Does growing your agency keep you up at night? In the article below are our tips as to how to begin to achieve the growth you want to see!
“We don’t need to grow, we are good at the size we are right now.”
- Said no agency owner ever (that was successful).
All agencies hope to grow, but in fact, all agencies need to grow. Growth ensures that the business sustains a foundation of work that gets more solid every year. Growth helps to attract and keep the best talent. Growth creates the opportunity to do bigger and more interesting work. And, of course, growth generates a larger amount of revenue and profit. Just as a shark always must keep moving to live underwater, agencies must keep growing to continue to live in the marketplace.
Yet, as we all know, growth is hard. Many leaders struggle daily with how to grow their agency. There are so many directions they could take, such as hiring a “rainmaker” or building their brand presence or adding a service offering or acquiring a competitor. And then, if they do get new opportunities, they need to be able to respond to them without stretching themselves and their staff too thin. Finally, if they win new business, they need to find new resources and nurture the new relationship while making sure existing employees and accounts stay happy. Ugh. Not easy.
But growth is also fun. Growth creates momentum and a huge amount of positive force within an organization. Everyone feels more successful, more confident and therefore, happier. Everyone becomes part of a journey that is interesting and highly rewarding. As the adage goes: revenue cures all ills.
So, is there a guaranteed way to grow? Is there a “secret sauce” that we can give you that will absolutely help your agency grow. Unfortunately, there isn’t. But, during our careers as members of fast-growing agencies, and now as partners of a consulting practice that has helped numerous agencies grow, we have observed certain patterns that help achieve successful growth. What follows is a short outline of these growth best practices.
Growth Best Practices
Step One: Hone Your Brand
We get it; you don’t want to narrow your potential audience by creating a niche for your agency. However, trying to be everything to everyone will get you absolutely nowhere. Clients want experts and specialists whether that is a product or service offering or expertise within a certain industry. What are you best at? Now own it!
Once you define and own your niche, you can be a sharp shooter with very focused sales & marketing efforts. No more wasting time and money on efforts that fall on deaf ears - you know exactly who to target and what to say to grab their attention. You will have less competition and amazingly - as an expert you can charge more for your services. Start with honing your brand and messaging and the rest begins to fall into place!
Step Two: Communicate Your Message
Once your brand is defined, it is imperative that your messaging is communicated both externally and internally. Not just to the salespeople but to every single one of your employees. And then communicate it again. And again. Reinforce your messaging on all of your marketing materials, your website, your case studies. And then communicate it to your employees again.
Outbound marketing is very important and will enable clients to find you - especially targeted marketing efforts that reflect your niche! However, ensuring internal alignment is just as important and often neglected. All employees should know who you are, what you do and be able to communicate an “elevator pitch” that describes the agency.
Step Three: Get Your Operations in Order
Great news: you received an RFP. Better news: you won a new client. This is music to most agency owners’ ears, but many of us have been on the other side: “OMG, how are we going to get this done!?” If finding growth is challenging, managing growth is just as hard. If your organization is not ready to expand, cracks will rapidly appear, and we all know what slips through cracks, and all that hard work of finding a new client will go for naught.
The key is to examine all aspects of your operations from pricing to roles & responsibilities, from budget management to service delivery, from your P&L to your overhead costs, and ensure that each element works efficiently and effectively together. Examine your staff cost ratios and utilization reports (or create them if you don’t have them). Make sure there is a logical and documented flow that moves a project from point A to point Z and that is understood by all. Ensure your on-boarding guides new people coming into an agency, and your management structure supports current people growing into new roles within the agency. “Winging it” is a sure recipe for failure.
Step Four: Go After Low Hanging Fruit
“We need a Rainmaker - you know, someone who knows everyone and can bring in bigger and better clients…” said every agency owner ever. It isn’t that they are hard to find (although they are) or that they don’t exist (they do, they are just hard to find) - the bigger challenge is that truly finding new business in the agency world is really, really hard. This is a relationship driven business and it takes a very long time to cultivate and nurture a new relationship.
So, who do you already have relationships with? YOUR EXISTING CLIENTS! Whether through expanding the scope of existing business, finding new business from the existing client or broadening your offerings to others in your client’s organization, your current clients are your best bet for finding new business and growing your agency. They clearly like your work and trust your team, so instead of trying to develop new relationships from scratch, spend that time, energy and money on nurturing existing clients and building the right team to support current business and identify new business opportunities.
Step Five: Hire a Door Opener
Once you have your brand in order, your employees aligned, your organization ready, and your organic growth effort in the works, now is the time to think about developing new business. The good news is that you no longer need that elusive “Rainmaker;” you now need someone who is a bit easier to find (and a bit more affordable): a “door opener.” This is a someone who is passionate, smart, inquisitive, hard-working, pays attention to detail and has an incredibly optimistic attitude. Someone who is able to articulate your (well-defined) brand with passion and energy. Someone who documents their sales efforts and uses tools to strategically guide their efforts.
In most successful agencies, the leadership are the best salespeople. They just need someone to get them into a room with potential clients and they close business. Door openers do just that, with the added benefit that they develop relationships, learn how to close, and eventually can grow into that ever elusive “rainmaker” role.
Step Six: Watch Out
Although revenue cures all ills, growth creates a lot of stress. Agencies are currently experiencing 30% attrition, and although not all of this is due to growth, it is mostly due to stress. Clients expect more and faster than ever before so teams are getting burnt out. Layer on top of that new accounts and new team members, and…. well, you get the picture.
When growing, leadership needs to be constantly talking with and monitoring their staff. When there is a lot going on, it is a great time to take on the traits of a “30 second” manager: touch base with people, ask how they are doing, ask if you can help in any way. Give them a compliment (don’t forget the time-honored rule in management: for every negative comment, you need ten positives to counterbalance it. So, times of stress are a great time to give compliments.) Also, don’t be afraid to change a process, or adjust a role or responsibility in light of the current reality. Flexibility is a key tool in dealing with growth.
Once you see successful growth (and deal with all the stress it brings), the tendency is to sit back and say “all is good.” And for a short period, basking in the glow is highly recommended (otherwise, you never get a chance to appreciate your success). However, if you wait too long, you will be right back at square one, in fact you’ll be before square one. You’ll be in a hole that you will need to climb out of just to get to even.
The best time to re-evaluate your brand, your marketing, your communications, and your organization, is while you are having success. You are then dealing from a position of strength. You can be proactive, and you can dictate the timing. You are making something good into something better and eventually, something great.
Obviously, patterns are general and agency situations are unique, so the practices outlined above are guidelines that need to be customized to help your agency grow. It is also true that these steps take time and energy that have nothing to do with client deliverables. So, we are not meaning to intimate that if you simply do these seven things you will grow. There is nothing simple about it. You will certainly need help, both internally and potentially externally (from consultants like us) - but for all agencies, it’s Growth or Bust!