33 Ad Agency Experts Reveal The Single Biggest Mistakes & Challenges Ad Agencies Face As They Scale
For new ad agencies, scaling the business is an inevitable and ongoing goal that many strive for, and for good reason– it allows the ad agency to increase its pool of talent, clients, and revenue. And while the process of scaling an ad agency business can be incredibly rewarding, it can also be equally challenging.
From changing management needs, maintaining quality of work, talent acquisition,
software and systems readiness, team culture, and others, the issues that ad agency executives face as they scale are complex and can vary drastically from agency to agency.
As a company that serves the needs of many ad agencies as they venture to scale, we wanted to know some advanced tips on how ad agencies can ensure they’re making the right decisions when it comes to scaling their business, and also how agencies can avoid the most common (and avoidable) scaling mistakes that impede efficient and profitable business growth. To do that, we asked 33 marketing and ad agency experts the following question:
What’s the single biggest mistake or challenge ad agencies make/ face as they scale
We’ve collected and compiled their expert advice into this comprehensive guide to help any ad agency scale their business more confidently and effectively. See what our experts said below:
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Ray White is a C-level exec with 30+ years of advertising and marketing experience. Ray is also author of “Connecting Happiness and Success”, which is due out for release in June. Learn more about Ray White’s work and book at ConnectingHappinessandSuccess.com.
The single biggest mistake ad agencies face as they scale is…
Keeping employees engaged, excited, and productive in what is becoming a virtual work place.
When the agency is small the leaders are able to touch, learn from and collaborate with each employee in person. The transfer of vision and information comes from the leaders and is communicated via interaction and observation. As the agency grows and employees or leaders are no longer in the office daily, this communication and collaboration has to be augmented digitally.
The leaders and employees have to use email, knowledge sharing platforms, social platforms, webinars, and video-conferences to communicate their messages. Often employees have to start sharing information with each other instead of waiting for the leaders to distribute the information. Employees want to understand their company’s purpose, collaborate with their peers and vendors, and understand their role in the work flow and results. Sometimes they won’t see the leaders in person for weeks, so they need other methods to understand and share information.
An ad agency’s only asset is the brains of its employees so we are in the business of managing brains not butts. To scale we have to build the digital infrastructure to keep those brains engaged, excited and productive, especially since we can’t always be there in person.
Angela Lawrence is the Managing Director of AcrobatAnt in Tulsa, OK. Angela has been working in the agency business for over 15 years, and has held various titles and responsibilities before becoming a partner at AcrobatAnt in 2008. Currently she oversees the financial and human resource functions of the agency while contributing to and leading multiple clients and initiatives. Learn more about AcrobatAnt at AcrobatAnt.com or our healthcare marketing niche at Healthcare.Acrobatant.com
The mistake that agencies often make is…
Hiring to fill a short term need, not a long term vision.
As an agency grows, it is easy to meet the short-term needs by hiring people to fill an empty seat. But taking a strategic approach to hiring and growth is where your agency can find success. Deciding what you want the outcome of various roles within the organization to be long-term helps to develop your business and maximize your team’s effectiveness.
Hiring for certain areas of expertise is why we hire, but letting a new employee live in a bubble of her expertise limits her professional development and the impact she can bring to the agency. Your agency is better off in the long run when it hires based on organizational fit and the individual’s willingness and ability to learn new skills. Providing cross training and continuing education opportunities to employees will allow your agency to be agile when client needs or agency needs change – the resources that are in place are ready and willing to tackle the next challenge.
One area that is pervasively problematic throughout the agency world is employee retention. Some of the reason high performing employees quit are:
- Perceived lack of career growth within the company
- Sense of disconnect between personal interests/work preferences and the personality of their manager or company culture
- Feeling of inequity around pay and promotion
Knowing these types of issues exist and addressing them to minimize turnover will provide an environment that encourages employees to last for a long time, because unhappy employees don’t make long-term employees.
Kevin Szypula is the owner of Driven Local, a digital ad agency located in Melville, on Long Island, NY. Driven Local is one of Inc.’s 500 Fastest Growing companies in both 2012 and 2013, and is also one of the few verified Google Partners.
The biggest mistake an agency can make as they scale is…
Incorrectly forecasting the required staff for the agency to operate.
For growing agencies, the question of which comes first, “the clients or the staff” is a challenging one. Labor costs are usually an agencies largest expense, have too many people… and your balance sheet will be painful. Having too few employees means the clients you bring on board may not get the experience they need. Compounding this precarious balancing act of hiring staff at just the right pace, is getting a proper size office… too big, or too small and the same negative effects of not properly staffing will kick in!
