How One Agency Grew to $5.5 Million By Investing in Leadership

By Jason Swenk on August 15, 2021

Do you have the crystal clear vision needed to take your agency to the next level? John Quinton-Barber describes himself as a visionary and accidental entrepreneur. He had 30 years of experience in the media and communications industry when he decided he wanted to set up his own business. After eight years, Social is now a top 20 UK agency. He joins Jason to talk about how he remained focused on the future and the crystal clear vision needed to continue growing your agency, some of the hurdles he has found along the way, and the importance of investing in leadership to focus on the key aspects of your agency’s past, present, and future.

3 Golden Nuggets

  1. Invest in the right people. The first years of a digital agency are about survival. John focused on keeping the agency running but, after hitting one million pounds, he realized it was no longer necessary or efficient that he took care of every aspect of the business. He started to invest in people to take care of yesterday (the processes, HR, IT, legal), someone to take care of today (making sure the agency creating great quality campaigns, working with clients, giving them the best service), and then focused on taking care of the future, which is about strategy, vision, and where you want to go.
  2. Crystal clear vision. After deciding that he was not running a lifestyle business and getting serious about making something really special, John said he never looked back and never experienced doubts. A crystal clear vision will help your business thrive in hard times. If you don’t have that vision, you won’t get to the next stage. John admits he made many mistakes and that, by year four of his agency, he was barely making any profit and plowing every penny back into the business. But now, in year eight, he is reaping the rewards of investing in his dream.
  3. Build up leadership. Finding the right people was key to keep the business running, but empowering them was crucial to keep the business growing. John’s mantra is “if you weren’t in the business for three months, would it run? And would it grow?” Recruiting can become difficult when you’re searching for leaders that can make this mantra happen, so John focused on building leaders within his organization. He makes sure that every director completes a year-long leadership course and has the tools to succeed as a leader. He no longer is the only one focusing on the future, on the vision, and that is the key to continue growing.

Sponsors and Resources

Ninja Cat: Today’s episode is sponsored by Ninja Cat, a digital marketing performance management platform where you can unify your data, create beautiful, insightful reports and presentations that will help you grow your business. Head over to ninjacat.io/masterclass to enjoy an exclusive offer for podcast listeners.

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Trust Your Crystal Clear Vision Begin Investing in Leadership

Jason: [00:00:00] What’s up, agency owners? I’m excited to bring you another episode of the Smart agency Masterclass. I have an amazing guest all the way across the pond in the UK. And he’s going to talk about how he’s been scaling his agency over the past eight years and some of the trials and tribulations.

Now, before we jump into the episode, I want you guys to take a screenshot, tag us on Instagram. And we’ll give you a shout out, um, when the episode, uh, when, when you actually do that. So we can, uh, recognize you. So let’s go ahead and get into the show.

Hey,  John. Welcome to the show.

John: [00:00:42] Jason, pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

Jason: [00:00:44] Yeah, man. I’m excited to have you on. So tell us who you are and what do you do?

John: [00:00:49] My name is John Quinton-Barber. It’s quite a posh name. It’s a UK name, John Quinton-Barber. And I’m the founder and chief executive of a marketing digital agency called Social, here in the UK.

Jason: [00:01:00] Awesome. And so how did you get started?

John: [00:01:04] Well, I’ve always… I’m 50 years of age. So about 30 years in media and communications and PR. And when I hit about 43 years of age I had this urge that I wanted to set my own business up. And probably quite a few of the listeners will be relating to this quite now. I had this urge but in the back of my mind I felt, I can’t do it. I can’t do it. And I just took the leap and did it.

So eight years ago I set up Social. Um, and what I wanted to do was just bring a different type of agency to the UK market. Because the agency world had gotten a little bit stale. It was offering PR, but it wasn’t offering much else. Social was just about social media was just about emerging as the next big thing, next best thing.

