Advice for Small Agencies: 10 Things to Start or Stop

Advice for Small Agencies: 10 Things to Start or Stop

Bernie Mitchell, the host of the TechLondon podcast, has invited me on to the show to offer some advice for small agencies. Specifically, what are the ten things to start or stop doing this year to grow an agency from a micro business into a small agency and beyond?

I am flattered to be invited and will share the interview with you when it’s published [update: you can now listen to the show here]. For now, here’s a sneak preview of my prep notes of the ten things agency owners should start or stop doing this year:

1. Start with a business plan.

It’s incredible how few agencies start with a plan. Many are freelance careers that accidentally spill into an agency. But a business plan is a crucial part of the scaffolding of any company.

Don’t fret. A business plan doesn’t have to be a 10,000-word, highly detailed tome you can present to a bank manager.

It should be one or two pages and describe what you do for who and how you will make money doing it. It needs to include the following:  

Vision: What impact are you looking to make, and why should people go on that journey with you?

Objectives: What are your targets and measures of success, including monetary value and timescales?

Strategy: How are you going to achieve those objectives?

It’s easier than you think. Just imagine you are pitching to Stephen Bartlett on Dragon’s Den and get to the salient points quickly. You will need a clear business plan before getting to the next point.

2. Start to define a unique position in the market.

You are likely excellent at a particular discipline of marketing or communications. It may be media relations, graphic design, web development or Facebook ads.

As you take on clients, it can be tempting to stretch a little. For example, the web developer that takes on digital advertising and branding or the PR pro that starts doing market research and then some marketing strategy consultancy. Or the pharma industry expert that moves into financial services.

These are great options for revenue while you are a freelance consultant, but when you start to grow, it will create challenges.

Your positioning will confuse your clients, potential clients and your recruits. You may confuse your audience with the services you offer, and nobody will know what challenges you solve or the value you add.

Clarity in positioning, built off the back of a solid business plan, will change that because you spell out clearly what you should do for who and why they should care.

e.g. We help e-commerce companies in the fashion sector increase website conversion rates.

Pretty clear what you do for who and what you don’t do. You can now focus your marketing on attracting the clients you are well-positioned to serve.

3. Stop being the jack of all trades.

Once you have your business plan and positioning mapped out, you need to embed them into everything.

It’s time to stop saying things like:

We are an award-winning, full-service agency.

We can be your outsourced marketing department.

Big agency skill set, small agency price tag.

We are your partners in marketing.  

Start to own your position in the market. Develop authentic thought leadership and become the ‘go-to expert’ in your space.

4. Start getting serious about good client service.

There are numerous disciplines involved in running an agency, from delivering the service you are experts at to counting the pennies.

The client services function is the part that glues all those functions together and helps to deliver happy customers.

As a micro agency or solopreneur, that’s you, and the reality is it will be you for quite a while until you build your team. In the early stages, it’s about perfecting the processes in which you deliver your service so you can pass on that process to your team.

After that, it’s about training and developing your team to deliver excellent client service.

Start this year with the goal of enhancing your client service, and I promise you’ll have a healthier agency business by Christmas.

You can listen to a couple of podcasts I have recorded with Jenny Plant and Paul Phillips about client service.

5. Stop doing your bookkeeping

I’m willing to bet good money you didn’t start an agency because you loved financial accounting.

Yes, it’s tempting to do all the accounting yourself when you’re petite. If you’re creative, you’re probably crap at bookkeeping, VAT returns, management accounts, and doing the payroll.

But you’re likely very good at design, copywriting, or media relations. You probably enjoy doing this work. And if there is one piece of advice for small agencies you should take away from this post, do more of what you enjoy doing and less of what you don’t.

Outsource your booking and payroll as soon as you can afford to do it. Get someone who does this professionally so you can focus on what you enjoy. Then when you get a bit bigger, hire someone to do your management accounts and explain what they mean to you.

Trust me when I say you’ll enjoy doing your finances more this way, and you will also understand what the numbers mean. Have a listen to these two podcasts with Rayhaan Moghul and Stacey Borrow for some inspiration and ideas with agency finances.

6. Stop working without a contract, scope of work and an agreed brief.

You don’t know how important a contract is until everything goes tits up. And this will happen to you, no matter how good you are at delivering your service and managing client relationships. It will go wrong.  

A good contract is like an insurance policy. We all buy insurance and hope we never have to use it. But when we do, we want an insurer that pays out.

Your client contracts work similarly. When client relationships go wrong, they stipulate the rules of the game for how to put it right. They cover what you get paid for and when, what happens to intellectual property, etc.

When you get into a dispute with a client, you want to ensure the contract helps you get what you are owed. A well-written contract will be invaluable if it means going through the courts.

Oh, and you need a clear brief and an associated scope of work that aligns with the contract. These are the cornerstones of a good agency-client agreement. Only start work when you have them in place.

Have a listen to Sophy’s experiences of getting paid when the shit hit the fan with a couple of her clients. There is some great advice for small agencies in this episode.

7. Start surrounding yourself with your peers.

Running an agency sounds like a great career choice, and it can be. But it’s not for the faint-hearted.

There are many people to please along the way, deadlines to hit and difficult decisions to make.

It can feel lonely at the top, mainly if you are a solo founder responsible for making all the decisions. 

My advice? Find a community of like-minded agency founders you can collaborate with and learn from as you go. There are a few out there, including Agency Squared, where you can meet your fellow entrepreneurs for support and inspiration.

8. Start earning revenue without selling time.

The agency business relies on the principle of selling time for money. The more time you sell, the more money you make. So, the only way to make more money is to build your team, so you have more time to sell.

With a team comes extra responsibilities and liabilities, like hitting payroll, paying workplace pensions, PAYE, etc. 

But there are ways to generate revenue without hiring more people or selling more time. For digital agencies, resell website hosting with an annual maintenance charge, or develop a productivity app. For creative shops, build and sell an online course.

These initiatives can generate revenue for you while you sleep, which is the best way to build resilience into your agency business model.

9. Stop using social media.

Well, don’t stop completely, just enough to free up some time and headspace.

Be honest, how much time do you spend on social media? Does your social media habit do you any good? Are you measuring its impact, or is it essentially a distraction?

I’m a sucker for hanging out on LinkedIn, posting “thought leadership” and content for my target audience. Look for yourself in my profile, and you’ll see articles, podcasts, and so on.

It can work for lead generation, but there are other ways to find prospective clients and to build your agency.

Social media can also be a massive time drain with little reward.

10. Start acting with intent.

I wrote a post a while ago comparing my experiences learning karate to my time running agencies. The message was about intent.

With karate, it’s easy to go through the motions, kicking and punching into space without considering the targeting or technique, especially when you are just training and not fighting.

It can be the same with agency businesses, especially if you started your agency without a business plan and accidentally grew.

Take some time to think and create a set of objectives and strategies for how you will achieve them. Set yourself some targets and KPIs to measure progress against.

It will help you and your team focus on achieving a defined end goal; we all need to accomplish things to remain motivated.

Go and run your agency with intent.

So there we are; my advice for small agencies on the ten things to start or stop doing this year to grow your business. You can find out more about how we help agencies here.