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Lessons from 2008 on running a strategic digital agency

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Each year we look back at what went right and what didn’t. We also review the goals we set for ourselves and for the business. It’s a good exercise and a bit of a kick in the pants as well.

Small continues to be better than big:
Our team grew a little this year but we remained lean and mean. Our deliberate choice to stay small forced us to focus on getting the best out of the people and resources we had. We kept a close check on productivity and budget, which created a more efficient workflow process and reduced project overruns to nearly zero by the end of the year (more on this data driven approach below). In one extreme case of staying small we weren’t afraid to wind-down all of our part-time contractors so we could have a tighter team dynamic with our full-time team members. This renewed focus on staying small happened when we noticed ourselves saying things like’ "we can always get a freelancer to take care of that if it gets busy". That kind of loose talk lead us to hiring a handful of contractors that we really shouldn’t have needed if we just managed the projects and business more closely.

Project management is a universal skill not a separate role:
Improvements in how we manage projects and simplify workflow allowed us to reduce the necessity to have another layer of middle management. Although we experimented with dedicated project/account managers it always boiled down to "less is more". Instead of hiring people to manage people, we spent more time training our designers and search marketing specialists to be better at time management and communications. This gave our team more control over the decisions made at every level of the project and practically eliminated communication breakdowns. Make everyone a project manager expert and you’ll find you don’t need project managers.

Daily goals and task management is the strategy:
This doesn’t mean we don’t still have annual planning sessions and have big goals. In fact we still have quarterly and annual goals, and even one big five year goal. But goals are not strategies. The problem with long-term strategies is they tend to be background noise to what’s really happening on the ground. By meeting every morning (similar to a Scrum meeting for you Agile folks) for a few minutes to discuss daily projects, obstacles and milestones we get really focused on the things we can control. It’s very difficult to motivate people with things that are very far off in the future. It’s easy to say "given our goal strategy of being the first choice of digital marketing agency for entrepreneurs, what 5 things can we get done today that will help us get there?"

Manage by fact not just gut feelings:
Data is our new best friend. As a creative agency it’s easy to focus on the fun design and marketing ideas and forget about the hard data. Facts and figures aren’t very sexy so digital agencies often ignore them. In 2008 we got really tough on project and financial data. We hired a full time financial manager to support our bookkeeper and part-time accountant. We also hired a consultant to come in and take a hard look at our processes and client success criteria. Using the heaps of information we had gathered about profitability and productivity we were able to make some smart decisions that immediately improved our margins. For example, we divided our clients into A, B and C categories depending on certain criteria. Then we checked through the profitability and productivity data and resorted them. We charted the data and this gave us a clear view of how we could move C clients to the B level and B clients up to the A level. Having worked in several agency environments it’s pretty unique to see creative people sitting around discussing correlation and regression.

Nurture financial and contractual discipline:
Understanding the difference between cost conscious and value conscious became a deeply ingrained part of our culture. We have become expert cost analysts without losing focus on value. For example, we spent two days combing through our bank accounts and invoices looking for subscription charges for services we hadn’t used for a few months. We found thousands of dollars of fees that were being charged to us that we really couldn’t connect with client value. These are no-value costs that eat away at profitability. On the other end of the spectrum we weren’t afraid to spend several grand on a client party for 200 people because our data showed us that previous parties resulted in a huge return in renewed client spending.

Part of this detail-driven discipline was getting better at writing and negotiating contracts. Client, vendor, partner and referral contracts are essential to a good outcome. These contracts have helped us get exceptionally  focused on areas of responsibility. Who’s doing what for whom and by when? Our business rests on the promises we make to our clients so there has to be an equal amount of effort in documenting those promises in ways that make both sides happy. It’s an art and a science.

Provide a place where people love to come to work:
This isn’t something we needed to learn but after a stressful 2007 we had forgotten how to let go and have fun. Last year was a return to the frequent celebrations and daily silliness that makes us love going to work. My favorite line this year was Dan telling a visitor that "Friday’s are a bit of a downer because that means I won’t see everyone at the office for two days". Along with this is a flexibility that makes everyone feel less stressed about the daily workload. We’re pretty flexible about time so on a perfect day for snowboarding we might hit the slopes for a few hours in the morning but work a few more hours later that evening. When it gets harder to tell where work starts and when play begins you’re pretty close to a perfect work situation.

 

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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