So I took the plunge and set up the agency, um, with not, not, not a lot of money in my pocket, to be honest. Um, but a whole scope of confidence. And yeah, eight years on, we’ve gone from what I said about, talking about the dollars, about $10,000. To now about $5.5 million dollars after eight years.

So it’s been one journey from two people to 48 people right now. And there’s a whole host of learnings.

Jason: [00:02:11] Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, it’s… I remember kind of doing that jump, uh, you know, and there’s many stages that you go through. Uh, if you think about it. And I always look at it as kind of like the stages of like climbing a mountain. Like at first you’re kind of like surveying of like, do I really want to climb that mountain? Or, you know, which mountain do I want to climb?

Um, what were, what were the stages that you went through over the past eight years that, um… were a point where you were like. I mean, were you ever at a point where you just was like, nah, this is not for me? Like, I want out. Or what… like describe some of the hard parts and how’d you get through them?

John: [00:02:51] I’ve never had that. Never, never had that moment, Jason, where this is not for me. It’s always, I’ve always felt it’s for me. It’s quite, almost like a mission, really a zeal within me to make this work. Um, the pain points. So as we know, when you set an agency up, it’s about survival. You know, I’ve got family, I’ve got two young children. They were two young children at the time.

It’s about survival. I need to bring the income in. And you find yourself doing everything, you know, planning the business, servicing the clients, uh, wiring the, uh, the IT of the desk, sorting out the HR and the finance. So, um, in the first two years, that’s what life was like. And we hit a million, a million pounds, so about $1.5 million, in about a year three.

And that’s when, for me, um, not the fun… Well, it was no longer, it wasn’t fun anymore. But it was just like, oh my God. When it was about 10 people in the agency and we’re bumping along about 1 million, life was good. You know, we could, we could, we all knew each other. We all knew each others’ strengths. We could work together.

But as soon as we hit that million-pound mark, that was it. We then had to refocus on actually, this is a business. And I had to make some decisions. Because I decided then it wasn’t a lifestyle business. I was plowing back every bit of penny, every penny, back into the business. And taking a very modest salary. Because I had this vision that we can make this business into something really big and really special.

And that’s something I carry within me all the, all the while. And I’ll keep all the while until the end until the big events at the end.

Jason: [00:04:19] Well, I think… Yeah, no, I, I think you’re, you really hit something I want to point out. You had a crystal clear vision.

A lot of us, when we get started in the agency, it’s kind of accidental and we really don’t know where we’re going. We’re just reacting to all the work coming to us.

And, but when you… and then I remember going through a pivotal point too, like you did of going all right, wow. It’s like, you make this certain threshold and you’re like, man, it’s kind of not fun right now. Because the whole business has changed. But if I, if you don’t have that vision of where you’re going, you can’t make it to the next part.

It’s kind of like, if I want to reach the summit and you kind of get up to like what I call, like, you know, the, the crux, right? That’s kind of like in the middle, right? You’re in the climb and you’re like, well, I kinda liked it back at base camp. Like that’s where the party was.

But, uh, you know, talk about, you know, when you’re at kind of that crux and you’re going to like, Brett the million and a half, or, um, dollar mark. What did you have to do? Was it about building the team or…?

John: [00:05:31] It was, I mean, my, my kind of like epiphany came when who is my chairman now, and he’s in his sixties, late sixties. And he’s not a PR man. He’s a, he’s a financer. And he said to me, he said, John, you created something special here. And you could, you could actually float this in years to come.

And I was like float with it? I mean, I had to Google float it. What’s that? Float it? You know, man, I’m trying to survive here. And that probably sowed the seed for actually the ambition I got. The belief I got in myself. So what I decided to do was okay, we, we, we’re hitting the million mark. I’m now going to have to invest in a team around me to do the HR, to do the finance, to do the day-to-day.