The bottom line is having too many, or too few employees is not only bad for your agency’s finances, it also affects the culture of your agency which may crumble as employees are spread too thin and worrying about their jobs (not good).
Diana is Co-Founder/Managing Partner and is head of Strategy at VSBrooks Advertising. She is passionate about the power of big, iconic ideas that have the power to transform client brands and businesses. Her commitment to the client¹s vision is evident in the millions of dollars of value VSBrooks has helped add to the balance sheets of their clients, and in the successful client/agency partnerships she has built and maintained over 15 years. Diana has trained in all marketing disciplines, and takes pride in having lead brand building teams at a regional, national and global level in categories that span Fortune 100 companies, healthcare, real estate, retail, education, non-profit, government and finance industries.
I think the biggest challenges an agency faces today in scaling is two things…
First- being nimble (flexible). Two things are happening simultaneously in our industry- consumer engagement is in constant flux and getting more fragmented with technology changes – digital vs. traditional- so the agency has to work especially hard in not just trying to keep up- but stay ahead of the game.
Secondly- marketing budgets continue to get leaner, and clients want “more for less.” So agencies need to really be more creative than ever in delivering value consistently, and identifying new revenue streams for their company.
The key is to not have “knee jerk” reactions to the changes- don’t staff up immediately thinking more bodies will fix the problem without looking at long-term financial projections and growth. Don’t go invest in the latest software, to quickly find out it will be obsolete in less than 6 months. Build a network of professionals around you that you can partner up with and take a more “project management” approach.
Be creative, be nimble, and take a deep breathe and think before you react to this brave new world of marketing.
Mike is the Director of Integrated Marketing of EZSolution, Inc., a marketing agency that helps businesses succeed and grow through website and computer technology solutions. Mike has more than 30 years of agency experience serving local, regional and national organizations. He has expertise in branding, developing integrated marketing strategies, and copywriting. Prior to joining EZSolution, Inc.,Mike owned and operated Rice & Rice, Ltd., a successful marketing communications firm for nearly 23 years.
The biggest mistake an agency can make as they scale is…
Not doing the proper research when making important decisions that affect the business operations.
Scaling helps to cost-effectively meet a projects needs, but you need to do it the right way. For example, for certain companies, it would make more financial sense to buy from a media buying company vs. having one in-house, such as if you are not constantly buying media for clients.
Or when getting freelancers to do work; you can take a look at their portfolio and think their work is so great, but then hire them for a project that they may not be specifically unique and qualified for. Find someone who specializes in what you need or you may end up getting inferior work, or it will take him or her longer to complete the project. Don’t leave anything open-ended with clients or outsourcers. Always know the budget, how much you can spend to make money for managing the project, and an estimate of how long it will take to get done at what cost. Not finding out this information could lead to a loss of revenue if the project takes longer and costs more than expected.
Andrew Garberson is the SEO Lead at LunaMetrics, a Google Analytics Certified Partner and search marketing consultancy in Pittsburgh, PA.
One of the largest challenges (and occasional mistakes) we face as our agency grows is…
Management level of touch.
The department leads, some of whom have seen their teams double or triple in size, are no longer able to be as involved in client projects. It’s a natural part of the growth process, but we joined the agency world because we like working with clients. Now that passion must be reinvested in new ways, like fostering company creativity and nurturing young professionals.
Josh Meah is Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer at JackMyRep.com, the leading reputation management and marketing solution for physicians. He has expertise in building digital marketing and public relations campaigns for medical practices as well as luxury consumer and ecommerce brands.
I’d say by observation and experience the single greatest barrier to scaling a marketing or ad agency is…
The chief executive’s ego.
Typically, the CEO/owner is a talented marketer and when the agency is small is able to apply his or her unique perspective to all the work produced. Sure, the work is great, but the executive has way too much control for the organization to scale and doesn’t want to give it up; however, to scale effectively the executive will need to pull back the reigns on involvement with the actual work and take on the role of a full-time business person.
That means more P&Ls, personnel management, systems creation, etc. These are very, very different roles requiring different skill sets. Further, the executive may have developed talent in the first area, and it will take real swallowing of pride to accept the inevitable challenges/failures that come with the second.
Shmuli Rosenberg is a marketing professional with years of experience as an in house executive at Kars 4 Kids where he supervised a team of 14 professionals ranging form graphics and web designers to video producer and strategic marketers. Shmuli recently left in order to launch his own agency fwd/NYC.
Based on my personal experiences as I am scaling my own ad agency business, the challenges and mistakes ad agencies might face as they scale are…
1. Hiring too many people
Having been used to having a large team, it is now impractical to hire that many people. As such I need to hire talent that is more well-rounded whom I hope will occupy senior positions in my company later on. However, I don’t really have the budget for very experienced talent at this time. This has led me to relay on freelancers.
