8 Multi-Million Dollar CEOs Tell You How to Run a Digital Agency

How to run a digital agencyIn this article, you will find out how to run a digital agency from 8 CEOs who have managed to build multi-million dollar digital agencies (each, not collectively).

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Have you ever heard of topseos.com?

Well, in the digital marketing world, TopSEOs is a big deal since they identify and rank the best marketing agencies across the web through a rigorous evaluation process.

Since we aim only for the best content for Linkody users, we decided to interview the CEOs of 8 multi-million dollar agencies from the “Top 100 SEO companies” ranking (where you can also see their revenues, employee count, retention rates and more interesting stats). Moreover, they agreed to answer 6 questions on how to run a digital agency.

Just like in our latest popular post, where we asked 12 SEO experts for advice on 5 evergreen SEO questions, you’ll again learn some practical tips & strategies from which you can learn how to run a digital agency.

Here are the 6 questions that we asked The Creative Momentum, Be Found Online, Rocket 55, Straight North, 1Digital Agency, PageTraffic, 1st on the List and E2M:

  1. Is it more practical for a digital agency to focus on a specific niche or keep the spectrum broad and why?
  2. What’s your top advice on how digital agencies can find more clients?
  3. What are the determining factors that will get a potential prospect browsing your website contact you?
  4. How do you deal with over demanding customers?
  5. How do you keep people on your team focused and productive?
  6. Which channels (e.g. word of mouth, paid ads, cold outreach etc.) have contributed most to your growth?

The experts and their advise on how to run a digital agency


Carl Widdowson Carl Widdowson – CEO, The Creative Momentum

thecreativemomentum


1. Is it more practical for a digital agency to focus on a specific niche or keep the spectrum broad and why? 

“Jack of all trades, master of none” comes to mind. Digital agencies have to be super careful not to chase all the shiny objects in terms of service offerings. Start with one core competency and be the best at it in your industry. Once you have mastered it, you can then think about other core service offerings.

2. What’s your top advice on how digital agencies can find more clients?

The best digital agencies start with the talent. From there you can then market and network the result of their work and it will grab people’s attention. Never stop seeking opportunities for events, breakfasts, conferences, etc… Just remember that while you are sleeping, your competitor is working.

3. What are the determining factors that will get a potential prospect browsing your website contact you? 

Clients tell us all the time that they love our website and the portfolio section. Your website is the front door and you want prospects to convert. I think it’s key to show diversification in what you can do as an agency within the types of projects you have worked on. You have to differentiate your website from other agencies and their websites.

4. How do you deal with over demanding customers?

You have to set expectations about the project upfront and part of that is telling them that as an agency you are also interviewing them to see if they are a good fit. You can do things in a positive way. One time we told a client that if they tried to get into Photoshop at any time during the project we would take their computer away. They laughed and loved it (later admitting that they tried that before and the project had failed before hiring us). Reminding them that they hired you as a trusted advisor can really help in the beginning.

Last, you can and sometimes should walk away from a client that could become a nightmare, which would end up costing your agency more money than what it is worth in the long-run. We have walked away from a $500,000 project and it was not easy, but we are happy with our decision.

5. How do you keep people on your team focused and productive?

You have to be passionate about what your digital agency is all about and where you are going. We all have titles but work in a flat hierarchy. In addition, get your team away from their computers with team activities such as happy hours, golf, paintball, etc… It’s important to have a balance.

6. Which channels (e.g. word of mouth, paid ads, cold outreach etc.) have contributed most to your growth? 

We took a shotgun approach and it’s a combination of everything. You cannot focus on only one avenue. Certainly paid advertising, Inbound Marketing, and becoming a trusted advisor in the industry has helped. Once you gain credibility, growing becomes easy.


DanDan Golden – CEO, BFO (Be Found Online)

befoundonline
1. Is it more practical for a digital agency to focus on a specific niche or keep the spectrum broad and why?

I’ll answer this one like a lawyer – it depends! Only focus on as many niches and services as you can be great at. If you are a 5 person shop with 10 specialties, it’s time to look in the mirror and ask yourself what you’re really best at. It can be tempting to widen your range of services and specialties to increase revenue, but it can be very risky for retention as quality diminishes.

Instead of trying to take it all on, find and curate an ecosystem of partners to deliver a full offering with excellence at every juncture. You might find these partners bring in more business and outsource more work to your team as well.

2. What’s your top advice on how digital agencies can find more clients?

Do great work and treat every person you work with like they’re your most important client. In a couple of years, you’ll be surprised to discover that the developer at your client who you gave SEO tasks to is now VP of Technology at another company. Treat everybody like a rock star and when they identify an SEO need at “newco” you’ll be their first call

3. What are the determining factors that will get a potential prospect browsing your website contact you?

They have to be ready and have a need identified. Some of us agencies spend too much time drinking our own Kool-Aid about conversion optimization, calls to action, etc. Clients get it. As agencies, we want their email address and to give them a proposal. Be patient! When they’re ready, they’ll fill out a contact form. Instead of over-optimizing your site with 12 calls to action, focus on showcasing your expertise and differentiation to help establish your brand. When prospective clients have a need, they’ll find you.

