57 things I’ve learned about running an agency

Posted on: 2015-10-12 in Opinion

Over seven years in the PR and comms game, B2B PR Blog editor Heather Baker has seen things you wouldn't believe. The hard bit was cutting this down to just 57...

I’ve been running an agency for the last seven years. What started as a PR company has slowly evolved into a fully integrated digital comms consultancy and video company, offering everything from SEO and inbound marketing to video and animation production. It hasn't been an easy transition. In fact, sometimes it’s been downright hairy.

But you can’t say that owning an agency isn’t an education, in its own way. Running TopLine has given me an enormous opportunity to learn stuff, and to survive, I’ve had to take it. 

Even now, every day I’m presented with some new challenge or situation to tackle – and often to screw up initially. But more often than not, I end up learning something profound.

Here are my top 57 learnings. For better or worse, they’re mostly taken from direct experience. For the full list of 1,000+, you’ll need to buy me lunch first!

Servicing Your Clients

1.    I hope you find this revelation as liberating as I did. It occurred to me one day that I don’t have to deal with rude or unpleasant people. The only line of work where clients hand over money to torture and degrade you is…a little different from comms.

Is a client making your life miserable? Then emancipate yourself and your firm from them, freeing up capacity to find and work on better clients. Your team will be delighted, your life will be better, and telling terrible people to go away is really satisfying.

2.    If your service is generally good, clients will be forgiving when you make mistakes. Even world-shattering, apocalyptic, head-planted-firmly-on-desk mistakes. Even if those mistakes are so massive that, years later, you still need a stiff drink to be able to talk about them. Luckily, they also make for good self-deprecating stories.
3.    Unless you are a listed company or really, really mean (we’re looking at you, Uber – you’re frustratingly amazing and awful at the same time), no story about your business or your client’s is ever going to ‘leak’. You’re not that important, journalists don’t really care, and they’re certainly not sitting around waiting for your company’s secrets to be revealed.

4.    Clients expect you to be proactive. They expect you to come to them with ideas and suggestions. If you can foster a culture where your team generates ideas and actively takes them to your clients, you’ll win big in the short and long-term.
5.    Ask for brutally honest feedback and welcome it with open arms – even when it hurts like hell to hear it. Anyone who tells you you’re 100% amazing and they’ve never had any trouble with you is either not paying attention or trying to spare your feelings. You can ALWAYS do better, and you need to hear how. Whatever pain you feel will be short-lived, and the information you collect will give you tremendous power to change and improve.
6.    The nicest clients get the best service. There is nothing wrong with bringing this to your clients’ attention regularly.

7.    The client is not always right: frequently, in fact, they’re downright naive. That’s fine – it’s not their area. They came to you for a reason. Don’t be afraid to tell them that you think they’re wrong – you’re being paid for advice, and if they’re smart, they’ll respect you for it.  Nobody pays good money for a lawyer and says, “While I respect your counsel, my 20 minutes of Googling ‘how to get away with identity fraud’ says otherwise.” 
8.    For most clients, a contract is just a formality – you’ll have a mutually beneficial and respectful relationship that will remain in place for a long time. That said…get the contract signed. A business with no contracts in place is not worth much to a potential acquirer, and you don’t want to be caught out if a client lets you down.

Winning Clients

9.    Business isn’t won until you have a signed contract on your desk. Many a casual ‘yes let’s do it’ from a prospect, has been followed by a gaping, years-long silence.

Inexplicable, perhaps inexcusable, but some people just don’t have the balls to pick up the phone and say ‘things changed, I’m sorry.’ These are the same people who end relationships by text message or buy things in stores purely because they don’t want the shop assistant to think they can’t afford them.
10.  Every now and then, a founder offers you equity in their business in exchange for your services. This one’s probably older than the Nigerian email scam, but let me be very clear about this: a fixed, one-time fee – even a small one – is always preferable to 99% of nothing.

