Starting a business can be daunting. Only about half of businesses make it past the crucial five-year mark, per the U.S. Small Business Administration.
As an accidental entrepreneur who started a digital marketing agency seven years ago, I’ve learned first-hand what it takes to achieve longevity while navigating periods of rapid growth and economic uncertainty.
Over the years, I’ve seen many agencies struggle and even shut down – including long-time players and heavily funded startups. Between an impending recession, sluggish sales cycles and clients looking to cut budgets, 2024 poses fresh challenges for agencies looking to thrive.
Let’s explore key strategies I’ve learned about how to future-proof your digital agency, adapt to changing conditions, and foster resilience regardless of external factors.
Differentiation and diversification
Although many consultants advise you to focus on agency specialization to drive higher efficiency and valuations, I think it can create risk in terms of long-term resiliency. Specializing in a segment or platform that experiences a pullback or recession can threaten the survival of your agency.
Client portfolio balance
To mitigate risk, you’ll want to consider diversifying client size, sectors, and channels as best as possible, provided that your team has the knowledge to service these areas. That last part is critical. For the agency to thrive, you should only take on work that you can be great at.
Don’t rely one or two clients. Ideally, your top client should represent 10% or less of your business. Things happen; if you’re diversified enough, you can survive losing a client or a client pulling back.
From a size perspective, we think in terms of a bell curve:
- A few very large clients.
- A lot of mid-size clients.
- A few small ones that either fill in capacity or have the potential to grow.
The small accounts should ideally be strategic. Use them to gain experience in a new channel or industry.
Small, medium, and large will all mean different things to different agencies. What’s large for one may be small for another, so you’ll want to define your own thresholds.
The big accounts can create risk if you’re hiring against them. That’s often what drives the layoffs you hear about in agencies.
Again, this doesn’t mean you should take on work you’re not staffed to manage appropriately. As you’re growing or trying to weather a storm, you may say “yes” to a lot. But in stable times, you want to be good at saying “no” to work you’re less skilled in or that is less profitable.
Work with your teams to help them understand that excellent client service doesn’t mean saying “yes” to everything a client asks for. It’s one thing to jump in to help with board slides; it’s another to do projects that are outside of scope of your engagement for free.
Differentiation through values
There are thousands of digital marketing agencies in the U.S., many offering the same services. So, how do you remain resilient when companies are pulling back marketing spend?
You obviously need to deliver expected results by having a great team, but I believe there’s truth to Maya Angelou’s quote:
When agencies are navigating difficult times, it’s important to remember that clients are likely hurting, too.
Protect your client relationships by being transparent and even occasionally over-delivering when it makes sense. Be a partner. Make it clear that you actually care about helping clients grow.
One person from a private equity team told me that we won their business because we led off the pitch meeting by saying that we didn’t want to scale their account until tracking was in really good shape, even though that could take months. He saw that as a high-integrity move and said it was clear that we wanted to be a partner and weren’t just after a quick buck.
People will remember how you made them feel in the pitch, weekly meetings, and daily interactions.
Dig deeper: How to build a values-based agency that drives results
Get the daily newsletter search marketers rely on.
Culture of adaptability and learning
One of the most important things is to hire people who adapt to changes in marketing – whether new channels, new technology, or beta programs – and changes in your company. Your job as a leader is to foster a culture that embraces acceptable risks and continuous learning.
To thrive and become resilient, it’s also important to remain flexible to client needs.
Sometimes, they will need to pause or adjust budgets for a short time, or sales cycles may not move as quickly as you’d like. While that can be difficult to swallow, it’s better to be flexible and retain the business than lose a relationship permanently.
By showing a commitment beyond profit, you can build deep relationships in your organization that last beyond downturns or technological changes. Think about how you can help your clients best sell ideas to their managers; help them build business cases or empower them with tools.
Hiring for grit and a sense of humor
Although I wasn’t an athlete in a “traditional” sport, I grew up surfing for 3-4 hours a day. That said, I’ve always loved hiring college athletes. These individuals often bring grit, mental toughness, and the ability to push through tough times – which make them perfect for fast-growing agencies and those experiencing adversity.
It’s also important to hire for the values you prioritize. Humility is one of ours. A sense of humor is probably an unofficial one. A sense of humor and even a little mischief can help foster relationships and bring people together in a remote world.
On the flip side, cut ties quickly with people who aren’t a good fit. Even great workers may prove toxic to the organization if they’re not culturally aligned with others in the company.
They may get the job done but be negative and complain constantly, or they may be incredibly analytical but not partner well with colleagues and keep information close to the vest. Keeping these types of employees around can impact morale and lead your top performers to wonder why you are permitting the behavior.