4. How do you deal with over demanding customers?

Have an open “scope creep” conversation before you begin an engagement as this is the tension of any and all agency client relationships. Make sure you are on the same page with clients on scope and expectations and explain up-front that time = money and while you’re at it… make sure you’re keeping track of time. Detailed time tracking and forecasting allow agencies to address scope issues early on before you realize you’re halfway through an engagement and 100 hours over. Nobody likes surprises.

5. How do you keep people on your team focused and productive?

This is the million dollar question! The big thing I’ve learned is to allow enough freedom for individuals to work the way they function best. Some people can only focus in a dark quiet room. Some do their best work at home at 11 pm and some like to be in the office collaborating and talking things through. Set clear expectations on outputs and give your people the tools to be more productive, but don’t try to impose one way of doing things on a whole team.

6. Which channels (e.g. word of mouth, paid ads, cold outreach etc.) have contributed most to your growth?

It’s been all word of mouth which goes back to question 1 and question 2, do really good work and treat everybody well. Hint… that advice doesn’t only apply to marketing service firms.


Steven ayresSteven Ayres – CEO, Rocket 55

rocket55

1. Is it more practical for a digital agency to focus on a specific niche or keep the spectrum broad and why? 

I believe agencies should focus on being the best at something. But I do not feel like focusing on one niche is a good long-term play. The channels that we market through do change and companies should not have too much revenue tied to only one offering.

2. What’s your top advice on how digital agencies can find more clients?

In the long run, doing great work will result in more clients. We are in an industry with no regulation and a low barrier to entry. There are a lot of low-quality SEO providers, so staying focused on making your clients successful is going to lead to improved reputation in a community and more opportunities.

3. What are the determining factors that will get a potential prospect browsing your website contact you?

I am old-fashioned. I still believe what we are selling is trust. Companies often stake their future growth on the outcomes of our work. Anything you can do to tell the story of past performance and quality work will help convert visitors into clients.

4. How do you deal with over demanding customers? 

Working with demanding clients is challenging. We work to understand what our clients are trying to accomplish and align our work with those goals. We also try to establish proper expectations and work to provide the best quality work we can within those boundaries. If you have a client that is not happy with the best you can do, within their budget range, you have to walk away. Over-servicing one client often dilutes the quality of work for the balance of all the others.

5. How do you keep people on your team focused and productive? 

By helping them to see that busy is not always the same as productive. We work with new employees on time management. We promote a healthy work-life balance. But to have that and be competitive the time in the office must be fast paced and truly focused. Planning out the next day the night before is the first step in this process.

6. Which channels (e.g. word of mouth, paid ads, cold outreach etc.) have contributed most to your growth? 

Our own organic search rankings.


David DuerrDavid Duerr – CEO, Straight North

StraightNorth

1. Is it more practical for a digital agency to focus on a specific niche or keep the spectrum broad and why? 

The landscape of digital marketing is not only very broad but also changes continually, making it extremely difficult to cover all niches in a depth adequate to meet the needs of even moderately complex clients. We’ve found it very effective to focus on becoming highly adept in a manageable number of niches.

2. What’s your top advice on how digital agencies can find more clients?

Make sure you track the source of leads with precision, so you can determine where your leads are (and are not) coming from. Over time, careful tracking and review will help you invest more in marketing channels that are getting results and avoid wasting money on channels that may feel good but don’t actually produce clients.

3. What are the determining factors that will get a potential prospect browsing your website contact you? 

Based on client feedback, the most important conversion factors are usually the depth of our website content, case studies that reflect the prospect’s own marketing objectives and the simplicity of our contact forms. On the SEO side, when prospects see that we rank highly for SEO searches on Google, that alone sometimes motivates them to make contact.

4. How do you deal with over demanding customers? 

We’ve always been brutally honest in our client communication, and it’s served us well. If a campaign isn’t working, or if we slip up, we like to take the initiative and let the client know, rather than wait to get called on the carpet or worse. If a client makes a demand we can’t meet, we tell them; we’d rather walk away or find another solution than go down a road that we know leads to nowhere.

5. How do you keep people on your team focused and productive? 

Because our campaign execution and website development projects are rather complex, we’ve developed elaborate workflow process to make sure all of the many pieces are moving in concert. Well defined work responsibilities keep team members focused; involving them in the workflow development and review process keeps them engaged and enthusiastic, further helping productivity.

