All agencies operate in a competitive landscape, where despite key strengths and differentiation points, everyone broadly does the same job.

We offer similar services to clients, we have common skillsets, etc - so what makes an agency successful?

We asked The Agency Collective to speak to 12 agency owners, founders and directors about what essential traits an agency must have in order to be successful and build long and mutually beneficial relationships with their clients.

These were their responses, and also be sure to check out Econsultancy's Top 100 Digital Agencies Report.

1) Talent

It’s no secret that agencies are all about people. All agencies will need a mix of skillsets in their team - whether that’s strategists, creatives, account managers etc.

Having the right blend of skills to fit the client lifecycle is hugely important towards delivering success.

Too often agency success can be viewed by how many people you have in your team, yet finding good people is tough - so it’s much more important to be very selective in this area, and only hire the right people who can really take you forward

Adam Graham, CEO at Weapon7:

In my view, talent is the single most important factor to agency success. A team is only as good as its weakest link. When you hire great people, magic happens.

If you can get a group of smart, motivated people all pulling together with a shared goal, you can overcome any obstacle. However, if you are carrying someone who has the wrong attitude, it can bring the whole team down.

So, for me, it’s essential to weed out the under performers and hire the best people you possibly can. 

In order to attract and retain the best people, you need to focus on culture. Work tirelessly to maintain an environment where people can thrive. Strive for an institutionalised pursuit of excellence - where every link in the chain takes a pride in their work and wants it to be the best it can be. This might mean staying a bit later but no one cares because the sense of satisfaction is so great, and so are the parties!

2) Experience

All experience, good or bad, should help you in future campaigns in some way or another.

For that reason, when hiring an agency - you want to make sure that you choose someone who has encountered similar situations in the past, or has industry knowledge/expertise - that makes it more likely that the right choices will be made the next time around. 

Simon Penson, founder and MD of Zazzle Media:

As we are a content strategy agency we have spent a huge amount of time blending expertise from print media, journalism and digital. That process has been ongoing for five years but has resulted in our pillared content ideas process, the way we structure digital PR, and how we pull together content strategies themselves.

Content has always been the conduit from which audiences have always been created and, after all, that is the job as a digital marketer - to create targeted audiences of value. That will never change.

3) Technology 

Once you have the right people in your agency, you want to empower them with the best tools they can get their hands on.

This may involve creating your own internal tools to speed up frequent tasks and improve your efficiency, or using external tasks to make sure you have all the information and data you need at your fingertips, supporting your decisions so that you can make the best use of your time delivering results to your clients.

Cyrus Shepard, Content & SEO Manager at Moz:

At Moz we rely on technology and the automation it gives us to provide a scalable and consistent competitive advantage.

For a company that crawls billions of web pages every month, it's important for us to use and understand tools to help us sort and analyze that data to help make better decisions.

We live in a time when competitive intelligence can make or break you, but the problem isn't a lack of competitive intel, it's often a case of way too much. Using technology that can distill only the best information can literally save your agency’s life.

We also like to automate all of our processes. For example, we're a big fan of Rival IQ, which crawls all of our competitors’ relevant social accounts and websites, and sends us an email whenever it detects a significant change.

We also built our Fresh Web Explorer, which we set up to send us alerts to monitor the conversations about our brand across the web. When someone mentions Moz across millions of websites, we are usually able to take action in less than 24 hours.

In years past, agencies paid for information. Today, information is cheap and abundant. New technologies help us to sort and analyze the data to keep ahead of the game.

4) Efficiency

The biggest factor in marketing is always one thing; doing! The key thing you should be getting from your agency isn’t the documentation, audits and analysis - that’s important in order to demonstrate that you have the right strategy, but the real value is to build a prioritised list of actions that you can execute.

The ability to get stuff done could be the most underrated attribute of an agency, but it’s one of the most important.

Peter Czapp, co-founder at The Agency Collective:

The only way you can find out how efficient you really are as an agency is to start using project management software, including timesheets. The top-performing agencies all do it, as they understand the importance of being able to see exactly how much profit they make per job and per client.

If you’re not convinced that you need to start tracking time on your jobs, try working out your billing capacity and then compare this to what you actually bill - the results might surprise you. 

To work this out, take your day rate and multiply it by the number of people in your team and the number of days in the month. This is your billing capacity. For most agencies, this figure will be more than what you’re actually billing.

