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The secret to growing a small agency

Tools to grow a small agency from Beyond Noise

Growing a small agency

Whilst my own experience was running a big business (£12M+ Turnover and 175 staff), as an agency coach I love working with people growing a small agency. Owners of smaller agencies are usually bright, driven and eager to learn. What’s more, they can make decisions and act fast. They don’t need to consult or engage other people. As a consequence, I can usually make a bigger difference, more quickly, to their business

Whilst small agency owners share some positive traits, they also make similar mistakes. Growing a small agency is hard. Each business is unique, but you can fall into the same traps or run down the same blind alleys. One of my roles as an agency coach is to help my clients avoid these. A mistake I often see is the fixation people have with the concept of working on the business not in the business. The mistake is not in embracing the idea itself, it’s the way people often misinterpret the concept. They also overlook a fundamental challenge they need to overcome first. Before you can work on the business, you first need to get to a position where you are running the agency (and not delivering the work).

The Emyth

The concept of working on the business not in the business is well known, but fewer people are aware of its origins. The idea was from Michael E. Gerber in his 1986 book The Emyth. Whilst the book is over 35 years old, the concept is the most famous of many ideas it promotes that still apply today. Working on the business i.e. spending time thinking about the future of the business growth and development of the agency, is a sound concept. But for people growing a small agency it’s difficult to achieve.

 

In The EMyth, or Entrepreneur Myth, Gerber claims it’s a fallacy that most businesses are started by entrepreneurs (people who go into business with a vision of a company they want to create that doesn’t rely on their own ability to produce results). I find this particularly true for agency owners.

The Practitioner's Curse

Most agencies are started by what I call “practitioners”. People who create a business so they can work for themselves. This is a very different mindset to the entrepreneur who creates a business to work for them. Practitioners assume that understanding the technical or creative output of their business means that they’ll be able to grow an agency around their skills. It’s an assumption that’s not true.

 

You may be a great graphic designer. You may have the technical skill to produce brilliant visual communication through type, photography, and illustration. But it doesn’t mean that you understand what it takes to build a graphic design business. Nor does it mean you will be great at managing other people doing graphic design for you. Neither does it guarantee you have the technical skills, or desire, to operate the finance, marketing and operational functions of an agency.

 

Gerber claims the Emyth is the primary cause of the failure rate of businesses. According to Fundsquire, 60% of businesses don’t make it past the first 3 years. Twenty-three per cent of these fail because they don’t have the right team running the business.

 

Agencies have an advantage over many types of startups. They don’t have a capital intensive business model and can operate with more agility than other types of businesses. I’m sure many agencies have failed for the reason Gerber suggests. I’m certain many more are trundling along with founders that have lost their passion, or aren’t enjoying work anymore. The “Practitioner’s Curse” as I call it is why people struggle growing a small agency into anything of significant size.

The key to growing a small agency...

If you are intent on growing your small agency into a larger business, you must do 3 things:

 

1. Change your mindset – If you’re in practitioner mode, you will never grow your agency. You must except that to grow your agency you need to grow yourself. You must do things differently. What got you to this point, will not get you to the next stage. You need to escape the Practitioner’s Curse.

 

2. Come off the tools – Before you can work on the business you must get to a position where you’re spending most of your time running the business. If you’re a practitioner you must first come off the tools. A friend of mine runs a construction business. He built it from the ground up. Years ago he worked for other people laying paving stones. Skilled and physically demanding work. He refers to his own progression, and those of the people he now employs as foremen to manage his teams, as coming “off the tools” i.e. managing not delivering the work. Many smaller agency owners overlook the difference between running the business and delivering the business. They exacerbate their situation by making the wrong hires. I know small agency founders who have hired operations and admin people whilst they themselves remain as the key point of delivery. They wonder why they can’t grow the agency, but they’ve created a business where they’re effectively working for the people they employ. They are on the tools themselves and are being fed more and more work creating a capacity and management nightmare. I know other agency owners who don’t want to come off the tools. They’re afraid that if they don’t design or code they’ll lose their technique or be passed in skill by others. They might be right, but if they don’t stop being a practitioner, they never start growing a small agency.

