How to Scale Your Digital Agency Team

Picture a race car pit crew. With mere seconds—as few as twelve—a six-person team can fuel up the car, clean the windshield and the radiator, change or put air in the tires. It works because the pit crew is seamless. There’s a strategy in place, and each individual in the crew knows how he or she fits into that plan. Each person has a specific role to play and performs it flawlessly.

And, if the pit crew is really good, a pit stop can even improve a driver’s chances of winning.

It’s the same with any elite sports team—and the same with a well-oiled digital agency team. The right combination of people working towards a unified goal can accomplish amazing things. The key is not only in how you build your team initially, but also in how you add new members with complementary skills and chemistry. To do that, you need a repeatable, scalable process that works.

I’m just back from attending Pubcon in Las Vegas, where I led a session on the topic of how to scale your digital agency. Here are some of the key points from my presentation to help you put together a stellar team and grow your agency.

The Changing Marketing Ecosystem

Thirty years ago, there weren’t that many different advertising platforms: direct mail, print, radio, billboards, and TV. With just a handful of strategies to focus on (and as many as 500 employees devoted to them), big marketing agencies of old could provide everything a client needed: one-stop shopping.

But today, there are a thousand different marketing tactics and arenas, with new opportunities arising on a daily basis. Digital has transformed not only the technology available to marketers, but the structure of marketing itself.

The new ecosystem of marketing places the client at the center of several specialized, boutique agencies. One client may access a separate PR agency, branding agency, creative agency, an SEO specialist, and much more—and all of these different agencies need to work together. Each agency in the mix has to consistently pull its weight.

Find Your Superpower

In an attempt to fit that old agency model, your agency may be offering so many services that it makes your head spin. And it may be working—to a point. Your sales are likely pretty good, but on the other hand, your percentage of growth in revenue YOY is probably suffering. Your overhead costs are high. You’re unable to truly master any of the services you provide. This model isn’t scalable (or even sustainable, for that matter).

No agency can offer everything to every client anymore. Rather than exhausting yourself and your staff trying to be a one-stop shop, specialize. Find your superpower: that core service that you can provide with excellence.

To find your core offering, you need to look at your agency’s skills and personality to see what you’re truly most competent at (and most interested in) doing. You also need to consider your audience and their needs. Identify your offerings, your target clientele, and your market as specifically as possible. Become comfortable with letting prospective clients know when your agency is not the best fit for them.

Adopt a New Approach

So how do you get from here—overextended and offering too much—to there—specializing your offerings and clientele? It takes a shift in approach.

Adapt to the Knowledge-Based Economy
In our new knowledge-based economy, only the smartest companies survive. To succeed, you’ll need to make the smartest choices you can.

Invest Where It Counts
Invest in resources, talent, and platforms that will help you meet your long-term goals. Don’t scrimp on what’s important.

Build the Right Toolbox
To scale your agency and client load, you need tools that save you time or money, or that make you look smart. Invest in the best, most effective tools you can afford.

Partner with Agencies that Play Well with Others
As you specialize, you’ll need to partner with other agencies with different specialties. Seek out partner agencies with the same philosophy and dedication to teamwork as yours.

Establish Defined Client Criteria
Set a minimum threshold for your clients, and ask for case studies to prove they meet these standards. A client relationship is a partnership; choose clients whose own growth will help you scale.

Don’t Try to Offer Everything
Focus on your strengths—your superpower—rather than spreading your staff and skills too thin by providing too many services.

Know How You Want to Grow

There are two main models of growth: a high-growth model, in which you push for fast growth to maximize valuation, and ultimately sell the agency; and a lifestyle model, in which you grow at a more moderate pace, allowing for work-life balance. Choose a growth model preference based on these priorities.

How to Scale

Your preferred growth model will inform your strategy as you scale your agency. Here’s how each model plays out in different facets of your organization, according to Karl Sakas, business consultant and coach for digital marketing agency owners.

Scaling Your Organization
Three crucial roles in your team are Account Manager (keeping clients happy), Project Manager (keeping projects progressing smoothly), and Subject Matter Expert (actually doing the work billed to clients). Keep in mind that, ideally, each employee will perform only one of these roles; otherwise, things fall through the cracks. Regardless of which model you’re following, hire new employees that fit into your existing team and for their contribution to your yearly or five-year goal.

Scaling Your Marketing and Sales
If you are on the high-growth plan, you’ll need team members dedicated specifically to self-marketing and sales. In a lifestyle plan, these roles can be more fluid, especially in the early days of your agency.

Scaling Your Team
Your team is the difference between being an agency owner versus being an individual marketing consultant. But once your team hits a certain size (about 20 members), add a level of middle management so not all of them are reporting directly to you. Always be on the lookout for the best talent to add to your team.

Scaling Your Services
Services ultimately fit into three “buckets”: strategy (with the client saying, “Tell me what to do”), implementation (“Do it for me”), and training (“Teach me how to do it”). The right lineup depends on your growth goals. In a high-growth model, you’ll need to offer all three types of services, and they should be tightly integrated for cross-sale. In a lifestyle model, you can get by offering only two of the three.

Scaling Your Time
Your priorities for time usage in either growth model should be long-term strategy, team management, project management, client service, and billable work. The next tier should focus on sales, self-marketing, recruiting, professional development, and admin. Put clients’ needs first.

Where to Focus Your Efforts

Remember that growth requires scalability and repeatability. Put systems into place to maximize both. Put your agency’s superpower (your core offering) and unique story at the core of your strategies. Choose team members, tools, partner agencies, and even clients that will help you reach your growth goals. And remember: none of this is easy.

Think of the pit crew: a team that works seamlessly to accomplish the incredible. That can be your team, too.