2. Depending too heavily on freelancers
Using freelancers is great, but they are not vested in keeping your clients happy the way you or your employees are. They are also not always available on a whim to brainstorm.
3. Lack of resources
I miss having the resources of a company. I am now my own HR, IT, Maintenance, Bookeeping and Cusomter Service departments. So, besides creative work, I am busy with all the paperwork needed to build a company.
4. Balancing marketing themselves vs. marketing their clients
It is very easy to forget that a marketing firm needs to use it’s creative resources to branding itself and building its own business. Being active on social media and building a following is crucial to being able to scale an agency.
Emily Griebel is the Director of Accounts at Esparza Advertising, and she drives the development and implementation of their clients’ brand strategies, manages the account team, and helps cultivate new business. A marketing strategist since 1997, Emily honed her skills at leading marketing firms working with a variety of great brands. She also ran her own consulting business and write monthly for the “Beyond Madison Avenue” column on Talent Zoo.
In my opinion, the single biggest challenge an ad agency faces as it scales is…
Hiring the wrong people.
Meaning, the agency brings on people with personalities that don’t fit well within the existing agency culture or skill sets that don’t complement or enhance existing skill sets. What often leads to a marketing firm’s success is having a well-constructed team that has great chemistry. As the firm grows, it’s crucial to find employees that understand and appreciate the need for collaboration and respect in order to be fruitful in its efforts. Also, filling holes that may exist in the agency’s existing service offering is also important. A successful ad agency runs like a clock where all of the cogs are turning in the right direction, and at the appropriate speed to keep the instrument running efficiently and effectively. Adding ill-fitting cogs could mean the ad agency’s demise.
Simon Hilton is Head of Projects and Solutions at Mobile Embrace, an integrated mobile digital communications company that allows major brands to reach, engage and embrace customers via mobiles and tablets. Simon thrives on helping customers and technology teams produce results that measurably improve client revenue.
The biggest mistake an agency can make as they scale up is…
Overlooking the margin, in favor of closing the deal.
Advertising and digital in particular is a fast moving business. As such, there can be so much focus on closing deals that we don’t take a look at whether the deal serves our need for strategic growth. Early on in a company’s life, revenue is all that matters and as such we will look to close deals no matter what to keep revenue climbing. There will come a point though when every company will need to move towards maintaining a margin on each deal. This can be a huge cultural shift that requires changes in business, culture, and reporting mechanisms to create a business that actually makes money.
Jennifer Barbee owns a digital consulting firm out of Texas, www.jenniferbarbee. She is the 2013 Stevie Silver Female Entrepreneur of the Year: Advertising, Media, PR.
When it comes to challenges an agency may face as they scale up, what I find is that…
Many agencies face and fail at changing business practices in high tech world. Billable hours and proprietary software don’t cut it in an open-source knowledge-sharing contemporary market practice. In order to succeed, agencies have to make a concerted effort into learning and taking advantage of current technology.
Kent Lewis is President & Founder of Anvil Media, an integrated marketing agency specializing in search, social and analytics. He has been named one of Hero’s Top 25 Most Influential PPC Experts, AMA Marketer of the Year and Top 40 Under 40 by Portland Business Journal. He is a regular contributor to iMedia Connection, is currently an adjunct professor at Portland State University and co-hosts a weekly internet radio show, Dads Unplugged.
The single biggest challenge in scaling an agency is…
Hiring, retaining and growing the right talent, especially out of the gate.
Most commonly, the founders of an early-stage agency are disciplinarians-turned-business-owners. They do not have the tools or experience to manage operational aspects of the business. Founders also tend to hire creative people they know or trust initially, who may not be able to grow with the company.
The most critical early hire is an operations manager/executive. This person will ensure the back-office is kept in order: vendors, tools, process, invoicing, HR, etc. As the agency scales, they should be aware of employees that are no longer a fit for the current or future stages of the organization and replace them before they become toxic. This may include other co-founders or partners.
Three months into one of my digital agency startups, we realized that one of the three co-founders was not a good fit and bought him out. It was the right thing to do, but it did impact the friendship for years afterwards. In another startup I created, it took the departure of my critical VP of Sales and a relatively large looming financial loss for the year to realize there were major issues that required my attention. I retooled the team and was able to guide the agency from negative net revenue the first year to over $1M in four years.
Overall, I’ve noticed the maxim of ‘hire slow fire quick’ has held true in growing an agency and we’ve been improving the team’s performance managing to it.
