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If I could start my agency again; Here’s what I’d do differently

Starting and growing an agency is a challenging journey full of tough decisions. Looking back, there are certainly things I would have done differently, but these experiences have also taught me valuable lessons. In this post, I’m going to dissect a few decisions we made early on and if I would do it again or not. From hiring a senior leadership team to finding the right recruiter, here are my (hopefully!) valuable insights that can help other agency owners navigate the challenges of starting and growing an agency.

Hiring junior staff

After going full time on the business in January 2019, we hired our first members of staff in March 2019. We decided to hire two graduates at the same time so it felt more like a company and they could be together in our office if my business partner and I were out pitching or in meetings. This is something I wouldn’t do again if I started over. Why?

As incredible as our graduates were, Nicole is still with us and proud to be employee number one contributing so much to culture and knows us as well as the Directors do, graduates are not a smart initial move for an agency.

Clients buy time. When you start your agency you do not have much time between delivery, business and sales. Adding graduates takes more time as you have to train them and it takes a few years for them to learn the discipline.

Instead, my advice is to go as senior as your budget will allow. They’ll hit the ground running and free up your time considerably in the short term and even more in the long term. All with the aim of getting you working ON the business rather than IN the business.

Hiring a senior leadership team (ASAP)

At the end of Year 1, we hired Dan and Olivia who had a strong amount of experience agency side under their belt. They both joined us at management level but we treated them as the senior leadership team. They have both grown with the business and are our two only Directors other than myself and my business partner.

It’s by far the best decision we’ve made. To do it so early meant they treat the business as their own and contribute so much to culture and delivery of work. We definitely couldn’t have built NOVOS so fast without them. So I would 100% recommend any other agency owners to get a leadership team in place if you don’t have one already.

Find a good recruiter

I know this one may go against many other agency owners advice, recruiters get a bad rep and sometimes rightly so. There are so many out there that think they know every niche in the world when they don’t. We worked with a niche recruiter early on. He’s a one-man band and used to work in the industry. Yes, the fees are higher, but he has saved us a lot of time and the longer we’ve used him the more he understands the roles we need. He’s got a 99% hit rate in terms of people passing their probation and has probably recruited 80% of our team. Go niche and go small is my recommendation for recruiters. In terms of the fee, by nature agencies are cash rich compared to other models so, as long as your margins are right and you’ve forecasted the expense based on forecasted hires you’ll value it.

Don’t get an office too soon

When you’re small, leverage co working spaces more. They give a natural culture boost when your team is under 6-8 people. They also keep your costs down and often avoid long term contracts. We got our own space way too early. We were a team of 5 and while we made it work we could have extended our time in co working before committing to office space. Post COVID you can get away with no office but personally I feel it does still have its place and need for culture and learning.

Find partners that share your values

Without our partner agencies we wouldn’t have grown as fast as we did. Find a partner agency that has complementary services to yours and you can refer clients to each other. In Year 1, find multiple partners even if they clash with each other. If one takes off as your main partner and you refer leads reciprocally there’s no need to burn a bridge with the others, just be honest and agree a fair commission agreement with them instead. Even if partners aren’t commercially beneficial there are so many additional benefits to networking with agency founders at the same size and in the same space as you.

Not standardising your services

This may be an obvious one to some but it took us too long to learn this. It is important to standardise the output of your services based on what the client spends as soon as possible. We kept things too vague in the early days, focusing on strategy and value, which did work at the time, but as you grow and work with bigger brands, clients and teams everyone needs an understanding and expectations aligned about what the output is each month or quarter.

Not investing in Project Managers

I rebelled against this for years, mainly because in previous agencies I’d worked with some very bad Project Managers and I ended up project managing my Project Managers! However, once you get beyond the 500k mark you should be thinking about getting a Project Manager in house. Another learning for us on this theme is to again go as senior as you can as if they have agency experience it will shine through. We went junior first and again this didn’t work for us or them as they needed more support than we could provide. There’s a reason Project Managers exist and why they are so valuable agency side. Delivery teams think they can plan and resource but they can’t and it’s often deprioritised vs delivery. A Project Manager can cover their own salaries by avoiding over and under servicing of client accounts and ensuring your margins are correct. Before you get a Project Manager, make sure you do the step before this around standardisation, otherwise when they join you’ll soon realise there’s nothing for them to actually Project Manager because output and timeframes haven’t been defined.

Rent experience. Hire talent.

Surrounded yourself with experienced consultants in finance, HR, legal, sales, and agency growth. These individuals are exceptionally talented and expensive for a reason; they can help avoid some very costly mistakes. Moreover, they can teach you a lot about their relevant discipline. I treat their cost as a benefit to the business because of their value, but it’s also a training opportunity for me to level up and learn.

The talented individuals you hire in-house. They may start more junior, but they will begin to shine through and rise through the ranks.

Starting and growing an agency is a challenging journey full of tough decisions. Looking back, there are certainly things I would have done differently, but these experiences have also taught me valuable lessons. If I had to pick just one piece of advice it would be to hire senior leadership as early as possible. There’s something special about staff that start to see your business as their own and they can be your natural successors regardless of what route you take.