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Have you considered the potential for growth through a strategic acquisition? How do you anticipate the agency owner's role evolving during an acquisition process? What steps can be taken to ensure a seamless integration once the deal is finalized? Our featured guest today has undergone a significant transformation, transitioning from white label to a more comprehensive service offering and shifting from project-based to retainer-based services. Now, she embarks on a new journey for her agency as she navigates a strategic acquisition. Tune in to hear about the evolution of her career and what she’s learned about setting the course for a smooth agency transition and post-acquisition planning.

Leah Messina is the founder and CEO of Sinuate Media, a full-service digital marketing agency that works as equal parts data analytics, creative genius, and strategic mastermind for its clients. Leah recounts her transition from the entertainment industry to establishing her own agency in New Mexico, highlighting key milestones such as the shift to a retainer model and the expansion of services through a strategic acquisition.

In this episode, we’ll discuss:

  • The downside of the white label model.

  • Shifting to a retainer model.

  • Seeking to grow through a strategic acquisition.

  • Post-acquisition planning and integration.

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From White Label to Reinvention: Adapting to Market Shifts

Leah always wanted to have her own business and, after working in digital publishing and working at a small digital agency, she fell in love with this evolving industry and felt drawn to the emerging technology.

Leah's agency opened for business in 2006 and initially operated as a white label agency, providing services to larger media agencies who would then resell them to clients. While this arrangement allowed her team to work on prestigious projects, it also relegated them to the background, handling the day-to-day marketing tasks and creative execution.

The economic downturn revealed the drawbacks of the white label model, with clients delaying payments and seeking to internalize services. This shift led to a substantial loss of business, as white label clients accounted for approximately 70% of their revenue at the time.

Determined to overcome this setback Leah thought about some of the requests they sometimes got from customers, and identified an opportunity to diversify their services.

The shift was not easy, as it meant redefining the agency's business model and finding new ways to generate revenue. By embracing it, she showcased her willingness to embrace change and steer the agency towards a more sustainable and diverse future.

Transitioning to a Retainer Pricing Model

As she reevaluated her service offering, Leah also started thinking about the direction of the business and making strategic changes to adapt to the evolving needs of clients and the industry, which included a shift from project-based work to retainers.

With projects, the focus was on delivering work efficiently and quickly, while retainers required building long-term relationships and serving as advisors to clients. This shift necessitated more integration with clients, being involved in early conversations, and offering solutions to operational issues that could impact marketing efforts.

During this transition, Leah’s agency was able to keep some key clients who were in the process of launching new businesses, which was a definite win. Apart from that, attracting new clients and retaining existing ones demanded additional sales efforts, such as public speaking and marketing training.

One of the primary challenges encountered in this shift to retainer-based work was persuading clients accustomed to giving orders to seek advice instead, which took positioning themselves as trusted advisors by showcasing their expertise. Additionally, Leah's team had to find a balance between providing valuable resources and not undermining the positions of marketing directors or CMOs.

Charting a New Course for Growth with a Strategic Acquisition

After two years of putting a heavy focus on the sales side of the business, Leah has been able to step away from the day-to-day operations and the role of project manager. Now she’s focusing on the business development side.

Looking ahead, her plans for the agency include integrating AI into their work and expanding through acquisition, specifically a web development company to enhance their services and capabilities further. In terms of fit, Leah focused on cultural fit, niche expertise, profitability, and the retention of key personnel as the main features to ensure a smooth transition. She also looked for an agency with a good process that didn’t require immediate huge changes. This way, they could just get to work and optimize it over time.

Right now, her mayor concern is how to integrate the teams and manage client expectations. In some cases, this requires keeping the acquisition a secret from clients for a period during the transition. By maintaining continuity and gradually introducing changes, businesses can mitigate potential concerns and ensure a positive experience for all parties involved.

Post-Acquisition Planning and Navigating Integration

During the acquisition process, Leah has learned the importance of good documentation and having a solid set of books and proper records when considering buying a company. Without accurate and comprehensive documentation, it becomes challenging to justify the acquisition and make informed decisions about the business's financial health and potential for growth.

Agency owners can run into a few gotchas once the past owners leave and the hard part starts with the integration so it’s important to ensure the sellers are coming from a place of transparency and accuracy in financial reporting.

Finally, being very conscious of the need for ongoing business development and strategic planning post-acquisition, Leah is now thinking about developing new retainer opportunities. This will involve taking a fresh look at the industry after the acquisition and finding new opportunities to establish a business that drives recurring revenue and complements its existing services.

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

Looking to dig deeper into your agency's potential? Check out our Agency Blueprint. Designed for agency owners like you, our Agency Blueprint helps you uncover growth opportunities, tackle obstacles, and craft a customized blueprint for your agency's success.

Direct download: Leah_Messina_NoAD.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 6:00am MDT

Are you the bottleneck in your own agency's growth? Does the weight of every decision rest on your shoulders, leaving you overworked and your team underutilized? This guest is a successful agency owner who found himself in the industry after being laid off during the global economic crisis. He turned this setback into an opportunity and started his own business. However, as the agency expanded, he realized he was hindering progress. He had to shift away from the superhero mindset and empower his team to move forward. Tune in to learn how unexpected events can lead to new beginnings and the importance of seizing opportunities.

Irwin Hau is a successful entrepreneur running two agencies: Chromatix, an agency focused on stunning web design that drives users to engage faster; and ConversionCow, a SaaS focused on lead conversions. He shares his journey from working at top ad agencies to starting his own businesses. Despite being made redundant during the Global Financial Crisis, Irwin took the opportunity to venture out on his own in a move that ultimately shaped his success in the business world.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Unlocking agency potential by shedding the superhero mentality.

  • Rethinking agency roles.

  • The Lion Framework.

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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 e2msolutions.com/smartagency and get 10% off for the first three months of service.

Going from Redundancy to Resilience

The global financial crisis of fifteen years ago was a pivotal moment for Irwin. Despite having worked at the top two agencies in Melbourne and loving his job, he found himself made redundant – a harsh reality that could have easily crushed his spirit. However, Irwin's philosophy was simple: life's too short to wallow in self-pity, and true character is revealed in how one picks himself up.

