2 Common Mistakes to Avoid While Growing Your Agency

By Jason Swenk on March 2, 2022

Have you made these common mistakes that hold back your agency? Our guest, Sandy Smith is the President of Smith Publicity, has grown her agency for over 25 years and she shares lessons learned from 2 common mistakes she made over the years. Sandy’s agency is focused on book marketing and author promotion services publicity. At first, a one-person shop they have grown to more than 30 employees with offices in Los Angeles, New York, and Canada. Sandy and her Senior VP, Marissa Eigenbrood, are on the show sharing how their expansion process led them to open an office in London that ultimately brought more problems than business. They also share why you should act fast when an employee just doesn’t fit with the company and why you need to find someone you trust so you can transition from owner to agency CEO.

3 Golden Nuggets

  1. Identifying the source of customer service problems. Although the agency is US-based, it used to have a London office. Susan later identified this as the source of 95% of their customer service problems. London was an important market for the agency and held 10% of its business. However, it took too much work to get their UK clients to understand how the business worked in the US and get them to a place where they saw the value in the agency’s work. In the end, these clients just weren’t the right fit for the agency, and closing the London office was an important step to move forward.
  2. Waiting too long to do what’s best for the team. Hanging on for a little too long after seeing someone just isn’t working out in their role is a common problem for small business owners who try to avoid these decisions. Sometimes the person is not a good culture fit for the agency; you never want someone to mess culture up, even if they’re great at what they do. For Sandy and Marissa, it was actually the opposite, someone was a great culture fit but who kept making the same mistakes in his job. After spending time and resources in retraining, they had to accept it wasn’t working out and make the necessary change.
  3. Transitioning from Agency Owner to CEO. With the help of Marissa, Sandy is in the process of doing something we know can be a difficult process — transitioning to the role of CEO. We know by now that this transition is more of a marathon than a sprint. For Sandy, it has been about finding the right person to take over the tasks she no longer wants to handle and focus on the ones that she enjoys. “It’s having trust and sharing, opening up our books, opening up our real thoughts,” Sandy says. “And it’s not an overnight process. It’s many years of trusting and slow steps of giving control and giving insights and allowing, and this is the hardest part, for difference of opinion.”

Sponsors and Resources

Agency Dad: Today’s episode is sponsored by Agency Dad. Agency Dad is an accounting solution focused on helping marketing agencies make better decisions based on their financials. Check out agencydad.money/freeaudit to get a phone call with Nate to assess your agency’s financial needs and how he can help you.


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Avoid These Common Mistakes in your Agency

Building Trust to Help You Transition from Agency Owner to Agency CEO

{These transcripts have been auto-generated. While largely accurate, they may contain some errors.}

Jason: [00:00:00] Hey, all! How’s it going?

Marissa: [00:00:04] Hi, Jason, how are you?

Jason: [00:00:07] Doing good. So I haven’t done two people on the podcast in a long time. So we’re on these little boxes. I apologize for these little boxes, but for the people listening and watching, tell us who you guys are and what do you guys do?

Marissa: [00:00:23] Oh, well, thank you. I am Marissa Eigenbrood. I’m the senior vice-president at Smith Publicity. We are a book publicity and marketing agency celebrating 25 years in business this year in 2022. We focus on working with, with authors and experts and publishers on building awareness around their launches and beyond. That’s a quick summary there.

Sandy, pass the baton.

Sandy: [00:00:47] Yeah, I’m Sandy Smith, Sandy Poirier Smith, but no one can pronounce that, but Sandy Smith. And I’m the president here and co-owner of Smith Publicity. And we started off as like a one-person shop and now we have 31 of us, 32, Marissa? And we’ve grown pretty much every year.

We’ve learned a lot. We’ve made a lot of mistakes and we’ve done some really great things. So we’re excited, Jason, to talk with you and, um, pick our brains and see if we can help some of the people here.

Jason: [00:01:19] Awesome. So, well, let’s, let’s jump into it. What’s the biggest mistake you guys made?