 

3. Work on the business – Once you are not delivering and running the agency, you can’t start to think about growing and developing it. Beware though, this is a transition. Many agency owners I meet try and change their role completely. They make the mistake of thinking that, overnight, they should delegate all operational tasks and focus solely on the future. This is foolish and almost impossible to do in a small people-based agency. As a founder you will have to find the time to do both. The key to devoting the time to thinking about the business and the future is prioritisation. You can’t always let operational work get in the way. This is where an agency coach or mentor can help you.

 

 

Are you working on your agency or in your agency? More importantly, are you working for the agency or is it working for you? Are you still trapped on the tools yourself? If so, your first job is to escape the Practitioner’s Curse.

If you want to grow your agency, you must spend time away from running the day to day. But you must first ensure you fill in behind you and make sure you’re not delivering the day to day. Don’t paint yourself into a corner where you remain the key point of delivery. Your priority must be to extract yourself from the delivery in favour of the running of the business, then move from running to managing the agency. Only then can you think about developing and growing it.

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Gareth Healey
Gareth is the founder of Beyond Noise. He has 25 years experience in the agency sector. A business coach and mentor, he works exclusively with ambitious owner-directors of established independent marketing agencies.
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Agency Leadership – 10 Lessons from 25 years Experience

Agency Leadership Featured Image

Agency leadership in challenging times

Thankfully we appear to have light at the end of the tunnel with regards to controlling the spread of COVID-19 here in the UK. The last 12 months have been a battle for all of us on so many levels. Running any type of business has been a huge challenge. Agencies have struggled, but unlike people in hospitality, at least we’ve been able to trade during the lockdowns (albeit in very challenging circumstances). The impact of Coronavirus has tested our agency leadership abilities to their limits.

Throughout the pandemic I’ve seen so many examples of agency owners stepping up and leading their business through the dark times. Not all have succeeded of course, but I know plenty of agencies that have not only survived but thrived. Regardless of their performance, all agency leaders have my admiration for the way they’ve stepped up.

Sadly, the tough times are not over. As yesterday’s budget illustrated, the post COVID-19 economy will take years to repair. It’s not politicians that will do this of course, it’s business people and their staff that will fuel the recovery. Many skills will be required to make it happen, but leadership will be paramount in getting agencies, and the country as a whole, back on its feet.

Agencies need leading more (not less)

Despite their increasing utilisation of technology, agencies are people businesses. The business model relies on the talent of its staff. The expertise and ability of its people is vital to the success of any agency.

Regardless of how talented they are individually, all successful groups of people need great leadership. Lack of effective leadership is one of the major reasons why agencies fail to achieve their potential.

Some people would have you believe that modern business with its digital technology, flat organisation structures, agile methodologies and the attitudes of the younger workforce, means that leadership is not as important as it once was. I fundamentally disagree. Leadership remains a critical success factor for any organisation. It will be paramount in surviving and thriving commercially in the years to come.

 

Leadership can be learned

Leadership is not for everyone of course. Many believe leaders are born not made. I certainly think that it helps if you have a natural aptitude and desire for leadership, but leadership skills can be developed over time if the desire and need exists. 

Some agency owners find they reach a ceiling when their business grows to a certain level. They started their agency for different reasons than to lead a group of people. Many never aspired to be the leader of an organisation at all. Success has forced them into that position.

Whilst natural talent is important, leadership skills can be learned. Expensive courses are not necessarily required for this to happen either. Experience counts for a lot, but I always think the catalyst for great leadership is self-awareness.

If you understand and appreciate your own strengths and weaknesses you can improve, compensate and utilise other people to support you in leading a business. Developing self-awareness as a leader will strengthen not only your individual performance but your agency performance as well. Self-awareness is a journey that doesn’t have a finish line. It’s an ongoing process of learning and adapting.

Top 10 Agency Leadership Lessons

In my 25 years of working in and leading agencies, I’ve certainly become more self-aware. I’ve also learnt a few things about leadership over the years (mostly from observing other people and their leadership qualities). I’ve taken my leadership lessons from all sorts of sources both inside and outside of agencies. I’ve even looked to people like Sir Alex Ferguson, who, as an ardent Manchester City fan I struggle to like, but can’t help but admire.

