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Small marketing agencies often do poor work marketing their own services. As they’re 100% focused on delivering outstanding work for their clients, their limited resources stop them from doing the same for themselves.
Most agencies are aware that there’s no progress if the agency founder can’t sell. But even if the founder can do it and is successful at sales, they’ll need help at some point.
Pete Caputa, Databox’s CEO, says that he’s seen many agencies distributing marketing and sales across a few of their staff. “More than a few agencies have asked their staff to squeeze out a blog post for the agency’s blog every month on top of client work and team meetings. Often, agencies will pull in their most experienced, client-facing staff to put together a proposal or a pitch”.
As the agency grows, this approach becomes unsustainable. “At some point, every 10+ person agency realizes they need to dedicate some staff to their own marketing and new business,” says Caputa in his LinkedIn post that initiated an interesting discussion.
So, when should a marketing agency make their first, full-time, dedicated hires for marketing and sales? We asked agency owners to share their experiences and here’s what we’ve learned.
Marketing and sales need to work together to generate the best results. Marketing enables sales reps to do their best to close deals, while sales inform marketing of their customers’ most common pain points for better targeting. But when you’re a small agency, who comes first? Should you hire a full-time marketer before a salesperson or vice versa?
To answer the burning question, the Databox team ran a survey among marketing agencies. Out of 45 respondents in total, most were agencies with 10 or fewer employees, followed by agencies with 31-50 employees. Less than 18% of the sample are agencies with over 100 employees.
About 36% of our respondents report an annual business growth rate of 25-74% in 2021, while another 31% report a 1-24% growth rate.
In our survey, 53% of companies stated they have a team dedicated to their sales and marketing full-time. About 42% reported that the agency owner, founder, or CEO is still in charge of their marketing and sales.
We also asked our survey respondents how many of their team members are focused on marketing and sales. The median number of team members in marketing teams is 5, and the same goes for sales. The median number of people in teams who do both marketing and sales for an agency is 4.
An experienced marketer can help you nail down your brand messaging, tone of voice, and set up your sales team for success. But, when’s the right time to hire a dedicated, full-time employee to focus on your agency’s marketing strategy?
“Sooner than most,” says Karl Sakas, President and Agency Consultant at Sakas & Company. Sakas has helped over 600 agencies from 36 countries build a sustainable, profitable business, so he’s an expert on the topic.
“I usually see it happen around 15-20 people, with part-time people prior to that point. If an agency waits ’til 25-30 people, they’ll struggle to maintain sustainable growth, unless their cobbled-together approach is performing well.”
President and Agency Consultant at Sakas & Company
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Sakas also adds that hiring a marketer first is a good idea.
“A lot of agencies hire a full-time salesperson first. That’s rarely a good idea, unless your inbound marketing is already producing a strong volume of qualified leads. Salespeople can (and should) prospect, but they’re an expensive lead-generator.”
Bob Ruffolo, the CEO of Impact, a successful marketing and sales training company, confirms that an early marketing hire can make or break your business.
“We hired a full-time marketer when we were at like 6 or 7 people. Best thing we ever did. At the time, most agencies were cobbler’s kids without shoes, and we ranked #2 for every marketing keyword right below HubSpot, and most agencies couldn’t catch up. Times have changed and so must modern marketing strategies, but it was a game changer for us at the time,” explains Ruffolo.
As we’ve seen from our survey, many CEOs and agency founders are still in charge of sales. That doesn’t come as a surprise, as they know their business and target audience best. “Sales is the first thing a founder does and the last thing they should hand off, as it’s vital for the growth of the company,” says Yiannis Papadopoulos, the CFO at Ladder.io. Papadopoulos landed at Ladder almost four years ago, where he now helps build the company’s very own financial department with his vast experience from both startup and corporate worlds.
It’s important to get the brand positioning and audience right and clear before you hire a dedicated person to sell your services. And, maybe even more importantly, you need to choose wisely where to hire this person from.
“While we had good traction from our marketing efforts, we got our first salesperson,” shares Papadopoulos and explains that hiring this salesperson internally was an excellent decision, since “it was essential for the individual to understand [their] methodology and have a growth mindset” along with the ability to close deals.
There are other aspects of business for agency owners to establish before welcoming their first salesperson, according to Carole Mahoney, an author, speaker, coach, and founder of Unbound Growth, an agency offering world-class sales coaching and training development programs.
Mahoney believes it’s a mistake to hire a salesperson before “having clear success criteria and skill requirements for the role”, as well as “hiring salespeople before having an idea on how to onboard, train, and coach.”
Your first sales hire can’t figure out the process on their own or excel in their role just based on their past performance, in a job where they may have worked with a completely different audience, products, or services.
Doug Davidoff, founder and CEO of Imagine Business Development, an agency helping companies accelerate their revenue operations, agrees that a salesperson can’t thrive without a solid basis.
