10 Lessons I’ve Learnt From Running a Digital Agency
I recently turned 28 which means I’ve been running the digital marketing agency I founded and now co-run just over five years ago.
Five years is a long time, and although it has flown by, I wanted to pause and reflect on this amazing phase of my life. I wanted to share some thoughts on what I’ve learnt along the way – the good, the bad, the challenges and lessons that have shaped my life since embarking on this journey.
So here are the 10 most valuable lessons I’ve learn from running a digital marketing agency.
1. You’ve got to love it.
Just starting out? Entering your next growth phase? Well, prepare yourself for long hours and a lot of hard work. My co-director Robin and I have put a huge amount of blood, sweat and tears in to get to where we are today. We believed in what we were doing, and we loved and embraced the fast-moving pace of the industry.
But we simply couldn’t have achieved what we have if we didn’t truly love what we do every day. We found out that if you want to do this, you have to be passionate about it. Digital marketing is super competitive. Clients expect big results and there’s the constant pressure of hundreds of agencies vying for their business.
The digital landscape has so many moving and intricate parts, and most change or die regularly. There are so many channels to think about and constant technology challenges to overcome.
The bottom line is, you’ve got to love being part of the industry, or you’ll get left behind.
2. Work with people that share your values.
Our business is all about people.
A few years ago, Robin and I had about five or six coaching sessions with a business consultant. The first thing he asked us when we met was *why* we did this and *what* mattered to us most.
These were really difficult questions for us — until that point we’d never stopped and thought about why we did this. We just did great work and enjoyed doing it.
I guess the purpose of the process was to extract our values, vision and mission for our business. After a lot of thinking we realised that, actually, our values were already imbedded into the foundation of our business, represented by our existing behaviours.
So we had a think and picked words that meant a lot to us:
People. Passion. Humility. Honesty. Dedication. Enthusiasm. Curiosity. Challenging. Agility. Respect. Fun.
Realising what we most valued instantly changed our hiring process and how we thought about ourselves as an agency. We knew we had to hire a team that we trusted to carry out our vision of what we wanted our agency to be. But we also knew that it wasn’t just about our own values — great teams have shared values.
Our team are the most important part of our business. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today and we wouldn’t have achieved the results we have for our clients.
Working with people that share what you value is fantastic. I highly recommend it.
3. Culture is important, nurture yours.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to go on a massive rant about the importance of company culture. You’ve probably heard it before anyway.
But I do want to stress how important it is to at least think about company culture, even if it’s just a guide for how your team make daily decisions.
For us, company culture is completely an internal thing. A set of principals that guide us in all that we do. Our culture shapes our business in more ways than we’ll probably ever realise.
All I know is, it’s working for us.
4. Encourage your team to take responsible risks.
No matter which segment of digital marketing your agency specialises in — SEO, PPC, email marketing, social media advertising, landing page design, conversion rate optimisation, content marketing, digital PR — it’s constantly changing and evolving.
The digital marketing industry moves fast and what worked yesterday won’t necessarily work tomorrow.
Self-development is a big part of our culture at Seed. We fundamentally believe that pushing yourself to take calculated risks and then learn from your mistakes is by far the best way to improve your knowledge and skillset.
I wholeheartedly believe that blame cultures are toxic for businesses. If you instil fear into your team by blaming them if things don’t work out (and things don’t always work out), they’ll be less motivated to push the boundaries and learn new things.
By all means your team members still need to be accountable for the results they do (or don’t) produce, but by allowing them the freedom to take calculated and blame-free risks, you will enable them to grow as marketers.
5. Know what works!
So allowing your team to take risks is fine and all, but when it comes down to the wire your agency still needs to produce results because if not, there’s a hundred other digital marketing agencies that’ll swoop in there.
You’ve got to strike a balance between experimenting for the *benefit* of your clients and not at their expense. Without a doubt the most important part of digital marketing is knowing is or isn’t working. I don’t mind the odd mistake so long as we learn from it — we’re only human after all.
Set up tests and measure your results. Have retrospective meetings after running a campaign to openly discuss what worked, or what could have been executed better. Where do things fall short? How can we fix those issues as a team?
6. Build and develop your processes.
To me, a great business (agency or otherwise) is a set of defined systems and tried and tested processes. Processes make your life easier. They keep your work consistent, they make your team more productive.
Tried and tested processes are vital to the development of a business.
But don’t rush creating your processes. Let them happen organically over time. Document them, intro them to your team and don’t be afraid to change, evolve and improve your processes as often as you like.
At Seed, we treat our processes as living and breathing documents, open for interpretation, feedback and change. Of course, every single project we work on is different and completely bespoke — but there will always be elements of our offering that we can re-use.
7. Build bullet-proof communication workflows with your clients.
Whether it’s ad-hock Slack messaging, email updates, weekly calls or monthly reports; communicating with your clients is key to the success of your campaigns and the ongoing relationship you have with them.
We do great work for our clients, but the incredible results we achieve for them is wasted if we don’t *tell* them about it. And no, I’m not talking about simply sending automated monthly reports — I find this kind of communication useless and more about ticking a box rather than actually helping your clients.
As an outsourced digital marketing agency we are essentially an extension of our client’s marketing team. That means we need an intimate knowledge of their business, customers and the marketing strategy.
Feedback loops are essential for success in any business. We need to know what effect our work is having on our client’s business just as much as they need to know ours.
8. Celebrate your wins, no matter how small.
Growing from a team of two to a team of ten in under two years has been an incredible and exhausting journey. Just like every other ambitious business we set ourselves goals and milestones, and just like so many business owners we are totally guilty of not celebrating or sometime even recognising when we achieve them.
We’ve learnt to share our vision with our team. They’re as much apart of our journey as we are, so we wanted them to feel involved and part of our cause.
Whether we’re hiring a new person, moving into a bigger office, winning a big client or simply doing great work for our existing clients; we now make a point of celebrating and recognising those wins, no matter how small.
9. Create open feedback loops and listen to your team.
Give your team a voice. Give them the opportunity to have their say. Keep feedback open and unfiltered.
Feedback needs to come from the ground up. Your team work with your clients every single day. They implement your processes, and they are the closest to your clients and the core of your product. They will have a different perspective of the barriers and issues within your business.
Giving your team a voice enables better all-round communication. They won’t be afraid to tell you when something is going badly wrong, or if you’ve made a bad decision. Nobody thrives in isolation.
10. Dedicate time to research and development.
Every month we spend bits of time dedicated to achieving two things:
- Improving our internal systems and ways of working together, or individually.
- Researching, creating and writing about new ideas or latest trends in digital marketing.
We do this because we’re aware that our processes are — and should always be — open to improvement and necessary change as we grow. We’re all about independent thinking, self-organisation and openness, so, we actively encourage our team to find better, smarter ways of working independently or together.
Ideally, we’d like to identify and then solve barriers within our business that we face every day.
If we’re not improving what we do, we’ll get left behind. We want to keep ourselves at the forefront of the industry, and to do that we need to spend focused time on researching, creating and developing new ideas.
So five years has come and gone. And with all the challenges of growing and running a digital marketing agency has brought us, we’re looking forward to the next five years!