18 Lessons in 18 Years: What I Learned about Successful Digital Marketing Agencies

I started in web design and development in 1997 – the days when websites looked archaic compared to how websites look today – and I continued to do this full-time for about a decade. In the last few years of my web design and development career I practiced SEO too, and I decided to go SEO fulltime staring in 2006.

I’ve worked in companies with high turnover rates, some that even closed down, some that worked with very large popular multinational brands, and Fortune500 companies that are still going on strong today. Here at IMI I’ve experienced working at a company of rapid growth that was placed on the Inc500 list for 3 consecutive years and still continues to improve year after year.

My 18 years of working in agencies have taught me many insights on what makes them successful and what makes them fail. Below are the 18 lessons I learned while working for these companies for 18 years.

 

#1 Improve Perceived Value Whenever Possible

Lesson #1: Improve Perceived Value Whenever Possible - Presentation matters in delivery

You can deliver everything in a very simple way, like keyword research showing 100 keywords to target via a list in an email or notepad. Or you can deliver the same 100 keywords to target in an Excel Spreadsheet that’s nice and colorful and features the client’s colors and logo. The look and feel of your deliverable, the presentation of it, and the more polished and professional it is, all increase that perceived value. I am not saying selling digital marketing services is about selling smoke and mirrors; what I am saying is it’s similar to just dressing up for the occasion, looking presentable, and dressing up smart so people will indeed look at you as someone knowledgeable. Increasing that perceived value just makes everyone feel better and more confident in what you delivered, but of course it is not only about perceived value. The real value should be there too, which leads me into #2.

#2 Use Data to Backup Strategies & Recommendations

Lesson #2: Use Data to Backup Strategies & Recommendations - Data adds credibility and authority to your recommendations

Use actual data to justify your decisions. Some clients may easily believe you, whereas other clients may be the most skeptical people in the world who almost don’t believe anything you say because they were fooled before by some other agency. To successfully run a campaign, you need client trust that you are doing the right thing, and that is backing it up with data. In SEO, there is keyword search volume, organic clickthrough rates, organic impressions, quantitative and qualitative metrics on backlinks, organic search traffic, conversions from organic search and more. That’s SEO alone, and there is a lot more data to look at across the other channels. The hard data gains customer trust. But data alone cannot do it. And this leads me to the next lesson on #3.

#3 Complicated Concepts Need a Good Story

Lesson #3: Complicated Concepts Need a Good Story - Good stories do not only entertain, but also make them understand

You can show nice cool graphs of your reports, whatever it is – search traffic, conversions, rankings, progress day after day, month after month, year over year, or any other data visualization – but not all clients may get that right away. And you will need to always adjust with the knowledge of the client. Some may be very knowledgeable that they get real excited after seeing the data even before you tell them what’s it about because they already saw what you were about to say, but there are some clients that will not get anything they see at all unless you explain it properly to them. This is where the story comes into play. Giving the significance of the report, how the data was gathered, and the conclusions you found, play a very important part in the comprehension of the analysis and the main action items.

#4 Find the Right Internal Client Advocate

Lesson #4: Find the Right Internal Client Advocate - Get a champion on your side

Larger digital marketing agencies will typically deal with larger companies as clients. These clients are large enough that your voice is not heard by everyone in the company and sometimes not even heard by the proper stakeholders that should hear what you have to say. Finding the right advocate within the client company helps us spread the word of our work internally within the company we are serving. This internal advocate of your clients is typically the people that are knowledgeable and most passionate about the work we do. They have the same interest and they serve as your voice in the client company to reach the proper stakeholders. Through gaining more client advocates, our client champions will help gain more visibility and also help get through some internal bottlenecks and various forms of red tape.

#5 Invite the Right People to Get Things Done

Lesson #5: Invite the Right People to Get Things Done - Action happens when you involve the right stakeholders

A client advocate is great, but if their circle of influence isn’t hitting the right decision makers that can get the ball rolling, then nothing much will happen. If you are delivering content optimization recommendations and future strategies on writing content, then make sure the content writers of the client are included in the meeting. If you are giving technical recommendations on how website code should be for whatever reason – usability, design, SEO – you want the client’s web developer to be in the meeting. Not having the right people might end up with a lot of people impressed with our recommendations but no action taken.