Olivia Scott is the the Founder & Principal Consultant of Omerge Alliances, an integrated marketing consultancy dedicated to beauty & entertainment brand strategy & building. Olivia is also an adjunct instructor at NYU in marketing. Omerge Alliances’ clients have included Leo Burnett, DDB, Ogilvy Action, Frankel & Draft Worldwide.
The single biggest mistake/challenge marketing & ad agencies make/face as they scale is…
Every agency has a core competency in which they start out offering the world.
As agencies deliver on their clients’ goals, they build trust with their clients, and clients increase their spending levels with the agencies (which is great).
However, as the broader assignments filter into the agency, often times agencies eagerly and understandably accept the projects, yet without full competency or a plan to offer full competency in the areas of the new assignment.
So, as the assignments scale, the agencies scale, but the agencies do not make the adequate investments in the employees to offer that expertise. As agencies grow, they should invest in the intellectual capital in their new divisions to offer true expertise across a variety of service offerings.
Scott Yates is Founder and CEO of inbound marketing company, BlogMutt. Prior to founding his company, Scott has also been in charge of managing business operations at MyTrafficNews, a company that sold to Traffic.com in 2006, and then at LegislativeDatabase. Before starting his startup life, Scott was an award-winning writer in New York and Colorado, so he has a special connection with the needs and peculiarities of writers.
In my experiences, the single biggest mistake or challenge marketing & ad agencies make/face as they scale is…
They neglect the blog.
Every other aspect of marketing and of running a business has something that helps it call out for attention. Clients call, your adwords account sends you emails, your social networks buzz all day long. Your blog, meanwhile, just sits there quietly.
But getting good blog posts done regularly is so important for search, for engaging potential customers, for staying relevant.
So make sure your clients blog regularly, and make sure you do, too.
Daryl Travis is the CEO of Chicago-based emotional research and strategy firm, Brandtrust, and is the author of How Does It Make You Feel? Why Emotion Wins the Battle of Brands.
The biggest mistake ad agencies make as they scale is…
They can neglect to invest in deep and thorough account planning to truly understand how their client’s customers feel about the category and the brand. They tend to rely too much on intuition and opinion and not enough on actual insight.
Michael Westafer the CEO of Roger West Creative & Code, a digital marketing agency in Tampa, Florida. As the link between marketing effectiveness and innovative technology, clients look to Mike and his team for sophisticated creative, unsurpassed expertise, lasting ROI and the ability to deeply integrate custom technologies in to everyday marketing processes.
I would say that the biggest challenge facing marketing and ad agencies as they attempt to scale is…
Building a team.
You are only as good as your people – so finding, hiring and keeping talent is critical to your success as an agency. Unfortunately, it’s also the most difficult. It has taken me years to build the stable, talented team that I have now. And it was not always easy.
At Roger West, we started small with only a handful of people, and within two and a half years we were growing fast. It was exciting. We were busy bringing on new clients and taking on bigger and better projects. I needed to find and hire people fast – and within a short period of time we quickly tripled the size of our company.
Finding the right talent was difficult. Overall, I found great people, but I didn’t always hire for the right roles. For example, sometimes I hired a junior traffic manager, when what I really needed was a senior-level account manager. Other times I hired someone with really impressive skills, but they didn’t fit within our company culture.
Now, we’ve got the right mix of talent, skills and creativity, and we work well together. And even though we’re smaller than before, we are able to get a lot more accomplished. Plus, we are much more profitable.
The key to our success has been getting the right players on our team.
Luke Rees is the Online PR Executive at AccuraCast – a digital marketing agency based in London.
One of the main mistakes small agencies make as they grow is…
Getting rid of their old clients to make way for those with a larger budget.
Balancing old and new business is always tricky, but for a small agency it is especially important not to burn bridges with established clients.
Between 2004 and 2008 a number of small agencies grew very quickly and shed clients because the clients’ budgets could no longer keep up with the size of the agency. These were SMEs who had helped these very agencies make it off the ground and whose loyalty was shunned, which went on to create a negative impression of the agency. Today such small businesses could easily take to social media and deride the reputation of the agency.
Farhad Divecha, our managing director, makes sure that we don’t cast aside clients as we continue to grow, and we give them a cost-effective service in return for their loyalty. Having small clients who view us in a positive way is incredibly valuable to us, as their testimonials help to grow our business through word of mouth
Julia Guzunova is the Vice President, ComboApp. Since the nascent beginnings of the iOS App Store and Google Play, Julia has worked in the mobile industry. With seven years of deep, progressive marketing experience in both the mobile and enterprise software industries, she leads the ComboApp communications teams in executing innovative marketing, traffic generation and public relations solutions for an array of mobile focused clients. Julia’s specialties include implementing global digital marketing strategies, B2B/B2C mobile marketing, strategy and results driven marketing campaign optimization.