Instead of giving up, he seized this unexpected turn of events as an opportunity to pursue his long-harbored entrepreneurial dreams. Yet, as any business owner knows, the path to success is rarely a straight line. He faced challenges, struggled to find clients, and had to take on low-paying projects just to keep the business afloat. However, his passion for making websites fueled his resilience and he continued to push forward.

This unwavering passion fueled Irwan’s resilience, enabling him to push forward despite the obstacles. To him, true resilience isn't merely about bouncing back from failure; it's about adapting, growing, and thriving in the face of challenges. It's a mental toughness and determination to keep going, even when the road ahead seems insurmountable.

Shedding the Superhero Mentality to Unlock Agency Potential

Irwin understood at some point he was becoming the bottleneck at his agency. Everything had to go through him and the first step to solving that was learning to let go.

His initial reluctance to delegate stemmed from a fear of losing control and a belief that he was the only one who could do things the right way. However, as he reflected on his own mindset and the impact it was having on his team and his business, he recognized holding onto this mentality was hindering growth and limiting the potential of his team.

Ultimately, he was working more hours and was constantly tired. The fact that everyone came to him for everything slowed the overall process. Instead of being the central figure, he should’ve been the one bringing superstars together to build something great. The more he was tying himself to every project, the harder it was to scale. In the end, people didn’t necessarily want “Irwin’s results,” they wanted the results Irwin’s team got.

Ask yourself which “line” your agency is currently on:
1. Unfocused line
2. Emergency line
3. Table line

Whenever you find yourself in the emergency line, remember the easiest job in the world is the hardest to do by yourself. Yet, the hardest job can become the most rewarding when you have a team to support you. Trust in your team and rely on them to help you get through the emergency line(s).

Rethinking Agency Roles: Is Someone Else the Better Leader?

Once he decided to address the bottleneck situation, Irwin called his team. Following the “important and urgent matrix,” he instructed them to take care of all important and urgent tasks themselves while deciding what to delegate, delay, or eliminate from the rest.

They also conducted an exercise where mentally every member of the team, including himself, was fired. Then they wrote down who they needed and wanted on the team based on their overall goals and whether they were the right fit for the role.

This exercise can help agency owners not only assess the team but also whether they are the best suited to lead the team or if someone else could be doing a better job. Once you let go of your ego, you may find that delegating most of your workload would greatly improve the overall process so you can get to a place where your team can deliver amazing results without your involvement at any stage of the process. This way, you’ll be closer to the goal of sticking to the parts of the business you really enjoy and reducing working hours.

The Lion Framework for Being Productive Rather Than Being Busy

Most agency owners start their business to do something they’re passionate about while creating more freedom for themselves. However, they often go from being a slave to someone else to being a slave for themselves. During this year’s Elevate event, mastermind member Manish Dudharejia, Founder and CEO of E2M, spoke about the Lion framework. He drew parallels between the hunting habits of lions and the need for agency owners to emulate their balanced approach to work and rest.

It is okay to rest and space out. Don’t fill your day up with activity so you don’t feel lazy and unproductive. Whenever you’re not working you’re exercising or thinking you’ll end up burned out and never have the time to think about the things you need to think about.

Just because you’re moving doesn’t mean you’re going forward, so think about being productive rather than being busy. Being busy all day is not a guarantee that you’re actually being productive and getting things done.

Leaning on Your Agency Experience to Empathize with Your Clients

For Irwin, the biggest success in his career has been starting a business and seeing it through, despite challenges and uncertainties. Turning what was just an idea into a business didn’t happen overnight, but with dedication and perseverance, he was able to build something.

He encourages agency owners to move forward and try, even when faced with obstacles and setbacks. Success is not just about hitting financial goals or being acquired by another company, but about following through with your ideas and commitments.

Moreover, by going through the process of getting from idea to actual business agency owners are better able to understand and relate to clients who come to them for help in designing and building their businesses. This empathy allows them to provide more accurate guidance and support, based on their own experiences and lessons learned.

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

Looking to dig deeper into your agency's potential? Check out our Agency Blueprint. Designed for agency owners like you, our Agency Blueprint helps you uncover growth opportunities, tackle obstacles, and craft a customized blueprint for your agency's success.


Have you ever felt like a broken record with your team? Do you find yourself repeating the agency's goals and vision, only to be met with glazed-over expressions? Have you effectively communicated the agency’s direction and vision? It’s a common struggle for agency owners to feel they’re desperately trying to rally the troops behind a unified purpose, yet somehow missing that elusive "click" of genuine understanding and buy-in. Today’s guest is a specialist in the art of leadership alignment and how to foster authentic goal comprehension that permeates every level of your organization. Learn how leaders can achieve authentic goal understanding by talking, not just telling, and invest in aligning their teams to the business's direction for success.

Julie Williamson is the managing partner at The Karrikins Group, a small boutique consultancy focused on helping leaders align and deliver on shared goals. She discusses the need for clear and easy-to-articulate goals, highlighting that repetition does not equate to clarity, and stresses the importance of engaging in productive conversations with team members to ensure understanding and alignment.

In this episode, we’ll discuss:

  • Fostering authentic goal understanding among your agency team.

  • Making sure the path toward the goal is clear.

  • Navigating trade-offs and unified execution with your team.

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How Leaders Can Foster Understanding of Agency Goals

As a specialist particularly interested in executive engagement, Julie works with business owners that are having a hard time aligning with their teams to pursue a common goal.

It could happen that they haven’t really defined said goals but often business owners make the mistake of assuming that clarity is measured in volume – the more they repeat or emphasize a goal, the more likely their team will understand and align with it. However, this is not how alignment works. This approach often falls short because it fails to engage employees in productive conversations that help them truly grasp the goals and their significance.

One of the things she encourages in these cases is to talk, not tell, when it comes to setting and communicating goals. Leaders need to invest in meaningful conversations with team members to ensure they not only understand the goals but also feel connected to them on a personal level. By involving employees in discussions about the goals, leaders can help them internalize the objectives and understand the impact of their work on achieving them.