#6 Collaborate and Not Intimidate Your Stakeholders

Lesson #6: Collaborate and Not Intimidate Your Stakeholders - Show them you are not there to take their job

When working with companies that may have an existing digital marketing team, a head of SEO, head of social media, a PPC director or whatever key online marketing position, you may run into situations where your strategies, tactics, recommendations or even simple best practices may go in conflict with their beliefs. And this can sometimes intimidate them as they go into defense mode with their fear that your agency is replacing their job. Next thing you know, they become your enemy as they try to discredit you, and eliminate you from the whole process instead of them being eliminated.

Overemphasize that the agency is there to help them and to collaborate with them. Point out that you need their input because they are more familiar with the company, the brand, the audience, and their goals. Make them know that you are helping them out in what they want to achieve. If their fear and insecurity disappears and you gain their trust, then they help out by being your own client advocate that helps get things done. Understand their goals and how they align with your digital marketing philosophy. Show them that you got their back and would be willing to help as a 3rd party voice in presenting strategies and tactics to their superiors.

#7 Catch Up Quickly with the Industry

Lesson #7: Catch Up Quickly with the Industry - You become obsolete when you don't keep up with the pace

The digital marketing industry is a very fast paced, constantly evolving industry. Search engines keep changing algorithms or come up with new ways to display search results of various types. Social media sites also constantly change and new social media sites emerge all the time. New display vendors, partnerships, tools, and platforms that help out in various tasks should be kept on watch for. You will have to keep up-to-date with all the changes to remain competitive in the industry.

#8 Give Time for Formal Training

Lesson #8: Give Time for Formal Training - Like any other profession, education is important

With a thousand tasks to get done, sometimes reading blogs and books may not always be enough. It all depends on your current familiarity of what you are trying to learn, and how urgent you need to be proficient in this new concept. I have seen different companies do it differently, but here at IMI, every employee is allocated some budget that can be used for enrolling into any training program, whether it is in-person, in school, online, wherever as long as the training program would be relevant to the employee’s current job position and would help them do their job better.

#9 Knowledge Sharing Should Always be Present

Lesson #9: Knowledge Sharing Should Always be Present - Leverage each other’s knowledge

Everyone does not know everything. You may know something your peers do not know and vice versa. Thus there should always be a venue where the employees of an agency are able to share their knowledge with others. I’ve been in many agencies in the past and all of them had this kind of sharing. Some were done after weekly scrum meetings, some were times blocked off weekly where a presentation was prepared for the company to attend. These were given different names such as Learnings at Lunch, Brownbag Presentations, Knowledge Shares, Internal Training, etc.

In all previous agencies, I have seen where the enthusiasm is high when these types of meetings are done in the beginning. Then as the company grows and more clients come in the enthusiasm dies down as more people start to get busy. Not only do the people who want to learn get busy, but also the people who have something to share start presenting something in a very less enthusiastic manner. Hopefully you do not run into this situation. Knowledge sharing is something to take advantage of. It is free and you can learn something new.

#10 Internal Collaboration: Leverage Each Other’s Strengths

Lesson #10: Internal Collaboration: Leverage Each Other’s Strengths - Let’s do this together

We already know everyone does not know everything, and even if we do knowledge sharing, not everyone can catch up quickly. It is not the objective for the whole company to be experts and very proficient in everything. We are meant to help each other in digital marketing to get the best out of client campaigns.

#11 Too Many Clients Sacrifice Work Quality

Lesson #11: Too Many Clients Sacrifice Work Quality - Know when you need to hire more people

Any good performing company would generally grow and gain more clients. If a lot of clients come in, and not many new employees are hired, the company will reach a limit one day when not all clients are served well. Agencies have to find that sweet spot where employees are happy with their current workload and are able to deliver good quality service to the clients. Once the agency employees start to feel overworked, something has to give, and often that would be the quality of work. This will just increase client complaints, decrease client retention, increase employee complaints, and eventually lead to a bad image for the agency.