One of the biggest challenges ad agencies make/face as they scale is…
Consistently meeting and exceeding the expectations of the client.
This is particularly so in my own companies’ niche: If you consider that the current trend in the mobile market is to generate products that are free for download, with in-app purchases/upgrades (ie: freemium), this makes scaling especially difficult.
App owners (our main clients) usually have a budget for the promotion of their product, but have never tested it on actual users and have no idea about the analytics of their target user’s social/mobile behavior. The expectation is that if they allocate “1 mln $$” that their product will return them “2 mln $$” in profit.
Unfortunately, mobile marketing doesn’t work with such precision – which at times makes it very hard to provide the expected (sometimes, unspoken) ROI. A marketing agency is a liaison between the potential customer and the product. What we can do is help the app owner understand their potential user, spread the word about their product and help them make the product more user friendly… but, we cannot guarantee real monetary return.
This makes it essential that before commencing work on an account that comm professionals help their clients to clearly define their expectations and measures of success. This involves communicating messaging that addresses the question “what can marketing do and what can marketing NOT do for my product?” and managing the client’s expectations of success so they reasonably reflect what is actually possible.
One of the biggest mistakes agencies make in the quest to acquire clients is making “pie in the sky” promises on which they cannot actually hope to execute. This might initially land a client, but when the team cannot deliver on what has been promised, the client will quickly head out the door to an agency which is honest about what is possible via a marketing campaign. (Even if that means that agency helps them to adjust their expectations/perception of what success looks like.)
Scott Burke is the Director of Business Development at Mortar, and has over a decade of marketing experience with various companies such as Vision Australia, KRBG, and IBM.
The biggest mistake an agency can make as they scale up…
Really all depends on their client mix. If you have retained AOR relationships, you can hire against guaranteed revenue over X period. If you have an influx of project-based business, that drops quickly, you don’t have the time to find permanent hires to fulfill that need. You do have access to freelance talent, which costs more. So it’s easy to scale up and have revenues exceed 200%+ growth, but your margins will disproportionately decrease unless you have the lead-time to hire against new projects/clients.
Lisa Bodine is the Co-Owner and President of Giant Voices, Inc, where she spearheads business growth and dissects business issues with incisive strategic insight honed by 20 years of experience with Fortune 500 companies and organizations in the healthcare, information technology, manufacturing and nonprofit sectors. Bodine’s experience spans sales, marketing, operational analysis, business development, board steerage and legislative affairs. She harnesses her formidable skills and fierce competitive instincts to solve Giant clients’ sales, logistical, legislative and other challenges on time and on budget while also growing revenue.
In my experience as co-owner and president of a rapidly growing marketing firm, the single biggest mistake a firm can make relates to growth and investment and specifically…
Investing in human or operational resources too soon, not enough, or not responsibly as you work to scale the organization.
Those are all subjective, of course. Investing too soon could mean increasing your financial obligations to a level that makes you unacceptably vulnerable to typical income fluctuations. Not investing enough could mean you lack the capacity to take on more work – or, worse, being underprepared to deliver on volume and consequently missing deadlines or delivering work that may not be as high-quality.
According to who and where you are in your growth process, deciding how to leverage investment in people or “products” will also vary. Using our agency, Giant Voices, as an example, we’ve made significant investments in staffing – to the tune of seven new people in the past 12 months – to keep pace with client growth and increase our capacities in specialty areas.
Today we are faced with a significant space challenge. We are preparing to invest in a remodel of our existing space. Remodeling will require temporary accommodations, undoubtedly impacting productivity, and will demand substantial non-billable time for moving and reorganization. In addition, there will be capital expenses that must be incurred. Will having a new desk help the team be more productive? Not sure what the return on investment of a desk is these days, but despite the cost, inconvenience and
productivity impacts, we expect it to pay off in the long term.
That’s another potential pitfall of investing: You have to account for all the impacts. For instance, it takes time to onboard a new person; they will not be as productive initially as they get to know your clients.
Investing can be your best move or your worst – you have to be smart about it or it can actually hamstring your growth.
Daniel Knapp is the the CEO and Co-founder of LEAP.
The biggest challenge ad agencies make when trying to scale is…
Maintaining the company’s original vision.
When we first had the opportunity to scale from a very small, niche shop (15 people) to a larger digital agency (65 people), our mistake was in losing our vision and abdicating our purpose. We became so focused on the two clients allowing us to scale that our vision got clouded and our purpose became serving these large clients.
