on April 15, 2021 (last modified on July 6, 2022) • 25 minute read
In the world of digital marketing, growing an agency takes hard work. More than half of digital marketing agencies have 10 or fewer staff members, meaning your growth strategies have to count.
So, if you want to grow your business, where should you focus your efforts?
We consulted almost 50 decision-makers to learn how they grew their digital marketing or advertising agency in the past year. Since your strategy will depend on your agency’s age, we divided responses 3 three categories — agencies less than one year old, agencies 2 to 5 years old, and agencies more than 5 years old.
New agencies made up about 15% of participants, while the rest of them were evenly split among the other two categories.
For this report, we’ll also categorize the advice these experts gave by agency age. Use the convenient links below to jump to a category or tip.
The first category of respondents, agencies less than a year old, had a unique obstacle to face compared to other participants — the COVID-19 pandemic. These businesses were especially proud of their customer service and expertise in the past year. Their top 3 services included content marketing, SEO, and landing page creation/optimization.
Survey respondents from new agencies had the following tips for growing a web marketing agency:
“One of the best things we did was allow for our employees to grow with the company,” Lights On Creative’s Crystal Diaz tells us. “We allow for change and love when our employees can find/see a better way of doing things. By doing this, everyone feels included and we can test things out to see if it can work with our company.”
Thanks to this approach, the agency’s team has grown from a team of four to nearly 10 employees.
When you have a brand-new agency, remember that you don’t have to go it alone. Your team has first-hand experience with your operations and can offer input on them. Plus, as you can see from Diaz’s advice, your team will appreciate the opportunity to help you improve your processes.
Don’t underestimate one of the most accessible referral sources — your existing clients.
At GR0, Kevin Miller counts on a strong customer referral program as the agency’s top strategy for new leads. Miller makes sure to approach referrals strategically: “We typically wait until after the first two to three months of results, but this is by far the highest converting channel, and it works without fail.”
It’s vital to find a reliable source of leads in difficult economic times. “There is no better endorsement than a current happy customer. Especially during times of crisis when business owners look critically at every dollar spent, it’s much easier to get a new client when you already have a mutual point of contact putting in the good word for you,” Miller explains.
When companies have to thoroughly vet their marketers, the leg up that you get from a positive referral goes a long way. According to Miller, GR0’s focus on referrals earned them more than 100 clients in their first year.
Solomon Thimothy from ClickX integrates financial incentives into their referral program. “Business owners love good savings on their money and we utilize that common desire by structuring irresistible rewards that benefit both our clients and our business,” Thimothy says. Thanks to this approach, referrals are ClickX’s most cost-effective and conversion-friendly way to get clients.
During your first year as an agency, you’ll need to do everything you can to prove your abilities. An underrated strategy for maintaining your growth involves applied empathy.
“Something which has been and I expect to continue to be crucial to Hive SEO’s development will be putting ourselves in the client’s shoes,” Dan Rawley from TwinklHive SEO Service tells us. “The value we can provide through SEO often goes beyond short-term results; suggesting improvements across an entire company’s copywriting processes or upskilling team members is often actually where we can add the most value. And that’s vital to getting word-of-mouth referrals from satisfied customers.”
Digital marketing consists of many moving parts that contribute to a company’s growth. What other areas could your client improve to reach their goals? How can you harmonize them to get the best results for your clients?
We have oodles of networking tools available to us, but nothing beats an old-fashioned face-to-face interaction. Right?
Connor Hewson from Assured Marketing LTD found the opposite true in the agency’s first year. “At Assured Marketing, we have found that virtual networking has actually ended up being a much more successful avenue than the traditional face-to-face meetings we previously took part in,” Hewson says.
This trend makes sense when you hear how Hewson explains its effectiveness: “People are quicker to follow up and are easier to obtain through virtual networking. Business owners are seeming to be more willing to talk openly in this environment, and once we are able to build trust with them through networking, they will often start taking our services.”
It also doesn’t hurt that online networking qualifies your leads for you. As Hewson puts it, “businesses already engaged in networking are showing an active interest in expanding their client base (the key goal of marketing), so any lead generated is always much warmer than prospective cold calling.”
So, if the recent shift to online operations has you worried about networking, consider these reasons why online methods can work just as well as traditional ones.
