Featured | May 14, 2021

How to Run an Agency: 5 Lessons I’ve Learned Over the Last 13 Years

Liberty turned thirteen this week. The agency I started in my spare bedroom during The Great Recession is now a teenager.

Fortunately, this business will be less of a handful for its parent during adolescence than I was for mine. I say that with confidence, due to the quantity and quality of advice I’ve had over those 13 years, and the huge impact it’s had on how the business operates today. I work with some very talented and passionate people, both inside and outside the business. To those people I am very grateful, as they’ve provided me with an incredible amount of guidance, practical advice and bespoke coaching.

Now it’s my turn to pass that gesture forward.

Over the past few years, I have been approached by a number of agencies that sought my advice on how to grow. So, during the lockdowns of the past year, I’ve held dozens of free coaching sessions, attempting to guide these aspiring agency leaders away from the common pitfalls, towards the things that I’ve found make a huge difference. In these sessions the same few questions and topics resurface, so I thought it was worth writing them up for any other founders to get a jumpstart on things.

Here are some of the main recommendations that I regularly find myself making. Between them, they cover many of the big things any marketing agency needs to do in order to stand out, grow and operate in as painless a manner as possible.

(Whilst I keep mentioning “marketing agencies” throughout, I believe these topics to be pretty universal for any start-up or scale-up, regardless of the sector you operate in.)

#1 Stand for something

These days it’s not good enough to just offer services to businesses without a reason for doing so. The “Why” really matters, especially in agency world.

We’re now seeing lots of agencies appear with strong values, showcased front and centre on their website and creds decks. It makes it clear for all to see their reason for existing and it’s exciting to work with them. It also, very importantly, makes you feel better about giving them your marketing budget. The surge in agencies becoming B Corps recently proved that purpose is important.

Your drive doesn’t have to be about saving the world or fixing climate change, but your reason for existing should be significant and mean something to you, your target clients and your staff.

When I launched Liberty, I did so because I’d been burnt by agencies when working as an in-house digital marketing manager. I’d dealt with one that offered unethical, black-hat SEO techniques, one that plagiarised content and another that refused to tell me what they were doing with the time I was buying from them. These frustrating experiences led me to launch Liberty with the unwavering stance of being the ethical, transparent performance agency.

This positioning was hugely powerful. Back then the SEO and PPC world was the Wild West and buyers were very wary – I wasn’t the only marketer to deal with such unscrupulous rogues. So, by having this purpose and making sure that everything we did backed it up (we went as far as developing a project management system that clients could log in to, to see exactly what work was being delivered and by which team member), we cleaned up.

Most of the fast growth we saw in the early years was down to communicating not what we did, but why we existed and why that made us a better choice than the other agencies they were speaking to.

What’s your reason for being? Do you want to create the UK’s best workplace? Have you uncovered a certain problem that you aim to eradicate? When you decide, shout about it. People will remember it and they will respond. For further info, see Simon Sinek and his famous TED talk on this subject.

#2 Specialise

Differentiate. Have a USP. Don’t be a Jack of all Trades.

There is already a never-ending list of Full-Service agencies. And most of them are average at best. In my 20 years as a marketer, I’m yet to discover a one-stop-shop that can get even half the results that a good team of specialists can.

And this is why the specialist agencies have seen great growth in the past few years, especially in digital, where brands are seeking experts that can stay ahead of fast-paced changes. Of course, there are some companies that want to place all their business with one agency, so let them – you can never win them all. Most clients, however, will want a small group of experts that they can get to work well together and make real gains across those channels.

Can you specialise in a single service or a few that are very closely related? Or a sector? Or can your agency focus on solving a particular problem? Be great at just a couple of things and you’ll not have to worry about finding work.

The argument I often get here is that this alienates most of the businesses out there.

Isn’t it counter intuitive to focus on just a small part of the market if you’re looking to grow your business? Shouldn’t you offer as many services to as many businesses as possible?

The answer is a definite no.

By hunkering down and targeting a particular sector or becoming the expert in a certain channel, you blow most of the competition out of the water. So, even if there’s only a hundred companies in your new target client list, you are ten times more likely to win them than if you’re yet another generic supplier to the millions of businesses that go out speaking to a dozen agencies at a time.

If you don’t believe me then let me put my money where my mouth is. 6 months ago, we turned Liberty from a performance agency into a little group of performance agencies, the first addition of which is Foundation. This is an agency that only offers SEO and PPC based services to beauty brands. A niche within a niche.

The beauty sector is just 1.3% of the UK GDP. Common sense may say that it’s suicidal to say no to 98.7% of the customers you could serve and, on top of that, just offer that 1.3% a tiny part of the marketing mix. But by focusing just on this one area, Foundation is already winning bigger projects than Liberty, and it’s growing quicker, easier and with next to no marketing budget. If you take nothing else from this blog then take this – find a specialism and stick to it.

Be the best PR agency in the automotive sector, or the video production agency that specialises in sport, or the Shopify experts for health brands. Whatever it is, don’t be the next boring old integrated agency that has to compete with the masses. That’ll probably result in you competing on price, winning unsinspiring jobs and delivering average results. You don’t want that.

#3 Systemise everything

Business processes. These are dirty words for the average agency founder. Why interrupt all the fun and the sexy campaign creation with something as boring as structure?

I get it, I hate this stuff. Or to be more accurate, I hated this stuff. But in the last few years I’ve seen how vital it is and how it empowers everyone to play to their strengths, so now I obsess over it.

Figuring out who in your business is responsible for each thing and in what order, is the most important area to invest your time if you want to grow with as little stress as possible. Most business owners spend most of their days putting out fires, which holds them back from becoming what they can be, and what they want to be.