If you want to know how to close this gap, project management software such as Streamtime, WorkflowMax or Harvest will show you where your inefficiencies are and help you increase your billing & profitability.

5) Likeable

Trust is vital. If you’re working with a likeable team, that makes it so much easier to have honest feedback and open conversations when things don’t always go to plan - so that you can put them back on track with minimum friction.

Face-to-face time and frequent communication is hugely important to build strong relationships - as an agency, you also want to be in a position where you know as many people as possible within the client’s organisation, which again further strengthens your opportunities to get buy-in into the wider team longer-term. 

Louisa Pau, managing director at Woolley Pau (1993-2010):

Successful agencies are filled with people clients really want to work with; the kinds of people who make an effort to listen to them and understand their point of view. They are honest with clients and set expectations from the start. 

Sometimes they give clients what they need rather than what they say they want. The people in these kind of agencies like their clients and want to see them regularly.

6) Innovative

One of the biggest challenges for agencies is staying innovative and fresh. You want to be as creative as possible, yet you also want to keep clients happy by getting the best results you can.

The focus on what has worked well in the past can however leave you taking too many safe bets and becoming too structured/process-driven in your delivery - being innovative is about taking calculated risks to try something new, and having that open and honest relationship that it might not always work.

But unless you do things differently you’re just going to be following the crowd!

Craig Le Grice, chief innovation officer, Blue Rubicon:

An agency that's stopped innovating is an agency that's stopped serving its clients. Without innovation and the power of external ideation, clients could - quite frankly - do the job themselves.

Using innovation properly - as a mindset rather than just a buzzword - good consultants take problem solving to a new level.

Not accepting a problem to be unbeatable, not giving in to the status quo, and pushing the power of a good idea beyond the limitations the business has in its current form. That's innovation.

It's about thinking differently, yes, but it's also about acting differently. It requires confidence throughout, strong vision at the top, and a culture that embraces - and even craves - change.

I've always said that my role as chief innovation officer is to help embed innovation as naturally as strategy or creativity is. I should, doing my job properly, effectively be redundant at the point that an 'innovation-first' approach exists in every team, on every project, for every client.

Truly successful agencies are making this investment. 

7) Experiment

The value in an agency is so often in the experience they have of many situations you will encounter. You don’t want to make mistakes on the job, but appreciate that they are vital towards learning what is the right way to go.

To know what the best decision is, and without putting your own clients at risk by potentially pushing the boundaries too far, a great way to build this experience is with testing within your own projects. 

Kevin Gibbons, managing director at BlueGlass:

At BlueGlass we not only experiment with our own websites, but we run them as our own businesses too.

This allows us to implement the ideas we have with a near instant approval process, and means we can quickly apply the learnings to client campaigns without risking the bad ideas out in the wild.

We’ve experienced huge success from these campaigns, both as a learning experience (e.g. 281% organic search increase following a Google penalty removal and execution of a content strategy), but equally from a business perspective (158% increase in online revenue, whilst delivering a 26.5% reduction in paid search spend). 

Within an agency, individual personal development is hugely important - there’s a huge amount of industry trends, blogs and events to keep up with.

Yet the major factor in keeping our creativity and innovation high, is within our own controlled experiments.

I’d highly recommend marketers perform real-world tests, a fear of failure is what holds too many back, whereas really you should have a fear of complacency.

8) Challenge ideas

One of the many advantages to having a more open and honest relationship with your client, is that you’re more likely to be able to challenge their ideas.

You may argue that no idea is a bad idea, which may be true to a certain extent - but there’s definitely some which could be improved.

It’s important to remember that clients and agencies are on the same team, that means you need to be able to support each other’s ideas to add the most value to the client’s goals.

If you can’t challenge the ideas you don’t agree with this could cause bigger issues further down the line. Saying no is hugely important to keep you focused and prioritised on the task in hand. 

Will Critchlow, founder & CEO at Distilled:

Being able to push back and challenge clients is definitely a key consulting skill. If you're presented with a client idea that you don't agree with and want to challenge, pushing back in the right way can lead to a stronger relationship and a great amount of respect for you as a consultant.

Pushing back in the wrong way can damage your credibility and even lead to the client losing trust and firing you. 

We've had these situations over the years at Distilled and one of the most reliable ways to overcome the challenge is to present facts and data which aren't subjective.

When doing a site migration and trying to get developer buy-in on the importance, we have presented data from previous migrations we've done which show the range of scenarios and what can go wrong.