6. Which channels (e.g. word of mouth, paid ads, cold outreach etc.) have contributed most to your growth? 

Results have varied from year to year, but for us, the two best sources of organic growth are SEO, executive networking and good, old-fashioned sales work. I can’t say enough about our sales team. They work very hard, communicate our value proposition clearly, and probably most important, they listen carefully to prospects so our proposals line up with their needs and expectations.


DanDan Kogan – CEO, 1 digital agency

1DigitalAgency

 1. Is it more practical for a digital agency to focus on a specific niche or keep the spectrum broad and why? 

We believe wholeheartedly in specialization. To become the top digital agency, you must have a laser focus. Then you become good at that one thing. A digital agency that tries to do everything, gets good at nothing. That’s why we pour our blood sweat and tears into providing every conceivable service, from design to development, to digital marketing, for eCommerce websites.

2. What’s your top advice on how digital agencies can find more clients?

Provide a quality product, and don’t make grandiose promises. An established agency can under promise and over deliver. Quality agencies will get repeat business, even if they’re not the cheapest because their work keeps clients coming back.

3. What are the determining factors that will get a potential prospect browsing your website contact you? 

Our specialization in eCommerce. Everything on our website lets prospects know that eCommerce websites are all we do and that we’re the best at it. I don’t see how someone with an eCommerce site could visit the 1Digital website, and not feel that they’ve found a company that understands their challenges.

4. How do you deal with over demanding customers? 

By being upfront during our proposal process. Some customers, counterintuitively, get weirded out by the high level of detail in our proposals. We put that much detail into them so that there’s no chance of misunderstanding down the road. If it’s in the scope of work we’ll do it, and do it well. If it’s not you’ll have to pay extra for it.

5. How do you keep people on your team focused and productive? *

It’s a two-way street. I’m very upfront with what I expect from my team, and I’m not afraid to expect a lot. But I also listen to their problems and challenges. I’m not afraid to correct course if I’m getting a lot of negative feedback about how certain elements of our process work.

6. Which channels (e.g. word of mouth, paid ads, cold outreach etc.) have contributed most to your growth? 

Most of our leads come from well-placed PPC ads and strong organic search placements. Even when we’re swamped with work, and I turn PPC off for a breather, we still get a healthy amount of leads coming in based on our organic search rankings.


Navneet KaushalNavneet Kaushal – CEO, PageTraffic

pagetraffic

1. Is it more practical for a digital agency to focus on a specific niche or keep the spectrum broad and why? 

In my experience, if you have a small team, focus on a particular vertical/niche. Else, built niche specialists in your agency and work on a broader spectrum. With content marketing being the center of the all things digital, it makes more sense to have niche specialists as this helps in producing and amplifying good content. The process for any nice remains same only the amount of efforts varies which helps in scaling your services. Hence will recommend having a process centric approach instead of piecemeal work.

2. What’s your top advice on how digital agencies can find more clients?

I recommend working more on how to get client referrals for your agency, be more visible at industry sites/forums and conferences, and getting yourself ranked in search engines for your industry/business related keywords. Also what helps us more is a regular contribution of guest posts, white papers, and infographics which are published in industry-leading publications – this helps establish thought leadership.

3. What are the determining factors that will get a potential prospect browsing your website contact you? 

The offerings that PageTraffic has for its prospects, the testimonials from our past customers, previous results/performance, as well as the website’s design/CRO itself. The expert articles, white papers, and case studies establish us as experts and definitely help us get more prospects contact us.

4. How do you deal with over demanding customers? 

We are initially very clear about our process and the techniques we use. Basically, it’s more about building the expectations right so no issues are faced later. However, if we still get an over-demanding customer, we try to get some senior staff involved and see if he can manage it. If it continues to drag for a longer time, we’d let the customer go. We believe in a win-win situation and not loss-win.

5. How do you keep people on your team focused and productive? 

Being a process-centric company, we expect our employees to strictly follow our process and procedures. I am a demanding boss and always like to demand more from my people for the clients. Hence we have regular trainings and sessions where everyone is updated regularly about the process and work we do. I also keep the team updated about company success/failures, as well as the growth via regular town hall meeting/mails. And let’s not forget – having fun at work and regular outings.

6. Which channels (e.g. word of mouth, paid ads, cold outreach etc.) have contributed most to your growth? 

Most of our leads and growth comes from organic search and word of mouth plus the content marketing efforts we put in.


Chris GengeChris Genge – CEO, 1st on the list

1stonthelist
1. Is it more practical for a digital agency to focus on a specific niche or keep the spectrum broad and why?

I am biased towards niche as we are a boutique SEO company with deep skill sets in Technical SEO. Over the years this has truly set us apart from a number of other marketing companies that only offer a very generic, paint by numbers approach to SEO. Most of our clients have chosen us because we are able to offer such a customized approach to SEO backed by nearly 20 years of experience in the SEO industry.