And I describe it like this, Jason, it’s a… It’s my, I always, when people say to me, I want to set up a business I say, okay, you need somebody to look after yesterday. You need someone to look after today. And you look after tomorrow. And what I was doing, I was doing yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

What do I mean by that? Yesterday is basically someone that can sweep up after you. So basically all the kind of processes and the HR, the IT, and all the legals that on a business side becomes all consuming. Find somebody to look after yesterday. The today is about ensuring you’re creating great quality campaigns, working with clients, giving them the best service, and ensuring that clients are happy. Clients are alright.

And the tomorrow is about strategy. It’s about a vision. It’s about where you want to go. And I just, again, as I said by year three, when this hit me and my God between a million and probably 2 million, the pain hit me. It hit me where it doesn’t hurt. I mean, made loads of mistakes, loads of mistakes.

We’re in the UK, I’m in Manchester, which is in the north of England. And you know, the, the eye on the prize was let’s open a London office. You know, why? But, you know, we, we, we need to open a London office. And we opened a London office in year four and we shut it down in year five because we got it all wrong. We got the wrong people. We didn’t have the right business strategy… We just approached it completely wrong.

Delighted to say today in 2021, we now have another London office and it’s doing really well. So we live in those lessons.

Jason: [00:07:40] Yeah. I, I look at it as if you look at kind of three lines that an agency can be on, right? The first line… especially, you know, it happened what lasts last March, right?

A lot of people panicked and they kind of went into, you know, a fear-based mentality. And I look at those businesses. They’re barely surviving. Like they’ve just gone straight down. And then I look at other agencies, and I’ve been in this spot in the agency world for a couple of years of running the agency.

You’re kind of on this unfocused line and it’s kind of the rollercoaster line…  Let’s call it the rollercoaster line, right? And these are the preppers, uh, you know, these are the preppers of like saving up all the money and all that kind of stuff. And then you have, and I’m glad you mentioned focused on the strategy to the tomorrow. Let’s call that the strategy line.

These are the people that are in kind of positioning mode of going, like, how do we, um, how do we take over, uh, you know, more market share? How do we, um, acquire more talent? How do we acquire, which we’ve talked about in the pre-show acquire more agencies, right? And you’re really kind of taking up another level.

So I want everyone listening or watching to go, what line or have you been on and what line do you want to be on? And hopefully you guys want to be on the strategy line, but you may be like, you have to be honest with yourself of going, are we on the rollercoaster line? Because the only difference you said was leadership.

John: [00:09:17] Yeah, no, we all, Jason, we’re all on that. We all, we’re all, you know, we all default back to those positions. You know, it’s not, it’s not all rosy and that’s a model world, but I have to, you know, you have to dig deep. You have to dig deep in, in three things, in confidence, in your reserves, so your own health and wellbeing, because it’s a big journey. But then you have to dig deep into your pockets and you’ll have to invest in people, the right people.

And I, you know, my, if you looked at my business about four years ago, you’d go, John, you know, you’re barely making a profit. You’re growing quickly. You’re making it. You’re spending quite a lot of money on the setting, so, business development team, finance, team, HR at a really quality number two guy. But you know, is costing me, uh, you know, it’s a decent salary.

Um, but that was that investment is now starting to pay off. We have got in our business now, eight PNLs. So we’ve had to really bolt on PNL’s and you know, we’re now starting to see the world.

But the, the mindset for that is, you know, is sacrifice. You have to make the sacrifice. It’s almost like when I hit year four, it felt like year one again, because I was having to kind of on this cycle of sacrifice. And now I’m on year eight and I am reaping the rewards. And so my, my message to anyone listening is if you’ve got a growth journey and growth plan, just go for it.

Get the right talent. No, not the talent, not necessarily gonna deliver, you know, the, the, for the clients. The talent that is going to deliver for you sitting by your side to help you grow and scale your business.

Jason: [00:10:50] Yeah. I love that. You said kind of invest in your company. And, and a lot of times people will misunderstand me a lot of times when I say, hey, the only thing that matters in your agency is your profit margin. And are you making money?

