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Do you feel like you're in no man's land? Growing beyond the $1 Million mark and beyond 7 figures can be a very gray area where the agency is making more money but the owner is working more than ever. This is no man’s land and it's a sign you need a strong leadership team to get the agency to the next level. Today’s guest is an accidental agency owner, like most, who found the transition to Agency CEO reignited her interest in the business. She now runs an agency that serves its clients and aims to have an impact on the community.

Ruth Bernstein is CEO and co-founder of Yard NYC, a New York-based creative agency that helps turn brands into cultural beacons. They’ve worked with brands like Amazon, and Walmart with the belief that purposeful brands can both drive cultural relevancy and good business. After growing as an agency and getting past certain milestones, they have also worked to turn themselves into a brand that creates change.

In this interview, we’ll discuss:

  • How to raise prices and charge what you're worth.
  • Why culture misfits that can cost your agency big opportunities.
  • Navigating no man's land by hiring a leadership team.


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Sponsors and Resources

E2M Solutions: Today's episode of the Smart Agency Masterclass is sponsored by E2M Solutions, a web design and development agency that has provided white-label services for the past 10 years to agencies all over the world. Check out and get 10% off for the first three months of service.


Starting a Female-Led Agency During the Industry’s Mad Men Era

Ruth and her partner Stephan worked on the client side in London and had never worked at an agency. At one point, while working with media companies, they started looking for agency partners in the fashion, wellness, and beauty space. They were looking for partners who could bring strategy to the table, were female-led, and really understood how to work with in-house teams. It was the '90s and still the “Mad Men” era in the agency space and none of the candidates met these requirements.

This is how they became accidental agency owners. They had never worked for an agency or run one but their search on the client side revealed there was a niche for this type of agency. Coming from the client side, they already had credibility and went for big-brand clients right away.

How Culture Misfits Can Cost Your Agency Big Opportunities

Mistakes help us grow. And one of those from Ruth's early agency days was delegating negotiations with a prospect to a consultant. It wasn’t right for the agency and nearly made them lose their first really big project. At the time, Ruth was in charge of strategy and Stephan was heading up the creative side. Neither of them had negotiated an agency deal. Since it was a big client, they figured it would be best to delegate negotiations to a consultant who could help make sure it was solid.

Unfortunately, the consultant’s tone and manner of handling the deal nearly made them lose the client. In hindsight, this person did not align with the agency's culture or vision. The client approached Ruth and Stephan because they knew and trusted them.

As a result, they learned communication is a key piece in showing prospects what it's like working with their agency. There’s nothing wrong with getting help in areas you don’t have experience. However, in this instance, they just needed the confidence to handle it themselves.

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How to Raise Prices and Charge What You're Worth

Pricing is not easy. You have to do your homework and understand competition and what the client is willing to pay, as well as your own value.

As a smaller agency working with both bigger and smaller clients, Yard NYC geared prices toward smaller clients. However, it got awkward when those clients started growing and it was time to raise prices. For a lot of agency owners, this is a really difficult conversation.

Usually, it’s more difficult to raise prices for legacy clients than for new clients. Even some of the mastermind’s members with very successful agencies have gone years without raising prices to legacy clients. Under Jason’s guidance, they learned to look at the opportunity cost between new and old clients. At the point where the difference is just too big, it’s time to approach those clients, have a conversation about value, and explain a price increase. Almost all clients admit they’d been expecting a price raise and had no objections. By raising prices on existing clients you can increase revenue without increasing workload.

A Non-Traditional Approach to Partnering with Clients

After years in the agency business and witnessing success stories for many of her clients, Ruth realized there were other ways to gain from a client’s growth.

The team at Yard NYC came up with a partnership program of co-investing in some client businesses and providing marketing. They work with some clients who receive venture capital funds and saw the clients' business transformation. The value-added and brand-building were great; after five years they would sell and capitalize on the investment.

It’s not the typical client-agency relationship, but for Ruth, it’s an opportunity for getting more involved on the venture side.

How to Navigate No Man's Land By Hiring a Leadership Team

A lot of agencies fall into a kind of “no-mans land” between the $1 Million and $7 Million revenue mark. It’s a point where, after bringing in more people, the agency is making more money. However, agency owners are working more and making less.

This is the point Ruth realized it was time to build an executive leadership team. At some point, you have to bring in people to be the brains of the operation. There comes a moment as you scale where growth starts to demand a stronger foundation; not only for your own freedom, but so your organization can thrive. Surround yourself with people smarter than yourself.

Hiring leaders is a necessary step but one that usually leaves agency owners feeling like the business no longer needs them. Ruth's transition to CEO came naturally since they wanted a female leader for the agency. In a sense, this shift renewed her interest in the business. It was an opportunity to get out of her comfort zone and grow. She didn’t feel like she wasn’t needed but rather she was needed in new ways.

The beauty of having the right team and amazing culture takes a huge load off the agency owner. We’re all creative people who want to make, create, and transform. As you grow, your personality will emanate from the business, which doesn’t mean you have to be involved in every aspect of it. It’s important to build a leadership team and create a culture that encourages growth and involvement. By building a strong culture, you create the basis for the agency to run without you.

How to Make an Impact While Reinvigorating Your Team’s Passion

Doing great work while also having an impact. Agencies are constantly serving their clients and making great things. That takes up a lot of their time. However, agencies also have the power to put their creative abilities to good use. There are many other things you can do to impact on your community.

Ruth wanted to galvanize her team and put their voices out there as a women-led business. They organized a campaign around women's values. It not only created incredible buzz and managed to raise awareness, but it reinvigorated the team and get them excited about making a difference.

Do You Want to Transform Your Agency from a Liability to an Asset?

If you want to be around amazing agency owners that can see what you may not be able to see and help you grow your agency, go to Agency Mastery 360.  Our agency growth program helps you take a 360-degree view of your agency and gain mastery of the 3 pillar systems (attract, convert, scale) so you can create predictability, wealth, and freedom.