There’s a great quote which we’ve tried to keep in mind throughout our journey:
“Culture is not like a mission statement; you can’t just set it up and have it last forever. There’s a saying in the military that if you see something below standard and do nothing, then you’ve set a new standard. This is also true of culture – if you see something off-culture and ignore it, you’ve created a new culture.”
That doesn’t mean that everyone has to be a shining example of each and every value on your list, but the closer the fit, the more likely it is that they’ll be part of your team for the long haul.
Use just-in-time hiring when it’s feasible
If you’re bootstrapping, you may be using contractors for a while before hiring full-time employees. Just-in-time hiring can be stressful when you’re out pitching business and putting your existing team under some strain, but it also can help keep you from laying people off, making your company more resilient.
Hiring just in time doesn’t mean waiting until you’ve signed a contract or your team is struggling. It can mean hiring when there’s only capacity left for one or two more medium accounts.
Transparency with your team
To build a resilient agency, you must care for your people – even in tougher times. The best people have choices on where to work, so make sure you’re transparent about how the business is doing. Sharing what’s really happening limits the likelihood that team members will invent worst-case scenarios.
Similarly, during high growth periods, you also want to be transparent about how you’re navigating growth and where they may experience some pain points as you mature.
Strategic operations and strong financial acumen
Lean and agile management
Salaries, benefits, and contractor fees are generally the highest expenses for digital marketing agencies. But in order to build a high-quality agency, you need to have great people. To be resilient, you need to be mindful of a payroll that can’t support the business.
So, how do you balance the two? In our case, we used contractors and part-time employees to limit expenses, especially as we scaled the business. By maintaining a flexible staffing strategy, you can afford to have part of a really talented person’s time rather than settling for all of a more junior person’s time.
As your business changes, talk to your team about how their career aspirations may have evolved. You may find that some of your staff is interested in moving to a part-time role or becoming a contractor. This happens when individuals like the idea of freelancing but want to maintain benefits or just prefer a change to their work-life balance.
Part of remaining resilient requires not getting too top-heavy but surrounding yourself with great leaders. You’ll need that great leadership team to navigate adversity and change that tends to happen among managers/senior manager-level employees.
During periods of high growth, using a combination of FTEs and a trusted pool of contractors can help you adjust to growth or new clients who need to get started immediately – especially if you are doing just-in-time hiring.
Closely monitored financial oversight
Regardless of whether you’re growing or weathering a change in the business, it’s important to know your numbers and watch your P&L. This includes understanding profitability at the account and line of business level, and employee utilization rates.
Focusing on these measures enabled us to grow a $5 million business without taking investment or debt.
Avoid long-term agreements on software, especially if it’s not core
There are a few lessons I learned through the years, especially as they related to our second largest expense – software.
We’ve purchased some software that we liked but didn’t make much financial sense when we slowed down hiring. It seemed worth the cost when we signed the agreement, but then we felt trapped. Similarly, there’s been software that seemed great, but we found it didn’t meet our needs.
Try to avoid year-long terms when you can. The exception is on things you know with certainty that you don’t plan to move away from, like Slack.
It’s OK to pay month to month, even if it’s not the best price
As we scaled the business, we had a lot of software on month-to-month pricing to protect cash flow. While it wasn’t necessarily the best price, it kept things flexible in case we wanted different software or knew we might pull back or switch to a different tech stack. This is especially relevant where you’re paying by the seat.
Have a process to review by-the-seat licenses monthly or quarterly
If you use a lot of contractors or freelancers, have a process in place to review the roster of licenses each month or quarter at a minimum. Paying for seats for inactive contractors can get expensive if you don’t keep an eye on it.
Negotiate renewal terms upfront or get a month-to-month auto-renewal
A few months ago, I was caught off guard when I asked to pay an annual contract with a vendor in semi-annual installments, as we had done in the first year. Apparently, it was in the original agreement that the auto-renewal would require upfront payment on this five-figure-a-year software.
When we asked about it, they offered to let us pay semi-annually for a 6% markup on the contract. It’s something that I should have caught in the original work order, but it also makes me feel like “just a number” to them.
Running a successful digital marketing agency long-term
As you navigate periods of growth and downturns, it’s important to set yourself up for success past the one-year or five-year mark and even longer.
By hiring appropriately, adapting to a changing environment, having strong values, and keeping tabs on your finances, you can run a successful digital marketing agency in 2024 and beyond.
Dig deeper: Scaling an agency: Lessons of growth and change