That matters when you get closer to having an exit or, you know, liquidity event later on. But in the middle or in the beginning, I’m like, invest as much as you possibly can because you totally control everything. Like you can put money in the stock market, and I encourage you guys to do that as well, but that’s you don’t control any of it.

It’s like literally bet on red bet on black, you know, it’s, I mean, it’s a little more calculated. But with your agency, you can totally control the situation way better than anything else. So if you’re listening, make sure you’re investing heavily. You don’t have to have 32% profit margins year over year.

I know a lot of people reach out and they’re like, I’m worried I’m at 15. Like, well, you’re not even close to selling, so don’t worry about it.

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John: [00:11:56] Awesome. No, it’s true. It’s true. And it’s, um, you know, I, I do a lot of reading, obviously around some of the most successful companies. And you know, the successful companies didn’t make a profit until, I said, you know, two years for listing or, or selling.

And profit isn’t really important if you… and I keep telling colleagues if you want to makes it grow. But you know, my, my mindset when I, it’s interesting, my, my pits, some peer agencies in the UK that I… I would have a drink with and we chat too.

And, um, sometimes I look at them through real kind of like, uh, envious glasses because you know, they’re out having holidays four or five times a year, pre-COVID and… And that’s great, you know, I’m all for that. I’m all for the lifestyle business. I think that’s fantastic. You made a decision. But for me, it’s just, as I said before, Jason, is quite a mission with me.

I’ve got a mission and I’m going to make it, it’s going to happen. I will scale this business and I’ll take it to the UK A market. Uh, because I believe with that we’ve got a great proposition for investors. The one thing that, um, Jason, again, you’ll be, you’ll be so familiar with this is that culture of people.

So while this is all happening with today, tomorrow and yesterday and invest in the center, um… we ha, I had to make sure that that Social probably has to be one of the best agencies to work for. Um, to say we invested a lot in the culture is wrong. It sounds like it’s forced. We nurtured the culture that we were creating and we’ve got fantastic culture now.

And I know every business owner says that and that, you know, generally have. And we continue to invest in that now with our people. Um, so the pandemic, uh, for, for us, didn’t really hit us. You know, we, we grew through the pandemic, both financially… and we added nine new people during the pandemic year. So, but kind of how I think the… all that, all that groundwork in the first five years helped us through this tricky year.

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Why I know some people, like, you know, they’re on the strategy line and usually you can accelerate your growth in a time like this. And they’re literally, like, we don’t want this to end because we’re like, we’re just reaping the benefits, uh, you know, for it. So let’s talk about kind of like the transition from building the right team, right?

So I look at that as kind of when you’re building the right team, you’re, you’re in the crux. But then, kind of the next level up, I look at the crest and you’re starting to build the leadership team. So let’s talk about that because not many people do. Um, what are you, what… what does your leadership team look like?

And, and how did you go about building it? Like what was, and would you go in the right order? The same order? So a lot of times people go marketing sales or do sales and marketing, you know, operations, that kind of stuff.

John: [00:16:03] Well, for me, the first, the first kind of… the first again Eureka moment or epiphany moment for me was, uh, the operations side of it. Um, and so I brought in who is my number two now, Rob, managing all of the operations side of operations side of the business. And that was the, the first kind of key hire in this space. We are now a leadership team of nine across the business, um, head solve and directors.

Um, and you know, that that team has taken time to build. And that team is, you know, we’re a trusting team. Um, we work well together. We also get friction, which is, which is healthy I see. Uh, and I believe in, but yeah, the, for me, it was very much about operations, operations, you know, the business had to operate, um, and had to operate effectively.

So bring that person in. I had a mantra about, and this is a really good test for anyone who’s listening, the mantra is if you weren’t in the business for three months, would it run? And would it grow? B. And obviously your priority is it has to run, so get it right. Make sure. And it’s a good exercise to do is visualize.

