How to Scale an Agency

Scalability is defined as “the capability of a system, network, or process to handle a growing amount of work, or its potential to be enlarged in order to accommodate that growth.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!) Conversations about scalability are commonplace in the venture-backed startup scene, and for good reason. Scalability is a prerequisite for rapid growth. With digital products and social networks, the marginal cost of selling another product or adding another user is practically zero (ignoring, for this moment, the downstream need for salespeople, marketers, customer service reps and other personnel). Code-driven business models create the possibility to build a billion-dollar company with only thirteen people.

But what about agencies? For us, everything from the language of a custom pitch to the execution of deliverables must be carefully managed by human beings. Until there is a breakthrough in cloning technology, scaling an agency remains a challenging task. How can I validate my positioning—much like tech folks think of product/marketing fit—through rapid experimentation? How can I invest in my own marketing without client work suffering? How do I create a repeatable sales process while tailoring every pitch to the client? If I am closing new business, how can I optimize my client services and project management process to minimize burnout and keep my current clients happy? Growing an agency feels like walking on a tightrope while playing Jenga.

In the sections that follow, four experts in their respective fields of agency positioning, marketing, sales, and project operations share perspectives and advice on how to scale an agency.

Positioning: Francesca Vitali of Vitali Consultancy.

Content Marketing: Steven Aguiar of BlueWing.

Sales and Lead Qualification Process: George Sanchez of 49co:.

Project Operatons: Brian Kessman of Lodestar Digital.


By Francesca Vitali of Vitali Consultancy.

There seems to be a shift in the marketplace today: the traditional, big design agency model is being highly scrutinized by clients, and is somewhat broken. You can see this in the increase of soon-to-be ‘entrepreneurs’ who are leaving the corporate agency world—agencies that they helped grow—to start their own.

While jumping ship and starting your own company may seem easy enough, especially if you have 1 or 2 clients to take onboard, it has to be done with a proper strategy and foundation in place. If not, the chances of scalable success narrow substantially.

A strong positioning strategy is key to differentiating yourself from everyone else, telling your story, and helping you scale effectively.

Developing a unique positioning in the marketplace begins with asking yourself three basic questions: What is it that you do? Who do you do it for? And finally, how do you do it?

The ‘What’ defines what you are and are not—what makes you different—which reveals your value. You must understand what your competitors are doing and set yourself apart from everyone else. This helps you attract the right kinds of clients by providing an offering that is especially relevant to their needs.

Next, the ‘Who’ turns the focus to your targets and ideal market, based on your specific expertise, unique stance, and POV. The biggest mistake the majority of agencies make is trying to be everything to everyone. Your positioning should define your ideal clients as much as your internal capabilities.

Lastly, the ‘How.’ Before your agency can take off, you must define your proprietary approach and process, including how you build offers and go after the right target with your unique value.

Knowing the ‘What’ of your unique selling proposition, ‘Who’ your ideal clients are and ‘How’ your agency’s approach uniquely fits their needs will create the foundation of your positioning strategy. ” The best part? A well-defined positioning strategy will allow you to charge premium prices for your proprietary offers. It’s the difference between a client going with a “good enough” competitor and you, the perfect fit. Answer the big three questions, and you’ve completed the first step in creating a positioning strategy that can be scaled for success.

Content Marketing

By Steven Aguiar of BlueWing.

Marketing an agency is a lot like saving for retirement. The only way to find financial freedom is to consistently sock away money and let the magic of compounding interest do the work for you. 8% yearly interest on your first $1,000 invested is only 80 bucks. 8% interest on $500,000 is $40,000. The latter represents the kind of passive but impactful results we want our content marketing to deliver. In this case, instead of getting cash, we’re getting cold, hard leads.

Investing early and often is the best way to set yourself up for long-term financial success. The same is true when it comes to content. Your first blog post will only get a few eyeballs. In the beginning, you’ll have no authority, audience, or SEO clout. By your 500th post, though, there will be a dramatic difference. Each additional post you publish will increase your agency’s SEO authority and social audience, the same way compounding interest accelerates growth for bank accounts. This kind of passive acceleration is what scales inbound lead generation.

Now, you’re trying to scale an agency, not become a full-time writer. Outsourcing is key. If you have a staff, lean on them to help produce content related to their expertise as their schedules permit. Working with freelancers is also critical. Put in the time and energy up front to find 1-2 trustworthy writers to do the heavy lifting for you. You’ll make back every dollar you put into it.

In addition to organic SEO, there are many other ways agencies can automate their marketing process. A Google AdWords campaign will get you in front of inbound prospects immediately, without waiting months to build up your site’s SEO authority. On Facebook and Twitter, you can set up retargeting campaigns to promote conversion-optimized landing pages to people who have visited your site.

If leads hand over their emails on your site, nurture them with a marketing automation sequence and only step in once they’ve reached a key trigger, like looking at a case study or your pricing page. Sign up to newsletters and RSS feeds, or set up alerts in a platform like BuzzSumo, to cut down on time spent curating articles and doing personal marketing research.

Scaling your agency’s marketing won’t be easy, but consistent effort over time will generate compounding results, just like saving money. Remember to invest, outsource, and automate as much as possible and you’ll be on the right track.