One of the key aspects of engaging in these conversations, as Julie explains, is ensuring that team members can articulate the goals in their own words and understand the underlying drivers behind them. This deeper level of understanding will allow them to make informed decisions and choices that align with the shared outcomes.

Bridging Individual Roles to the Overarching Purpose

To ensure each team member understands and works towards a common goal there must be consistency in how every member is contributing to the overall goal. 

Just because the goal is clear it doesn’t guarantee that the way to the goal is clear. Each individual may have a different perspective on how to achieve the goal based on their role and responsibilities within the organization.

Therefore, leaders must clearly articulate the goal and ensure everyone understands what it means in the context of their own work. Otherweise, different employees may end up having their own interpretations of thegoal and behave differently in moments when they need to use their discretionary decision-making skills.  

To address this challenge, leaders must create a shared understanding of the goal and how each individual's efforts contribute to it. This can be achieved through open communication, collaboration, and a clear alignment of roles and responsibilities. By fostering a culture of teamwork and shared purpose, organizations can ensure that everyone is working towards a common goal in a coordinated and effective manner.

Empowering Leaders to Navigate Trade-Offs and Unified Execution

As a leader, try to look for people who share your core values because this is how to find the ones you don’t have to manage once you communicate the overall goals. This can be especially challenging once you start to scale. As you start hiring more people and getting more and more degrees of separation from the senior management, focus on building better leaders.

Invest as much in building leaders as in building technical skills because as your agency grows. You need strong leaders who can guide and inspire their teams towards achieving the core goals and growing in the same direction.

One of the key strategies Julie has been implementing is to encourage leaders to talk about trade-offs. Leaders often make decisions without fully understanding the trade-offs involved, which can impact the overall success of the organization. Even if they don’t fully realize it, leaders are making trade-offs with every decision they make; it may be profits vs. revenue, long term vs. short term, or reliability and predictability vs. variability and risk. Help your up and coming leaders understand the trade-offs and how to voice them because you may find their idea of what the trade-offs is different than the one you have.

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

Looking to dig deeper into your agency's potential? Check out our Agency Blueprint. Designed for agency owners like you, our Agency Blueprint helps you uncover growth opportunities, tackle obstacles, and craft a customized blueprint for your agency's success.


What do you think is holding you back from scaling your agency? Have you received coaching? And if you have, have you implemented their recommended measures? On today’s episode we talk about agency owners’ accountability and why reaching out for help can be useless unless you understand what you want. Scaling an agency is hardly something you can do independently. You’ll need support and community along the way. A lot of the times the most important step to growing is figuring out if you’re ready to change. Get ready for some hard truths and expert advice.

As Agency Scale Specialist on our team, Darby Copenhaver talks with hundreds of agency owners and finds a common thread when it comes to what’s holding them back from scaling their businesses. Seeking help is the first step, of course, but you’ll also need the right support and the willingness to make the necessary changes.

Many agency owners get as far as knowing to ask for help but then don’t follow through, ultimately rendering any investment in coaching useless. Tune in to see why showing up consistently is the most important thing you can to and how accountability and community play a big role in the journey of growing an agency.

In this episode, we’ll discuss:

  • Are you ready to accept help?

  • Showing up makes all the difference.

  • The agency transformation blueprint.

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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 e2msolutions.com/smartagency and get 10% off for the first three months of service.

The Roadblock to Agency Success: Are You Ready to Accept Help?

More than once we’ve had agency owners contact our team saying they need help and then they can’t even clear an afternoon for a free call to talk about what’s getting in the way of their growth. If there’s something that has really surprised Darby is how many people are just not prepared to get help.

First, they need to recognize they want to change and get to a point where the pain of not changing is greater than the pain to change.

Agency owners need to be open to receiving support to progress. Not every form of assistance may be suitable for everyone, whether it's from a mentor, a coach, or a community. The real challenge lies in being receptive to help and taking the necessary actions to effect changes in their businesses.

In reality, a lot of agency owners feel they want to step up to the next level but don’t want to risk what they have. This means that whenever something doesn’t go according to plan they’ll falter and reject the help. On the contrary, hard periods are when you’ll need to invest the most, learn valuable lessons, and surround yourself with the right people rather than isolate yourself.

How Showing Up Propels Agency Owners Forward

People who actually make it to the top have some things in common:

  • They’re curious.

  • They’re humble.

  • Their outlook is that they’ll either win or learn.

The more comfortable you get with your agency the more you’ll feel you have to lose by trying something risky with the business. However, remember you can always start again as long as you have something to offer. How many agency owners do you think tanked their businesses because they tried something new? Not nearly as many as you may think.

Both Jason and Darby have repeatedly seen that the agency owners who consistently show up, put in the work, and follow through on their commitments are more likely to see positive results. By being consistent in their efforts and showing up for their team members and peers, they can build momentum and make progress toward their goals.

The Agency Transformation Blueprint: Clarity, Focus, and Finding Your Tribe

Once you commit and are willing to make the necessary changes, you’ll need a clear idea of what you want, where you’re going, and a community.

Too many agency owners seem to be waiting for everything to fall into place magically but this just doesn’t happen. Running an agency is definitely more of a marathon than a sprint and you’ll have to learn to pace yourself and have a sense of where you’re going and what it is that you do really well that’ll get you there. If you were getting paid on performance only, who would you do it for? Who is it that you can help the most and deliver the most value to? That’s your starting point. Once you do that, it’s all about how to get your audience’s attention and find the right team to get you there.

Setting clear goals and knowing your direction is crucial for success and defining your target audience and focusing on delivering results will help you create a solid foundation for growth and development. This is where having a tribe or community to support you through the journey becomes super important. Whether it’s mastermind groups, networking events, or one-on-one interactions, find your tribe and actively engage with them. A community will help keep things in perspective and constantly challenge you to stay accountable to your goals and overall direction.