“The key is to ensure you’ve got a strong basis to support learning. Have a clear hypothesis. Don’t hire a salesperson to figure it out. Be very clear with what they’re focused on and be reasonable with their ramp. In an advisory or creative firm, you also need to know that “full-time dedicated” is a process that will likely take 9-12 months”
Founder and CEO at Imagine Business Development
Anirban Sengupta, founder of No Nirvana Digital, a marketing agency specializing in digital marketing solutions for SaaS businesses, confirms several steps need to be completed before a company is ready for their first sales hire. Sengupta has a decade-long experience in marketing, analytics, and technology and started his own agency in 2020.
“Step one would be to standardize the offering. In my case, for most of my existing clients – we are an extended team. This is something that only I can sell. To scale, we need to have packages. When it comes to standardizing it’s not just limited to services offered, but should also include standard conditions such as SLAs, support etc. Once the standard packs are in place we can then use sales & marketing to scale it up.”
A significant obstacle in hiring the first full-time salesperson is the fact that many agencies have limited budgets, which often doesn’t allow them to compete with big companies for the best sales reps out there. About 68% of companies offer their salespeople a flat salary plus a variable bonus, while only around 21% of surveyed agencies offer commission.
“Some companies can afford to hire, pay and onboard 100 salespeople to keep 10 past 6 months, but most companies aren’t that well funded. So, my suggestion is that big-thinking founders should find a 3rd party small thinker to help pick the right salesperson to hire given the capabilities and goals of the company,” says Rick Roberge, an expert at helping small businesses hire salespeople.
Sales happen every day, and if you have an active sales team, they’re busy setting up appointments, making calls, creating and nurturing deals, and closing them to generate new revenue. It’s your job to monitor their performance and work with your team to improve it. To do that, you need up-to-the-minute information at your fingertips, including:
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It’s difficult to say who should join a growing business first: a full-time marketer or a full-time sales rep, especially since there’s a lot of overlap between these roles. Frank Belzer, a marketing mentor, published author, and conference speaker, reminds us that great salespeople need to have strong marketing skills, while great marketers also need to be skillful salespeople.
“Great salespeople should be good marketers and great marketers need to be good salespeople.”
Chief Sales & Marketing Officer at ICON Park
But who should you start with?
“Definitely a marketer first. Sales done by early senior consultants. Easier to cross-over because you’re literally selling yourself, so the relationship management and workstream exist at the same time,” says Ryan Finkelstein, VP of Revenue and Solutions Architecture at Aptitude 8 and an experienced Elite HubSpot partner.
In Finkelstein’s case, it’s feasible because marketing enables sales. “We focus on high-value relationships and showcasing our expertise as a means to drive awareness. By the time sales speaks to our clients, we’re usually already halfway through the door. So by the first call, we’re able to start actively solutioning and demonstrating we REALLY know our stuff, and can 100% deliver what the client needs, no matter how complex.”
For most agencies, their owners and CEOs are essentially the first salespeople, and their knowledge of their own business is unlimited. They’re often the ones to set up the agency’s sales and marketing strategies and processes (according to the majority of our survey respondents).
But even with a sales process written out, it may be difficult for salespeople to close deals without a clear pipeline bringing in new leads through marketing activities. Hiring a sales rep at this point could mean setting them up for failure.
“My big advice is DON’T bring in a sales rep until you have a solid process and pipeline of leads coming into your business. You will set them up to fail. You’ll think it’s the sales rep when it was your process,” says Traci Reuter, CEO & Founder of Divine Social, a digital advertising agency specializing in Facebook and Instagram ads, experienced in industries like arts and crafts, pets, and natural products.
“Essentially, when I was selling, I didn’t need any of that because it was in my head and I could handle any question that came up because I knew so much and I was getting referrals and word of mouth biz. Now I’ve realized that I have this major asset of a great team member who has excellent sales skills and we’re making the marketing aspect a priority. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t do it the other way around,” admits Reuter, and adds: “Because my great team member has been adding value in other ways, they’re going through this process with me and I believe it’s going to help them to be even more successful selling for us as we get our marketing message dialed in and executed better.”
Kamil Rextin, the General Manager of 42 Agency, also decided to focus on marketing first by hiring two people to help him build a newsletter. The newsletter started off as a “tiny newsletter my family read and it was random musings on the tiny letter but over the last 14 months – with Sebastian and Alejandra at the helm, we started doing high-quality content & illustrations, and it’s now at 1500 subscribers and growing,” says Rextin and adds that the effects of the newsletter are getting noticed in their sales calls.
“While we don’t directly push people to the agency, there’s a halo effect & of course, it’s called 42/. We’re starting to see folks mention it on sales calls.”
On the other hand, Carole Mahoney suggests hiring a salesperson first.