Marissa: [00:01:28] Love that. Wow.

Sandy: [00:01:29] One I would say is, as we were growing, we expanded our offices. We are based in the US but we had a Toronto office, a Los Angeles office, a New York city office, and a London office. And this is back in the day where… while we have always been hybrid, believe it or not even 20 years ago we were hybrid, having that kind of a brick and mortar office kind of made sense. And people expected that.

And our London office gave us this great, like worldwide, you know, kind of brand appeal, which was fantastic. However, our London-based our English-based caused, because they probably were maybe 10% of our total clients, but they caused 95% of our customer service problems. And the reason for that is the education that took to get them to understand what we do in the US market was just so much work.

And one example of that is an author said “I want to be on Oprah.” Well, okay, that’s great, and can’t she just schedule me in that type of thing. They just didn’t understand that the vastness. Even geography, there was one author who said I want to pop a new office for a meeting. I will be in a meeting in… I’m going to a wedding in San Francisco, can I drive over to see you in New Jersey this afternoon?

It just… like some people just didn’t have the scope of the US market. So even though it looked good and they did, you know, 10% of business, we decided not to continue having a London-based office just because those clients were not the right fit for us.

We spent so much time trying to educate and get them to a place where they saw value in what we do.

Jason: [00:03:28] That’s awesome. Yeah, I know I’m figuring out the perfect clients for you is, uh, I always tell everybody it’s kind of like a Vegas buffet. Like you gotta kind of try everything and then you’re like, oh, that thing made me sick. I’m not going to eat that anymore. So…

Sandy: [00:03:44] Yeah, Marissa, another mistake that you want to talk about, unless you have another idea is, um, our evolution of the longer projects rather than the shorter but more quick projects that were evolving to.

Marissa: [00:04:00] Yeah. I mean, I think this is, this has definitely been an evolution. And also, um, again, it was not necessarily a giant mistake cause it worked really well for us for a long time, but kind of having that moment of realization and I did I had to really connect to that as well, is they’re having times over the years where we’ve tried to incorporate other types of services that haven’t been the real meat and potatoes, the publicity that we, that we focus on and we’re, we’re, we’re really great at.

We for a few years added in social media services and, you know, we, we dabbled in other areas too. And I think it’s really kind of realizing when it’s time to say goodbye. And sometimes you hold onto those, those things for a little too long and we were doing that with shorter-term campaigns. I think, uh, we had previously six-week-long campaigns, or maybe even four-week campaigns… We actually had three-week campaigns, which in today’s world of publicity sounds absolutely insane to do just three weeks of work with someone and have it be impactful.

But, you know, it’s been part of the changing landscape of the media that we’ve had to react to as well. The time things are taking, the delays. The publishing industry is phase two, so there’s so many factors that have influenced those decisions, but, um, really giving our, our publicists, our authors, the time that they need and, and really kind of building that awareness of, of how much time is really needed to be impactful is something that has evolved.

And we’ve really learned and grown from over the last few years in particular and so at this time, you know, we’ve, we’ve eliminated everything that’s six weeks and less, pretty much. And you know, two months is not far behind it, I think too.

Sandy: [00:05:41] And that’s hard too because we made money from that. It was a great place but it just wasn’t in the clients are our best interest to continue with that based on the changes we saw. So that was interesting.

The other one, um, and I don’t want to just harp on mistakes. I think it’s all small businesses is when someone is not working out in their role. I think sometimes we hang on a little longer than we would because our emotions get involved. We like these people. We want it to work. And I’m thinking of someone, Marissa, who was in our business development coordinator and years, and years and years ago. This person was fantastic individual. And we just kept changing the job description and kept changing his focus. And it wasn’t working and we probably should have, in hindsight, let them go a lot sooner.

It just wasn’t the right fit. But as a small business, we get probably a little more connected to our team and that’s probably a mistake. And fortunately, we don’t have to do this very often. We have hopefully better hiring and onboarding and vetting before we get to that stage.