But just don’t be happy with it running, it’s got to grow. So what do you need to make it grow? So to make it run, I brought the right people in and then to make it grow, I’ve empowered the people in the business. They need to make it grow. Not just me.

Um, and again, I’m off after next week for a whole month now. I’m taking a sabbatical. My phone is off. My everything’s off. They can’t get ahold of me unless it’s burning down and that’s the first time in eight years.

But again, um, and again, I really want to reach out to anyone who’s listening who’s in that, in that probably two, three, four year phase. Just stick at it, because you get the right people and the right counsel and advice as any business, you can make it.

Jason: [00:17:55] Yeah, I look at it as… And, um, and I’m actually showing a lot of our mastermind around this now of going, what are the things, if you audit your calendar for the past couple of weeks… What are the things that totally drain you? Which are the things that give you energy? And then when you look at the ones that drain you, because that’s the things that like, you have too many of those that’s when you’re like, screw it. I’m outta here.

Like, I don’t want to do it anymore. All right. Or let me sell for this low valuation. I’m just, I’m done. Um, which you benefit from when buying. You know, you’re like, oh, you’ve got low energy? I’ll buy you, right? So if you guys are in the UK, obviously, go check them out. Um, but what I tell people is look at the low energy and then outsource or delegate or hire for that stuff.

Like, I, I don’t know why we always hire for things we don’t have any clue on… like on. It doesn’t make any sense. I mean, I’ve been guilty of this. I’ll be like, I know nothing about pay-per-click. Let me go hire someone to do pay-per-click. Rather than like, I know everything about UX so let me hire UX, because I can manage that. And then figure out a process like it’s just, it’s just goofy.

Um, what are some things… switching focus a little bit, what do you do in order to build your leaders within the organization? Because you know, at our top level masterminds, we’re always talking about that.

And also recruiting, recruiting is a really big thing. Like we cannot find enough people, it seems like. So how are you building leaders and then is recruiting your biggest issue too?

John: [00:19:34] Uh, on building the leaders. It’s, uh, it’s important that we’ve got the program. So if you there’s a few ways, we went with an external provider who does a year-long leadership course and I send…

I, I want to say congratulation to my leaders that I’m dead proud of them. Uh, got the card here… the cards are there.  Um, so I went through it, I went through it, uh, three years. And now quite a lot of my, well, all my leads will be going through it. Um, and that’s a day, month commitment for them.

And they have, you know, they, they, they, all the topics are from culture to finance, to leadership, to behaviors. Um, I make people go through that process and I see them during the year just grow and blossom which is fantastic. And then I encourage them individually to find a mentor that’s not me, someone that I can confide in probably about me, you know.

If you want to moan and groan about me and they need someone external so they can have that. Again, we have identified a person for them in their life. Um, and you know, the, the company pays for that, it, it’s a paid thing. So that you can never get enough, all the external kind of like counsel.

Myself, I have a mentor, I’ve had one for five, six years. I belong to a board, the top of the alternative board, which when I was in America, I sit on the alternative board every month. And I just sit there and cry about people and money, cause that’s always come up.

But, um, but yeah, so leadership for me is I want to just, you know, embrace that. I said to my, one of my colleagues today, my strategy here is to get you working less and your reward going up every year. And that’s what we’ve got to get through as a leader. And if you’re working less in the business, then you know, you’re, you’re winning for me.

Jason: [00:21:24] Yep. And then what about recruiting? Is that a, a big challenge for you guys like finding enough talent?

John: [00:21:30] Absolutely. It really is. It’s a, you know, to the point where it depends on the, it depends on the, on the area you’re recruiting. So imagine digital social that’s really, really sought after for obvious reasons. And that’s challenging to recruit in them areas. So we want to, we want to do a blend of three things.

We want to grow our own, um, so grow our people that we’ve already got into business. Because, you know the’re very valuable to us, not just in monetary terms, but, just in, in their futures. We want to, I think mentioned before we were looking to acquire an agency. So we’re looking, you know, where we can’t, where we can’t build a team because the talent pool, looking for jobs or employment isn’t there.

