Grow Your Digital Agency

Gareth Healey speaking at the 2019 Grow Your Digital Agency Summit with Robert Craven

Grow Your Digital Agency Summit 23rd October 2019

I was asked by Robert Craven to open the inaugural Grow Your Digital Agency Initiative Summit. On 23rd October I joined close to 100 agency leaders and agency growth coaches, some of whom had flown in from as far afield as North America for a full day of presentations, debate and networking. 

The day was a massive success and surely will become the first of many Grow Your Digital Agency conferences. I look forward to the next one, but in the meantime, you can read a transcript of my speech below.

Good morning Grow Your Digital Agency!

I’d like to start by taking you on a quick trip back in time. Back 20 years to 1999…some of you may have been still at school or at least still in education. Mark Zuckerberg certainly was. He was a freshman in High School. He did have a website though, although Facebook was just a twinkle in his eye.

Meanwhile, in Yorkshire, I was starting a new job as an account handler at an agency in Leeds. Gratterpalm wasn’t a great name for an agency but it was an established design business with about 35 people. A family business, it was run by a very charismatic and successful chap, but it was very much his baby and everything started and stopped with him.

It was something of a surprise when just 3 years later he approached 3 of us about doing a management buyout so that he and his wife could take early retirement. Once we looked up what a management buy out was…it seemed like an opportunity too good to miss and we acquired the agency.

Over the following 15 years we grew the agency into one of the largest regional agencies in the country. We evolved into a large integrated agency, embracing broadcast media, digital and everything in between, We worked with some of the biggest brands in the UK – ASDA, Greggs, B&Q, Ladbrokes Coral, Pets at Home, DFS

Three partners became just the 2 of us and we achieved £12.5M Turnover with an EBIT north of £2M. We acquired a London digital agency giving us a headcount of 175 and putting us in the top 1.1% of businesses in the UK by employee numbers. Of course, like many GYDA members we were award-winning, but the award I was most proud of was the Investors in People Gold accreditation.

Despite being CEO and equity partner for 15 years, by 2017 I’d had my time with the business. I needed a change and a new challenge so I exited selling my shareholding to my business partner and I now work as an independent consultant and with Robert on the GYDA Initiative.

So what did I learn in 15 years of running an agency?

Of course, I learned a lot. We made plenty of mistakes but had our fair share of successes too. So to open the GYDA Summit, I’m going to briefly take you through the following:

Some things we AMAZINGLY well

Some things we could have done BETTER

A couple of things I RECOMMEND you do as GYDA agency

One thing you simply MUST do.

Things we did amazingly well…

We understood SIZE is not a strategy. We didn’t obsess about growth. We obsessed about doing a great job. Indeed for marketing agencies, especially in today’s market, it is the smaller agile specialists that are more geared up to thrive. Our growth was a consequence of our actions rather than our plans. We were 100% client-focused and got a kick out of making clients happy and delivering for them. Consequently, they tended to give us more and more work.

We built STRONG relationships. We hated losing clients. We were great at client retention and brilliant farmers (if you are familiar with the analogy of hunters winning clients and farmers developing them). We were certainly not harvesters, we took retaining clients VERY seriously and as a consequence had 3 or 4 clients with a relationship of 10 years or more. A project from a new client was only ever a foot in the door in our view. The long game was always to retain them and if possible land and expand into other areas or channels. We specifically targeted clients that need ongoing support and monthly of not weekly output. We created, if not always contractual monthly recurring revenue, certainly monthly relationship revenue. A client service ethos ran right through our organisation. We learned so much from our clients as well as gave them a lot. It’s for another time, but frankly, I’m worried that modern agencies don’t have the service ethos we did. I’ve witnessed levels of service or attitude to clients that I just wouldn’t find acceptable (although not from GYDA members I hasten to add!)

We nurtured our people and our CULTURE. Your clients can never be happier than your colleagues. People and talent are the lifeblood of every agency, and a good culture is obviously important to any business. They say 1/3 people you hire are great, 1/3 are OK, 1/3 are a disaster. We managed to disrupt those odds. When they did leave for whatever reason people always used to say it was the people that made the agency.

We embraced the NUMBERS. From Day 1 we had a firm grip on then finances and internal metrics. Maybe we had to as we’d done an MBO, mortgaged our houses ad loaned money from banks (yes GYDA you could do that back then!).

We focused on a NICHE market. We were specialists. When we bought the agency we quickly realised our niche was retail. Maybe it’s not a niche I would choose now with the High Street announcing retailers going to the wall every other week. As owners who were client-facing people we enjoyed the knowledge and authority we had in this area. We were seen as experts and this gave us confidence. We understood retailers, we knew their problems and how they liked to work, we were familiar with their terminology. We didn’t need someone to explain it to us. We onboarded clients far quicker and easier. We benefitted from referrals of course.

We GREW with the agency. We navigated the growth journey, learning and adapting as we went. My business partner and I transitioned from Account Handlers to Business Owners to CEO. It wasn’t always easy and we did make mistakes but we were willing to learn, retain the essence of our values but adapt our style and approach. We tried to grow as people and as leaders as the business grew. I can’t tell you what the secret was, but it was rooted in an acknowledgement that the same systems and process and thinking that helped you to survive, are not the same ones that help you to thrive. You can’t operate a business of 5, 15, 35 people in the same way you do 55 or 155.

We deployed and optimised a lot of PROCESSES. Consistency is a friend of growth. Complexity is an enemy. Repeatable processes helped us run a more efficient and predictable agency. We were transparent with the results and clear on the goals.

Things we could have done better…

So what would I reflect on what we could have done better, and what might I recommend you do to grow your digital agency?

We DIVERTED from our specialism. Focus scales, depth does not. We had a strong market niche in retail and had the focus to maintain it for a long while, but we succumbed to pressure to broader. Don’t do that GYDA members!

We didn’t evolve our CULTURE. Monitor the impact your culture has on your business model (beyond service). We had a great culture, but it was designed to deliver one outcome; no mistakes. We prided ourselves on accuracy and attention to detail. This made us a lot of money, but it limited our creativity.

We were poor HUNTERS. Marketing and sales are different things, both are your responsibility as the agency leader GYDA members. We entrusted our New Business to a succession of New Biz people. Sales is the last thing you should stop doing as an agency owner.

Things I recommend Grow Your Digital Agency Initiative members do…

These are some of the things I definitely recommend you do to grow your digital agency…

Have a Long-Term vision but a Short-Term activation. Making plans is great but executing plans is better.

Productise and Systemise. Scaling means serving many customers frequently. You can’t do this if you don’t have the right processes in place.

Create digital ASSETS and IP. Scale needs reach and a successful sale (of your agency) needs assets to maximise the value you receive.

Solve client problems and deliver VALUE. Don’t be a service business, be a solution business.

Enjoy the journey and enjoy the Grow Your Digital Agency Summit

“It’s not the destination its the journey” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Too many agency owners I know are focused too much on the destination. A sale or “value creation event”.

Don’t think about the end (the exit)…think about making the journey better.

Enjoy the journey, it really is the best part.

Thank you GYDA!


Gareth Healey