#12 Time Tracking Is a Required Pain

Lesson #12: Time Tracking is a Required Pain - It’s not just about your working hours, it’s a lot of insights on company performance for better decisions

After working in digital marketing agencies and web design/development companies since 2004, project management software is imperative, just as milestone tracking and setting of deadlines and meeting them are all part of the daily work. Once some kind of time tracking software is implemented, the same pattern I’ve seen in different agencies happens: a lot of employees complain saying it is hard to enter time, they have no time to enter time, the software is not user-friendly, it hard, ridiculous, etc. But time tracking helps in many aspects in a digital marketing agency. Here are a few ways time tracking can help agencies:

  • Know if the work being rendered to a client is within the allotted budget of hours.
  • Get a good average number of hours that are required for a specific task.
  • Gather data for effective pricing for clients.
  • Give insights to the company who is over worked, what department is over worked, and set trigger limits when is the right time to hire new people.
  • Help evaluate the performance of an employee at their job.

Time tracking is a friend of agencies, and it should be your friend too if you work at one. Instead of complaining and avoiding it, just face it and do it.

#13 Be Mindful of Cost of Internal Resources

Lesson #13: Be Mindful of Cost of Internal Resources - If you want to continue to make money, the agency has to make money

People who love whatever they do in digital marketing – SEO, PPC, Social, etc. – can be very passionate with their job. Sometimes so passionate they go above and beyond what is required just because of pure excitement. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the agency should also make money. Without a tangible product with a fixed cost and markup price, many of the services are tied to the cost of hours of the employees working on the project. This goes back to the previous point where time tracking is a necessary pain.  Aside from tracking your time, plan ahead and be mindful of how much time is required to run the whole project plan. Because if there is not enough time, this would be the good time to speak up and tell all necessary stakeholders if a task can be done or not, instead of just working and finding out in the end you can do it due to lack of time and resources.

#14 Streamline the Process

Lesson #14: Streamline the Process - Improve how you work

This is something that an agency can constantly improve on and this can be improved in many different ways. It can be simply using a new tool to help eliminate a lot of manual labor. It can a new skillset needed by several employees to train on. It can be a change in the process, finding ways to make certain tasks modularized, repeatable and scalable. Wherever inefficiencies exist, they can always be looked as opportunities to improve on.

#15 Backup Internal Requests with Data

Lesson #15: Backup Internal Requests with Data - Prove to your superiors why

Sometimes you will want to change something in the company, such as a new platform, a new tool or a changed process, and you will request the internal stakeholders in the agency for some buy-in to the change. It may be some approval from your boss to change the process, some budget from the accounting department for some tool, or anything you will need to ask permission on that sometimes can cause a stir in the company, appear disruptive and gets internal push back. Some may believe in you and some may not. To prove your point and also to self-assess if your ideas are really a go, is to back it up with data.

Just because a new tool came out or some new search engine algorithm changed, you have to check how feasible it is to change a process., Look at the data that supports your idea and decide from there if it is something you would want to change or not. If the data does not support your idea, then at least the issue is identified and maybe you can find other alternatives to make this work.

#16 Be Proactive and Not Reactive

Lesson #16: Be Proactive and Not Reactive - Communicate and reach out often

Like many other things listed here, they are applicable in many other parts of life. Being more proactive than reactive is one of them and clients love it. The agency life can be tough sometimes when you are juggling projects and facing different clients, so you may find it hard to be proactive just because you have so much on your mind. But this does not have to be very complicated. Even just bringing the quick wins as they happen in emails to the client is good enough. Where there is constant communication, conversations do not have to be long. It can be just some quick check-ins and telling the client what’s up. Even if the news isn’t good news, it is better that you be the bearer of the bad news before they hear it from somewhere else. For example, when Google comes up with a new update to its algorithm and the client’s site disappears from Google, it would be better you report that first to the client before someone else does.

#17 Be a Thought Leader, Present Case Studies and Practice What You Preach

Lesson #17: Be a Thought Leader, Present Case Studies and Practice What You Preach - Prove why they should hire you (Benj Arriola at SMX Sydney)

The digital marketing industry is a competitive space. There are so many experts out there, self-proclaimed gurus and true thought leaders that are followed by many that sometimes you barely get noticed. In an agency, if you are good at marketing your clients, you should be good at marketing yourself by practicing what you preach.

Digital agencies do not really have products with features and benefits you showcase to prove you have a superior product. Instead, agencies have services, and no matter what sales language you have to prove you are the best out there, nothing proves it best than case studies.

