Thrive on change (or 10 lessons in running a digital agency)


Our Director, Sue Keogh, shares her wisdom about what she’s learned in her ten years of running a digital marketing agency.

1: Get used to change

The industry changes. The people change. The clients change. The projects change! It’s up to you to define a thread that runs through this, what your constants are going to be.

I wrote a whole post on this when Sookio turned ten in June 2018, explaining how change is at the core of agency life, as opposed to when you work in-house for a large corporation where you might hear people exclaim, “But this is how we’ve always done things!”

Sookio 10th birthday

Round here, it’s not. If you’re in a digital agency, you have to get used to change. Not just that, you have to get a buzz from it.

I guess it’s about maintaining more of a freelance approach, where you expect things to be that little more ad hoc, that little less set in stone, and thriving on it.

2: Refine your proposition

What do you offer, and what don’t you offer?

This was a turning point for us as an agency. It took me a long time to shake off the freelance mindset where you never work down, which was the result of a jolly period in my life where I was clawing my way back from double redundancy and trying to keep my career going round the demands of a small baby.

However, you get some jobs where you know inside it’s not the right fit. You start to meet other talented professionals and you quietly think to yourself…they’d do the job better than me.

You start taking on staff and they say things like, “Hang on, why are we doing this again?” Particularly when the sales pipeline starts to look healthy and you are in the position of being able to turn work down.

All of a sudden you realise you have choices over the work you do.

So it was at this point that I started to define us as a digital marketing agency which specialised in content. Boom. Got it. We work in partnership with, say, web development agencies or PR folk who can deliver the stuff round the edges, while we focus on what goes in the middle.

Everyone is much happier with this, and it helps us win work because we can say confidently what we’re about.

With the new Sookio website, we refined this still further and centred it around three themes of Grow, Create and Learn. We went for the more SEO-friendly headings of Content, Strategy and Training in the navigation, but behind the scenes, this is how we view what we do. In turn, this helps us stay focused on playing to our strengths.

sookio homepage.jpg

3: Take advantage of your size

Be small and nimble and ready to adapt. Big ships turn slowly. You don’t.

So rather than worrying that you’re somehow inferior to the likes of Saatchi & Saatchi, see yourself as the nippy little scrum half who ducks past the lumbering meatheads on the pitch and sprints forward to score the try.

We’ve won work from larger agencies because they know they’ll get a more personal service, and that the person who they dealt with at the start of the contract will always be across the project to make sure the work is up to scratch.

We’ve also been able to go in and offer a completely fresh approach, using different tools or platforms. And often at a lower rate than the London digital marketing agency with their Shoreditch overheads.

So be small and a bit cheeky – it worked for Norman Wisdom.

4: Find shortcuts

Template everything! Think about the processes which you repeat again and again, and find ways of making sure you’re not duplicating effort.

So, for example, I found myself following up initial enquiries with a detailed proposal. Sometimes it would lead to a win, sometimes it wouldn’t.

Either way, doing it individually like this really soaks up your time and energy.

So instead I have a set of beautiful sales documents featuring typical pricing, which helps manage expectations about what we can deliver and what it will cost. If people are still interested, then I’ll put something together which is more tailored to what they need.

And I just love Gmail canned responses. Perfect for all those lovely people who email me each week asking to put their terrible content in our blog. Feck off!

5: Let tools take the load

So, pretty early on we moved from tracking potential leads in a spreadsheet to using Capsule CRM. Then if I get hit by a bus at least someone else can pick things up and keep the business running.

We use accounting software, a tool for tracking our time and booking holiday leave, and we love the simplicity of Trello for project management. See more of our favourites in our recent post the digital tools to help you win.

All these things save us time and help us be more efficient – and supports the idea of streamlining your processes. Don’t go crazy though or you’ll move to tools overload, which can get expensive!

So be prepared to switch things around every so often and make sure they really are supporting the team in their work and making your whole outfit more efficient.

6: Don’t hire in haste!

Having people on your team is what moves you from being a freelancer to an agency, so, sorry about this, but you’re going to have to learn sharpish about the hiring process. And, unfortunately, the firing process too…

…which is what led me to introduce more practical tests when taking people on. In every single interview I’ve been gunning for the person in front of me, willing them to be good, willing them to be the right fit.

But sometimes, you know that something is not right for some reason…but you need more confirmation of this from a neutral perspective. Practical tests are great at showing whether the person can genuinely do the job.

I also do phone interviews to screen candidates first; again, a good way of telling if they’ll be right for Sookio and saving time for both sides.

The temptation is to panic and hire very quickly as soon as you have a gap, so you can stop continue to deliver the work.

But it’s much better to pause and spend more time making sure you have the right person in front of you, as it can be so much more damaging to client relationships and team morale to take someone on who either isn’t competent or is simply the wrong fit.

7: Work out how much to charge

Easy. OK, it’s not. And I’m not saying I have all the answers either – ha! – you have to find the right way for you.

This could be by the hour. Or you’ll create package prices. You’ll also want to think about the basics, like your actual costs and what is needed to create a profitable business. And of course, it’s handy to know what everyone else is charging!

Someone once said to me that if no one ever questions your pricing, you’re not charging enough, which is a good point. Much better to have fewer clients who are paying a fair rate for your services than lots of people who are expecting a cut-price rate and will collectively use up a lot of time.

So expect to build in a little bit of flexibility in your pricing structure, and regular reviews for retainer contracts. This way you can make sure that you’re not just charging the right rates for the work – but continuing to deliver what is actually helpful for your clients too.

8: Be proactive in your communications

Not just responsive, otherwise you find that the only time you talk to clients is if there’s a problem.

Much better to build in time to develop the relationship so people feel they are being looked after. This way you can get ongoing feedback which helps you do an even better job for them and no one feels abandoned.

We also extend this to our own communications. We’re in digital marketing, so we love doing digital marketing. Which is why we’re very active on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, and really enjoy sharing the knowledge through the blog and in Facebook Lives.

The two go hand in hand; you can look at our external communications and get a feel for the Sookio team, coming away with the (correct) impression that we really do live and breathe this stuff.

9: Work out where to focus your time

This is really difficult, because you’re always on top of so many different strands, from the workload itself to HR issues, networking and business planning.

But you really do need to focus on bigger picture stuff – like winning new clients and growing the business – and not to get caught up with the nitty gritty of delivering the work. You have to trust your team and empower people to be able to get on and do their job. Otherwise all you’re doing is micromanaging and irritating the hell out of everyone.

A good time for me can be a Friday night or Sunday afternoon. Most sensible people are out doing something interesting with their time, which means it’s quiet and I can reflect or complete tasks uninterrupted, leaving me better placed to tackle the week ahead. Because taking time to reflect is as important as taking time to do.

10: Keep learning!

Don’t assume you know everything, because you really don’t.

I occasionally hear myself starting to say, “Yeah, so when I was at Yahoo we would…” but hang on, that was 2003.

Or how I first started doing work for the BBC in 1997, and I was working on that messageboard…woah, hold it right there, grandma! This is digital we’re talking about; things move fast.

So I listen to a lot of podcasts, I visit a lot of galleries, I follow interesting people on Twitter and read their posts, I go to great conferences like Camp Digital, I employ good people and listen to what they say. You need to keep things fresh. Because change is always just around the corner.

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