But that’s something that we struggled with as a small business. I don’t think it’s unusual, but I know that that since reading, cause we read a lot of books here, you’re supposed to hire slow and fire quickly in small businesses.

Jason: [00:07:03] Was it that this person was not a cultural fit?

Marissa: [00:07:07] I think it was actually the opposite. It really was the, I mean, he really got along so well with everyone, you know, really was a nice fit with so many, but the skills were hard to really build in the direction that we needed them to go. Um, Sandy, would you agree with that?

Sandy: [00:07:25] I do. And again, because we read a lot of business books, I know that 80% of people are let go because of soft skills, the culture, and 20% it can do the job, but they just don’t fit in. But I think in this case, it was the, exactly what Marissa said, culturally, he showed up, was great, people liked him…

He was all in, just kept making the same mistakes over and over and over again. And we probably gave him too much grace and too much training, like retraining and retraining before we just said square peg round hole.

Marissa: [00:07:59] Yeah. I mean, we’ve, we face it the other way around too. I mean, just fairly recently, we had someone and I learned from another great industry partner recently that, uh, she started at Shake Shack. They have this phrase where they say there’s no, skunking, there’s no skunking of the culture.

So even if you’re amazing at your job and you, you’re just one of the best in terms of the skills, if you are skunking up the culture and you’re creating negativity there. You know, you’re not a right fit and they’re looking at an exit plan and that was, you know, we’ve had to have those conversations recently.

And I think that, you know, that’s just as hard to deal with, as, in terms of letting someone go or figure out an exit plan as it is for someone who does, you know, who has that connection from the emotional side, from that cultural side, because you’re like, wow, this person’s great at their job. They’re great at the tasks.

It’s just that on the other side it’s…

Sandy: [00:08:54] Person. Yeah, it’s just not a team player.

Jason: [00:08:58] I have a question because you guys have achieved something a lot of people listening are wanting where the owners can kind of start transitioning a little bit out, right? Like have a life again and find someone to, you know, run operations and really just kind of take the baton and run.

So going back 13 years and knowing what you know now, how can people listening do that? Because I find that’s a big struggle. They, they, they don’t want to relinquish control. Was that tough for you guys?

Sandy: [00:09:35] No. Oh, it’s really hard and it’s hard for it for two reasons. One is the company is our baby. It’s our livelihood. That’s, what’s going to be funding our kids college and our retirement and all that. So that’s, that’s important to us.

It’s also too, and I’ve learned this from many of our authors. People will sell a company or they turn over control to the next generation. Three years later, they’re bored and then they write a book because they want to connect back to what made them feel good and what kind of got them out of bed every day.

So while, and I’m just being very transparent. I am not necessarily looking to step out of the business fully. What I’d like to do, Jason, is pick and choose more of the things that get me excited rather than the things that I don’t want to do anymore.

My husband on the other end, as we speak he’s outside with our chickens.

Jason: [00:10:27] He is he’s chasing chickens? Should that be the title? Can you send me a picture of him chasing the chicken? And that’ll be the thumbnail.

Sandy: [00:10:39] If you flip through my phone, for everybody at home, is the picture of him, which of course, like it’s not coming up because the, our Google call is on here, but here he is sitting on his tractor this way, yes, sitting on a tractor in the backyard.

But he’s excited. He’s a few years older than me, but not that older, but he’s excited to really dive into other passions outside of the work. And I am still like, oh, I want to do this, but I’d never had time sometimes to really dive into some of these other opportunities for us. I think the hardest thing is to, to trust in someone.

Um, and what made it easier is Marissa because she is, not to get her head big, but she is….

Jason: [00:11:23] Be closer to the screen.

Marissa: [00:11:25] Right, here I come.

Sandy: [00:11:44] And she’s tall. She’s super tall too. What are you, 6’3, Marissa?

Marissa: [00:11:33] 6’3, yes.

Sandy: [00:11:34] 6’3 and she wears heals. So she’s got a beautiful confidence. But…

Marissa: [00:11:39] I just intimidate people into letting me run their company. That’s all it is.