While financially successful, the journey felt wrong at almost every step. Work got done, but it lacked passion. Employees were paid well, but not happy. Management hit their targets, but with no united goal. It was a phantom success…the trappings were there, yet something was clearly missing. It wasn’t until we had the benefit of hindsight and of a loss of these clients who overtook our purpose that we finally stood back and analyzed the challenge.
That was almost five years ago, and I’m proud to say we haven’t lost sight of our vision nor outsourced our purpose since…and not only does it feel better, we are immensely stronger as an agency, have the respect of our clients, and excitement and energy of a team who knows where they are going and why. It’s not to say that “vision” and “purpose” are magical potions that create success. However, I would propose that no agency can be successful in scaling its operation unless it holds true to these core tenants.
If you think it’s difficult getting 10 people corralled, focused on a destination, and committed to the reasons for getting there…try getting 100 people to move in any direction when everyone is unsure of the destination and most have forgotten why they are on the journey to begin with.
Katie Foley is the Director of Client Relations at lotus823, and is currently responsible for managing lotus823’s integrated marketing initiatives for the agency’s lifestyle, tech and consumer electronic, luxury and music industry clients. Katie has an excellent track record landing significant placements in print and broadcast media including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, the TODAY Show, TWICE, Wired, Popular Science as well as crafting award-winning entries for industry awards including VARBusiness’ “Most Powerful Women in the Channel,” Modern Healthcare’s “Top 25 Women in Healthcare,” and PRSA’s Silver Anvil Award. Prior to joining lotus823, Katie served as an Account Executive at Coyne Public Relations where she developed integrated marketing campaigns for top consumer brands in the food and beverage industry, including General Mills, Hershey, and Lawry’s, and healthcare companies like Humana Inc. and Siemens Medical Solutions.
Based on my experience, the biggest challenge ad agencies make when trying to scale is…
Staying true to their roots and what made them strong enough to grow in the first place.
When you’re a new agency, your small size works to your advantage since you are able to utilize most, if not all of your team for every client which not only results in successful strategy, but also a first class experience for your client.
As agencies grow, they work on putting processes and procedure in place to ensure that all team members work to their expectations. This can often have the reverse effect and turn your agency into an assembly line. Once you move away from being strategists and scale based on checking off the tasks in front of you, your campaigns and the client experience will suffer.
At the end of the day, you should always stay focused on the client experience because they are your legacy and will make or break your growing agency.
Gabriel Shaoolian is a digital trends expert and CEO and founder of Blue Fountain Media, a digital agency in NYC focused on growing brands online through effective websites and online marketing. From start-ups to Fortune 1000s, Blue Fountain Media helps generate more leads and increased brand recognition Last year alone, the company, which has a client roster that includes Procter & Gamble, Harper Collins, Canon, NFL, Publishers Clearing House, Sharp, AOL and the United Nations, drove more than 200 million monthly visitors and $2 billion in revenue to the digital properties of its clients.
Any service company that scales faces two major challenges…
1. Having a repeatable process in place to ensure all services are done in the same manner to the same quality level
2. Sharing of information and knowledge
When a company is small, everyone on the team knows what is going on and the founder or CEO can personally monitor performance and output.
As a company grows, ensuring the level of quality is maintained becomes a very tough challenge to meet and it takes time to perfect this.
When I had 12 people on my team, we all knew what was going on, and what the other person on the team did to get the client great results. Now that we’re surpassing 200 people, it’s becoming a tougher challenge to share success stories or tactics that work on a particular campaign. But the key is to keep trying and be persistent to make knowledge sharing a key part of a company’s culture.
Sandra Rea is a professional writer and marketing consultant for more than 20 years, and the Founder of Master Marketing & PR in Orange County, CA, an agency that serve the needs of the small- to mid-size business owner. Sandra also co-founded sister company Full Circle Media & Author Promotions with two office locations to serve the needs of authors in the U.S. and U.K. Sandra is a published author with four books under her belt and two soon to be released.
A marketing or ad agency faces some of the same challenges any business faces as it scales…
For one, keeping up with technology is critical.
I’ve seen other marketing companies fall by the wayside because they refused to embrace new ways of getting jobs done. They did it one way for a long time and it worked, so they decide not to put money into funding necessary technology upgrades. As a result, their employees are forced to continue to use outdated equipment, which actually adds time and hassle to their plates.
If you as the marketing company doesn’t embrace new technologies, for example, apps and automation systems…how can you expect your clients to buy into the idea of using new technologies that will make their businesses run more efficiently?
