By Tom Sandford on January 18, 2019

How agencies really market themselves: 10 hard-learned lessons from leading UK agencies

Better marketing is the key to changing how your business performs.

That means changing the way you work. Reflecting on the past; eating humble pie so you can learn from your mistakes.

As part of our ‘Good Agency Marketing’ study, we asked several of the UK’s leading agencies to tell us how they improved their marketing game and transform their businesses. We’ve already covered their golden rule for agency marketing success, and the KPIs they use to measure their marketing effectiveness.

This time round, we’re looking at our successful agencies’ approach to marketing.

If they could start again, how would our agencies do their marketing differently?

Here’s what they told us.

1. Start by finding your guiding principle

“Be clear about what you’re offering. It’s possible to look at a lot of agencies these days and list a load of different things that they do. That’s all great but actually, you need to be single-minded and find the one thing that underpins all of that.  Be clear in the offer your clients are going to buy.”

– James Hirst, Managing Director at Rare Design

2. Sell your vision across all stakeholders

“One interesting realisation we had in about year three – despite having grown and doubled in size every year – was that having a purpose-driven brand is brilliant for attracting a certain type of client. She will be probably the exception in her company, however.

You’ll get people who absolutely buy into you and will love you. She’ll be a CMO with a mandate for change; to revitalise her company. The challenge is that the other 40 people in her department haven’t. They just like getting shit done and leaving work at 5:00, getting paid and hitting bonuses.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s still mainly people in client-side marketing who will buy into you. They’re not going to say, ‘No, I don’t believe in purpose-driven marketing,’ but you know what? It’s fucking hard. You’ve got to sell yourself to the product guys. You’ve got to sell yourself to the CFO. You’ve got to sell yourself to your partners at X, Y, X distributor.

They’ll ask “Why are you changing it?” “What’s all this fluffy stuff?” It’s hard fucking work.”

– James Trezona, Managing Director at Rooster Punk

3. When you’ve lost your spark, research and reposition.

“When you set up a business, you’re so focussed on making it a success that it consumes your entire life. Then there’s a point after 6 or 7 years where it becomes hard work.

You might have a tough period financially; you lose a couple of pitches; a key member of staff leaves. You begin to question yourself, and think “am I actually any good at this?” or “is our agency doing the right thing?” That’s good and healthy, but if you do it for a few days running, suddenly it impacts morale and you lose your mojo a bit.

I can’t put my finger on how or when that happened to me, but I realised we had to reinvent the business. We had to work out what it was that made us different and relaunch with a new purpose that everybody could get behind.  

To find that spark, we did research with our clients, peers and our people and asked “what is it that we do best?” Not “what do you get from agencies”, but “what do you get from us specifically?”

This process led to us redefining who we are and reinventing the agency. I’m now 15 months into a new business and I’ve got my mojo back, and it’s suddenly given us an angle.

Two years ago, I never would have gone to a marketing conference and talked for half an hour about something, because I’d think “what do I know?”. I still wonder “what do I know?”, but at least I’ve got something to say, and I can hang stuff off it, and it’s an opinion that I think genuinely makes a difference to client organisations.”

– Andy Weir, Managing Director at Born + Raised

4. Set goals – then squeeze them.

“Have an expectation of what’s achievable within the time you have and the resources available. But don’t let that limit you; it’s important to push yourself far beyond what you think you can actually achieve.

Ask why you can’t achieve your 18-month goals in 3 months. If you don’t continually push you just won’t get anywhere.”

– Rob Brazier, Director at Rapiergroup

5. Share your success.

[Rob Brazier, Director:] “What also makes a difference is being cheeky with clients, and saying, “Look, as part of our work with you, will you allow us to do our own marketing? Can we use your presence at this or that event to assist us as an agency?”

We’ve got some clients that use social media to promote us while we’re at an event. But if you don’t ask or you don’t push, or you don’t change what you think is achievable, you just won’t move it forward.

Sharing success is key. It’s great to generate momentum off the back of peoples’ excitement at seeing your video from an event, or seeing you industry press, for example. You can’t underestimate the sense of pride and achievement this creates – for you, your clients and your future employees, too.”

[Luke Snowden, Head of Technology and Marketing:] “That’s why my role in marketing is also focused on making people at Rapiergroup aware of what we’ve been doing. Otherwise, those not sat on the top desk might not know that we’ve been nominated for an award or about the work we’ve done. Putting things in place to ensure we’re actively showcasing that to the team and making them feel like they’re involved in it is a major thing for us – which a lot of agencies don’t do well.”