Lastly, thought leadership helps show how much of an authority the agency is. If the company has individual thought leaders who are known industry experts, are popular for the what they blog about or have presented at conferences showcasing what kind of talent the agency has, all definitely helps in presenting what the agency is capable of.

#18 Sell With Subject Matter Experts to Set Client Expectations Properly

Lesson #18 Sell With Subject Matter Experts to Set Client Expectations Properly - Make sure the client knows what they paid for

A common problem in agencies is there are some projects that the sales team sold at a given price that the production team disagrees on. Either they disagree that the price is too low for the amount of work to be given, or the promised work is just not possible with the current amount of time and resources. This is where constant internal training of the sales team is needed so they are also up-to-date with the latest trends. The production team should constantly be looking at the time and resources that are needed in delivering different tasks and help guide the sale team on pricing accordingly. And when it comes to pitches with the prospective clients, having the subject matter expert in the pitch helps not only in having a more authoritative voice on the topics of discussion, but also provides a realistic picture of what is possible and impossible within a budget range.

The Good Digital Marketing Agency Life

After 18 years in the web industry, I decided to make a departure from the agency world and am now moving into an in-house position as the SEO director of a company selling a type of online service.

The agency life is good since you are always on the bleeding edge of information, and you learn from a diversified clientele. You gain more knowledge from your peers and you are always on your toes learning new strategies and tactics.

I’m growing older and decided I can slow the pace down a bit by moving in-house and focusing on a single product/service, but I will still keep myself updated by attending and speaking at conferences and meetups, online readings and webinars.

If ever I had the chance to rewrite my life, I’d still want to work in digital marketing agencies, and definitely still go through Internet Marketing Inc. I would forever be an advocate of IMI, not only for working for them, but also for hiring them for digital marketing services.

Like anyone that is active in the SEO industry, obviously we all will keep in touch, and I also have a strong feeling I will still be on some SEO projects even if I am no longer at IMI. 🙂

 

10 Responses to “18 Lessons in 18 Years: What I Learned about Successful Digital Marketing Agencies”

  1. April Cuadra

    You are one of the people I looked up to when it comes to digital marketing. You are not greedy when giving advices and information, especially to beginners. Best of luck to your new endeavor Sir Benj! ☺

    Reply
  2. Bill Slawski

    Thank you, Benj.

    This is truly a terrific list of lessons learned that is worth sharing near and far. Thank you for coming up with this list and putting it out here.

    Wonderful news that you’ve found something new that interests you, and I wish you a tremendous amount of success.

    Thank you for your leadership within the industry.

    Bill

    Reply
    • Benj Arriola

      Thanks Bill. I am flattered myself having an authoritative leader in the SEO industry commenting on my blog post and finding it insightful. Thanks.

      Reply
  3. Felix Albutra

    Hello Sir Benj. Thank you for this inspiring and thought-giving experience of yours. My question is that, how many client project/s does a single team member must have? How am I going to leverage myself to do the tasks?

    Looking forward for your reply. Thank you. 🙂

    – Felix

    Reply
    • Benj Arriola

      Good question, but the problem is different people work differently. Some work faster, some work slower. Some people are more knowledgeable than others. Some companies do more advanced stuff and others do less advanced stuff. This is why agencies like using time tracking software so the company gets a good idea of the capacity of an employee, a department, or even the whole company.

      Now some of these resource planning, project management, time tracking platforms can sometimes be expensive, and if budget is a challenge, there are always some cheaper alternatives. Or… even just estimating based on current team capacity, that should kind of dictate how much a teal should handle.

      Reply
  4. Weslee Trout

    Love this list Benj! One of the things that stood out was #17, it’s something that a lot still need; glad that you continue to practice what you preach.

    Looking forward to learning more from you in the future.

    Reply
  5. Devlin Jane

    I’ve bookmarked this and saved it in my Pocket! Very insightful and well-written. Thanks for writing this. This would serve as my checklist of things I need to accomplish or remember every time.

    Reply
  6. Jun Baranggan

    Great list here Benj! I’m an advocate of #9. Teams should share insights regularly. Timing is of the essence though especially when everybody in the team are swamped with tasks.

    Reply
    • Benj Arriola

      Thanks, yes it is hard sometimes to keep everyone up the speed in the company when everyone is busy. The internal knowledge sharing speeds up the process of educating everyone.

      Reply

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