2. What’s your top advice on how digital agencies can find more clients?

Be sure to take good care of your existing clients and follow through on your promises. We always personally thank clients who send new clients our way.

3. What are the determining factors that will get a potential prospect browsing your website contact you?

The About Us section of our website gets the most views. Typically, visitors will spend some time reading about our services but always end up in the About Us section to learn more about who we are, how we’re different, and what type of clients we service. This is usually the last section of our website they view before contacting us. Our blog also brings in a lot of new traffic and allows us to establish our expertise in SEO.

4. How do you deal with over demanding customers?

To start, we always try to set realistic expectations right from the beginning. If the client’s expectations don’t match their budget or their ability to make changes we don’t provide a quote. We don’t offer guarantees but that doesn’t mean we don’t do whatever we can to succeed. If we are very confident in our ability to provide what they are looking for we will sell it. If not it’s not a good match we don’t pursue them or offer the quote.

5. How do you keep people on your team focused and productive?

We have highly motivated teams and they are very self-motivated. At a team, we meet to discuss projects, successes, and opportunities so that everyone can learn from each other.

6. Which channels (e.g. word of mouth, paid ads, cold outreach etc.) have contributed most to your growth?

Word of mouth – typically, how to get client referrals for your agency should be your focus when you are starting out. Referral clients also typically turn into long-term clients who in turn refer new clients. We have also been reviewed and listed on several SEO and Marketing Review sites. Many new clients who come to us say they saw us listed on several sites – this helps establish our expertise.


Pratik DholakiyaPratik Dholakiya – Co-founder, E2M

e2m

1. Is it more practical for a digital agency to focus on a specific niche or keep the spectrum broad and why? 

It depends on what their future growth plan looks like and their skills set or of their team members. With broad spectrum, you need more team members having different expertise and who can work with diversity as required. At E2M, we work with diversified clients and try to engage in all the types of work that we have expertise in. However, we also have a few clients who only focus on a specific niche such as ‘Restaurant’ and they are doing well with their business.

It all comes down to one thing – ‘would you be able to deliver the results?’ – If the answer is yes to either of the focus, that’s all good.

2. What’s your top advice on how digital agencies can find more clients?

Keep result oriented focus for any client you on-board and ensure to provide world-class customer service. These things help to keep the clients with you for a very long period and also increases referral business. You won’t have to go out much to find new clients.

3. What are the determining factors that will get a potential prospect browsing your website contact you? 

1. Your web presence
2. Case studies
3. Whether what you’re writing (website content/blog posts) makes sense to the client or not.
4. Last but not the least, the design of your website.

4. How do you deal with over demanding customers? 

We usually set expectations with all the clients we work with. Meaning, we discuss the plan in detail before we begin the work and we also document everything. Further, if the demand from customers are out of the scope and doesn’t require a lot of efforts, then we fulfill them BUT if the frequent additional requests are going to take a lot of time then we either ask them to pay additionally or tell them to consider the task as part of following month’s deliverables.

5. How do you keep people on your team focused and productive? 

I focus on a few specific things here:

1. Make the team members accountable for the work they do
2. Explain importance of the work they’re doing and how it is going to help them in their career
3. Always motivate them to get expertise over a few specific skills set instead of being the expert in everything.
4. Ask them to set goals, share with me and help them achieve those.
5. Get them to focus on fitness and active lifestyle which eventually helps in staying focused and productive.

6. Which channels (e.g. word of mouth, paid ads, cold outreach etc.) have contributed most to your growth? 

1. Content marketing
2. Client referrals
3. Word of mouth
4. Speaking engagements
5. Customer service
6. Attending conferences/events

Now it’s your turn..

We hope the article clarifies how to run a digital agency. We also hope that you found the advice of these incredibly successful CEOs useful.

One thing that you should remember is that there is no magic pill on how to grow a marketing agency – it’s a lot of hard work and dedication.

Feel free to share your answers to these questions and tell us how you run your digital agency.

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7 thoughts on “8 Multi-Million Dollar CEOs Tell You How to Run a Digital Agency

  1. Amazing piece of content coming from experts in the business. I just would like to add that usually results will speak for themselves. Meaning if you publish great content that is useful and being visible when customers are searching for your services, I find that will seal the deal with clients. In some instances, clients feel more confident when they look at a client you helped before or formulate a strategy that makes sense for them and takes into consideration their budget.

    Again great job 🙂

  2. I believe in a world where being nice to people, and doing excellent work, and hustling your ass off will lead to brilliant multi-million dollar agencies.

    – The Future

  3. Wow! What an amazing list of helpful tips. This is fantastic and I will be referring my employees to this page often. Thanks for compiling all of this fantastic information about running a successful digital agency.

  4. I am trying to go solo and expand from there. Hopefully, I will get all the resources organized for my agency. The hardest part is to transition from being a single entrepreneur to forming a team.

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