We use virtual teams, apps and automated systems in some of what we do. In other areas, we keep it to the basics because all the bells and whistles aren’t necessary. Some of what we do is hands-on, in the trenches, eye-to-eye-with-the-public sort of outreach. That is the PR side of the fence. That said, automation plays into getting the messages out for our clients.
Brett Schklar is CEO of Market Creation Group: A full-service B2B Technology Marketing firm in Denver, CO.
The biggest mistake marketing and ad agencies make when thinking about scale is…
Assuming that they can scale.
In many cases, finding scalability in a people-centric business model is like finding a Sasquatch…everyone says it exists, but no one has seen it.
While there are elements of a business that can scale, the reason agencies take on more clients and keep the love alive with their current clients is because of creative excellence and execution…not efficiency in a business model. When agencies try to find too much scale in their business, they find a disconnect from client expectations and delivery. There are solutions to drive effectiveness in larger organizations, such as leveraging pod-based creative programs.
Infrastructure, on the other hand, is easy. Using cloud-based applications, there is very little that interferes with scaling up a company.
Robyn Kahn Federman
Robyn Kahn Federman is the Director of Marketing and Communications at Catalyst, Inc., and has developed marketing communications, social media, advertising, promotion, and public relation programs that drive new business for more than 25 years. An award-winning copywriter, she brings to Catalyst years of direct and digital marketing experience, both client-side and agency-side, working on major accounts such as American Express, Columbia House, Intuit, Xerox, IBM, Pitney Bowes, and Ziff-Davis.
I would have to say the #1 mistake ad agencies make as they scale is…
The failure to pay attention to the importance of their internal culture.
Your people and your culture are largely what set you apart from other agencies. It’s easy to maintain it when you’re small … but as you grow, how do you continue to hire only those who “fit into” your culture – which is a key manifestation of your brand – and how do you keep your unique, individual culture from becoming diluted? How do you effectively impart the tangibles and intangibles of your culture to new employees once they’re vetted and hired?
I don’t know the answer – it’s something we’ve struggled with, as have many others – but I know it’s key to maintaining your agency’s brand identity.
Gerald Vinci is owner of Vinci Designs LLC, a full service marketing and design agency based in Destin, FL. The focus of his business in on helping customers build a better brand and improve their online marketing capabilities and presence.
The biggest problem marketing agencies face is twofold…
First they do not diversify their service offerings enough to meet the needs of their customers. This is a problem for most agencies who remain extremely one-dimensional. For example, in web marketing, our customers come to us for much more than just a website. They also need web hosting, SEO, on-going maintenance, copy writing, and much more. If we offer only the bare essentials they are forced to hire multiple vendors to complete the project and no customer wants to add more work and frustration to their plate.
The second problem, if the agency does diversify and offer a wide array of services, they try to do it all themselves and do not work with strategic partners. Most marketing firms are small with a few employees who try to do as much as possible in house. My question is why? Why spend the time learning a new skill when you could refine and improve the ones you are best at and already possess? By finding strategic partners you can work with other individuals or agencies who are experts in their area of service as well.
So instead of providing a lackluster suite of services in house, you can partner with other experts who offer top-tier service as well. This enables you to provide the very best service to your customers across everything you offer, as well as enables you to scale up the business and take on more work without increasing your in-house workload. Agencies simply try to do too much themselves and it marginalizes the impact they could have for customers. Also, partnering with complimentary service providers will open up new opportunities for business as your partners will often send new work your way too.
Kim Garretson is the Director of Realizing Innovation, an online service for the research institute at the Missouri School of Journalism launching this fall. With this service, Kim will help agencies, brand marketers and media companies in discovering and piloting digital marketing technologies from startups. She has been a founder at three digital agencies, including firms now owned by Interpublic Group and Publicis.
The biggest challenge for businesses who try to scale is…
Maintaining a ‘Client First’ focus.
By that I mean when seeking technology solutions for client digital campaigns, answering the question ‘Build or Buy’ becomes increasingly difficult. Growing agencies naturally want to both optimize their technologists’ billable hours, and create unique technology solutions.
But the recent Marketing Technology Landscape chart features 943 technology companies. I’d argue that, in most cases, clients are going to be better served by third party technologies than by agencies’ original ‘builds’. The solutions will cost less and deploy quicker. Of course, there is risk in this approach, and agencies realize this fact. If the third party is a startup, there is risk in selecting the right solution, knowing that startups can be prone to shaky prospects for even staying in business. The solution is better agency processes for discovering, vetting and validating third party technologies.
Flynn Zaiger is the CEO of Online Optimism, a digital marketing agency located in New Orleans.
Easily, the biggest challenge to a growing marketing agency is…
Making sure that it hires the right kind of people.
