fix things.” Instead teach them to use phrases like, “In my experience, this has worked before and will work for you too.”

How you talk to prospects and clients can be the difference between keeping them and losing them. You need to be 100% confident in your abilities and your team’s abilities to deliver what you promised.

And it goes without saying, don’t promise what you’re not 100% confident in your ability to deliver.

10% Outside Guidance

Finally, the agency business isn’t what it was 10 years ago. It’s not about pretty websites, colorful brochures, or fancy trade show booths anymore. Today it’s about well-crafted stories, business results, technology, data, analytics, and hundreds of tactical options.

The industry is accelerating at a breakneck pace.

It’s impossible to navigate the potholes, detours, sinkholes, and roadblocks alone. You need help. Part of a successful agency growth plan should be outside guidance with someone who has grown an agency and someone who is still actively working in their agency.

Things change too fast for you to work with someone who sold their agency ten years ago or someone who worked in an agency even five years ago. What we do today at Square 2 is nothing like what we did even three years ago.

You don’t want to do this alone. Getting guidance and advice along your journey towards growth is critical to helping you avoid mistakes and accelerate growth. You should be able to invest a couple of hundred dollars a month to have someone working with you and helping you grow.

This might be the most important investment you make in your agency in 2020.


Start Today Tip – Take a good look at how you’re working to grow your agency. Do you have the right mix of ingredients? Are you missing any? What are you doing to add those missing ingredients? Sometimes adding a team member that balances your skill sets, like Yin and Yang, can be just enough to get you going in the right direction. Where are the places to get missing ingredients? Is it HubSpot? Is it other agency owners? Is it a CEO Mastermind Group or an Agency Group? Is it a mentor? The first step is identifying what’s missing and then working to make sure you complete the recipe. The sooner you do this, the faster you’ll grow. The longer you wait or the longer you operate with less than an optimal mix, the harder growth will be. You want this journey to be fun, easy, and rewarding. Make the moves now to ensure you have as easy a journey as possible.

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Topics: agency growth strategies, Agency Leadership

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