Rob Brazier and Luke Snowden at Rapiergroup

6. Founders: get out there and stay out there.

“I live in Bournemouth and I'm probably up in London 2 or 3 days a week. I think you can burn yourself out doing that, but you have to do it.

The agency owner is the perfect person to go out and meet potential clients, do talks and have dinners, and you've got to keep doing it.

Probably around a year ago or so, I got tired of going up and down, up and down. I had two young children; I was just exhausted.  I said that I would stop staying in London overnight, and doing less travelling. I backed off for about 3 months, and then about 3 months later we suddenly saw a complete decline in opportunities.  

You’ve just got to get out there. Meet as many people as possible and drink a lot of coffee.”

– Adam Greenwood, CEO at Greenwood Campbell

7. Save your ideas for a better moment.

“Perseverance is key. Keep banking your marketing ideas and stay connected to them, and believe that eventually your opportunity will come and you’ll be able to execute them in future.

Often, ideas are not right for that particular moment or must be  expressed differently. That constant mismatch between ideas and schedules has been really tricky for us to handle; not being able to execute them, or not having the time or resources to bring someone on full-time to execute those ideas consistently.

When it comes to ideas, it’s not a never; it’s just a ‘not now’.”

– Susi Owusu, Co-founder at Smoke Creative

8. Act decisively.

“What would my advice be for agency marketers?  To just crack on with it. It doesn’t really matter. Get out of your own arse!

We are the quintessential cobbler’s shoes. I don’t think we had a website for our first 3 years. We then designed a website but never got around to building the CMS, so that didn’t get updated for a further 2 years. Then, in a moment of deep panic, we used a WordPress template to get something up as quickly as possible, which, though it did have a CMS, we didn’t bother updating for a further 18 months.

I’m now banned from the design department, but when I wasn’t, I think I went through a process of scrapping close to 16 complete website designs. The agency’s proposition was constantly moving before the agency had finished designing its own website, which was problematic. We’re in a difficult industry, where web agencies which have matured into a wide range of digital agencies, focused on marketing, transformation, e-commerce, brand and everything in-between.

As the role and meaning of digital have matured, so have the specialisms agencies have chosen to follow. But in your early days, you go where the revenue is – which makes it difficult to put a marker in the sand on how you portray yourself.

We fell foul of our own advice to our clients to focus on clearly distilling your proposition. In our early years, ours was subject to change depending on what room we were in.

That creates a problem online because, ultimately, you’re left naked. You have to stand for something. In our early days, I’m not sure that we did. I think it’s a real point of frustration to my business partner and operations director, who just wanted to get shit done and get it down there. I’m quite involved in the craft and the proposition, and I overcomplicated things.”

– Anant Sharma, Founder & CEO at Matter of Form

9. Grow thicker skin; adapt.

“My advice would be to be brave in the direction you’re going to take your marketing in. Whatever you do, you’ll get a variety of reactions. That’s life today. Whatever you do, you’ve only got to look online and you’ve got people doing amazing things and they’re slated for it.

You’ve got to become a little bit thick-skinned to continue to push boundaries, create content and to get it out there – and you will fuck it up now and then. Not everyone will like it, and that’s just part of life.  

You can’t let that inhibit your bravery of creating material that you believe it’s going to deliver value. And lack of courage also leads to more watered-down content.

Be brave and to put yourself out there, and have absolute curiosity about what works and what doesn’t work. Don’t hold onto   anything too tight, because we’re in this crazy world where the goalposts move every day. Content works for months, then Facebook changes its algorithm and suddenly the rules are rewritten.

Nothing stays the same, so you’ve got to move with the changes.”

– Tom Head, Sales & Marketing Director at LAB

10. Look back in anger.

“I would say just do it. You can overthink whether a marketing tactic is this going to work, or whether you’re going to get likes and comments. But eventually you’ve just got to get stuff out there and give it a go.

The desire to be perfect straight away or to create instant viral content is unrealistic. It just doesn’t happen. But it’s an expectation unconsciously communicated on social media that marketing must be perfectly refined. The reality is that for anybody to get to that point requires a lot of work to get there.

If you take an experimental approach, you’ll improve so much in twelve months that you’ll find it hilarious to look back at the content you put out before. That’s the marker. You should look at your content twelve months ago and cringe slightly, because if you still think it’s shit hot then you haven’t improved it.”

– Tom Head, Sales & Marketing Director at LAB

So there you have it: to improve your agency’s marketing, you need to refocus your team on the big picture, dig in and get creating.

What are you waiting for?

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Image via Unsplash,

Published by Tom Sandford January 18, 2019