I’ve excelled at some aspects of leadership (and struggled with others). In a time when effective leadership is more important than ever, I’ve listed my Top 10 leadership lessons below. They’re in no particular order of importance, but they’re ALL important:

1 – BE CONSISTENT – Agency leaders are bright people who are full of ideas. This can mean they’re often flying around in all different directions. Unfortunately, this can lead to inconsistent working and decision-making. Consistency builds trust and trust in any leader is vital. Develop what I call a leadership rhythm. Weekly and monthly habits where your people can expect to hear, see or interact with you.

2 – REMAIN FOCUSED – Working “on” the business is important, but there’s a fine balance here. Don’t get bogged down in the detail, but don’t expect what you don’t inspect. Make it your business to periodically look under the bonnet of the agency to make sure you like what you see.

3 – RETAIN OWNERSHIP – The people that own the client relationships own the agency. Delegation and empowerment of the team are vital (as are contractual agreements), but don’t remove yourself too far from the client base that you become invisible. You never know when you might need to step back in.

4 – STAY ACCESSIBLE – Don’t distance yourself from your people. Even if you have an effective management team, don’t build barriers between yourself and the people in the agency. “Come to me with solutions not problems” is an overused phrase in my opinion. The day that people stop coming to you with their problems is the day you’re no longer an effective leader.

5 – COMMUNICATE (LIVE) – Always communicate in person whenever you can. Don’t hide behind email, Zoom or Slack. Technology cannot beat getting the agency all together in a room and speaking to them (when that’s possible of course). Do this regularly, even if it’s not in your comfort zone or something you enjoy.

6 – INSPIRE DON’T CLONE – Diversity in all its forms is a wonderful thing. Be clear on what attributes and personalities work best in your agency, but don’t try and recruit everybody in your own image. The values need to be more or less aligned, but not everybody needs to be the same type of personality. You’re amazing, but your way is not the ONLY way. Inspire don’t dictate the agenda.

7 – RESIST COMPLEXITY – Great leaders are great simplifiers. Your team will get frustrated with the added complexity of constant shifts in direction. They’ll thank you for making their lives simpler and easier.

8 – EMBRACE CHANGE – As your agency grows your leadership style must grow with it. Some tried and trusted methods and approaches must remain, but you must adapt. As your agency gets bigger and more complex, you can’t lead it in the same way you did when there was a handful of you sat around a few desks. 

9 – EXPECT LONELINESS – The responsibility of leadership is often hard to bear and a lonely occupation. Try and surround yourself with trusted partners or advisors to help share the burden and allow you to discuss your ideas and vent your frustrations in a safe space away from the wider team.

10 – ENJOY YOURSELF – Have fun. Don’t always try and run at breakneck speed or take it too seriously. Don’t always be chasing the next client or looking to the future. Relish what you have and enjoy the people and business you have around you.

What have you learned about agency leadership?

So there you have it, my Top 10 agency leadership lessons. It’s not an exhaustive list and I’m sure I’ll have missed some important factors.

If you can think of any glaring omissions, let me know at gareth.healey@beyond-noise.com. I’d love to hear about them.

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Gareth Healey
Gareth is the founder of Beyond Noise. He has 25 years experience in the agency sector. A business coach and mentor, he works exclusively with ambitious owner-directors of established independent marketing agencies.
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Agency Coaching – making and breaking habits

Agency coach Gareth Healey uses his experience running agencies to good effect with his agency coaching

Running habits...

Through the wonders of modern technology, I’ve been able to deliver my agency coaching throughout the recent lockdowns. In fact I’m pleased to say I’ve been busier than ever. 

When I’ve not been on the end of a Zoom call, I’ve tried to do my best to keep up with some form of exercise.  My local gym has been closed of course,  so this digital agency coach has become something of a runner.

I can’t say I like running. Those that know me well will know that I’m not exactly built for it. I do however, like the buzz and satisfaction you get after a run. I also appreciate the opportunity it gives me to clear my mind and focus on something very simple; just putting one foot in front of the other. I guess I’m not alone in gaining satisfaction from either of these things, but one aspect of my running does appear to be a little unusual. I like to run the same route every time I go out. 

My determination to stick to the same routine surprises and infuriates every other runner I know. My wife for one is incredulous that I don’t want more variety in my running repertoire. “I just don’t know how you run the same route day in day out!”, she says. Maybe it’s because I’m a creature of habit? Maybe it’s because I’m too focussed on just getting it over with?  