Founders of the future success stories of this world don’t give away their equity to save a few thousand bucks on marketing – it’s their most precious commodity and they cling to it like limpets on a whale’s back.
11.  No matter how creative and wonderful your campaigns are, the only way to secure the future of the contract is to have a tangible, measureable impact on the client’s business. We learned that the hard way!

12.  Never sleep with a client (even if you’re really drunk). We’ll be sparing with the precise details of how we learned that one, but there are so many reasons why this is a bad idea.
13.  Qualify every lead before you decide to pitch. We have found that the two best questions to ask are “How much budget has been signed off for this project?” and “Who will be making the decision to go ahead?” If you don’t get a straight answer to both of these then it is not the right time to be pitching this company. Focus on the business that is winnable, rather than spreading your time and effort writing proposals for prospects that may never appoint any agency.
14.  No one comes second in a pitch: when you play the game of pitching, you win or you lose. Nobody wants to hurt anyone else’s feelings (except Uber, probably – so useful and so very, very evil), so prospects will tell you and everyone else who didn’t win that you were a close second. You weren’t.
15.  When a prospect tries to negotiate you down on cost, you should only reduce the budget if you are reducing the service level – never drop your budget without getting something in return. It might feel awkward at the time, but it will protect your profits and the client will respect you for it long-term.
16.  If you are winning 100% of the pitches you submit, well…congratulations on winning your first pitch. Now do some more: if you don’t, you’re not really maximising the potential of your business. Get a move on and start growing faster – you’re not a baby, and you’re not going to grow while you sleep.  
17.  Do your homework. If you are winning under 50% of the pitches you go to, you are not qualifying enough before agreeing to pitch.
18.  You need to learn how to pitch for new business – it’s a skill. Find an expert and pay what it takes to be taught. Don’t waste time trying to figure it out on your own.
19.  You have a right to detailed feedback on any pitches you lose, but many prospects think you don’t. Make this a condition of accepting their invitation to pitch: quantify the amount of time you will spend on the pitch so that the client knows not to take it lightly – and then explain that the pitch costs you and you need something in return.
20.  You will not pick up business walking around trade shows. No one exhibits at a trade show to meet agencies.

Managing Your People

21.  The best people are not motivated by money. They are motivated by challenge, having their sense of curiosity stimulated and the opportunity to progress. It’s hard to get this right as an agency employer – someone who’s enthusiastic about the “journey” in the interview may, in the inimitable words of the Wu-Tang Clan, turn out to be really about the “dolla dolla bill” –  but it is genuinely worth seeking these people out nonetheless.
22.  Everyone is replaceable, even if it breaks your heart when they resign. Treat it as an opportunity to re-examine your resourcing model, and to find someone amazing to replace them.
23.  When you use unpaid interns, you get what you pay for. Don’t be surprised when they demonstrate zero loyalty, arrive slightly late every morning, and take long lunch breaks brazenly searching for jobs online. Pay up or don’t bother.
24.  Staff can be too loyal: you need churn to bring in fresh ideas and make room for others to grow. I’m not saying you should create a culture that encourages resignations – just that a 0% staff turnover rate isn’t something to boast about. Sometimes it leads to inertia and chips on people’s shoulders. 
25.  If someone smells of weed, they have been smoking weed.
26.  No one deserves equity in your company until they have proven they can bring in new business.
27.  The Peter Principle is real, and it should be kept in mind at all times: just because someone is good at Job A, it doesn’t mean they will be good at Job A+1. Promoting them could lead to disappointment – if you think they can get to that to A+1 level, it’s your job to get them there.   
28.  Insure your company against employment tribunals. It’s worth every penny.
29.  The client names on a CV mean nothing. Useless people work on good accounts all the time.
30.  Never sleep with an employee (even if they’re really fit). I learned this from a friend who made this mistake.
31.  Emotional intelligence is as important as academic intelligence at any level in this industry.
32.  If someone tells you they were headhunted, they probably weren’t – and if they’re going round saying that they suffer from poor emotional intelligence.
33.  Question awards on CVs: when a company wins an award, every person who worked at that company within a three year radius of the award will put it on their resume.
34.  Your team remembers everything you say. They’re like children. Or elephants. So don’t make vague promises to get people off your back as they will come back and bite you.
35.  Firing underperforming people is great for morale.
36.  Conduct exit interviews. They hurt but they give you insight that makes you stronger.
37.  Small and inexpensive perks will make people happy. Casual Fridays are a classic, but we make sure to keep a fully stocked fruit bowl and provide company iPads after a certain period of service. Be creative!  
38.  Let your team provide feedback monthly on what the business could do better and what the business is doing well at. Keep it anonymous and you’ll be amazed what comes back. Again, it’s going to hurt sometimes – but you would rather know than not know.