Turning Obstacles into Lessons and Finding Strength in Community

There will always be challenges and difficult times in business, but it is important to view these obstacles as opportunities for growth and learning. Agency life has many highs and lows, and understanding can help you develop resilience and adaptability to navigate through tough times.

In the agency industry, you’re either approaching the storm, in the storm or just got out of the storm. In any case, the storm is always there right around the corner. It doesn’t have to be something bad, a storm can be a pressure test and could help you see things you need to see.

Being part of a community can also help you realize everyone is growing at a different pace and that while not all years bring big wins, they all bring important lessons that will prepare you for an amazing year ahead. Furthermore, a year represents a very short part of your agency journey and one bad year is not the end as long as you’re focusing on building the right foundation for your ultimate goal.

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

Looking to dig deeper into your agency's potential? Check out our Agency Blueprint. Designed for agency owners like you, our Agency Blueprint helps you uncover growth opportunities, tackle obstacles, and craft a customized blueprint for your agency's success.

Direct download: Darby_and_Jason_-_E2M_ad_09_47.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 6:00am MDT

Are you establishing genuine connections with your target audience and clients? Have you developed a compelling brand narrative that resonates with your audience to cultivate a dedicated following? Our featured guest today played a pivotal role in shaping the iconic brand identity of Red Bull, which has become a benchmark for creating captivating content. He shares Red Bull’s strategy for creating engaging content, the initial missteps he addressed regarding staffing decisions and much more. Learn from his diverse experiences in the agency space and his insight into creating brand fandom.

Geoffrey DeStefano is the founder and CEO of Brand Programming Studios, a strategic and creative content studio that bridges the gap between entertainment and marketing. Geoffrey is a seasoned professional with experience in both the advertising/marketing and entertainment/media industries. He shares insights from his time at Red Bull's media and creative agency during the brand's growth in North America. He discusses transitioning from the advertising business to the television industry and working on popular shows like Mad About You and Friends.

In this episode, we’ll discuss:

  • Keys to compelling brand stories.

  • Creating true connections to develop brand fandom.

  • Boosting agency performance through better leadership.

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Sponsors and Resources

Clutch: This episode is sponsored by Clutch, the #1 marketplace for agencies just like yours. With their innovative process, your agency will be matched with highly motivated buyers looking for the exact services you offer. Leave the lead generation to Clutch and let your team focus on delivery. Get started for FREE at clutch.co/smartagency by creating your agency profile.

Red Bull’s Playbook for Creating Engaging Content

Geoffrey left the ad business to work as a studio executive on shows like Mad About You and Dawson’s Creek when an old friend contacted him about an ailing agency that needed his expert advice. At that agency, he helped turn things around and became part of the team that made Red Bull a brand that pushed the limits by doing things differently.

One of the things they discussed when trying to establish Red Bull as a rebel and unique brand was leveraging entertainment content. They truly excelled at content creation, with a strong focus on pushing the limits and doing things differently. Years later, Red Bull has become a leader in the marketing space creating engaging and unique events that serve as content generators.

Red Bull's approach to content creation has set a strong playbook for other brands to follow. With Red Bull Media House, a separate entity focused on producing and distributing content, they’ve been able to monetize its marketing content, a strategy that has proven to be successful for the brand. By leveraging entertainment content for the brand, Red Bull has engaged with consumers in a meaningful way and created a strong connection with its audience. With this, they’ve been able to build a loyal fan base and establish itself as a leader in the industry by thinking outside the box and taking risks.

3 Keys to Crafting Compelling Brand Stories

Brands can tell wonderful stories that resonate with their audience and create a lasting impact. How can you guide them to discovering these stories? For Geoffrey, there are three very important aspects:

  1. Talk to clients about giving their marketing a sense of purpose. It has to be informative, engaging, or entertaining or no one will pay attention to it.

  2. Influencer marketing is like word of mouth on steroids. It may not be seen as authentic as when it first exploded but it’s very effective and there’s a way to do it right. As a brand, don’t give up control of how your product will be presented, and make sure to search for influencers who line up with your brand.

  3. Driving fandom. Fandom goes way beyond just liking a brand. It has to do with creating passion and loyalty for that brand. Building fandom through brand passion involves creating a strong emotional connection with consumers. If you can find a way to create the level of fandom that saved brands like Apple and Jeep, you’ll have an audience that can get you through hard times.

Personal Interaction as a Powerful Tool to Create Connection

Personal interaction is a key component in building relationships and fostering loyalty in business. It is particularly relevant in the agency world, especially in the context of building and maintaining client relationships.

This is where a podcast becomes a powerful tool agency owners can use to create a personal connection with clients and prospects. By sharing insights, thoughts, and expertise through a podcast, they can showcase their personality and expertise, allowing clients to get to know them on a deeper level. This personal connection can lead to stronger relationships and increased loyalty from clients.

Once you’ve established yourself as an expert, you won’t need to pitch. You’ll be invited to projects and assess whether or not your agency would be a good fit with the brand but you won’t be asked to compete for the company’s attention.

Boosting Agency Performance Through Amazing Leadership and Trust

Agencies go through several inflection points while growing their teams and clientele. At some point what worked before won’t be as effective and you have to adapt. When he came in as an expert consultant to help Red Bull grow as a brand, Geoffrey noticed a need to improve communications and how the team was staffed.

If you’re having similar problems at your agency, look at your leadership team and see what you need to fix to ensure strong leadership at the top and set the tone for the entire organization. By ensuring that the leadership team consists of top performers, the rest of the team is more likely to follow suit and excel in their roles.

Geoffrey focuses on two main issues:

  • Effective communication. As he spent some time at the Red Bull offices, he noticed everyone spent their day emailing each other. This is a creative business and interaction is a very important part of sparking that creativity. So he shut off the email services for 48 hours to incentivize communication in their open-space office.

  • Trust as a form of empowerment. Geoffrey believes in giving people reign to innovate. This motivates people once they feel free to create and grow beyond their skill set. It’s not about giving up control but rather giving people the space to develop and grow.