The problem is, for a company quickly increasing in size, you’re often tempted to hire adequate employees fast. But that will only end up contributing to slowing growth.
Hire employees is extremely time consuming, but you have to accept that. Even more so, once you get the right employees hired, you need to spend time training and onboarding them. This process might seem expensive at the beginning, but it’s much cheaper than hiring the wrong employee (or just training a decent one poorly), since that will cause you to repeat the whole process again. Concentrate on hiring and training right, and your growth will be able to continue.
Beth Horodnyk is the Marketing & PR Manager for I Think Security Ltd., an award-winning R&D security lab, providing secure solutions for data, cloud and mobile. She is currently focusing her expertise on LOQ, an information security and control service that provides asset managers with a competitive advantage. Its enabling technology drives new revenues, reduces risk exposure and supports compliance efforts. Find more about LOQ at www.useloq.com.
Having worked with numerous start ups, the biggest mistake I see is…
How quickly the marketing team grows.
A lot of companies do not have set employee descriptions, thus are not aware of how much work is on each individual’s plate. Companies then exhaust budgets and harm their ROI by hiring too many people too quickly for jobs that can easily be done by current employees.
Katherine Long is the founder of IllustriaDesigns.com, a on-demand, cloud-based agency with the mission of making design accessible.
The single biggest mistake agencies make as they scale is…
Compromising on hiring.
This is problematic because talented people are your product. We experienced a period of rapid growth in client accounts and needed to hire quickly. We made the mistake of not waiting for top-notch candidates and instead, we made mediocre hires because they were available. We ended up firing all of them when we realized they weren’t performing at the level expected of them, wasting time and money.
Nicole Hoglund is the owner of Honestly Able, LLC, a marketing consulting agency serving up honest advice about how to market your business online. Nicole has been in the marketing industry for over 7 years and has a passion to continue to learn. Her goal is to continue to advise businesses on how to incorporate online marketing into their everyday business model to help them increase their online presence.
One of the biggest challenges I have seen marketing agencies make as they scale is…
Not having the right tools to manage their growing business.
I have worked for a few agencies in my time and the one thing they all seem to face when expanding is the proper tools to continue to have effective communication in-house and with clients.
Since they are busy concentrating on how to keep the clients, and keep up with the work demand, and still grow they lose sight of how to make the clients and employees happy. A few tools I have come across to help with the challenge are basecamp, dropbox, Hipchat, and the good old call on your cellphone. These tools are all great on their own but together they can help build the rapport and trust that is needed when working in an agency setting.
My best way to tackle the communication issue though is to pick up the phone and just calling a client or co-worker to verify a project or just to say hi. This can go a long way in building trust with them as opposed to just doing the work and sending it. This also can help avoid communication pitfalls and back and forth through email that can lead to confusion, mistakes, and headaches all around.
Christine Kleha is CEO, Chief Communications Strategist and Partner at esd. Christine has been with esd for 15 years, playing a critical leadership role in its emergence as the leading digital marketing agency in San Antonio. Christine’s current leadership responsibilities and expertise are primarily focused on operations and campaign development, and on creating cost-effective, results-driven strategies for B2B, government, health care and non-profit organizations. A true umbrella thinker, Christine believes, “understanding more than 65 percent of individuals in the U.S. are sensory-based is the key to effectively moving a target audience into action.”
Scaling has been the biggest obstacle and the most rewarding challenge in growing esd and associates. What we’ve learned about scaling, in terms of mistakes and challenges is…
The first hurdle is attracting great talent, for a reasonable price point, who really “get” that their financial growth comes with the agency’s growth.
That leads to the second hurdle – retooling hiring practices. Gut feeling stops working at about 12-15 staff. Then, mistakes happen. So, you have to set hiring parameters to choose motivated people vs. those who lack true passion and desire. The final decision may still rely on your gut, but you’ve successfully narrowed the field by then to people who are energized, creative and committed.
Third hurdle is getting team members to grasp that their future really is in their hands. They are part of growing the company. After 15 people, the leaders really can’t hold your hand – yet between 15-50 the leaders still can identify the “weakest”. Building confidence in your team is so very important when you’re growing. Quite often building that confidence also must come from your middle managers as well. So, all those in leadership are impacted by this subtle stress, and it translates to the whole team.
Finally, leaders are NOT perfect – they make tons of mistakes and try new things to figure it all out. I wish team members didn’t have to go through that, as it’s tough on everyone.
What makes scaling the most rewarding challenge is that so often it works just right. Yes, it’s a lot of work finding the right people and making sure they remain motivated. However, when it clicks, it clicks big time resulting in rewards for all involved.
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