Two things: firstly, strategically and tactically growing your agency’s revenue is definitely possible but (secondly) there are no hard and fast rules for this based on my experience and from talking to other agency owners in my personal and professional network.
However, as the co-owner of an agency that has grown 247% in the past couple of years (I’ll let you decide it it’s good or not), from effectively a startup to a reputable digital agency employing 50+ people in three countries, over four offices, I thought I would share a few simple initiatives/principles/ideas that I think go some way to contributing to our success.
As an agency owner, the first principle for me is keep learning. There are no rule books for running digital agencies. We (my business partner Paul and I) could be considered the first generation (or second at most) of digital agency owners having started in the ‘noughties’ and so understanding that in order for our business to grow we needed to grow as people, was key.
Self learning, personal development networks such as Vistage and openly meeting with other agency owners to talk through issues and challenges has been key in the story of Sagittarius. By opening our minds to external help and input we transformed our whole approach to how the agency was run, taking the lessons learned and the academic theories and interpreting so that we could implement them in our business.
The next important step was to create a solid vision and set of values for the business. Our vision is simple, easy to understand, built on key metrics and has a very clear focus. Consequently, whenever we bring someone into the business it’s easy for them to understand where we are and where we’re heading. Coupled with our five core values, we can quickly evaluate whether you're a ‘Sagittarius person’ or not – more importantly, so can our potential recruits.
I used to believe, like many others, that most important thing in our business is our people. But, and I know some will argue with this, I don’t think that anymore.
The most important thing in our business is our culture, built on our vision and values. Without this, brilliant people are still brilliant but they’re not necessarily all rowing in the same direction. We use lots of ‘on the bus’ and ‘rowing in the same direction’ analogies in our business, which to some sound quite trite, but we know that these are so critical in getting our amazing team to work towards the same end goal, our vision.
This brings me onto my next point, focus. Focus for us has been key and we only learned this about two years into our most recent chapter. At the start of our journey we were a marketing agency with our own platform and a plethora of marketing services - most digital but some more traditional. The problem was, in the fast paced world of tech, we weren’t really known for anything. We learned, with a little help from our non-exec team, that to be reputable meant to be famous and to be famous we needed to be more focused on fewer things.
With vision, values and focus you can really start to align and hone your skills as a business. The next key area in our growth story came from having good people. Earlier I said people were not the most important thing, however, you won't get far without them.
As a business, let alone as an agency, we have made a point of trying to provide all the things that they need so that they know they are cared for, safe and secure. This includes the tangible stuff like good kit, a great office environment (in all our global offices), good salaries and good benefits. We've also looked after the less tangible aspects too including flexible working, dependency leave, supporting volunteering etc. However, this is the easy stuff.
The hard stuff with people is what makes a difference to growth - developing our people and empowering them, including letting them fail and helping them learn from it. It took me about two years to get used to being a 'managing director' which, and it seems so simple now, is to manage and direct - not to do or to micro-manage or dictate. Our people are brilliant, match our values and subscribe to our vision so all I have to do is give them the vision, empower them and then get out of their way. That’s it, apart from being a sounding board, watching for signs of fatigue and a bit of nurturing and re-alignment our people are brilliant, capable and empowered to move us all collectively towards our vision and objectives.
There are lots of other things that I could write about including accountability, standards, PPT (people, process, tools) but I'm going to finish with partners. I'm proud to say that Paul (Stephen, chief executive at Sagittarius) and I have grown our agency without investment or borrowing. However, we have by no means done it alone.
Our supporters, partners and non-execs, those that are truly interested in working with us to develop our business, are a huge part of our success. Through joint endeavours with partners in sales, marketing, operations/delivery and HR, we have worked closely to align our businesses and grow together. We put such stock in this that we changed a great number of our supplier relationships to align ourselves with people who had a truly passionate interest in seeing us succeed, as they can see the longer term benefits for their business.
Our non-execs have been brilliant too. Showing us new ways of doing things, building our networks, providing support and much needed counsel, and always being there for us. Without them I don't believe we would have grown with the same pace and intensity.
This then brings me full circle back to learning and using the genius, sweat and energy of others to better yourself and your business. To sum up this article then, if I had to write a recipe for growth I would say invest in yourself and your people, have a clear vision, work with brilliant people who share that vision and subscribe to your values and then really focus on what you do best. Finally, surround yourself with other businesses that want you to succeed and you will soon see the benefits.
Nick Towers is managing director at Sagittarius.