Whatever the reason, I’m guessing you’re asking yourself what this has to do with digital agency coaching and running agencies? Well, read on, I’ll try and pick up the pace a little.

Good habits...

As a digital agency coach, the people I work with people are not only marketing experts, they’re also entrepreneurs. There are many positive qualities of being an entrepreneur, but one thing that can hold them back is an over active mind. Like most business owners, agency founders are often excited and stimulated by new ideas and new thinking. This is drives them to take risks and innovate. It’s crucial to success. But this mindset also comes with drawbacks. I’m often forced to confront my clients with the fact that being a “magpie” and always looking for shiny new things, is not the key to running a successful digital agency.

The key to running a successful agency is not constantly coming up with new things and changing direction. It’s having a plan and executing it consistently. Setting a running route and putting in the miles day after day if you like. Running a set route keeps you on the right path. It keeps you focused and stops you getting distracted. Equally importantly, is putting in the miles day after day. It’s habit forming and brings consistency. It enables you to constantly learn and improve on what you do (and how you do it). 

Not everybody welcomes this news, but as James Clear puts it in his excellent book Atomic Habits, “The greatest threat to success is not failure…but boredom”.

Breaking habits...

A key part of my agency coaching then is helping my clients establish clear goals, plan a route and, crucially, help them to stay focused and on track. My task is to help them avoid the stresses and distractions of the day-to-day agency obstacle course and keep them focused on grinding out those daily miles and improving their technique and performance. 

Is this the end of the running cliches then? I’m afraid not. 

You see my lockdown running experience has taught me something new. Its taught me that developing good habits is important. Its taught me that having a goal and a route to achieve it is vital. But its also taught me that occasionally you need to break things up a little. You have to avoid stagnation.

During my running I’ve noticed that as happy as I am to run the same route day after day, after a period of time, rather than become easier, it starts to get harder. The daily route seems longer. The hills seem a little steeper than usual. 

I’m not sure what causes this, but I do know how to stop it. Whenever I start to feel like my running is becoming difficult, I make a change. Even running the same route the opposite way around a couple of times, helps to break the cycle and reinvigorate my tired muscles (and mind). I get even greater results from running a slightly different route and pushing myself a little further or higher. 

In short, I’ve learned that change is as good as a rest. After making a change, when you then get back on the tried and trusted path you feel stronger, both mentally and physically. 

Agency Coaching

Unfortunately, its not always possible to spot when you need to make a change. When you’re running for exercise its easy to spot when you’re feeling fatigued. When you’re running an agency, it’s not always as easy to identify when you’re stuck in a rut or have reached a plateau. Sometimes you need some help to spot the symptoms. Sometimes you need some encouragement to make that change. That’s where my agency coaching comes in.

My primary role is still to enable my clients to focus on an objective, develop a strategy and keep them accountable for delivering to a plan. This won’t change, even if it means encouraging and pushing them to do some of the dull and boring stuff exceptionally well week in week out.

My secondary role is to challenge them when the time is right. To not allow fatigue to set in and to help them switch gears now and again.

When people ask me what I do I usually say “agency coaching”. But you could say that I’m in the business of making – and breaking – habits for people that run agencies.

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Gareth Healey
Gareth is the founder of Beyond Noise. He has 25 years experience in the agency sector. A business coach and mentor, he works exclusively with ambitious owner-directors of established independent marketing agencies.
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What makes an effective agency NXD?

What is an agency NXD?

Agency NXD, Non-Executive Director, Non-Exec, NED. Whatever terminology they use, many agencies are now utilising the skills of an experienced person who is not directly involved in the running of the business but supports the directors in its development.

NXDs are not the sole preserve of the agency sector of course, far from it. The role of an NXD originated and is widely used in larger companies and in particular PLCs across sectors. Indeed, an independent director who oversees the executives’ management of the company is a key requirement for many organisations whose shares are publicly traded.

Historically, these NXDs were very experienced retired or semi-retired former executives. Increasingly, NXDs are now younger and either employed as an executive at another company, running their own business or even operating as a portfolio NXD.

There are many benefits to having an NXD. They are particularly highly prized in larger companies. Stakeholders can take comfort in the fact that there is one, or often several, NXDs monitoring and challenging the activity of the executive team. As NXDs are not full-time they are comparatively cheaper and can act as a sounding board for directors and a safety net for non-director shareholders.

