How to Grow Your Digital Agency Smart Instead of Fast

By Jason Swenk on December 8, 2021

Ben Worthen was a journalist for most of his professional career. During those years, he heard many marketing pitches and grew to dislike the type of marketing that focuses exclusively on selling a product. That’s why, when making the transition to creating his own digital agency Message Lab, he focused on combining journalism, data, and design to create content that resonates with people. In this interview, about how he has focused on marketing that creates meaningful interactions. Ben also shares his agency’s growth strategy and why it’s important to grow smart rather than growing fast.

3 Golden Nuggets

  1. Creating meaningful interactions. Most companies are focused on trying to sell you something all the time and are missing 90% of the chances to create opportunities for meaningful interactions. In this sense, Ben has never really liked the type of marketing that focuses exclusively on selling a product. Instead, when he transitioned from working in journalism to working in the marketing industry, he knew he wanted to bring his approach to storytelling to his agency and always ask “how can I make someone care?” This is what he tries to do for his clients. Making stuff and putting it out into the world with the goal of making it valuable.
  2. What’s driving their growth. When it comes to creating something that people will care about, you don’t want everyone to care. You’re trying to find your audience, find the people who care, and then focus on them and show them understanding, authority, and a plan. If you try to create something for everyone you’ll end up creating something for no one. This is what Ben has been working on to effectively communicate with people in the key non-sales moments and it is what has been driving his company’s growth. “You care about people that you’re trying to reach, and those people are somewhat narrow,” he says.
  3. Growing smart. Despite seeing some pretty big successes in just three years, Ben regrets starting with the idea that running a digital agency would be really easy. This drove him to make mistakes like going on a huge hiring spree as soon as the company started to grow. We convinced ourselves that we had the business model of a high growth startup,” he recalls. This meant that, as much as they were growing, they were not growing smart or strategically. They were not investing through time and research strategy and trying to make their service better and that created what Ben calls weak growth. Now he tries to look at growth as an indicator that what they’re doing is what people want.

Sponsors and Resources

Gusto: Today’s episode is sponsored by Gusto, an all-in-one people platform for payroll, benefits, HR where you can unify your data. Gusto automatically applies your payroll taxes and directly deposits your team’s paychecks, freeing you up to work on your business. Head over to to enjoy an exclusive offer for podcast listeners.


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Focus On Creating Meaningful Interactions and Grow Smart, Not Fast

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

Jason: [00:00:00] What’s up, agency owners? Jason Swenk here. And on today’s episode, I bring on an agency owner that’s only been doing the agency for three years and has already grown a huge agency where a lot of you would like to be and created this singular mission. And we’re going to talk about it a lot of what’s worked for them and what’s not worked for them. So this is really good episode. I hope you enjoy it.

Hey, Ben. Welcome to the show.

Ben: [00:00:32] Thank you for having me.

Jason: [00:00:33] Yeah, man. I’m excited to have you on. So tell us who you are and what do you do?

Ben: [00:00:38] I’m Ben Worthen. I’m the CEO of a company called Message Lab. And we are a content agency, which can mean all things to all people, but we have a very narrow focus, um… Specifically, we’re focusing on using journalism and that kind of storytelling to help our clients communicate with the people that they want to reach outside of a sales opportunity.

So if you think about the world in terms of when you want to buy something and when you don’t want to buy something, a kind of binary reductive way of thinking. If you’re anything like me, I want to buy something five, 10% of the time.

And when I do, having someone come to me and give me a product information is really valuable, super helpful. But most of the time, I’m just a person in the world who wants to be entertained, want to be informed. I want to be engaged somehow. I want to flip through stuff on the phone. I’m going to have to search around to listen to something cool.

And our belief is that, you know, companies that are focused on trying to sell you something all the time, which is like, you know, most companies all the time, they’re just missing so many opportunities, 90, 80% of the chances that they have to engage with you and have some sort of meaningful interaction around an idea.

So that’s where we come in and that’s where this background that we have in journalism and some other things that we do, which I’m happy to talk about, come into play. And where we think that we can create opportunities for meaningful interactions that over time are going to pay off for the companies we work with.