Trusting Your Gut to Weed Out Toxic Team Members and Preserve Morale

As human beings, we have innate instincts that can guide us in making decisions in difficult situations, which can apply when it comes to hiring and managing employees. Trusting your instincts and being able to act on them can prevent toxic individuals from negatively impacting the team and the organization as a whole.

Geoffrey encourages agency owners to use their instincts to stay vigilant and proactive in addressing issues within a team. One or two individuals with negative attitudes can bring down the morale of the entire team. As a manager or leader, it is crucial to recognize when someone is not the right fit for the team and take swift action. Delaying the decision to remove a toxic team member can lead to bigger problems down the line.

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

Looking to dig deeper into your agency's potential? Check out our Agency Blueprint. Designed for agency owners like you, our Agency Blueprint helps you uncover growth opportunities, tackle obstacles, and craft a customized blueprint for your agency's success.

Direct download: Geoffrey_DeStefano_-Clutch_ad_18_09.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 6:00am MDT

Do you have a clear understanding of the client acquisition channels needed to grow your agency? Is your agency vulnerable to leadership or a client leaving? Today’s guest built his agency working with venture capitalists and private equity firms and found great success in that area, so much so that he never worried about client acquisition again.

More recently, however, he’s been focusing more on setting up the channels that guarantee his agency’s growth and continued success. Learn more about his unconventional path to agency ownership and his commitment to quality over rushing to ship subpar work.

David Baeza is the founder and CEO of Buttered Toast, an agency that works with the world's leading Venture Capitalists and Private Equity firms. They focus on growth architecture and lead generation, delivering powerful website designs, data-driven whitepapers, compelling ads, and customer testimonial videos. David shares his journey to becoming the founder of his own agency, his unique approach to pricing, and his areas of focus for future improvement.

In this episode, we’ll discuss:

  • Creating multiple acquisition channels.

  • Charging on tangible results.

  • Mastering client acquisition. 

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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 e2msolutions.com/smartagency and get 10% off for the first three months of service.

Leaving a CMO Job and Starting an Agency to Serve Clients

Creating an agency was never David's plan. However, his role as CMO at a venture-backed company in Boston demanded extensive daily commuting, especially as he was starting a family.

When he eventually left that position, a VC board member invited him to join as a consultant and help some of their tech companies. With time, the same client asked him to build a company around that consulting gig.

It took a little convincing from friends, but he ended up creating his company and once that first client opened up their VC network and portfolio, the work started to pour in.

With only his prior knowledge in hiring agencies but enough experience building a marketing department, he set out to do just that and built a marketing department that venture-backed companies could reach to as needed.

Embracing the Challenge of Creating Multiple Client Acquisition Channels

Given the specific moment in time when he started his agency, for a long time, David didn’t have to worry about client prospecting. Clients just kept coming.

Even once he started to remove himself from operations and spent the majority of his time in business development, it kept working. This continuous client flow remained the same during the pandemic while many other businesses were struggling. However, after 2022 the economy took a turn, and VC referrals dried up. His agency was left vulnerable and so they started focusing on their client acquisition strategy.

Suddenly, David became very aware of the need to have multiple client acquisition channels in place to ensure a steady flow of clients. Now he has an upcoming book in the hopes of getting future speaking gigs, as well as a podcast, and weekly YouTube videos.

Even though he now understands the importance of having an inbound channel, strategic partnerships, and outbound channels to balance the agency's client acquisition efforts, he wishes he’d started these efforts sooner to safeguard against potential disruptions and maintain a consistent flow of clients.

However, the best time to start developing those channels if you haven’t already is RIGHT NOW, so he knows he’s on the right track.

Charging Based on Delivering Tangible Results

Since the beginning, David had a unique approach to pricing his agency's services, emphasizing charging for outcomes, rather than by the hour. From his background as a growth marketer and CMO closely aligned with the balance sheet, David believes in getting paid for delivering tangible results for his clients, rather than billing for the time spent on a project.

When creating a statement of work for a client, he takes the time to understand their true objectives and desired outcomes. This involves unpacking the client's initial request and getting to the root of their goal. This way, he ensures that the work being done will directly contribute to the desired results.

Charging for outcomes also allows his agency to position themselves as strategic partners rather than just vendors, which to David is only possible given that they’ve been in the client’s shoes. By working closely with clients to achieve their goals and being transparent about what is achievable, David builds trust and long-term relationships with his clients. This approach not only benefits the client by driving real results but also allows Buttered Toast to demonstrate their value and expertise in the industry.

Mastering Client Acquisition: Setting the Stage for Successful Engagements

David likes to start a new client relationship with a discovery call where the client answers ten questions about their business. Among other things, he tries to get a clear idea of how marketing is accountable to the organization. After that call, he has a very good idea of the KPIs the client is looking for and the levers that need to be pulled.

He’ll usually follow that up with an email detailing the client’s answer to every question and an invitation to add any corrections or additional information before moving on to the next stage.

In the future, he’ll start working on setting up the next meeting during that first call. This simple yet crucial step can help streamline the communication process. Setting the next meeting keeps the momentum going and ensures all parties are on the same page. Additionally, it demonstrates professionalism and organization, which leaves a positive impression on the client.

Finally, another crucial aspect of conversion rate optimization is understanding the client's budget. To avoid losing deals, you need to discuss budget expectations, understand the resources available, and align proposals with the client's budget. Even though David’s conversion rate is pretty good, he admits deals lost in the past have probably been due to omitting this simple step.

How to Navigate Leadership Changes

CMOs get replaced all the time at tech companies and for agencies it means there’s a 50% chance that they’ll keep the marketing agency and 50% that they’ll cut it. Navigating leadership changes is a common challenge that many agencies face.

One key strategy for agencies is to establish strong relationships with their clients and be proactive and transparent in their communication. Agencies can build trust and credibility with clients, regardless of leadership changes.

Approach the new CMO right away to understand their goals and priorities and communicate the agency's capabilities and how you can support their vision. Usually, they don’t want to have to manage a team; they want more freedom and support to succeed in their goals. Start by trying to sell them on a foot-in-the-door project instead of trying to commit them to the relationship right away. Present yourself as a valuable ally and do what you have to do to get them excited about starting the relationship, even if it means traveling to meet in person, which they’ll appreciate since few people are willing to do it nowadays.