Sandy: [00:11:44] Exactly. It’s having trust and sharing, like opening up our books, opening up our, um, our, our real thoughts. And it’s not an overnight process. It’s many years and trusting and slow steps of, of giving control and giving insights and allowing, and this is the hardest part, is allowing for difference of opinion. Mistakes allowing for those mistakes and saying, I’m going to, I’m going to let, not just Marissa, but our team, they have a different view than I do… weekly updates, but I’m trusting the team and say, okay, you feel strongly about this. Let’s go.

And that’s worked for us. And, and we might talk about this in the future, but we’re getting to that stage of size, where we need a lot more expertise than we have from running the day-to-day business than we have now.

We don’t need a human resource person sitting in an office or a cubicle all day. But we need human resource expertise, the same thing for IT, the same thing for all the other functionalities, a CFO. And having someone like Marissa it’s just so great because I don’t feel like I’m in a vacuum doing it alone.

And that’s something that for people who are looking to do this in the future is to find that internal person or someone new who, whoever to accompany, someone that you trust. But I’m just as excited to grow the business and a sounding board for the headaches and the challenges. So it’s actually freeing because we’re not alone.

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Yeah, you know, I, I always tell our mastermind. You know, once you figure out as an owner or leader where the ship is going, then you can bring the right people on and delegate the outcomes rather than delegate the tasks because many people will do them very differently. And the reason why I’ve always liked to get a number of different, really smart people together is because you see things differently.

And I like how you probably did it in stages of, you know, this was not a quick fix. Whenever I tell anybody when you want to get to a point where you have the option to sell or the option to pick and choose to do what you want the agency, that’s really when your agency scales, because now you’ve transitioned from owner to more of a, a leader because the owner does everything. Like, you can’t chase chickens as an owner. Uh, well, I mean, I guess you, you chase different kinds of chickens, the pay you collect the checks.

Marissa: [00:15:59] I was just going to add in too, I think the fact that even as a small, smaller company and a smaller agency here, you know, having the 30 some people, but even in the years prior, if we were closer to 20, there’s always been layers and having that in place with  Dan as CEO, Sandy, as president. We’ve had other vice presidents as well in there.

So there’s, there is we’re leadership-heavy, but in, in the right way, is that it feels like it’s not an agency where you have the CEO and you just have somebody who’s replacing that person. And there’s no kind of other people around to support that.

So I think, you know, for me and I listen, I’ve again, 13 years, I’ve been here. It’s my entire career. I started at Smith a year after college and it’s intimidating at times to even think about running a business when I didn’t work really anywhere else before, and this is all I’ve known.

And so it’s just, it’s so great to know that as I learn more things or take on new responsibilities and, and grow over time that I have others around me who are, who have a lot of them who have been through it just as long or longer than I have, but who are just there to support. And just especially when Sandy’s role in having Sandy as a partner, so many things that we do together all the time, it’s just doesn’t feel as daunting of a thing that potentially take on whatever that looks like in the future when Dan wants to fully, fully go off the pasture and, and, uh, and seeing what’s next from there.

But it’s, it’s knowing that you have these true, like partners that you’re doing this with, you’re not making the decisions solely on your own, and you’ve got these different opinions and ideas to loop into it. And I mean, that’s always been something that we’ve, we’ve really just kind of stood by at Smith is that everybody has a voice at the table.

So we’re always looking at, it’s not just the leadership team, but new people who are joining. And what ideas do you have? How can we grow? What, what, what are you bringing in from wherever you worked before? Some of our best ideas and, and most profitable growth opportunities have come from the ideas that have come from those who are newer to the team too.

So it’s just knowing you’re not alone through all of it, makes it a little less daunting.

Jason: [00:18:10] Yeah. And I think, you know, I go back to, you know, Sandy, what you said too about now that I don’t have to do everything, but I still want to be a part of it, and like how you were saying like a lot of owners that sell or whatever.