Jason: [00:02:03] Yeah. You know, I mean, that’s a good mindset and a good north star to kind of follow because, you know, I would always, as I was training my sales team or as I’m you know, helping out the mastermind members… I’m like, look, you’re not selling anybody anything. You’re positioning what they actually need. But if you’re trying to sell them something you’ve already lost.

You got to ask the right questions and really kind of position it in a way where… Let’s just jump on a call. Let’s see if we can work together, see if I can help you out. See if I understand your problem. And then if we do, and we both agree, then I’ll tell you how we can work together. And it just kinda just takes down everybody’s fences and then be like, all right, cool. That sounds good.

Ben: [00:02:47] Yeah, exactly. And imagine doing that in the digital environment where it’s a one to many interaction. You know, there’s the, the point, the number of times, you know, like a banner ad, as an example for a product is like the ultimate spray and pray, you know, experience. It’s super cheap. It doesn’t cost much to make, and it doesn’t cost much to get in front of somebody.

But if you’re lucky, 1% of people are going to be interested in it at any given time. So our whole mindset… And so I’ll back up for a moment. Early in my career, for most of my career as a newspaper reporter, a journalist. I worked in the Wall Street Journal and I was someone who day in and day out, had companies come in and just try to pitch me.

And it was always this schlocky marketing message. And I would sit there very politely. But in my head of thinking like, you know, nobody cares, how on earth is this going to be interesting to people? And, you know, and I was the one who was being paid essentially to listen and hear out people. When I made my own transition to marketing, I think I brought with me some of that disdain for the way marketing has always been done.

And in particular, this notion of like, people just don’t care, we don’t care about what you’re trying to say most of the time. And if you think about what you try to do as a journalist, you’re really, you’re sitting there trying to think about like, well, how can I make someone care?

You know, what’s the story? I think this thing is cool. I think this guy, Jason has this great story. How do I tell it in a way it’s going to be interesting to people? And that’s sort of the filter through which you run everything. And as I spend more time in marketing, what actually happened was I gained a huge amount of respect for the rigor, the discipline, the analysis, the, the process, everything that goes into doing marketing on behalf of a big entity.

But I still couldn’t let go of that notion of like come on, let’s just make something people care about, you know, that can be valuable too. And when you’re describing, you know, working with your team, you’re talking about trying to create a moment that’s valuable for the person on the other end of the phone call, uh, in that moment.

And what we’re trying to do with our clients is do that same thing digitally. Do that same thing in a one-to-many scenario where you’re making stuff and putting it out into the world. But the goal of it is to be cool. The goal of it is to be valuable. The goal of it is to, you know, find someone who has a problem and give them an answer that’s going to help them.

It’s not really about your product or to find someone who’s curious about a topic and inspire them. You know, they don’t know that they’re looking for it, maybe, but it finds them and it creates a moment of value for them. And then, you know, from there, that’s where the marketing part kind of kicks in, you know, what do you do with it? How do you make it part of your go-to-market motion?

How do you integrate it into, you know, the data collection and aggregation of everything else that you’re trying to do? So that you can not just like make cool stuff and pat each other on the back, because like, wow, that was so cool. We love it. Shiny. But it’s doing something for you. It’s valuable. And you can, you can look at… You can go to your boss at the end of the year, put up a slide that has some data points that shows what you’ve accomplished through making that kind of content.

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Yeah. And I think it’s, you know, when you’re trying to reach out to people and, you know, why is it important and share and care? It’s not about caring for everyone. It’s actually about like, trying to push the people that you don’t care about away and create this little segment that you actually care about.  And then show them empathy and understanding and a little bit of authority and show them a plan.

And I think you can destroy it. I think most people try to be like, I’m this for everyone. And I’m like, you’re this for no one when you actually try to do that. They just have a hard time wrapping their brain around it. I mean, that’s, you know, we were talking to the pre-show like, you’ve grown your agency fairly quick and you’re like, what was that impressive? I was like, yeah.