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

Looking to dig deeper into your agency's potential? Check out our Agency Blueprint. Designed for agency owners like you, our Agency Blueprint helps you uncover growth opportunities, tackle obstacles, and craft a customized blueprint for your agency's success.

Direct download: David_Baeza_-_E2M_ad_12_39.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 6:00am MDT

Do you feel trapped in an operation tunnel vision? Are you ready to shift your attention toward strategies for agency growth? Our guest today initially viewed strategy sessions as a luxury she could only afford once her agency had achieved significant success. However, upon receiving guidance from a coach to address alignment issues, she and her partner began scheduling daily strategy sessions and prioritizing working on the business rather than just in it. Tune in to hear about her accidental path to agency ownership and her vision for the future after implementing more intentional planning for growth.

Samantha Martin is the co-owner of Prime Marketing Agency, a female-led experiential agency that creates epic brand experiences that leave a lasting impression. She discusses her entrepreneurial spirit and how she navigated through different roles before landing in her current position.

In this episode, we’ll discuss:

  • Navigating cashflow constraints.

  • Unshackling from RFPs and into a more relationship-building model.

  • Prioritizing strategic development.

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Sponsors and Resources

Clutch: This episode is sponsored by Clutch, the #1 marketplace for agencies just like yours. With their innovative process, your agency will be matched with highly motivated buyers looking for the exact services you offer. Leave the lead generation to Clutch and let your team focus on delivery. Get started for FREE at clutch.co/smartagency by creating your agency profile.

The 0 to 100 Leap from Freelancer to Co-Ownership

During her student years, Samantha was a member of a dance group that toured the US and Canada for various gigs contracted through an agency. This is where she ended up getting her start in the agency industry. Throughout the years, she kept working different gigs and staying open to possibilities working at different agencies at a time.

Eventually, the start of the pandemic brought a unique opportunity to work at an agency startup, seeing its growth from the ground up. It was an important experience she took to her next opportunity, where she could become co-owner of an agency she’d previously worked at.

It was practically a zero to 100 growth from being a gig worker at several agencies to owning a 50% stake in one. It was scary and risky but she knew how the business worked and felt ready to figure out her new role as owner.

Navigating Cashflow Constraints and Cultural Complexities

So far, the most challenging aspect of agency ownership for Samantha has been cashflow. As an agency that actually keeps and maintains equipment like foodtrucks, trailers, and large rigs, they’ve found it challenging to manage all these pieces while still accessing more freedom to grow the business quickly. They also have warehouses in three different cities in Canada, which adds to their operational expenses.

Furthermore, while growing a team has been incredibly rewarding and recruiting both English-speaking and French-speaking professionals offers a great advantage for the agency, it can also be a challenge for the owners. Basically, there are cultural differences between both that they are actively working to smooth.

After the pandemic, the agency has been fortunate to have a steady flow of leads and, while the number of clients has decreased, they have acquired larger accounts and diversified their portfolio across various industries.

In the immediate future, Sam wants to focus on getting to a point where the agency has a healthy amount of both big and smaller clients, which not only provides stability in terms of revenue but also allows for better resource planning and team motivation. There will also be a focus on clearly defining which clients they want to service and building the specialized teams to address those particular needs.

Unshackling from RFPs

As her agency grows, Sam is also working on feeling more empowered to step away from some of the less-than-ideal parts of agency life, especially when it comes to filling RPFs. Requests for Proposal are already a controversial figure in the industry, with most agency owners hating them and striving to get to a point where they feel comfortable enough to deny them.

RFPs are often time-consuming, costly, and offer no guarantee of securing the project, given the intense competition from multiple agencies. Successful agency owners have chosen to avoid responding to RFPs altogether, citing the time and cost involved in the process. These owners choose to focus on building relationships, showcasing their expertise through other means, and strategically selecting which RFPs to respond to. This allows them to not rely on the traditional RFP process and it’s where Sam wants to steer her agency in the future since she considers the model is slowly dying.

Heading to a Relationship-Building Model

Shifting the focus from simply responding to Request for Proposals also allows agency owners to position themselves as advisors engaging with clients and prospects.

Instead of spending time and effort on crafting proposals and competing with other agencies can often outweigh the potential benefits. Instead, agencies can decline RFPs respectfully and propose alternative solutions, such as paid discovery sessions or consultations, to demonstrate their expertise and value to clients.

By reframing the conversation and showcasing their unique insights and capabilities, agencies can attract clients who value quality over price and are willing to invest in achieving the best results. This approach not only helps agencies stand out in a crowded marketplace but also fosters stronger, more collaborative relationships with clients based on trust and mutual understanding.

Escaping Operational Tunnel Vision by Prioritizing Strategic Agency Development

Part of saying no to RFPs is putting more focus on the bigger picture, which is a must for agency owners to continue to grow their business. After being in the weeds day after day working on accounts, for Sam it was luxury to shift to working on the business instead of in the business.

Initially, it was almost a foreign concept for her to take time from day-to-day operations to work on planning for the bigger picture. It seemed silly to take two hours every day to just talk about the business when she and her partner talked about different aspects of operations on a daily basis. However, it was suggested by a coach that saw Sam and her partner’s issues with the business were easily solvable by being more intentional about working on strategy. Now she can clearly see how this intentional focus on strategic planning and development has been beneficial for their company and has allowed them to better serve their clients and team.

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

Looking to dig deeper into your agency's potential? Check out our Agency Blueprint. Designed for agency owners like you, our Agency Blueprint helps you uncover growth opportunities, tackle obstacles, and craft a customized blueprint for your agency's success.