The role of an NXD

The role of an NXD is to hold the executives to account for the delivery of the business objectives.

NXDs are focused on 2 areas; governance and growth. Whilst good governance is crucial to any organisation. In a smaller business, and in most independent agencies, it is the pursuit of growth that usually takes precedence.

Running any business can be exhilarating, fulfilling, challenging and frustrating. When you’re running an agency you can experience all these emotions in a single afternoon! 

Its a cliche of course but it can be lonely at the top of an organisation. As an agency principal, even if you’re not a sole director, it can feel like you have nobody to turn to for advice or counsel. Balancing the demands of your clients and your people can seem like an impossible task.

Having a supportive agency NXD who understands your challenges and has walked in your shoes can be of great asset to your business.

It is appreciated that NXDs cannot give the same continuous attention to the business of the agency. However, it is important that they show the same commitment to its success as their executive colleagues. 

The characteristics of a good NXD

NXDs are usually selected for their personal qualities, experience and specialist knowledge. Its vital that they not only possess wisdom, but are familiar with current trends and developments.

Some of the key characteristics of good NXDs are:

– Independence – it’s crucial an NXD has a strong relationship with their exec colleagues but retaining a level of independence is key. It not only provides objective scrutiny but enables the NXD to maintain a “helicopter view”. They must not get too close to the business so that they can’t see the bigger picture. This is usually why the directors need an NXD in the first place.

– Challenging but supportive – the NXD must be able to probe and challenge without creating conflict. They need to be constructive and diplomatic so they can ask difficult questions whilst offering support and guidance on problematic issues.  Mutual trust is vital.

– Courage and integrity – NXDs must have strong principles and the courage to stand up and say if they feel something is wrong or risky. Despite being engaged by the business, they require the courage to disagree.

· Great communication skills – they must be able to communicate complex ideas clearly and without being dictatorial. They should command respect but listen and absorb information as much as they talk and have input.

– Deep understanding of the business – whether they have industry experience or not, they need to quickly understand the products/services, the culture, the management team and the customer base. 

– Breadth of experience – we are faced with more operational issues than ever before. Reputation management, health and safety, ethics, social responsibility, risk and technology are all vital areas to observe when running a business. Companies need NXDs with specific knowledge and experience to frame discussions around these areas.


My own experience

We had a total of 6 people who operated as our agency NXD over the 15 years I was running my agency.  A number of our NXDs had agency experience, others had very little agency knowledge at all. At the time, this was a conscious decision on our part. We wanted to work with people who had different perspectives. This included other agency experience but also client-side and similar businesses operating in different sectors.

Looking back, I consider the people with agency experience to have been more effective as they hit the ground running and needed less context around some of the issues we discussed.

We chose to work with one NXD at a time, but we could have appointed more than one person.  In hindsight, I think this would have further supported and accelerated our growth. That said, we were in a fortunate position. Not every agency has the ability to invest in one agency NXD, never mind two or more.

The benefits of an agency NXD

In addition to the benefits to the agency outlined above, one of the key things myself and my business partners wanted from an agency NXD was personal growth. We recognised that even if you are not the sole director, leading an agency can still be a lonely role. It can also be a hard position from which to achieve progress in personal development. You’re often fire-fighting and switching your attention between interacting with clients and staff. It can leave little time or outlet for you to develop your own skills.

I’m a believer that you can learn something every day from anybody, but even if you are working with incredible people as I was, there is a massive benefit to bringing in external knowledge, experience and opinion. It’s not just about expanding the gene pool though. You can get very comfortable and familiar with your business partners and work colleagues. Too comfortable. Challenging them and yourself to improve your performance in the agency can become harder as time goes on. 

When we sat down in a board meeting it was hard for us to challenge each other if certain actions hadn’t been completed. We usually knew what had taken priority instead and invariably we ourselves were in a similar situation.

With an NXD in attendance, we knew that they wouldn’t be aware or concerned by the reasons why certain objectives hadn’t been met. We all raised our game when it came to these meetings as we knew an external person was attending and we wanted to ensure we continued to make a good impression on them.