“Regarding the marketing hire or sales hire first: seller first, if that seller can also effectively use social and create compelling content (in the form of short posts or videos) that are relevant to buyers. Hiring a marketer, whose job is to generate leads for sales, means you need someone to follow up on those leads. And if you have a seller who can find and develop new business, then hiring the marketer can wait until you are ready to scale sales.”
It seems that everything comes down to the individual needs and challenges of each agency.
“An agency should hire a full-time marketer or sales person when the CEO and CMO become too busy to take care of it. The first person to hire depends on your needs. If you have problems closing deals, hiring a salesperson would be the best choice. But, if you have problems generating leads, then a marketer would be better.”
CEO at Growth Hackers
Bruna Drummond of Interro Media agrees that it all depends on what a company needs and prioritizes.
“In an ideal world, [hire] both at the same time. But since this isn’t always possible, the answer to this question depends on the business model you’d like to follow. A sales person would make more sense if you’re looking to generate leads through outreach, whereas a full-time marketer would be a more effective professional if you plan to have stronger branding right from the beginning, as well as more inbound marketing-based lead generation.”
For 30.30% of our respondents, the primary source of acquiring new business is organic search. Just over 27% of survey participants list client referrals as the primary source of new business. No agency reported using traditional advertising or upselling as a primary source of new business.
“I guess with the right marketer and the right strategy, you could get similar results today – but I would lean more on word of mouth, community, speaking, guest appearances, and referrals today vs. inbound leads, especially for businesses specializing in expertise and not just commoditized services,” says Bob Ruffolo.
Whether you’re still deciding if you’re going to hire a marketer or a salesperson, or you need advice on how to do it properly, you’ll find the following best practices useful. We’re sharing the best four tips on how to start building your marketing & sales team.
One of the most important things to bear in mind when building a sales team, especially when hiring your very first sales rep or marketer, is that you should find a person who understands your vision and shares your passion for your product or service. Only then will they know how to convey the message properly to the audience.
“Ensuring that person is aligned with the company’s goals and targets is a must,” confirms Bruna Drummond of Interro Media.
“You do that not only during the interview process but also by giving them as much context as possible. People need to understand the business model, its services and cycles, before marketing your company’s solutions. The more they know, the better prepared they will be for coming up with a powerful marketing strategy. Agencies need to provide their marketing staff with the needed tools for success, from specific software to ongoing training.”
In today’s tech world, teams need to have proper toolkits at their disposal regardless of their role in the company. Automation and AI will help your marketers and sales reps remove errors, streamline their processes and eliminate duplicate and daunting tasks that take up too much of their time.
“No matter the background, without the right training and tools, it will be nearly impossible to develop a stable pipeline,” says Vito Vishnepolsky of Martal Group.
Related: 24 Free-Forever Marketing and Sales Software Tools
Impact’s CEO Bob Ruffolo suggests hiring a sales coach if you want to ensure your sales and marketing staff is set up for success.
An experienced sales coach can help your sales reps and marketers on multiple levels: close any gaps in knowledge and improve their selling skills, bring in the required expertise to identify bottlenecks in the sales process faster, reduce stress, create and document processes.
Both your sales and marketing teams can benefit from a well-thought-out content marketing strategy. Great content can help gain the trust of your target audience and send high-quality leads to your sales team, who can then close deals faster.
“Content is super important, and I think that’s the best long-term approach an agency should follow to succeed on the marketing side,” says Yiannis Papadopoulos. “Therefore, if your team doesn’t have that skill, I would recommend hiring one as early as possible, obviously after solving the brand and positioning.”
Related: How to Structure a Great Content Team: 50+ Experts Share Their Insights
Most companies could detect more or less clear indicators that hiring dedicated marketing and sales people was a good move for their business: from traffic growth to revenue increases.
For example, Kade Wilcox of Flatland, an agency helping rural small businesses create an effective marketing strategy, noticed “significant growth in “secondary” data like audience growth, SEO improvement, web traffic.”
Another agency had a similar situation. “We managed to attract more organic traffic by up to 30%, establish our agency’s blog as a knowledge-sharing platform, and expertise of our staff members,” shares Goran Kezić of Play Media.
Others were able to identify more specific and revenue-related changes, like Ryan Finkelstein. Finkelstein’s company revenue grew about 80% YoY in the past two years.
“We were getting tens of thousands of visitors to our site a month within the first year, and generating hundreds of new contacts to our database and dozens of SQLs a month,” says Bob Ruffolo, Impact’s CEO.
As a busy agency owner, you need a reliable sidekick to help you streamline your processes and accurately measure the results of your processes. This is especially important as you onboard your first marketing and sales hires, as you’ll have many questions: is this working? Should we invest further in this tool? Does this campaign need tweaking? Does this channel bring in high-quality leads?
You need answers laid out in an accessible, customizable, and all-encompassing way.
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