We’re looking now just to, to hire, to, to acquire a boutique agency, particularly in the digital space. Um, and the third, the third area is looking at apprenticeships. So we’re looking at bringing kids out of school and instead of kids going to, we call it school, university straight to us and we’ll run a program with them.

So that’s something we’re looking at for the next, for the next eighteen months. I I’m glad to hear, or we shouldn’t be really glad to hear, that it’s the same in America. But the talent is just strange. We’re going through a strange time.

Jason: [00:22:45] Well, uh, what we found, you know, in our agency and, and all the other agencies in the mastermind is when you get to a certain level… And it’s around about 3 million you’re you’re cause you’ve, you’ve built an amazing team, you’re building the leadership team.

But it’s hard to continue to find really, really good people. And it takes them a while in order to adapt to all the processes that you have. And so a lot of times what we’ll do is we’ll say like, kind of like, we’ll bring someone in on the junior program and show them a couple of tracks.

You can go kind of the skilled track, or you can go the manager track and then show them the different layers or levels that they can go up, you know. And it makes a huge difference because you know, like I’m thinking of, of Zach’s agency now, like to train their account strategist, it usually takes about two years.

Right? Like, so you got to start thinking two years prior, like how do we get all these people up? And it makes a really big difference. So, yeah. It’s, I always love when I chat with people all around the world. And they’re like, yeah, it’s very different over here. I’m like we get all the same issues.

John: [00:24:02] Good to know. Yeah, it is, I imagine. And it’s about to how much, I mean, one of the things is obviously pay reward is very important. Isn’t it? Of course, but actually culture again, progression L&D. If I’m honest, you know, our lead in development is just catching up, you know, we’ve, we’ve got, we’ve made huge strides in the area.

We’ve got so much more. So we working on that, so we’re just, we are catching up the, this the, you know, the, the high growth of the last eight years, um, to make sure we’ve got all that in place.

Jason: [00:24:30] Awesome. Well, great. Well, um, is there anything I didn’t ask you that you think would benefit the audience?

John: [00:24:37] Um, I think, I think for me it’s about looking after yourself, you know, and I think again, just, just it’s really part resilience is really, really key.

And nothing more has been mentioned, so I, what’s been mentioned a lot more of the last 12 months is wellbeing. Um, second is acknowledging that, you know, you are human. Acknowledging that you are… You know, you haven’t got all the answers. Acknowledging that it’s lonely then, and obviously you’ve got a mastermind course, which is fantastic, Jason. And, and again, if, if you can find something like that, or find something where you can find a buddy or a mentor for yourself, absolutely take it on.

Because it, you know, you’ve got to have that in your, I think, in your life, if you want to grow, grow big, because it is a challenge.

Jason: [00:25:24] Yep. Well, John, where can people, uh, what’s the website address people can go? Especially if you’re in the UK and you’re going, hey, I want to, I want to be a big, bigger part of a team and you can buy me, John.

So where can they go?

John: [00:25:36] Oh, knock yourselves out, if you will. Um, well it’s very simple. It’s social.co.uk.

Jason: [00:25:41] That’s great. That’s awesome. I mean, that’s a very easy URL. I’ve had some guests on that literally they spell it out like five times and you still wouldn’t even get it. So congrats on getting that. And thanks so much for coming on the show.

And if you guys enjoyed this episode and you’re in the UK and you want to possibly sell, go check them out. And know this is sponsored, uh, but he did drop a lot of amazing bombs. So go check that out.

And if you guys want to be surrounded by amazing people on a consistent basis, I would love to invite all of you to go to digitalagencyelite.com. This is for agencies all over the world. Where we share the strategies that are currently working and little shrink moments, right? Like we can like cry on each other’s shoulders to get us through.

But go there and until next time, have a Swenk day.

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