The largest segment of respondents, experts from agencies two to five years old (43.8%), set themselves apart from the other two groups through their pride in their talent and expertise. The other two categories valued their customer service and talent evenly. Meanwhile, two-thirds of professionals from agencies two to five years old felt the most satisfied with their talent over other business areas.
Since these companies had multiple years of revenue to track, we could ask them about their average annual recurring revenue (ARR). They had pretty steady numbers coming in, with more than a quarter reporting an ARR of $1-3 million.
Despite the new barriers that came from COVID-19, most of these businesses thrived. Seventy percent of the respondents in the two-to-five-year-old group had a year-over-year (YoY) revenue growth rate of 16% or higher. More than half saw at least a 46% increase.
Just like their newer counterparts, respondents from agencies two to five years old prioritized content marketing and SEO in their services. However, they also focused more on PPC advertising and social media marketing than agencies less than a year old.
So, now that these organizations have a few years of operations under their belts, what growth advice do they have to offer?
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The agencies we consulted with two to five years of experience found themselves in a unique situation in the past year. Right after establishing themselves for a few years, they had to manage sudden shifts in the industry and worldwide economy. According to Eric Moraczewski of NMBL Strategies, flexibility and adaptability will serve you well in this situation and as a whole.
Here’s how Moraczewski explains that NMBL Strategies kept going over the years: “We’ve adjusted everything from our business development practices, moving from more general opportunity to owning and creating our own business development opportunities, to our work directly with clients, moving from more project-based work to more strategy-based work.”
Where do you find opportunities to stay adaptable? Over at Forbes, Wayne Elsey offers a few tips for building flexibility — create more meaningful business relationships, listen to feedback and break larger goals into smaller ones.
Every day, more businesses switch their physical marketing assets to digital ones. The rapid acceleration of digital marketing due to recent events makes it essential for agencies to embrace the trend.
“For my company, the most effective strategy over the past 12 months is helping our clients make the shift into more digital content,” says Vinny Lizcano of Nimaroh Creative House. “We create both physical and digital marketing assets but with the pandemic, there’s been a higher demand for digital as digital marketing campaigns start to become more important for our clients.” For example, a recent opportunity to create digital assets for online learning led to two more lucrative projects for Nimaroh.
The shift to a digital-first mindset also applies to inbound marketing, as you can learn from Dofollow.io’s Sebastian Schaeffer. “We have seen most of our growth over the last year come on the back of our podcast appearances and LinkedIn cross-posting. Both my business partner and I, together and separately, have dedicated much more time over the past 12 months to appearing on industry podcasts.”
The results? “We recently appeared on Authority Hacker, and the response has already been quite overwhelming. Using our business and personal LinkedIn channels to advertise these appearances has really helped create a buzz around our name that didn’t exist at this time last year and we have more companies than ever reaching out wanting to work with us,” Schaeffer tells us.
Podcasts and social media posts also provide great material for multi-channel marketing. Consider pairing your podcasts with blog content to get the best ROI.
You’ve seen how referrals, networking and inbound marketing can help you grow your agency. But, as you try those techniques, don’t forget to invest in the most critical agency element in front of you — your current clients.
At Rentiel Media, Joe Leitner discovered first-hand how investing in your clients can earn you business. Leitner originally focused on increasing the agency’s client numbers, but they realized that they overlooked the current client’s in front of them.
It turned out that building relationships with current clients brought more success than looking for new ones. “If you build a connection with your client, and not every time you call them is to sell them something, then your clients will come back to you and also refer you to others. Furthermore, when you have that connection with your client, it’s just simply a short request to recommend you to people who are looking for your service which they obligingly do,” Leitner says.
In other words, you get back what you invest in your client relationships and then some.
For Cirely’s Dan Sears, quality client relationships involve a personalized touch and clear communication. They require three steps:
“We have delivered fine-tuned services but with a personal touch. We have also managed our client expectations really well, maintaining transparency throughout the project. We are available to answer any questions they may have,” Sears tells us.
These three practices all come down to communication. Keep your clients informed and encourage them to reach out when they need help.
Businesses of all sizes can fall into this trap: They network until they get a steady stream of revenue, then ease off. But, that business disappears, and they have to scramble for more clients.