39.  Act on team feedback, even if it’s just to explain why it can’t be actioned. People need to feel that they have been heard.
40.  Never shout at an employee, even if you actually want to punch them, and shouting at them seems like the more acceptable alternative. No one likes being shouted at, and no one should have to put up with it. Not even people who really have it coming.
41.  Learn to give immediate feedback – even if it’s negative. And teach your team to welcome feedback – even if it’s negative. That’s how you progress.
42.  Office dogs make everyone 16% happier. That is a scientific fact.
43.  You can never spend too much time interviewing people for a role.
44.  When someone arrives half an hour late on their first day, meet them at the door and sack them on the spot. It’s a loud sign – don’t ignore it.

Keeping the business going forward

45.  There’s software for everything – you should find it and use it. Any task that you do repeatedly within your business can be automated or improved with software.
Take the time to make software work for you: it’s not always easy migrating onto new systems, but it is worth the effort.
46.  I always find it amazing how easy it is to find advisors and non-exec directors: people who promise to help you build your business by asking the right questions – and all for a fee.  
If you have one of these advisors, ask yourself: what good things have happened in the business that can be directly attributed to this person over the last three months? Then estimate how much that has been worth to the business. Once you have done that, you will know if you should keep them.
47.  Some competitors are nice. It’s fun to deal with them, and they will share a lot. Be generous too – what goes around comes around.
48.  Most people don’t know how to develop and implement a communications strategy, so don’t ask them to do it.
49.  The people who obsess about NDAs are the people whose IP is not worth stealing.
50.  Most of the time when someone says they want to sue you they’re just being petulant. It costs loads of money to take someone to court and unless you’ve done something really bad (you haven’t, have you?) it’s not worth worrying about it.
51.  If you let a client get away with paying late once, they will never pay on time again. Nip this naughtiness in the bud!
52.  Your P&L tells an incomplete story. Advisors will look at your P&L as an indication of the health of your business and they will be misled. As the business owner you need to know the finances backwards and be able to tell the full story when asked. Don’t relinquish this important responsibility. It is yours.

Dealing with the agency-owner demons

53.  It is extremely easy to make everyone think you are really successful. It is much harder to live up to their expectations. Your entrepreneurial zest brings with it a higher than average propensity for anxiety and depression. You’ll need to slay that dragon yourself I’m afraid, but you might find it helpful to know that you’re not alone.
54.  Everyone else is also winging it – this is liberating. Read this article for comfort.

55.  The difficult conversation that kept you awake all night will never be as bad as you anticipated. Recognising that while you agonise will help you deal with it.
56.  Your time is precious. You can always make more money, but you won’t be able to use that money to buy more time. Protect your time by only working on tasks that will drive the business forward.
57.  Learn to say ‘no’ gracefully. The more you can turn down, the more time you will have to focus on the things that matter.

What have you learned from your agency work? Share in the comment box!

Heather Baker is editor of the B2B PR Blog and CEO of inbound marketing agency TopLine Comms
UK Agency Awards Winner 2016

About this blog

The B2B PR Blog is a resource for both PR professionals and people working in B2B industries on how to devise and implement successful B2B PR campaigns. The blog was founded by B2B PR specialist Heather Baker, who runs video production and corporate animation agency TopLine Film and digital PR and SEO agency  TopLine Comms. The B2B PR Blog takes contributions from sensible industry folk with something interesting to say.


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