Some people wait a decade to get to where you’re at. Some people never even get close Online Training for Digital Agenciesto it. I find when there’s a turning point in the agency owner the mindset shifts a little bit. That’s when their agency can really excel. And it’s not all like, you know, like you said, it’s not all about sales. It’s about so much more in order to grow the agency. Do you agree?


Ben: [00:08:05] Yeah. Well, the funny thing listening to your description is the thing that I feel has propelled our growth is just looking at this challenge of you know, how do you effectively communicate with people in these non sales moments? And it’s doing exactly what you said, which is, you know, you don’t care about everybody. You care about people that you’re trying to reach, and those people are somewhat narrow.

My mom, I always use this example, but my mom loves me dearly. And if I do something, she’s going to read it. She’s going to check it out. She’s going to watch the video that…

Jason: [00:08:35] My mom is the same way.

Ben: [00:08:05] Yeah. You know and she’s going to listen to this podcast. But, she’s not going to buy something…

Jason: [00:08:41] Say hi mom.

Ben: [00:08:42] Hi, mom. She’s not gonna buy for most of our clients, right? You know, like our, our clients run the gamut from like B2B companies. It’s just like, there’s no way she’s gonna buy a million dollars worth of software. You know, it’s just not plausible. And so it doesn’t matter to them if my mom sees it and likes it. But that’s where, you know, to go back to our growth, that’s, what’s been driving it. You know, it’s not…

I mean, yes, it’s hard to make something cool, but it’s not hard to make something cool. Lots and lots of people make cool stuff. And yes, we have our own way of doing it. We have our own way of positioning it. We can talk to about the skills that we use in order to make cool stuff. And, and that’s part of it.

We have to bring together and our side people who are journalists and people who are designers in order to create experiences. But then like, let’s go back to that question, right? Like how do you know that it’s reaching the people that you want to reach? That’s hard because it starts getting into how you promote it effectively, you know, how do you target?

How do you do segmentation? And then how do you know that that’s working? And it gets into analytics and like, oh my gosh, now this is getting crazy, right? Because how do we, you know, page views for the web? That’s like the first thing everybody looks at, right? Page views, because right. Well, if you’re getting a million moms coming in, giving your page views, and if that’s all you’re looking at, you’re going to think you’re killing it. When in reality, You’re not reaching the people that you’re trying to reach.

And then it gets even more complicated because, you know, we’re not really trying to sell something. We don’t want you to, to click and buy. You know, what we’re trying to get you to do is we’re trying to create an impression. We’re trying to prime the pump.

And that means that the key thing isn’t, you know, did you click on the buy now button? The key thing is that you come back. You know, the key thing is if you came back another time where you more likely than somebody else to do something that we want? Then that’s what you had previously had an interaction with our content.

And to do that you got to mix together a lot of different people with a lot of different backgrounds. And so for us, that meant like you got, we got to get people who can create the content. So we brought in a bunch of people who were journalists.

You know, we needed people who could make experiences that people wanted to consume, so we brought in a bunch of designers. And then we needed people who could do the promotion and the audience development and all of that, so we had to bring in into those people.

And then analytics. It’s like, well, if the traditional way of doing analytics, isn’t giving our clients the kind of data that they want, we kind of have to invent our own analytics. And so we did, you know, we hired a bunch of people who understood analytics, were able to grapple with this challenge of how do you do analytics specifically for content that isn’t meant to sell people anything.

So our team just started to grow and grow as we introduce these new capabilities. And every single time we’re introducing a new capability we didn’t really have a market for it. We didn’t have someone who wanted to buy it. We just felt like in order to do this work well, we needed to be able to do this. So we effectively brought on a team, built the team because we thought that the proper way to do this work needed to include the skills that they brought to the table.

And then something that we’ve had as sort of a through line in our experience was once we had the team in place, we could go either to our current clients or other clients. And we could begin to have conversations about the, hey, you know, it’s cool. What if we were able to do this? And then only after we had the capability and the capability, would it be good to have a market opportunity to do it?

Jason: [00:12:15] Very cool. What’s a big mistake that you made that you wish you could go, go back and redo?