Instead of networking only when it feels necessary, include it in your regular business practices. Brooke Markevicius credits Allobee’s success to a focus on networking from the beginning. They affirm, “Networking has been the number one and most effective way our agency has grown over the past 12 months.”
Here’s how: “When I started Allobee, I hit hard with networking right from the beginning! I looked at the connections I currently had, reached out to leaders on social media and sent many cold messages to PhD students with machine learning and data science experience locally, looking to find the right team to help build my business, as well as investors, and connecting with independent contractors to grow my Hive of Experts. This is still my number one daily activity which allows Allobee to continue to grow.”
Note that Markevicius calls networking a daily activity. You can add networking to your daily to-dos, too. Consider becoming more active on social media or setting goals for cold contacts.
Filip Silobod of Honest Marketing Zagreb sums up the reason for the agency’s growth in two words — “Ranking well.”
Silobod elaborates, “SEO is our most popular service, so we worked a lot on our own SEO for our Irish company. We wanted to rank on top for ‘digital marketing agency’ in our town.”
If you want to try Silobod’s strategy, keep in mind that your rankings have to count. “The truth is that we got leads only when we were ranking in the top three results,” they point out.
You don’t have to offer SEO as a service to improve your company’s SEO. By following our simple tips for improving your local SEO, you can start raising your rankings. Many of the suggestions involve an eye for detail and common sense.
As we can learn from Samuel Hurley from NOVOS, scalable processes give you the room you need to grow your agency. “We launched our agency in Jan 2019 with a team of 2 and have now grown it to 20+ staff and generating £1 million in revenue,” Hurley tells us, and scalability played a huge role.
Hurley says, “The most effective strategy has been to focus on developing scalable processes for all aspects of the agency’s functioning, from sales and hiring to onboarding clients and services delivered.”
Of course, it’s one thing to say that scalability helps. But, what can your agency do to promote scalability? According to Peter Cohan at Inc., a scalable business model allows you to:
When obstacles like the pandemic make business difficult, remember that your clients are probably having a hard time, too. These kinds of circumstances make it crucial to deliver top-notch service to your customers.
At Brainy Bees, Kinga Edwards considers the agency’s flexible customer service their biggest strength. “When the pandemic hit, we had no problem with adjusting some packages for our clients. They came back later on, on higher packages, recommending us further,” Edwards recounts.
The numbers don’t lie. “We go the extra mile. It’s worth it. Believe me. We’ve grown 120% y/y. In 2020,” Edwards concludes.
Kevin Kohlert noticed a similar trend at Borealis Digital Marketing. “The most effective strategy has been going above and beyond for existing clients and effectively communicating the success of our campaigns. We find that clients are generally happy to refer you to friends, colleagues, etc. if they really like the work you’re doing,” Kohlert tells us.
They also point out that this approach works well for getting referrals, saying, “You can also politely ask whether they know someone who’s in need of digital marketing services or let them know you’re accepting new clients.”
Deliver quality customer service to your clients, and they’ll pay you back in dividends.
Looking to build professional relationships? BHMR’s Martina Cooper suggests LinkedIn. “LinkedIn is the home of B2B relationship building,” Cooper says.
According to Cooper, LinkedIn has the perfect features for B2B networking. “The ability to adequately showcase yourself and your successes in business while also being able to filter people and find your perfect ideal client is unbeatable especially in the digital marketing agency space,” they explain.
Everyone has a different LinkedIn outreach style. Many businesses opt for cold messaging, but more users are choosing warmer methods. Consider what techniques work best for your networking style and audience.
Now for the most experienced group of respondents from our survey — professionals from agencies older than five years.
Similarly to agencies less than a year old, these businesses felt most satisfied with their client service and expertise rather than their sales process. It seems that no matter how long any company from our survey stayed in the business, they always want to improve on sales.
The agencies older than five years mostly had ARRs under $3 million, with 58.8% of this category earning less than $1 million. Keep in mind that we didn’t track how many people these businesses have on their teams, so these numbers are relative. YoY growth will provide you with better context.
And what a context their YoY growth offers. Seventy-five percent of surveyed agencies founded more than five years ago had a YoY rate of at least 16%. It’s especially impressive to consider when they’ve had more years for the rate to average out.