Thinking back to the non-execs we used, whilst they all brought different perspectives, support and additional knowledge to the table, the real benefit for us as directors of an agency was the added accountability they instilled in the business.

This was the real value I got out of working with an agency NXD.

Do you need an agency NXD?

If you’re agency owner considering working with an NXD, I would ask yourself 3 questions:

1. Why do I need an agency NXD?

2. What benefits do I want them to bring to the agency?

3. What sort of person do I want to work with?

The reality is nobody needs an agency NXD. They need somebody to help the problems they are facing.

I see a lot of agency owners considering agency NXDs as a new business channel. Independent directors can bring a larger network into your agency and this can, in theory, bring new client opportunities. In reality, I’ve never seen this really bear fruit. If this is the primary reason to appointing an agency NXD then I would think about the position again.

No matter what level of experience you have, there is always an opportunity to learn from others. Whilst an agency NXD is likely to have more experience than you, even if they don’t, they will definitely have different experiences than you. That said, it’s vital you think through and articulate what value you want them to bring to your business. How will you – and they – measure their success?

As with all recruitment, nobody really wants additional headcount. You want the value that a person can bring, not the role itself. Good chemistry is crucial though. You must connect and enjoy working with the agency NXD as much as you do the other members of the senior team.

Gareth Healey
Gareth is the founder of Beyond Noise. He has 25 years experience in the agency sector. A business coach and mentor, he works exclusively with ambitious owner-directors of established independent marketing agencies.

Interview with Gareth Healey

Agency Coach Gareth Healey standing

Robin Williams of Data Hive recently did an interview with Gareth Healey. Here are some of the highlights:

What point in your career led you to do what you do now?

I’ve been involved in agencies for nearly 25 years. For 15 years I was CEO and joint equity partner of my own £12.5M agency.  I successfully exited that business in 2017. It was a tough decision as it was a great agency and naturally a big part of my life. I guess the main reason was a desire for change and to experience something different. I thought at one stage I would leave the agency sector for good, but I’ve found my passion for agency life still burns too brightly. I’m now helping other agency owners grow their businesses. The variety of work, people and being able to have a direct impact on my clients all make my current role very fulfilling.

What do you love most about the digital agency industry?

I started my career in below-the-line Sales Promotion agencies (the term has largely disappeared, think Sales Activation or Shopper agencies). Whilst I’ve always acknowledged the importance of brand building, it was the ability to quickly influence sales through marketing that first got me excited. Digital agencies remind me of the earlier part of my career which, despite the absence of technology, was more measurable and focused on ROI than other marketing disciplines.

In your own business development, what’s been the game changer for your success?

In both my agency and consultancy career, I’d say that focus has been my game changer. For a time we had a niche focus in my agency and I would say it was the period when we were most successful. When I started my consultancy I left the target audience undefined. This was a mistake. As soon as I clarified that I wanted to work with agencies, the opportunities opened up. People want to work with you because of your specific experience and expertise. 

What technology or product could you not live without for your business?

The short answer is a mobile phone of course. In terms of software and tech, as a former agency owner used to having a 40+ design person studio at my disposal, it took me a while to come to terms with being out on my own. I’ve found Canva a great tool for easily creating simple pieces of design for blogs etc. It also gives me some perspective, as it reminds me of the challenges that some designers and small agencies face from this sort of DIY solution. 

With hindsight, is there anything you’d go back and do differently for you own business growth?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. There’s many things I’d do differently. That said, I have few regrets. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.  One of the key things I would do more of us networking. I used to hate it but I’ve come to love it and its opened so many doors for me in my new venture.

So far, what’s been a highlight of your career?

The messages of support and gratitude I received when I exited my agency were quite overwhelming. I’m not somebody that likes to make a fuss, so I left the business in quite a low key way, but I’ll remember the kind words I received forever. Very humbling.

So far, what’s been a highlight of your career?

The messages of support and gratitude I received when I exited my agency were quite overwhelming. I’m not somebody that likes to make a fuss, so I left the business in quite a low key way, but I’ll remember the kind words I received forever. Very humbling.

What book are you reading at the moment, and why?

I’m not reading any books at the moment, I’m writing one(!) I love reading and learning from others, but there is an incredible power in writing to clarify and develop your own thoughts and ideas.   I learned this from a friend of mine, Daniel Priestley. He’s written 4 books. They’re all brilliant.

