How to build a great little agency

Being a 20 Year Old Digital Agency, by Martin Dower, Founder & CEO.

A 20 year old digital agency is kinda rare in an industry that only appeared in the 1990s.

We’re frequently asked how we’ve done it, how we’ve prospered over 3 decades. I know we’ve influenced the business models, ideas and cultures used by many agencies over the years.

We’re so very hardy and long-lived that we must be doing something right and whilst being copied is pretty much the highest compliment one can receive, of greater relevance than “what” to long-term prosperity is the how. So few digital agencies survive past half a decade, the attrition rate in the digital space is murderous, so how do we prosper?

Be Adaptive, be Honest

The web has changed incredibly over the last 3 decades and over that time we’ve strived to stay ahead of revolutions in technology, markets, economics, workplace, legislation and competition. To be this adaptive requires brutal honesty with the direction of agency travel and staying ultra-agile in a world that never stands still.

Easier said then done – second-guessing emerging technologies and markets is hard enough, but creating a organisation fluid enough to adapt quickly to those changes is a quite a challenge. There is a dose of luck, too, but I would suggest our ability to stay in front of change is down to:

  • Always learning. Nothing stands still so we spend a third of our working week learning, reading and exploring. This is the single largest investment that any agency will make after people, but cannot really be avoided you’re serious about staying the course.
  • Stay humble. What was brilliant 2 years ago is old-news today. Accepting that your mantra will change, but whilst maintaining conviction is a tricky balance to strike.
  • Step off the gravy train. Once a technology moves into the mature market stage the gravy train is well up to speed. The game changes from innovation to operationals (and cost-reduction) – it’s typically a very lucrative period for a digital agency as they’re getting premium money for old rope. But ya gotta stop selling old rope.

The underlying principle of our long-term prosperity is, I believe, our ability to adapt and pick the right horse to back at the right time. We’re not perfect, and have certainly got it wrong in the past, but we’re big enough to admit when it’s not quite right and agile enough to turn on a sixpence.

The Very Best People

We hire the very best in the marketplace – we’ll never skimp on getting the right experience, skills and culture. To hire and retain the best we pay top rates, give them the best environment, don’t stress them and also treat them as I would want to be treated.

Oh, and since 2012 they’ve been able to work anywhere they want in the world.

Retaining, not hiring, top-notch talent is a key challenge. As our culture very much defines us, we build our organisation around people and not processes. We’ve never had a formal recruitment process, and I’ve not read a CV in over a decade. We judge people on who they are; their core values and what they want to achieve in the future – not the stuff they did in the past.

It’s not always been that way – last decade we had both a graduate and paid intern hiring programme, focussed on skills, training and qualifications over fit and attitude. It wasn’t bad, it’s just that we’ve outgrown our reliance on such a traditional model of hiring. Everyone seems to prefer how we work now.

The Best Tools

Great productivity comes from great people using great tools and being given the right amount of time and support to produce the best.

We’re always innovating and looking for an edge, making us a user and early adopter for many of today’s leading digital agency tools; Basecamp (since 2007), WordPress (2008), Github (2009), Amazon AWS (2010), WPEngine (2012), Zendesk (2013) and Slack (2014).

Everyone gets input into which tools we use and how. So, rather than a lengthy product evaluation phase where the “committee” can dilute and obfuscate the business drivers, we nail the core business needs using the simplest tools possible. It also means we change tools a lot.

For example, our journey to using Slack for internal communications started in 2002 when we implemented a forum-type product to encourage interaction (we were already a remote-anywhere company). This was replaced by Skype a decade ago and then we banned all internal email five years ago when we adopted Yammer for short-time, and then Podio and finally Slack two years ago.

Innovative, Not Derivative

We plough our own furrow, nuture our own innovation and invent bright and amazing new things. This makes us different and very forward looking. We’ve adapted and evolved across the various phases of being a web development house and now a digital agency – it would be a safe bet that we’re still here in 2030!

Innovation is core to how we think and very much follows our “Always learning” mantra, but extends to who we hang with. We have a carefully curated sphere of influencers that we maintain close links with – this includes the brightest and best in the technology and agency space.

This is a magical ingredient and more than anything, underlines our unique place in the agency market.

Stability, not Growth

Growing an agency is pretty easy to do. However, creating a long-term profitable enterprise takes a completely different set of skills and attitude.

Our approach encourages us to nurture long-term relationships with clients and staff that create a beautifully mutual fit. It has the benefit of maintaining a highly stable cash-base, giving us the ability to survive big swings in the market, economy, clients, legislation and technology. The cash base gives us the opportunity to tactically invest in people, products and ideas without impacting the core business and forcing us into “chasing for business”.

We’re opportunity rich, as a result we can be highly selective of who we work with and what we deliver. We qualify out 90% of inbound enquiries and subsequently reject about half of the rest. It’s a very busy space (aka: scarcity model) and our prominence in the WordPress agency space generates way more opportunity than we can comfortably and safely handle.

The scarcity model does have dangers: Generally, agencies fold due to drowning under work, growth, debt and liability… and a dose of poor decision-making, crap hiring and inappropriate profit-taking.

Methodically Agile

Like most modern agencies, we approach projects with proper discovery and planning phases. But we temper that with a very agile approach (we went Agile in 2009) that focusses on delivering value and return for clients.

We find most organisations serious about the digital space will spend the time and the effort planning – these are our clients we work with, they understand the value of proper planning and work with us in an agile manner.

Communication, Collaboration and Transparency

Great relationships need trust and fantastic communication. We openly share what we do, why we do it, and how we do it. This manifests itself in world-class support (we call it Peerless Support). Working closely with clients to achieve their goals in a transparent manner is one of the primary reasons we have developed very long-term and deep client relationships.

And finally

We only do any of this to enjoy ourselves, we’re quite selfish. We like having fun.

If work is a drag, overwhelming, demeaning, pressured, unsatisfying or needs a crappy commute then it’s never going to be fun. And unhappy people are unproductive and stink the place up. Happy people do great things, for the pleasure and then is becomes a lot less about “work” and “graft”.

In fact, this is probably the most important aspect of how and why we are still here, 20 years after we started, in a pub in London over a few beer. //MD

  • Joseph Pennington

    Great read Martin, love the approach of making learning and exploring a core part of what you’re doing in the now