Sales and Lead Qualification Process

By George Sanchez of 49co:.

As your investment in positioning and content marketing kicks in and generates leads, the way to translate your work to real dollars is to have a scalable sales process in place that converts a percentage of those leads to high probability proposals. How do you identify high probability leads?

Similar to making individual investments towards a long-term goal, you must build up discipline to ensure that you do not let emotion ruin the gains you have worked so hard to achieve once a lead comes in. In the sales process, that means identifying high probability leads through 1-5 qualifying questions or criteria before you invest too much time on any one particular opportunity.

One easy rule of thumb is to start by using the BANT sales qualification framework to score leads (via Sales Hacker):

  1. Budget: What is the brand’s budget for your services?
  2. Authority: Does the individual who reached out to the agency have decision-making authority, or is he / she an influencer?
  3. Need: What is the overall business need?
  4. Timeframe: In what timeframe will the prospect be implementing a solution?

The last question is a wild card. It might be a specific question about to how a lead’s business need aligns with your unique positioning. It might include asking questions about who you might be competing with for the business or a technical area that is more sector-specific. The answer should give you confidence that the opportunity is real and that a lead is not simply fishing for information.

This is just one of many ways to qualify or score a lead, but this minimum level of qualification will help you overcome a tendency agency owners and business development professionals sometimes have to convince themselves an opportunity is real when, often, it is not. Try to remain disciplined.

If you score leads by remaining disciplined, it will save precious hours your team can then apply to further scaling your agency. Time can be re-allocated to writing more great content, building a custom proposal for the highest scoring lead, game changing opportunities, or grabbing a coffee with an existing client. The more you use some type of lead scoring framework, the quicker it will become a natural reflex.

In addition to qualification of leads, if agency principals pair the above scoring framework with a sales toolkit that is easily customized in areas like capabilities presentations and proposals, it will go a long way towards not reinventing the wheel every time a new lead comes in the door.

Project Operations

By Brian Kessman of Lodestar Digital.

When you bring on new clients, they enter the relationship believing you were the right choice for their needs. They’re confident that you’re going to do a great job. They may have a lot of questions or seem slightly micro-managerial at first, but that’s because they’re waiting for you to lead them through your proven process to great work. Your first steps are the most important. Most new clients will instantly start evaluating whether your internal operations and their resulting experience matches up to their expectations, before they have a chance to be wow’ed by the great work you’ll ultimately do for them. Their confidence is yours to lose here. But don’t worry: with top tier client services and project management operations in place, that won’t happen. This is the next layer of your foundation for building a scalable agency.

How do you know if your client services and project management teams are top-tier? Simple. You’ll see the following measurable results:

  1. Happy, confident clients (measured by a Net Promoter Survey or NPS)
  2. High repeat business
  3. High referrals

And you won’t see the following:

  1. Over-budget projects
  2. Late projects
  3. Frustrated teams (measured by an internal NPS or survey)

Building this foundational layer for scalability requires strong alignment on the different types of customers you serve, how each type differs, and how each team member is meant to impact their client experience.

Establishing alignment on the different types of clients you serve and how each type differs

Take some time to examine your recent client relationships and scopes of work. Start to group clients and projects by similarities, going further than grouping by surface-level features like vertical or geographic region. Try grouping them by their level of experience, or appreciation for what you do. Group them by the level of creative freedom and trust they give you vs. providing strict guidelines and compliance requirements for their business. Having considered these types of features, you can establish client personas with risk profiles for each. How is this helpful to client services and project management? If done right, anyone in your organization will now be able to match new clients with one of your personas. This should instantly tell them the level or expertise needed on the project, what risks to look out for, and how to best support each type of client.

Establishing alignment on how each team member is meant to impact the client experience

How well do your client services and project management team members remember their job descriptions or understand their responsibilities on a project? Really ask yourself, because that’s just the minimum for top-tier teams. Unless members are tasked with hitting metrics tied to improving your clients’ experience and growth of your accounts, they’re stuck doing the basics. You want them to also build your company. In fact, everyone in your agency should be focused in this way. Design a measurement framework for your client services and project management teams. Monitor and learn from their performance and improve, improve, improve…

The 5Ps of Agency Scalability

With strong alignment on the different types of clients you serve, how each type differs, and on how each team member is meant to impact the client experience, you’re ready to build a top-tier client services and project management group. Use what I refer to as the 5Ps of agency scalability:

  1. Purpose: set a clear vision for the day-to-day and long-term value each discipline should strive to provide
  2. People: ensure you have the right people in the right roles with the right experience and for the right salary
  3. Partners: identify service partners who specialize where you don’t and who can bring speed and efficiency to your services
  4. Process: design a flexible service delivery process that’s simple to understand and leverages smart tools, tech, and automation
  5. Performance: create a culture that values measurement and continuous improvement

This may seem daunting. Knowing what to focus on first for the quickest and most impactful ROI is the challenge, not the workload. A good place to start is with an assessment combined with a prioritization framework that will take the guesswork out of your planning and provide you with a clear roadmap toward future growth and success.