How to Grow an Agency

On Wednesday, I’ll be hosting one of MozCon’s birds-of-a-feather table discussions on the topic of growing an independent digital consulting agency. I hope that you’ll be able to join us! But for those who can’t make it, here are some of the tips I’ve learned from growing my own agency that I’ll be sharing with the table.

When I first started my marketing career, I worked in big business for nearly a decade. And during this time I saw a recurring issue for smaller brands. They knew they needed to have a digital presence and wanted to go online, but they didn’t know where to start. I saw this opportunity to help these sorts of companies create their digital footprint—and so I launched my own agency to meet that need.

Over the years, through trial and error (and a lot of hard work), I have learned what strategies really help a fledgling team grow into a robust agency. If you’re thinking about launching your own consulting agency, here is what you need to know to grow.

Identify Who Your Client Is—and Who They’re Not

Understand what kinds of clients you want to work with, and who will most benefit from your service. Attempting to position your company as “a full-service agency that works with everyone from small businesses owners to Fortune 500 clients” won’t get you very far. In reality, you can’t be everything to everyone. And potential clients know that, too.

Marketing juggernaut Seth Godin said it best, “You’re either a wandering generality or a meaningful specific.” Marketing—and particularly digital marketing, the constant evolution encompassing mobile, content, and social—is highly specialized. As an agency, you need to be a meaningful specific filling a niche. Find clients that are the best match for your agency’s skills and interests. If business owners, CMOs, and CEOs are unclear about what you do (or why), why would they call on you to solve their problem?

Identify your agency’s personality and your best-fit client as specifically as possible so that you can make the most effective partnerships with clients. Rather than trying to be the mythical one-size-fits-all agency mentioned above, you’d be better off describing your company as, for example, a “digital marketing agency working with clients $10M-$200M in revenue within the B2B space.”

Build Your Team

Understand your core services and then build your team around those services. We live in a knowledge-based economy, and in that environment, the companies, brands, and agencies built with the smartest people win. Hiring ten people with one hundred different skill sets—or ten people with ten different skill sets—isn’t an effective approach.

Instead, seek out complementary skills. Hire people who can support your own skill set but who also provide deep expertise in a specific area. Look for people who can do: people who can code, write, design, interpret and act on analytics. In a small agency every skill set counts. Make sure that you’re not duplicating some skills and neglecting other crucial ones. A successful agency needs at minimum a designer, developer, writer, analyst, project manager, and client manager.

Build Partnerships

The days of the 500-plus-employee agencies are over. As a boutique agency with a small staff and a niche role, you’ll need to reach out to partner agencies to accomplish your goals. If you’re a content marketing agency, you need to nurture relationships with development shops. You need partners to pitch with and to run accounts together.

Be an agency who plays well with other agencies, and seek out other agencies willing to do the same. In this type of partnership, each agency brings their own unique expertise to a client’s project, without territorialism. Collaboratively identify the problem you are solving, determine which agency will address which aspects of the client’s needs, then work together toward that common purpose.

I said it already, but it bares repeating: you can’t be all things to all clients. But at the same time, you do need to be able to serve as a client’s central resource for meeting their needs. Be the hub of the network that’s solving your client’s problems, and let them know they can rely on you as the touchpoint.

Be a Storyteller

Numbers, client lists, or a flashy website only go so far; what really hooks a client is a success story. Tell potential clients your stories of goals accomplished and problems solved.

Not only does telling stories highlight your great track record, it also proves to clients that you understand each case is unique. It shows that you can handle a client’s individual situation both with a critical thinking, problem-solving perspective and with a personalized touch. Let potential clients know that you understand and relate to them, and how that understanding will inform your work for them.

Invest in Better Tools

Invest in tools that either save you time, make you money, or make you look smart. You can’t hack your way to growing an agency through Excel invoices and free service CRM platforms—you need serious, effective tools to manage the kind of client growth and workload you are working toward. Invest in the right tools that will help you scale.

Know More Than the Other Guys

Keep educating yourself. As a marketer, and more importantly as the head of a digital marketing agency, you must be a lifelong learner. Your clients expect you to have a pulse on the industry, to be able to tell them what’s next and where they need to be. In order to grow, you need to keep up and know more than the competition.

Attend digital marketing conferences like MozCon, Pubcon, and State of Search. Create a playlist of podcasts and develop a Twitter feed for your industry to keep you up to date. I’ve set up a Twitter list called Everyday—my simple list of more than 20 experts that help me keep a pulse on my industry. I also have an “Everyday” feed in Feedly to help keep me focused.

I’m following my own advice this week by attending MozCon. Look for an upcoming post with more tips and takeaways from the conference very soon.