This is crucial because this isn't us offering our opinion, we are offering real facts which are harder to debate.

9) Measurable

From the start you need to make sure that you are well-aligned with client business goals. That doesn’t mean that you can always report on business success from day one and expect to see a huge uplift, but you should be able to clearly demonstrate your value on a monthly basis, whether that’s at a business level, or marketing level KPIs you can influence at first before moving onto the bigger picture.

Guy Levine, founder & CEO at Return on Digital:

We do business in a world where an abundance of channels and tactics exist.

Even for the most educated brands, this poses a conundrum when it comes to choosing where to spend budget, often becoming a balancing act of generating a strong return on digital, building a brand and keeping a board engaged with 'sexy' marketing.

Our preferred solution is to always present strategies in order of which will provide the best growth opportunities to the client.

In recent discussions with a client the age old issue of paid search versus organic search reared its head. Paid search budgets often come under review especially when organic search is a strong performer. However, with the advances of multi-channel attribution in Google Analytics, it is now much easier to see how different channels interact with each other.

In this case we were able to show how paid search was actually driving organic search later in the buying cycle, and therefore if the client was to just stop paid advertising, this would have a detrimental effect further down the line.

There was also a strong need for time lag data being fed into remarketing campaigns. Analytics showed most transactions occurred within one day, so considerable budget was saved by reducing the length of the campaign as in this sector, there was an extremely short buying decision period and there was little point showing remarketing once a purchase had been made.

This growth orientated approach, identification of the most relevant measures and preserving budget keeps campaigns on track and helps to avoid nasty surprises"

10) Focused

Agencies are always keen to impress the client - especially early on in the relationship where you’re eager to prove your value to back up their decision to hire you.

Of course extra effort and excitement is always meant well, but unless you are focused this may cause more damage than it does good.

High activity can look impressive at first, but when it comes to that 12-month review, it’s probably not what you’re going to be judged on. You need to have the ability to get results and then scale up, rather than spreading yourself too thin early on and overwhelming everyone.

Small early wins always make for a better start and are more scalable towards executing a solid strategy, plus it doesn’t push too much workload onto the client, which again can be a common frustration client-side, and an unnecessary bottleneck for the agency.

Richard Baxter, founder & CEO at BuiltVisible:

Client retention is clearly critical to growth, and as many other successful agencies have, we’ve reviewed our client processes continually since day one. We’ve learned some interesting lessons along the way.

On being especially focused in your client work; I think there are a number of areas you should keep an eye on.

Planning, and avoiding too much distraction. If you can plan ahead for at least six months, you’ve got a clear path to follow and very specific goals to achieve. If a project plan is based very much on your client’s business objectives, it’s hard to go wrong.

Of course, you can be side-tracked by ad-hoc requests, and the brave might manage their client by pushing back if there are things to be done more in their client’s best interests.

Ultimately though, planning ahead and making small adjustments as needed is a powerful stage to have in your process. 

11) Educational 

A good agency should be an extension of your internal team, that means you should work together as a partnership, you’re involved together in setting and executing the strategy and you’re both responsible/accountable for the results.

That means that to get the best results, you need to be on the same page - so having an educational approach is hugely important.

This helps the client to understand why you’re doing something and what it means, which gets you additional buy-in - and it develops their own skill-set and knowledge at the same time, so that they can support you better throughout the project. 

Richard Gregory, managing director at Latitude:

It's important for an agency to be seen as a credible source of education on digital marketing for its clients and that takes real investment. Keeping clients up to speed on new digital trends makes it much easier to discuss new projects when it's appropriate.

Aside from regular updates from our client services teams, we've committed to this through regular client conferences to explore important topics. Feedback on these events is continuously positive and rewarding.

12) Go the extra mile

To really stand out, you have to do things differently. Whether it’s learning more to understand about your client’s brand, putting in the extra effort to win a pitch, or pulling in extra resource to get results on a big campaign.

Going the extra mile and adding that extra 1% can often be the difference between success and failure.

Spencer Gallagher, founder & MD at Bluhalo (1999-2010):

I had several of these step-change deals in my time running an agency. I cast my mind back to my first and last.

My first, a Premiership football team, I was one of 18 companies. No sane person would have entered that pitch and it nearly broke me getting to the final four.