It’s also the only way that you, the founder/leader/MD/CEO/owner, will ever get to a happy place and can focus on the one or two things you are good at, which is usually promoting the business and dealing with the largest accounts.

This is where I recommend something called The Entrepreneurial Operating System. The EOS is currently going through the agency world like wild-fire and it’s helping many agency leaders systemise, streamline and improve all aspects of their businesses. EOS is just one framework for running a business, but it seems particularly well suited to marketing agencies.

It’s all about getting the right people in the right seats. Lining up the roles and responsibilities throughout the business, making sure everyone is working in-line with their core strengths – highlighting, managing and solving problems.

This isn’t an overnight fix. At Liberty we started putting this system in place over 3 years ago and whilst we are now 90% of the way there, we still have plenty of things to improve.

It’s worth noting that if you are under 10 people then this is probably overkill, but I still recommend getting to grips with it so you understand how it works and start influencing your decision making going forward. Then, you can make hires for roles and build processes and systems that can scale with you.

If EOS is too much right now, then start with the basics. Have a monthly board meeting, and in that meeting, list the big issues and the small issues. Delegate them to the best person to fix them, starting with the most vital. It’s surprising the number of agencies I speak to that don’t do this (not judging – it wasn’t until half a decade in that we had our first proper board meeting). For further reading, take a look at the EOS books. I’d start by reading Get A Grip, then Rocket Fuel, then Traction.

#4 Hire the right people

“A business is only as good as its people” as the saying goes, is as true for a marketing agency as it is any other operation.

You need to have a people first approach with solid cultural values if you want to attract and keep real talent. You need to figure out what motivates and empowers them, so they feel fulfilled in their roles. Your people need to know what is expected of them. Not just in terms of the work they do but how they should behave and interact with colleagues, clients and suppliers.

If you haven’t already, then it’s worth starting with your values. The fundamental things that matter the most to you. Your guiding principles that dictate who you are as an organisation and how you operate.

Here are our ones:

  • Results driven: our team are consistently detailed, challenging and ambitious to guarantee outstanding results for our clients, day in day out.
  • Team players: we provide reliable, consistent communication with colleagues, clients and partners and provide support, assistance, and encouragement to ensure that we are true team players.
  • Integrity: honesty, openness and respect are at our core, ensuring we approach all projects with full transparency.
  • Innovation: our specialist teams are constantly keeping track of upcoming trends and technologies to identify new opportunities to improve results and performance.
  • Committed: we are passionate about creating great work and take great pride in achieving fantastic results for our clients

These should then be used for all hiring and firing. If people don’t line up with these then don’t make them a part of your company. Our interview questions are written in a way that uncovers how people feel about these things and give us insight into whether they will work with these 5 values.

If a member of your team is not showing these values, then bring them up on it and put them back on track. If they continue to act against your core beliefs then move them out of the business. Being “slow to hire, quick to fire” (another great quote I’ve heard a few times) means you should take as long as is needed to find the right people. Interview them thoroughly, check their references, make sure they line up with your culture and on-board them in the best way you can. Anyone that doesn’t work out, replace them with the right person as soon as possible.

A final note on this is that it’s important when people do things that are great examples of your values, you celebrate it. At Liberty we do a Wins of the Week email each Friday (an idea that I borrowed from Google). This goes out to the entire agency and highlights all of the great things that have happened and where people have exuded our values.

#5 Build a network of peers to support you

Running any business can be a lonely job, especially if you are the sole founder. The sheer volume of issues to deal with, many of which are outside of your core strengths, can soon become overwhelming. But there are plenty of people who have already been through these issues and more, that are happy to help you figure it out.

One of my favourite things about the marketing agency world is the connectivity between businesses. We seem quite unique in this regard, I don’t know of another sector where leaders regularly speak at events, giving all of their secrets away to a room full of potential rivals. Our openness is incredible and if you aren’t already tapping into that, then come join in.

There are loads of industry groups already in existence. One of the biggest and most active ones for new and small/medium sized agencies is Agency Collective. They host loads of events, have a very active Slack channel and hold regular peer-to-peer sessions on a variety of topics. And it costs next to nothing.

Others we are a member of include BIMA, Agency Hackers, Polymensa and GYDA. Not a day goes by without someone from Liberty being involved in one of these sessions. Joining in on group discussions, hearing other peoples’ experiences and sharing thoughts on fixing agency problems is what they’re all about. Many of our issues are now resolved quickly and effectively thanks to being a part of these groups.

An added bonus is the more agency friends you make, the more sales enquiries you have. Liberty has always found most of its work through referrals from other agencies and consultants in the marketing world. If you build your network, get involved and even raise your profile by speaking at some of these events then it’ll pay off big time. Others will start to trust and respect you enough to tell their clients about you.

Bringing it all together

These are just 5 bits of advice, but they are 5 hugely important areas that make an enormous difference. Most baby agencies I chat to have maybe 1 or 2 of these in place but none have all 5. If you are able to start making inroads across the board here, then it will revolutionise your business and make everything a lot less stressful and a lot more fun.

Think about it from the eyes of your target buyer. If you have been referred to them by someone they trust, present yourself as an expert in their sector, in the services you offer. Make them aware you’re in business for the right reasons, have a passionate team all pulling in the same direction and have systems in place that mean working with you is smoother than other agencies. Then, why wouldn’t they buy from you? Why wouldn’t they stay with you for years, growing with you, telling their friends about you?

I wish I knew all of this 13 years ago.

The last team photo pre-pandemic, Christmas 2019.

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