Direct download: Samantha_Martin_-_Clutch_ad_12_55.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 6:00am MDT

Are you considering starting an agency but feel like it might be too late to do so? Our featured guest today had a thriving career in PR and successfully managed an agency for nearly two decades before deciding the missing piece in that career was building and growing her own agency. With an extensive client network who already knew and trusted her work, her agency reached seven figures in just one year! Now, she contemplates the next steps for her and her team. Listen to discover how she achieved rapid agency growth and valuable tips for retaining key employees.

Amy Littleton is the owner of Stretch PR, a full-service creative public relations agency that stretches to deliver results beyond expectations. Amy shares her journey of building a seven-figure agency in just one year, the lessons learned, and insights into why she decided to leave a long career in the industry successfully running a different agency to start her own.

In this episode, we’ll discuss:

  • Agency structuring for sustainable success.

  • Building a seven-figure agency in one year.

  • Setting ambitious revenue goals.

  • Three questions to ask before exiting your business.

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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 e2msolutions.com/smartagency and get 10% off for the first three months of service.

Why Trust is the Foundation of a Great Team Leader

Amy's introduction to the world of public relations began with an internship at General Mills in Minneapolis, where she embarked on a nationwide media tour promoting Columbo yogurt. This initial experience in creating events and generating newsworthy moments paved the way for her subsequent role in Chicago, where she led an agency for several years.

Given the reins to manage the agency and make decisions on behalf of the owners, Amy was entrusted with a high level of autonomy, allowing her to hone her skills in agency management. The owners recognized Amy's capabilities and confidently relied on her to drive financial results and effectively lead the team. This level of trust empowered Amy to exercise her decision-making freedom, take calculated risks, and ultimately steer the agency toward success.

One of the key lessons Amy learned during that time was the importance of trust in managing people. She learned to look at each team member beyond their functions at the agency and to support them as people during significant transitions such as starting a family or sick parents. Trust is the foundation of any successful team and is essential for fostering collaboration, communication, and accountability.

However, as the years went by she started to think about the next chapter in her career and realized she needed to build something of her own before the end of her career. It was the one thing she felt she hadn’t done in business, so she took the leap and made it happen.

Laying the Foundation: Structuring for Sustainable Agency Success

The hardest part of agency ownership for Amy in this first year has been client management. As the owner, she feels the weight of ensuring that clients are well-served and remain long-term partners, all while focusing on establishing a sustainable business model, team development, and policies. While these were tasks she had undertaken before, it is now her responsibility to create a cohesive structure for all these elements to function effectively.

When it came to expanding her team, Amy faced a significant decision: transitioning from relying on independent contractors to seeking full-time hires. While some may view full-time hires as unnecessary or risky in the first year of business, Amy believed it was the right move for her agency.

She chose to initially build her senior team, bringing on board a senior vice president and a vice president whom she had previously worked with and trusted to deliver. Now, she is gearing up to make additional mid-level hires to provide further support for the senior team.

Building a 7-Figure Agency by Leveraging Connections

Amy had already established a solid footing in the business world when she launched her agency in 2023, having cultivated strong connections within the industry. She attributes her agency's rapid growth to these relationships. In addition to capitalizing on her existing network, Amy differentiated her agency by offering a unique blend of services, merging business communications expertise with sports communications and brand activation. This allowed her agency to appeal to a diverse range of clients and offer a comprehensive suite of services, secure business quickly, and establish a solid foundation for growth.

Most people would be hesitant to leverage those connections and maybe doubt approaching them. In this sense, Amy emphasizes the importance of using LinkedIn to stay connected with past clients and colleagues, showcasing expertise, and leveraging relationships to drive business growth.

As today's Rolodex, LinkedIn played an important role in building a network of people Amy had worked with in the past, met on new business pitches, and connected with over the years. It’s the platform she used to reach out to people and let them know about her agency and where she was able to generate new business opportunities, secure referrals from vendors, and grow her client base organically.

Navigating the Agency's "No Man's Land" by Setting Ambitious Revenue Goals

After a year of incredible growth, Amy highlights is focusing on setting clear goals and objectives for business growth. One million dollars in revenue still seems unsteady for her, so she has the short-term goal of reaching $3 million in revenue and building a more sustainable operation.

In addition, Amy is focused on evolving the agency’s services as they continue to move forward. The point between $1 million and $4 million in revenue can feel like a no man’s land where the agency owner is growing their agency but continues to be at the center of the operation. To get past that, owners need to gradually step away from day-to-day operations to focus on being the face of the organization, coaching the senior leadership, and setting the agency’s goal and direction.

Ultimately, agency ownership will always present different challenges at each stage. It’ll never feel like the storm has passed and you can now relax. But as you move forward and seek to delegate part of the load, you’ll find it gets easier.

3 Questions Every Agency Owner Needs to Answer Before Exiting

At the end of your career, with all the crazier days of building the agency behind you, the thing you’ll probably remember the most is the relationships you built. Working through challenges with a team, facing difficult situations together, and coming out stronger on the other side will be some of the most memorable parts of the journey, even more so than the wins.

It’s during these times when you find out what your team is made of and also who’s willing to ride out the tough times with you and your agency. There are also good moments to see how well your team manages a crisis without having to run to you. Can they make the key decisions following the roadmap you created?

This is when you’ll know you can step back and enjoy more of your time. Is this necessarily the time to sell your agency and retire? It really depends on the person, but no one should even consider that option without a clear vision of what comes after the sale. In her case, Amy has learned entrepreneurs need to answer three questions:

  1. Have you done enough?

  2. Do you have enough?

  3. Will you have enough to do?

If you have an answer for all — especially #3, then you are ready for the next stage of your life.

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

Looking to dig deeper into your agency's potential? Check out our Agency Blueprint. Designed for agency owners like you, our Agency Blueprint helps you uncover growth opportunities, tackle obstacles, and craft a customized blueprint for your agency's success.

Direct download: Amy_Littleton_Audio.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 6:00am MDT

What does it take for an agency to not only survive but thrive over decades? What mindset and approach enabled this agency owner to pivot and leverage new opportunities? In the challenging world of business, most companies struggle to reach the one-year mark, with even fewer making it to the five-year milestone. Hence, for an agency to make it beyond that it means the owner has weathered more than a few storms and learned to navigate and adapt to a constantly changing industry. Today’s guest has steered her business through over two decades of growth, demonstrating the ability to pivot, take calculated risks, and understand her agency's value to ensure its sustainability. From learning the importance of self-renewal to using the pandemic as a time to pivot and grow, tune in to learn about her journey and the changes in the marketing landscape over the past couple of years.

