A CEO's guide to surviving marketing agency growth

Ian Lurie

Growth ain't easy.

I love when someone tells me I should ‘manage growth’ at Portent. How, exactly, would I do that? Hire a psychic? Sometimes, the economy tanks, and you get 10 great new clients. Sometimes, the economy grows, and 3 clients leave to sell their toothpaste caps in Superbowl ads.

I guess I could tell 5 great prospective clients to pound sand. I could slice off my pinky toe, too. Doesn’t mean I’m gonna.

If you run an internet marketing agency, then you know from whence I speak: You run your content marketing campaigns, nurture leads and manage as best you can. But you grow when growth is available.

So, you need a plan for those times when you suddenly grow by, I dunno, 120%. Here’s my guide:

Embrace your fear

First, go throw up. It’s OK to be scared poopless if you just tripled your client list. If you aren’t, you’re either a sociopath, or you’re on better drugs than I am.

That said, don’t freeze in panic. There’s a difference between fear and panic. Fear used to make us check the bushes for tigers lest we get eaten. Panic rooted us in place while said feline ate us whole.

Trust, but verify

First, you’ll try to manage all the new business yourself, or with your existing team. I’m not going to try to talk you out of it. You’ll do it anyway. I’ll just remain supportive when it all goes horribly wrong.

After that, though, you’re going to hire some new people. Hire smart, and trust them completely to do the work. But verify, more often than once a month, that it’s getting done. Otherwise, log jams become tidal waves, and the first you hear of a problem is when a client is cursing at you over the phone. Not that that’s ever happened to me.

Set measurable objectives

Whether you commit to them with the client or not, set measurable objectives for your team, for each client: A 50% increase in organic search traffic, or a 20% increase in sales.

Set something you can track. Then make the team responsible for reporting on it. Or, use an automated spreadsheet solution like the one I released 2 weeks ago.

Then look at the data. Look. At. It. Every day. Make it a habit. This is how you keep your finger on the pulse of your accounts, without constantly hovering about.

Put on the teaching hat

Your job just changed. Whatever percentage of it used to be “working with clients” just got cut in half or more. You are now the teacher. Start writing down how you do what you do. Record videos. Organize training. Teach every nuance of your business to every employee who will listen and fire the rest. Repeat as necessary.

Delegate. Just don’t be stupid.

I know a lot of you will say “But Ian, I’m the boss! Why should I stay this involved with day to day business? Business Guru 234 said I should delegate everything!”

Delegate! Absolutely delegate. That’s why I suggest hiring smart people. But if you think you can instantly make a smooth transition from a 1 or 5 person team to a 5 or 50 person team without getting involved on the client side, you’re insane. Or really lucky. At some point, you’re going to have to help your team deal with challenges, failures, or successes. They need to know you’re there for them, even if it’s to sometimes point and say “OK, that was dumb. Can we try again?”

Ups and downs

Growth is hard. Far harder than downsizing. Be ready for some bumps in the road: Bad hires, client disasters and even the occasional IRS audit will slap you in the privates like a mid-size yappy dog. Curl up in a ball. Groan for a while. Then get up and get going again. Every time, your internet marketing agency will be bigger, smarter and more scalable.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at www.ianlurie.com

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  1. I always keep an eye out for future employees. I like to have relationships with interested people, and provide them with at least some low level training. I find that most people want to know what I know, and some will actually meet with me and accept modest homework to learn it.
    Can’t say I’ve experienced that %120 growth yet, but I’m preparing as much as I can for it. It’s probably like having a baby or getting married or starting a new career… you can’t really be ready, so you might as well do the best you can packing your backpack and just jump.

  2. I would also add you may have to go through a few “learning experiences” in hiring as you grow. Spot on Ian “hire smart people” Great read.

    1. I think if you only have a few learning experiences you’re dang lucky. I seem to be in one continuous ‘learning experience’. 🙂
      Thanks Jim

  3. Its been an absolute rollercoaster for me and my business. I’ve been very grateful for the quality clients I’ve got and making them happy and successful is my primary goal. Finding new clients has been the most difficult part, word of mouth helps and I’ve found that it can really produce quality leads. AdSense and such is so pricey with all the major players spending big bucks. I’m gonna keep my head down, keep grinding and getting involved with as many projects as possible.

  4. In our 1st year embracing the fear was the hard part. Then came the growing pains of hiring even smarter people, bigger clients, managing expectations and keeping every project on track. In between the hard part was documenting processes, making sure nothing slips through the cracks (it still does but its rare), and making the time to create and grow a brand. Thanks for writing this post Ian…it took me back to when I first started our agency, where we are today, and what we need to do in the years to come.

  5. I might also add to the “don’t be stupid” part of Delegation, to have company protocols written up so that employees, new and old, can refer to them. Having established check-in points, pathways to get help, and guidelines for work communicating with clients, etc. can save you immeasurable time while still showing you are present and involved with the company.

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