It took hard work and the whole team going the extra mile - and they did it because they all knew what it meant for their CVs for years to come. No one went as far as we did to win that pitch - we simply did more than everyone else. The reward was massive: 300% growth that year and the football club only represented 12% of our turnover by the end of the year.

It was a step-change deal that opened up a whole sector of opportunities over the coming five years. We were now winning £100,000 deals, where previously our average was £40,000. 

Secondly, the last pitch before I sold the agency, I worked 64 hours with three hours sleep and most of my team did the same.

The night before we pitched, we practiced until 4am, slept for an hour and then did another at 5am for the 8am pitch: eight of us in a hotel room, four creative routes, videos, a proposal that was the size of book, a global rebrand, an agency in Hampshire, pitching in Paris against two French agencies.

A £1m reward and another step-change deal for the business, where the average had been £250K before.

I often ask the question; whatever size you are when the step-change deal comes, the deal that will take your business to the next level, are you and the whole team really ready to pitch to win?

Please let us know your thoughts in the comments on what you see as the most important agency traits.

Kevin Gibbons

Published 10 September, 2014 by Kevin Gibbons

Kevin Gibbons is CEO at SEO and content marketing agency BlueGlass, he can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Comments (5)

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Omkar Borle

While this article was a great read and quite useful, I have certain shop-floor real life concerns.
1. While one of the traits of a good agency is to ensure suggesting clients what they need than what they want, this clashes with the interests of the Account Managers whos appraisals and KPIs are based on how much business they increase from the existing clients.

2. In smaller agencies an account manager handles about 3-4 clients from different verticals, hence is always jack of all trades.

3. Creative Directors and account managers have different goals, creatives being to win awards & AMs to win the business / project commercials & ROI's. That needs to be tackled.

4. How does a mid-size agency compete with freelancers / start ups who have a lower infra cost and hence can provide similar services at a lower costs.

about 3 years ago

Kevin Gibbons

Kevin Gibbons, UK Managing Director at BlueGlass

Thanks for the comment Omkar - I've just tried to answer your points in the way I see them below:

1) you're absolutely right - although it comes down to how you set those KPIs. To make this work best, I find that you need to make the targets very focused on growing in both a) the areas of most value to the client, and b) where you can help them the most - remembering a long-term happy client is much more profitable than one that you can sell more to in the short-term, but doesn't hit client targets and risks losing the contract.

2) yes - and there's pros and cons of both having a specialised focus in one sector, vs having a broader view across industries.

3) it does - and ultimately it has to be the clients goals that are prioritised first and foremost.

4) again, pros and cons on both sides - mid-size agencies are likely to have greater capacity for managing larger accounts, while smaller may be more agile and quicker to try new/creative ideas. Really depends on what is more important to the client again.

about 3 years ago

Justin Hayward

Justin Hayward, CEO at Make It Rain

Great post Kevin.

I'd also add new business/client development to the list.

With existing clients, the ability to identify other areas of the business or projects in which you can help with additional agency services is key to both agency growth, retaining clients and increasing multi level relationships.

about 3 years ago

Richard Baxter

Richard Baxter, CEO at Builtvisible

I'll respond to this comment too if I may:

"How does a mid-size agency compete with freelancers / start ups who have a lower infra cost and hence can provide similar services at a lower costs."

If you're managing your product, your R&D and your internal development properly, most freelancer competition shouldn't be a problem. We've seen freelancers attempt to undercut on areas like pricing, or scope, with much less real world experience of the scale of a project. That's definitely a risk, and one you only discover months down the line through a lack of results.

Only when a freelancer is very specialist should there be any sort of advantage with going down that route.

Agencies that invest in their infrastructure and proprietary tooling wisely should be able to present enough value add to convince a client that price should not be a determining factor alone in the buying process. If you're evaluating an agency, expect to see: in house developers (front and back end), designers, a strong senior consulting team, multiple language / international marketing skills, tooling and capabilities that are unique to that team.

Then it's up to you to decide where the best fit can be found!

about 3 years ago

Edward Cowell

Edward Cowell, Director of SEO UK and International at MEDIACOM

I think education is a really important area, and it's definitely an area we focus heavily on at MediaCom, both within the agency and with clients.

Organic search concepts can sometimes seem a little intangible to traditional marketeers and a lack of understanding can create roadblocks. With education as an intrinsic part of the relationship everything becomes a lot more productive. Clients or planners are furnished with the background information to understand decision making, this builds trust, which in turn helps gets changes and recommendations approved more easily.

about 3 years ago

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