Gini Dietrich

Scaling an Agency: What You Need to Know

By: Gini Dietrich | February 26, 2019 | 
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Scaling an AgencyI have a confession to make…I’m unemployable.

That’s probably not a real confession, if you hang out here much. I’m sure it’s something you’ve gathered.

But it’s OK I’m not employable (at least, that’s what I tell myself).

After running my own agency for years, taking the responsibility and the risks and reaping the rewards, I’ll never be a good employee again.

I wasn’t a good employee when I was employed so today I’m certain I’d make whomever hired me absolutely miserable.

But that isn’t to say scaling an agency has been easy.

It’s not.

It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done—and just when you get good at something, the business changes and you have to learn something new.

But it also is the best employment for me—and it could be for you, as well.

Time (Unfortunately) Cannot Be Scaled

After talking about running virtual organizations last week, I thought it would be interesting to talk about some of the strategies and realities of starting and scaling a business.

Many people start businesses because they are really good at their craft.

Often, they have a different way of doing things and they want to be in control of delivering better service, better results, better creative, or something else that’s just better.

So they go out on their own—starting by freelancing and selling their services.

But there’s a hard limit to how much you can grow on your own.

After all, time cannot be duplicated (trust me, I’ve tried!).

At a certain point you need to hire people to help you—either as employees or contractors—and that often means you’re suddenly an agency that can solve more and bigger problems for more clients.

That’s a key difference between scaling an organization that can exist and thrive without your direct day-to-day involvement, and a lifestyle business that is a great job you create for yourself and maybe a handful of other people.

Scaling an Agency Without Time

There isn’t anything wrong with either.

I talk to lots and lots of agency owners who say they don’t want to have more than five employees. Ever.

And you can’t blame them! People are hard.

But you do have to decide if you’re scaling an agency or if you want a lifestyle business that allows you, well, have a life.

The reason is because there are different skills you need to scale an agency.

You need to be able to manage money, be a self-starter, be able to network and take risks, be excellent at sales, communicate effectively, have high emotional intelligence, lead and develop people—the list of skills goes on and on.

Depending on the type of business you’re running, and the different skills of your existing team or partners, you’ll need to work on and hone different abilities.

Most of them can be learned and improved over time, and you’ll need them all!

Your Past Experience Doesn’t Need to Dictate the Future

When I started my agency, I had come from a toxic environment.

The agency wasn’t toxic, but the person who ran our profit center was.

She would send emails and actually print out memos to put on our desks that were, let’s say, mean at best.

That was a time in my life that we would work 10 hours a day on client stuff—and be 100 percent billable—and then spend another six or seven hours a day on new business.

I once drove home at 2 a.m. and was so exhausted, I got pulled over for drunk driving.

Once the cop realized how tired I was, he escorted me home.

The next morning, I walked into the office to find one of those memos sitting on my desk.

To say it was crushing is putting it mildly.

But I thought that is how you communicate bad news.

So when I started my agency and was quote leading end quote people, I did the same.

It never occurred to me that the reason those memos made me feel so crappy is because it was a terrible way to communicate.

It wasn’t until a managing supervisor we had hired pulled me into my office, closed the door, and said, “These email bombs you throw into people’s inboxes in the middle of the night are not OK.” that I realized I had it all wrong.

I immediately asked friends for recommendations on books to read—and the best one I found was “Crucial Conversations.”

I absorbed that book and immediately changed my ways.

To this day, any bad news or hard conversation happens in person or on Zoom chat. Never, ever in writing.  

Scaling an Agency Like an Entrepreneur

Scaling an agency means you’ll need the skills of an entrepreneur, but you’ll also need some know-how and abilities that are specific to growing an agency.

It means you:

  • Take on more work than you could do alone.
  • Have team members you trust to fulfill their obligations to high standards.
  • Offer solutions to big problems, and clients trust you can make them work.
  • Step out of the day-to-day and let your team do what they do.
  • Spend more of your own time developing your people and your pipeline.

And doing all of that in an increasingly competitive environment means you need to be able to adapt and innovate so your agency stays current.

Staying Current and Competitive

Some of the ways you should keep in mind to do that are:

  • Keep as up-to-date as you can with technology tools and trends. You need to have the latest information about the newest tools and how to use them effectively.
  • Invest in talent retention. You can’t grow if you’re re-training key staff every two years. Find great people, develop them, and make it worth their while to stay with you.
  • Prioritize your own inbound marketing. This is overlooked by a surprising number of companies. They create amazing marketing plans for their clients, but rely on word-of-mouth for new business. This is NOT sustainable.
  • Create a scalable infrastructure. You need to have systems, documentation, answers to questions, procedures, and policies. It sounds boring, but there needs to be a source of information outside of YOU if you’re going to get anything done in a day other than answer questions.
  • And embrace failure! This is a hard one for a lot of people. It sucks to fail. It feels bad. But if it never happens, it means you’re not trying enough new things, or taking enough risks. If you’re not failing from time-to-time, I’d guess you’re not growing, either.

How to Pivot Your Agency When Things Are Blah

Last year was interesting for us.

We were coming off a crazy successful 30-Day Communications Challenge and we just knew people had gotten so much value from that, they couldn’t wait to join the PR Dream Team, our paid membership community.

At the end of the Challenge, we personally invited everyone to take advantage of an annual discount and join us.

Three people joined us.

Out of 2,000.

Three.

I was so frustrated.

WE know how much value is in the PR Dream Team, but for some reason, we weren’t articulating it correctly.

So I went away and licked my wounds, while also discussing with some smart friends.

One friend said, “Why can’t you take what you teach in your mastermind, distill it down to eight weeks, and sell that?”

Oh.

I guess I could.

So we set out to do exactly that.

I made a list of 20 VIPs to beta test it with us.

Ten of them joined us and we were well on our way.

Today, our agency owner program is 77 percent of our business and I can see very clearly how we’re going to scale and grow, all while serving our peers.

Hire a Coach

It doesn’t matter where you are in the growth of your agency—thinking about going out on your own, in the middle of it, or you’ve been around for years—it’s always a good time to work on your own professional development. 

I have a great friend and client who always says, “Why would I try this on my own when you’ve already made the mistakes and will end up saving me money?”

Amen, sister.

If you need help scaling your agency, hire some help!

Every great professional on earth—from athletes to business leaders—have worked with coaches.

If you want to excel at your agency’s growth, be willing to be coachable, motivated, and secure in the fact that we all need some help.

And now it’s your turn. Where are you in the growth of your agency? What’s worked…and what hasn’t?

The comments are yours…or you can join our agency owner channel in the free Spin Sucks community.

Photo by Beatriz Pérez Moya on Unsplash

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.