Ben: [00:12:22] For me. And it’s so laughable at this point was just thinking that this whole agency thing was really, really easy. Yeah. We had had this experience where in 2018, I walked into the coworking place and it was like, all right, great. Now we’re a company. Let’s see what happens.

And I was lucky that I knew some people who want to take a chance on hiring us. I say I was us even though, initially it was just me. You know, where able to pull together some teams, ran the whole business that first year on a spreadsheet. I had this enormously complex spreadsheet, but everything worked. The cells always added up.

And, you know, and things were growing. People were coming in. We’re adding more people and very quickly at the beginning of year 2, 2019, we went on a huge hiring spree. And I think we convinced ourselves that we had the business model of a high growth startup, meaning that all we had to do was just bring on the people and no problem, no problem, no problem.

So we didn’t grow smart. We just sort of found people that we thought were cool. And we brought them in and we also had simultaneously, we were going really fast, but I don’t think that we were growing strategically. In the sense that we weren’t selling the same set of activities, the same product over and over again. People were coming to us for a really broad range of things that broadly fit the skills that we had. And we were saying yes.

What ended up happening is I think it was what is called weak growth. We had pockets of revenue that if we took a step back weren’t services that we would really ever sell again. And in that meant that we weren’t staffed deliver it. We weren’t, we weren’t investing and through training through time through search strategy and making that service better for our clients.

And we weren’t creating a path for us to take the effort that we made, developing that and sell it to somebody else. And so when those projects went away, they just went away and we weren’t able to take that and transition to some something else. So it took a little while to retrench our growth, also vastly exceeded our operational capabilities. We out kicked our coverage, to use a football analogy.

And it, it meant that we had to do some catch-up from a process standpoint, from our financial understanding of the business. Like they just didn’t have a great read of what was happening. We were surprised at the end of every quarter, uh, which is not a place to be.

So we did a lot of work to fix those things, to have a, to refine what we did to narrow our focus a bit that. You know, it’s tough because I think we look at the world through a lens of possibility and opportunity. And I still believe that to do the kind of work that we want to do is we want to do well. It requires more skills, more people with unique capabilities working together towards this one vision.

But now we’re just having to be a little bit more smart about when we add that capability. Why we add it? Where does it fit in a roadmap? Versus just a like, yeah, come on. Let’s do it.

Jason: [00:15:39] Awesome. Well, this has all been amazing, Ben. Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you think would benefit the digital agency owners listening in?

Ben: [00:15:47] I don’t think this is going to be relevant for everybody, but it’s what’s got us to where we are, which is there’s a lot of things that matter as an agency and revenue is certainly one of them, profitability is one of them.

And we’ve adopted the mindset of looking at those factors as market validation for what we’re trying to do. You know, if we are trying to put in place a new product. If we’re trying to put together a new capability. If we’re trying to combine data and journalism and design and experiences in a way that people haven’t done before, you know, the way that we’re going to know is working is if we’re growing, if more people want the thing that we’re doing.

And so rather than thinking of revenue as something that we’re targeting and, you know, and, and designing around a revenue number, taking the model of saying, well, we have to hit this kind of growth as an indicator that what we’re doing is what people want and looking at it that way.

And then designing the service that we think that we believe is what’s going to be the thing that drives us forward and then looking at that, you know, revenue profitability as the market telling us, yeah, you’re right. This is, this is the thing that you want to do.

Jason: [00:17:04] Awesome. What’s the agency website people can go and check out the agency?

Ben: [00:17:08]

Jason: [00:17:10] Awesome. Well, thanks so much, Ben, for coming on the show. And if you guys enjoyed this episode, I want you guys to make sure you comment. Make sure you hit that like button and subscribe button.

I have a question for all of you. If you are wanting to grow and scale your agency faster, do you think it’s easier to do it with people that are ahead of you that are in the digital agency world? Because there’s lots of opportunities that you have from working with a number of different people out there.

But if you could be in a mastermind with amazing agency owners that are a lot further along than you, do you think you can grow faster? If the question is yes, I want you guys to go to the I would love for you guys to apply after you check it out. And if you meet the criteria, then we’ll have a conversation and see if it’s right for you.

So make sure you go to and until next time have a Swenk day.

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