I was like that. When I sold my agency, for like two weeks I was like, yes, I can go chase my chickens or whatever, right? Um, I can’t get this out of my head. This needs to be in the thumbnail. How you can chase chickens and grow your agency. But I was depressed after I sold because I didn’t feel like I had that significance.

And then I also went through a depression in my agency when I was running it when I actually transitioned from the owner to the CEO, the person really leading the ship. Because I didn’t have to do all the other little stuff. I only had to do like five different roles, which were like, you know, setting the vision for the agency, coaching and mentoring leadership team, blah, blah, blah, right?

And I always tell my mastermind members and the people that I work with and all the people listening on. I’m like, look, when you get to this point where you can pick and choose the things you want to do, you’ll go through a depression. And then you have to realize, you go your role switched and like, you need to hand over the reigns and trust the people that you put in place.

And then once you do that, then it’s very freeing. But in the very beginning, when you go into a meeting and you’re like, hey, can I help? And they’re like, no, Jason, I got this. And then you go to the next meeting. They do the same thing and you’re like, I’m a piece of shit

Sandy: [00:19:47] No, we don’t. And that’s the goal, but it’s when you’ve been needed and you’d feel at the end of the day, like, wow, I helped, I did this. I need that taken away. That’s a big shift for sure.

Jason: [00:19:57] Oh yeah. What’s the biggest, most important thing you’ve learned in the business to date that you both have learned? And I’ll let you go first, Marissa.

Marissa: [00:20:09] Wow. I mean, I really think it’s and I’ll shout out to, uh, Diane Eichenberg, that’s my mom because growing up, she’d always told me to be true to myself.

And I almost got a tattoo on myself at one point and did not do that. And she was very happy that I didn’t do that, but it sounds so basic and cliche and, but I really, it, over my years, I learned that. I actually, I went through kind of a big personal transition about like seven years ago, six or seven years ago now.

And it was this moment where I personally had this like kind of moment where I’m like, I’ve got to just be true to myself. That was the time that I found that I could really come forward and encourage more transparency and just honesty and open communication about things and sharing my ideas more fluidly.

I think that was just such a big, big jump. And then it’s, I feel like so much of the company has even changed, not just because of me that way, but I’m saying this as a whole, we’ve all just moved into this culture of transparency and we definitely had earlier years where there was a lot of walking on eggshells or trying to like kind of scoot around having to have tough conversations sometimes because of people’s feelings.

I just feel like we are in such a great place now of all of this, knowing that if we’re honest with each other, we have those open conversations. We state how we’re really feeling about something. It’s really making our work easier. It’s making everything more productive and more efficient in a lot of ways too.

And that’s just been kind of, like I said, it sounds so cliche in some ways, but it really has been such a big moment for, or it’s a big transition for me and then understanding the company moving that way as well.

Sandy: [00:21:50] I agree with you everything Marissa is saying, and I’ll take a different turn here and kind of a client service perspective. Something is to just pay attention to the details of what’s working and try to replicate that. And what I mean by that is many years ago, when I was working closely with Dan and he was working his 18 hour days, seven days a week, as new agencies owners kind of do, is to really pay attention to the nuggets of what’s working and to try to replicate that.

And when you read something that Dan wrote about an author, you just want to read this book. It’s like, damn, this is really good. It could have been the worst book or not the worst book, but a book that would be not appealing to me in the slightest, but he could write in a way that it’s like, wow, I want to see that.

Well, how do you capture that spirit and duplicate, replicate that on all our projects? And the same thing for even onboard or communication. And when I first really got into working with Dan, what was exciting for me was finding his brilliance and what he was doing, and then making it happen more consistently across all our clients.

You know, for example, we have an author questionnaire that people have to fill out before they start working with us. We have, that wasn’t standard when we first started and now we do what we’ve expanded it. And now our publicist and our team get the right information at the beginning and we don’t stop.