In your opinion, what needs to change most in the agency industry?

I think ambition needs to change. The game has changed. Most clients no longer need to engage agencies in the way that they used to. Those that do struggle to navigate their way through the vast options they have. I still see too many agencies thinking they can just take part. They need to have the ambition to be the best. It’s a very competitive sector and you need to have the desire to stand out and deliver for your clients. Winning new business is not good enough, you need to have the mindset that you’re going to create something so special, people will be queuing up to work with you.

Who do you look to in the industry as an example of someone who’s doing things right?

A friend of mine, David Gilroy, runs an agency in Bristol called Contagious. He helps law firms market their businesses. David and his team have great digital marketing expertise, but they also have massive credibility and expertise in the legal sector. A great example of how focus and a niche can give you the competitive edge.

What's the best piece of advice you could offer an agency starting out?

Don’t start an “agency”(!)  There are thousands of agencies in the UK. Start a business that has expertise that can solve the problems and grow the business of clients in a defined sector. If you want to call it an agency then fine, but it needs to be a solutions business. Think outputs not inputs.

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Grow Your Digital Agency

Gareth Healey speaking at the 2019 Grow Your Digital Agency Summit with Robert Craven

Grow Your Digital Agency Summit 23rd October 2019

I was asked by Robert Craven to open the inaugural Grow Your Digital Agency Initiative Summit. On 23rd October I joined close to 100 agency leaders and agency growth coaches, some of whom had flown in from as far afield as North America for a full day of presentations, debate and networking. 

The day was a massive success and surely will become the first of many Grow Your Digital Agency conferences. I look forward to the next one, but in the meantime, you can read a transcript of my speech below.

Good morning Grow Your Digital Agency!

I’d like to start by taking you on a quick trip back in time. Back 20 years to 1999…some of you may have been still at school or at least still in education. Mark Zuckerberg certainly was. He was a freshman in High School. He did have a website though, although Facebook was just a twinkle in his eye.

Meanwhile, in Yorkshire, I was starting a new job as an account handler at an agency in Leeds. Gratterpalm wasn’t a great name for an agency but it was an established design business with about 35 people. A family business, it was run by a very charismatic and successful chap, but it was very much his baby and everything started and stopped with him.

It was something of a surprise when just 3 years later he approached 3 of us about doing a management buyout so that he and his wife could take early retirement. Once we looked up what a management buy out was…it seemed like an opportunity too good to miss and we acquired the agency.

Over the following 15 years we grew the agency into one of the largest regional agencies in the country. We evolved into a large integrated agency, embracing broadcast media, digital and everything in between, We worked with some of the biggest brands in the UK – ASDA, Greggs, B&Q, Ladbrokes Coral, Pets at Home, DFS

Three partners became just the 2 of us and we achieved £12.5M Turnover with an EBIT north of £2M. We acquired a London digital agency giving us a headcount of 175 and putting us in the top 1.1% of businesses in the UK by employee numbers. Of course, like many GYDA members we were award-winning, but the award I was most proud of was the Investors in People Gold accreditation.

Despite being CEO and equity partner for 15 years, by 2017 I’d had my time with the business. I needed a change and a new challenge so I exited selling my shareholding to my business partner and I now work as an independent consultant and with Robert on the GYDA Initiative.

So what did I learn in 15 years of running an agency?

Of course, I learned a lot. We made plenty of mistakes but had our fair share of successes too. So to open the GYDA Summit, I’m going to briefly take you through the following:

Some things we AMAZINGLY well

Some things we could have done BETTER

A couple of things I RECOMMEND you do as GYDA agency

One thing you simply MUST do.

Things we did amazingly well…

We understood SIZE is not a strategy. We didn’t obsess about growth. We obsessed about doing a great job. Indeed for marketing agencies, especially in today’s market, it is the smaller agile specialists that are more geared up to thrive. Our growth was a consequence of our actions rather than our plans. We were 100% client-focused and got a kick out of making clients happy and delivering for them. Consequently, they tended to give us more and more work.

