The Key to Growing Your Agency in Spite of Mistakes

By Jason Swenk on October 5, 2020

Do you feel like you’ve made so many mistakes at your agency you may never be successful? Do you find yourself trying to be someone else for your clients? Are you willing to accept any client and any project out of desperation for cash flow? Truth is, you can learn from your mistakes and grow your agency because of those experiences.

In this episode, we’ll cover:

  • Why bigger clients aren’t always better clients.
  • How relationship-building helps retain clients.
  • 3 tips for healthy agency growth.

I talked to Theo Fanning, the Executive Creative Director and President of Traction, a digital marketing agency in San Francisco. Traction was started in the ruins of the dot com bomb of 2001. At that time, faced with few opportunities, Theo and three friends decided to start an agency of their own. “It was blind fury,” he recalls. “We had no idea what we were doing. Many of us had not had management or operational roles. We just assumed everything would come our way and we made a lot of mistakes. We are an agency built on failure, but we’re always failing up.” Theo shares some of those mistakes and lessons learned so he could grow his agency to a team of 50.

Why Bigger Clients Aren’t Always Better Clients

Traction was built on a freelance-based model, “because we had a lot of friends who were freelancers,” Theo explained. However, this business model led to some of the agency’s earliest mistakes: “Freelancers are flaky and you can’t build a business off the backs of friends.”

What followed were several years of a truly organic agency experience that began without operational tools and timesheets. Along the way, however, the agency managed to break even and the team began to grow. In 2005, after having just relocated to new office space and with a team of 12-15, Traction lucked into the opportunity to pitch Apple. “We sort of jumped into it with no true strategy,” Theo explained. “All we had was grit and good nature, and some good relationships that we had built.”

Theo points out that landing this first big client taught the team something very important. “When you’re the smallest agency working for the largest client, you really don’t get to run your business the way you’d like.” He said the experience with Apple helped them learn to focus on clients of all sizes. Traction still works with Apple 15 years later but has a greater appreciation for fostering relationships with decision-makers of all-sized clients.

How Relationship-Building Helps Retain Clients

One of the most important things an agency can do is build relationships. Traction’s relationships with the business owners they work with has taught the team to better articulate their value. Gaining the trust of the client through the relationship opens the door to offering additional services to help the client succeed. Traction prides itself on being able to show clients “new ways to do old things,” — which can include the adoption of new technologies as well as new ways to look at their business.

Theo says the relationships you build with your team also go a long way. The agency started by friends focused on doing quality work and providing the ability for staff to have a good quality of life, as well. What they got in return was a team that is both strong as well as loyal.

3 Tips for Healthy Agency Growth

Theo embraces the learning process that comes from making mistakes. Some of the tips he offers to other agencies who are struggling to find their place in a competitive industry include:

  1. Stop trying to be what you’re not. In the beginning, Theo notes, Traction tried to position itself as a full-service agency. “We wanted to play with the big kids,” he says. What happened instead was the team couldn’t compete. While they looked like they were able to provide the same level of service as larger agencies, they did not have the resources to back it up.
  2. Let go of the fluff. Standard agency models offer a lot of unnecessary things, such as customer journey maps and the development of an overall strategy for every potential client. A better way to operate is to distill your offerings into something the client can actually use.
  3. Use being small to your advantage. One of the benefits of being a small agency is the opportunity to develop relationships with your clients. This establishes trust and authority as well as nurtures forgiveness for the mistakes you make along the way.

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