And the same thing with our communication delivery, where we used to have monthly reports, and then we started having cumulative reports and then we started having standard calls and more sophisticated reporting. Just figuring out what makes one client happy, what makes one publicist efficient, taking that nugget and then replicating that, where it makes sense. I think that is something that we do well.

We never rest on our laurels that we, that we’re as good as we can be. We want to keep learning and listening to our clients, listening to our publicist, because we want to be ahead of the service that we provide rather than trying to catch up with the trends. And I think that’s one way is really listening and then picking out those golden service deliverables and trying to make it standard across where it makes sense.

Jason: [00:24:14] I like it. Yeah. You know, I, I think too many of us forget about the things that are working and we are constantly focused on new stuff rather than just going back to the basics. You know, I always joke with people when I was playing tennis in college, like if I was doing bad, my coach would yell out, go back to the basics. You’re thinking too hard.

Marissa: [00:24:36] Yeah. I mean, we’ve definitely had, in our industry, there’s always something new popping up. Whether it’s, you know, Substack and Clubhouse and TikTok and new media. I remember when podcasts first showed up. I mean, that wasn’t that long ago when they were really something that was worth paying attention to and adding in for our work.

And we’re like, oh, what are these podcasts has gotten their basements, you know, doing their podcasts and is this going to be a thing? And, and it was something that we really had to, you know, we have to always kind of pay attention to what are those things that are starting to bubble under the surface and get some attention and how maybe impactful… but not kind of throwing everything resources, time, energy into, oh my God, how do we figure out how to have Clubhouse as part of our campaigns and make sure it’s a staple in there and, and, you know, it’s okay, well, we can dabble in it a little bit.

That’s always kind of been, our approach was not running full force into whatever the next trend is, but really settling back into it. We’ll say, hey well, traditional media is, is dying in a lot of ways. Certainly certain areas of it are not doing as well as they should when I started 13 years ago here, but there’s a lot of other spaces that have, that have been booming with blogging and podcasts and video casts and whatever else it is.

So that’s always has been something that we, we really tried to not let the trends dictate our, our decisions and our, the direction of our campaigns too much over, over time.

Jason: [00:26:01] Love it. And wrapping up, if there was a billboard, what would you guys put on the billboard? And it doesn’t have to be work-related whatever it was, what would be on your guys’ billboard?

Marissa: [00:26:14] Oh, I love that. Well, it’s funny. I feel like, I feel like Dan would say we do good things for authors if Dan was on this with us, because that’s always been the tagline for so long of Smith.

It sounds so basic, but we always say we do good things for authors since there’s so many bits around that, but, um, I’ll have to go back to my previous one and say, you know, be, be true to yourself, which Diane will get some credit there again.

Sandy: [00:26:39] I’ll agree with Marissa. You know, one thing we say on our clients service, I think the answer to almost every question we get is it depends. And it’s kind of a standard joke because for what we do, there’s no one right answer. Whether it’s a timeline, the length of service, how much you should be doing. So from a company perspective, I would say it depends because it really depends on you. So that’s something from, from the service.

But I do want, Jason to, um, chasing chickens and running an agency. I think we might have to do something with that.

Jason: [00:27:15] Oh, yeah, you definitely should. Awesome. Well, um, what’s the agency website people go and check you guys out.

Marissa: [00:27:24] It is smithpublicity.com. Tried to keep it pretty easy.

Jason: [00:27:28] Awesome. Well, I think everybody appreciates the easiness because a lot of times people make it very complex and misspell everything because they couldn’t figure out the right domain. So we all appreciate the easy names, but, uh, thanks so much everybody for coming on. Uh, it was a lot of fun. I wish you guys tremendous success.

And if you guys want to be around other amazing agency owners on a consistent basis where we can help you be able to figure out if you want to chase chickens or not, and really focus on the things that you wanted to be doing, I’d love to invite all of you to go check out the Digital Agency Elite.

This is our exclusive mastermind for agency owners and agency leaders that really want to get better and be surrounded by amazing people. So you guys can grow your digital agencies faster.

And until next time have a Swenk day.

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