The agencies with five or more years of operations have a much higher focus on web development and eCommerce than the two younger groups. Content marketing still dominated as it did for the other segments.
What tips did the agencies with the longest histories have to share with you?
Content dominates the digital marketing industry, as you can see from the responses we got across agency experience groups. But, you have to put as much care into your organization’s content marketing as you do your clients’ to get more leads.
Amber Reed-Johnson discovered that diversifying Giraffe Social Media’s content gave them the growth boost they needed. After they started a weekly social media podcast, it “improved our engagement on socials and enhanced our image as industry-leaders in social media marketing.”
If you decide to expand your content range, add content based on what your audience wants. By rooting your choices in audience research, you’ll have a higher chance of conversions and save time on testing different content formats. After all, when we asked marketing professionals how to get content ideas, their answers all had one thing in common — your audience.
“The agencies that I have seen have the best results are ones that have had strong relationships and been quick to understand where their customer needs have shifted in their focus over the course of the last year, Subsector’s Jessica Gregson observes. Gregson names plenty of examples, such as clients that changed their business models to adapt to the pandemic. They trace these successes back to “carrying out research and being happy to have candid (and sometimes uncomfortable) conversations with their customers.”
Since client needs change over time, you’ll need to keep track of them using a client dashboard software and adjust your services to meet them. This principle can also apply to potential clients, as you’ll learn from NetBlazon’s Susan Petracco.
“We have been partnering with the software companies that we have expertise in. The majority of our new work has come from recommendations or direct engagement from our partners, with the retailer/client as the end-user,” Petracco explains. By working with the software companies they use, they can quickly identify customers who already use their technology and need help optimizing it.
When we asked marketing agencies about their pricing models, most of them told us they prefer retainer contracts. But, you could profit from trying a more immediate approach. Since we’re talking pricing models and uncertainty of choosing retainer contracts, before making a decision, you can calculate the price of your services depending on a specific pricing model you’re thinking about in order to measure the profitability.
Lori O’Connor says that at Vye, “We went to more of a project-based system vs retainers and became hyper-focused on priorities that would deliver the highest ROI. We then executed our work in sprints to deliver results faster.”
Keep in mind that you can still create a long-term strategy with this model. “We still plan out future phases of work so there is a comprehensive long-term vision, but we allow our clients to say ‘yes’ to what is right around the corner vs saying ‘yes’ to a 12-month commitment,” O’Connor elaborates.
Economic uncertainty can make it harder to commit to a full retainer contract for some clients. Newer and risk-averse customers might also prefer more flexible pricing.
Of course, for some agencies, it’s worth it to focus on retainer contracts and refer these clients elsewhere. Think of ways that you can meet your client where they’re at while benefiting from the relationship.
“Even though the pandemic impacted us and our clients, we have still managed to grow during this time. We’ve done this by continuing to focus on company culture and following our value to not let screens replace handshakes,” explains Online Optimism’s Flynn Zaiger. Long story short, the agency invested in its team and clients.
While the pandemic had some agencies hold back on hiring and promoting, Zaiger took the opposite approach. “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve hired six new employees who have helped maintain relationships with existing clients and build relationships with new clients. We also allowed some of our Specialists to become Senior Specialists, which has allowed them to stay with us and continue to learn digital marketing,” they say.
The Online Optimism team also continued their networking efforts, even when in-person events became impossible. Zaiger tells us, “One of our usual strategies for growth was in-person networking, but that obviously hasn’t been possible through COVID. We take advantage of the many opportunities to virtually network nowadays! This includes utilizing LinkedIn more, speaking via virtual college job fairs, and we are even hosting our own webinar series on Humanizing Your Brand.”
What can you learn from this agency’s story? Instead of taking away support when times get tough, double down on your employee and client connections. They’ll return the favor.
Some of the most popular advice from agencies older than five years involved brand building. “With everyone being virtual now, I am a big fan of content marketing and thought leadership which are great ways to build your brand, increase your visibility more broadly, raise your profile and attract more clients/customers,” says Paige Arnof-Fenn from Mavens & Moguls. “Activities like hosting a podcast or webinar, speaking at an online conference, writing articles and building your following on social media all contribute to increasing your awareness with potential customers/clients and building your credibility with a larger community.”