Marlo Fogelman is the founder & CEO of Marlo Marketing, an integrated marketing agency specializing in all things hospitality, lifestyle, and CPG. Marlo has owned an agency for over 20 years and today she shares insights on the evolution of her agency from a PR firm to an integrated marketing model. She discusses the variety of services her agency offers, from creative services to full-scale marketing support for clients in the hospitality, lifestyle, and consumer-packaged-goods (CPG) industries.

In this episode, we’ll discuss:

  • Making time for self-renewal while owning an agency.

  • The foundations of agency rebuilding.

  • Pivoting to retain talent amid the turmoil.

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Sponsors and Resources

Clutch: This episode is sponsored by Clutch, the #1 marketplace for agencies just like yours. With their innovative process, your agency will be matched with highly motivated buyers looking for the exact services you offer. Leave the lead generation to Clutch and let your team focus on delivery. Get started for FREE at clutch.co/smartagency by creating your agency profile.

How a Career Pivot Led to Accidental Agency Life

Despite her initial intentions of practicing law, Marlo felt unfulfilled and unsure of her career path. It was during this time of uncertainty that she stumbled upon a job opportunity in PR, which ultimately changed the course of her career.

Working in PR, Marlo discovered her passion for marketing and communication. She excelled in her role, turning around a national brand that had previously struggled in the market. Her success in PR and her passion for quality work and ethical practices guided her decision to start her own agency, specializing in hospitality, lifestyle, and CPG clients.

One of the pivotal moments in her career was receiving a call from the CEO of a 27-unit restaurant group, offering the opportunity to take over their marketing efforts. Despite initially hesitating, Marlo accepted the challenge and exceeded all expectations, setting new sales records and achieving unprecedented success for the restaurant group. It was an interesting opportunity to be on the other side and see the results her team could bring controlling both the execution and the strategy instead of just implementing the client’s vision.

The Entrepreneurial Balancing Act: Finding Time for Self-Renewal

Becoming an agency owner meant a shift in how she worked and how the work she did integrated into her life. Instead of spending late nights highlighting legal documents, Marlo now spent time in Nantucket with clients, enjoying wine and meeting interesting people. However, since it didn’t feel like work, she didn't take enough time to recharge.

This realization came later in her career when she led a team of 45 people and was putting all of herself into building and growing her business. While she would do it all over again, Marlo acknowledges she would also take more time for herself.

Taking time for yourself is not just about relaxation and self-care it is also about gaining perspective and clarity. Her advice to agency owners is to take a complete month off from their business to see what breaks and to recharge their energy. This allows individuals to step back, evaluate their priorities, and delegate tasks effectively.

Crisis as Catalyst: The Unshakable Foundations of Agency Rebuilding

The pandemic dealt a significant blow to Marlo’s agency, causing her to lose two-thirds of her clients overnight. Despite the uncertainty and fear surrounding the pandemic, she decided to seize a new opportunity, ultimately rescuing her hospitality based business from complete collapse.

Marlo’s adaptability and willingness to take calculated risks were crucial for her agency's survival. She recognized the need to pivot her business strategy and embrace new challenges to ensure the agency's continuation. Even in the face of adversity, this readiness to reset and rebuild ultimately preserved her team and kept the business afloat.

In hindsight, her decision prevented the need to lay off most of her hospitality practice team, which would have meant starting from scratch. Nonetheless, she encourages agency owners to remember they can always start again and rebuild. Creativity and experience are invaluable tools at their disposal; underestimating them would be a mistake.

Staying Curious as a Competitive Advantage: the Perils of Outdated Marketing

With 20 years in the industry, Marlo has witnessed many changes and knows how important it is for owners to keep up with them to stay relevant and successful. Continuous learning and curiosity are essential in marketing, so she advises always expanding your skill set and staying up-to-date with the latest trends and technologies.

This is how she first fell into her niche, as she noticed that marketers for resorts and senior living communities getting paid a lot of money and weren’t doing a good job. Most of all, these marketing fails came from people who had failed to adapt to the changing landscape. They expected to do the same things they did 10-15 years prior and still get great results. Simply relying on outdated strategies and techniques from the past is not enough to succeed in today's fast-paced marketing environment.

Furthermore, Marlo touches on the pitfalls of agencies that lack expertise in certain areas but still offer those services to clients and emphasizes the importance of being honest about one's capabilities. This ensures clients receive high-quality services and results that meet their expectations.

How Proper Pricing Can Be the Key to Work-Life Balance

One common misconception peddled online is that running an agency allows for a life filled with endless vacations and leisurely days at the beach. While achieving success certainly requires hard work, Marlo rejects the notion that agency owners should be constantly overwhelmed and working non-stop.

If you find yourself facing a perpetual state of busyness and overwhelm, you may be undervaluing your services. By prioritizing the value of your expertise over your time, you can justify increasing your prices to better reflect the value you offer to clients. Start by raising prices for new prospects, and seeing the results, you’ll work up the courage to raise prices for legacy clients as well.

While some existing clients may leave after a price increase, this will create space for new clients who appreciate the value you bring. In reality, many agency owners report minimal client turnover following a price increase, as clients recognize and appreciate the expertise their agency provides. This shift not only results in a significant revenue boost but also reduces the workload.

Regularly assessing and adjusting pricing to align with the value you deliver is crucial. This proactive approach to pricing can lead to enhanced revenue and a more sustainable business model in the long term.

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

Looking to dig deeper into your agency's potential? Check out our Agency Blueprint. Designed for agency owners like you, our Agency Blueprint helps you uncover growth opportunities, tackle obstacles, and craft a customized blueprint for your agency's success.

Direct download: Marlo_Fogelman_Audio.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 6:00am MDT

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