We built STRONG relationships. We hated losing clients. We were great at client retention and brilliant farmers (if you are familiar with the analogy of hunters winning clients and farmers developing them). We were certainly not harvesters, we took retaining clients VERY seriously and as a consequence had 3 or 4 clients with a relationship of 10 years or more. A project from a new client was only ever a foot in the door in our view. The long game was always to retain them and if possible land and expand into other areas or channels. We specifically targeted clients that need ongoing support and monthly of not weekly output. We created, if not always contractual monthly recurring revenue, certainly monthly relationship revenue. A client service ethos ran right through our organisation. We learned so much from our clients as well as gave them a lot. It’s for another time, but frankly, I’m worried that modern agencies don’t have the service ethos we did. I’ve witnessed levels of service or attitude to clients that I just wouldn’t find acceptable (although not from GYDA members I hasten to add!)

We nurtured our people and our CULTURE. Your clients can never be happier than your colleagues. People and talent are the lifeblood of every agency, and a good culture is obviously important to any business. They say 1/3 people you hire are great, 1/3 are OK, 1/3 are a disaster. We managed to disrupt those odds. When they did leave for whatever reason people always used to say it was the people that made the agency.

We embraced the NUMBERS. From Day 1 we had a firm grip on then finances and internal metrics. Maybe we had to as we’d done an MBO, mortgaged our houses ad loaned money from banks (yes GYDA you could do that back then!).

We focused on a NICHE market. We were specialists. When we bought the agency we quickly realised our niche was retail. Maybe it’s not a niche I would choose now with the High Street announcing retailers going to the wall every other week. As owners who were client-facing people we enjoyed the knowledge and authority we had in this area. We were seen as experts and this gave us confidence. We understood retailers, we knew their problems and how they liked to work, we were familiar with their terminology. We didn’t need someone to explain it to us. We onboarded clients far quicker and easier. We benefitted from referrals of course.

We GREW with the agency. We navigated the growth journey, learning and adapting as we went. My business partner and I transitioned from Account Handlers to Business Owners to CEO. It wasn’t always easy and we did make mistakes but we were willing to learn, retain the essence of our values but adapt our style and approach. We tried to grow as people and as leaders as the business grew. I can’t tell you what the secret was, but it was rooted in an acknowledgement that the same systems and process and thinking that helped you to survive, are not the same ones that help you to thrive. You can’t operate a business of 5, 15, 35 people in the same way you do 55 or 155.

We deployed and optimised a lot of PROCESSES. Consistency is a friend of growth. Complexity is an enemy. Repeatable processes helped us run a more efficient and predictable agency. We were transparent with the results and clear on the goals.

Things we could have done better…

So what would I reflect on what we could have done better, and what might I recommend you do to grow your digital agency?

We DIVERTED from our specialism. Focus scales, depth does not. We had a strong market niche in retail and had the focus to maintain it for a long while, but we succumbed to pressure to broader. Don’t do that GYDA members!

We didn’t evolve our CULTURE. Monitor the impact your culture has on your business model (beyond service). We had a great culture, but it was designed to deliver one outcome; no mistakes. We prided ourselves on accuracy and attention to detail. This made us a lot of money, but it limited our creativity.

We were poor HUNTERS. Marketing and sales are different things, both are your responsibility as the agency leader GYDA members. We entrusted our New Business to a succession of New Biz people. Sales is the last thing you should stop doing as an agency owner.

Things I recommend Grow Your Digital Agency Initiative members do…

These are some of the things I definitely recommend you do to grow your digital agency…

Have a Long-Term vision but a Short-Term activation. Making plans is great but executing plans is better.

Productise and Systemise. Scaling means serving many customers frequently. You can’t do this if you don’t have the right processes in place.

Create digital ASSETS and IP. Scale needs reach and a successful sale (of your agency) needs assets to maximise the value you receive.

Solve client problems and deliver VALUE. Don’t be a service business, be a solution business.

Enjoy the journey and enjoy the Grow Your Digital Agency Summit

“It’s not the destination its the journey” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Too many agency owners I know are focused too much on the destination. A sale or “value creation event”.

Don’t think about the end (the exit)…think about making the journey better.

Enjoy the journey, it really is the best part.

Thank you GYDA!

 

Gareth Healey
Gareth is the founder of Beyond Noise. He has 25 years experience in the agency sector. A business coach and mentor, he works exclusively with ambitious owner-directors of established independent marketing agencies.
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