Plus, once in-person activities become feasible again, you’ll have a stable online presence to tap into during in-person networking.
If you’re a founder wondering how to split your labor with your team, consider “letting go to grow,” as Accelity’s Jackie Hermes calls it. “My team runs client strategy largely without me, and I focus on my personal brand to bring leads to my sales team — it’s a beautiful system that plays to all of our strengths. LinkedIn has been our most effective lead source in 2020/2021, and we’re also diversifying revenue streams with an upcoming course launch!” Hermes says.
One of the main growth strategies Sean Allen uses at Twelve Three Media is establishing thought leadership at conferences. “When you’re on stage talking about marketing, you are given the appearance of a subject matter expert,” Allen explains.
The industry shift to virtual events could play in your favor if you haven’t had the chance to speak at a conference yet. Keep an eye out for online events related to your specialty and see if they need speakers — no need to worry about location. There are also bound to be plenty of online conferences going on after the pandemic, now that we know our virtual capabilities.
No matter how long your agency does business, you should take your online traffic seriously. Your SEO and social media traffic bring in fresh leads who can bring new life to your company.
“For the past 12 months, our agency grew mostly thanks to our SEO work,” states Jonathan Aufray from Growth Hackers Agency. “We’re ranking for more and more keywords, especially keywords with high intent. This is due to all our content, on-page and off-page SEO efforts for the past few years. Now, around 2/3 of our traffic and leads come from organic traffic,” Aufray explains.
Pay close attention here — Aufray mentions that the traffic comes from multiple years of SEO work. We recently asked SEO pros about how long it takes to start ranking, and they told us that you’ll need at least three to six months. So, if you decide to go the SEO route, consider it a new habit instead of a one-off project.
At Clio Websites, Nat Miletic nurtures social media traffic, and it works. “One of the most effective strategies for our business has been a focus on building a social media following. Not only has this strategy created vast networking opportunities, but it has also resulted in generating 1-2 warm leads/week,” Miletic says.
They warn, however, that you have to build a social media following the right way instead of counting on shortcuts. “Building relationships, being helpful by answering questions, and offering useful advice has helped us grow from 100 to over 7000 highly engaged followers in less than a year. Our website traffic has increased 10x and so has our lead generation through social media. Find out where your audience lives (which social media platform) and spend time building relationships on that platform,” Miletic advises.
In unusual times, unconventional strategies pay off.
“The past 12 months haven’t been the easiest. But it helped to highlight benefits more clearly,” Amit Raj from Amit Digital Marketing reflects. “In essence, we extended monthly reporting to cover not just deliverables but also traffic.”
This simple change helped the agency demonstrate its results in a difficult economic climate. “For some customers, website traffic is the lifeblood for their business. Whenever we are able to demonstrate the growth of both traffic and links built (main focus of ADM) using our agency dashboard, the clients often extend their budget or scope of the job,” Raj tells us.
Even if you’re delivering results, it can get tricky to express that to your clients. Look for the areas where you succeed and find ways to report those wins through your marketing report KPIs.
If you get one takeaway from this blog post, let it be this — care for your team and clients in difficult times.
Near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we reported on the ways marketing agencies supported their clients. It turns out that continuing that compassion helped Databox blog readers grow their agencies.
Alysha Schultz from Intuitive Digital considers two practices essential to the agency’s well-being during the pandemic:
Thanks to Intuitive Digital’s investment in its people, “Our teams have continued to find creative solutions to new problems, to test and rework tactics as needed to keep accounts successful during the economic downturn,” Schultz tells us.
At The Golding Group, Kyle Golding found an opportunity to help clients while positioning the agency as an expert. “We retooled our social media, email newsletter and podcast to feature advice and tactics to Adapt, Adopt or Pivot during the pandemic. This helped establish us as change experts and prompted many inquiries from decision-makers who understood the need to alter their business model in response to coronavirus restrictions, lack of access/traffic and falling consumer confidence,” Golding says.
They continue, “The more advice we gave away for free, the more calls we received, including contracts from our city and state chambers of commerce to assist with small business and minority-owned business support funded by the Cares Act.”
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