We recently had a copywriter leave our team to start a digital marketing agency of their own. While we wished them well, I couldn’t help but reflect on the 10 years Savy has had in the international space, and the 45 years between our design and creative directors, alone. Serving clients from the small to the complex, it does take more than a WordPress theme and a Macbook to make it work.
Lessons from a digital marketing agency
When I started Savy Agency in 2007, digital marketing and integrated marketing were just beginning to bud. There wasn’t much online about starting, running or growing a digital agency, especially when the digital world was changing so fast. The agencies that did exist were the big ones, who were being hit by the economic slump and showing some failure to change to a more digital world.
It takes hustle, and talent and a lot of it. Hopefully through this post I can shine some light on the things that work and those that didn’t for Savy.
Start from passion
I’ve been hard at marketing since I was 14. Rather than join the cheer squad, I interned at a then near-to-boom startup, Metacreations. Metacreations was located in my hometown of Santa Barbara. I was sort of a pet project of the CEO, who strongly believed that through the right people you can do anything. I loved being creative. And I had the work ethic to prove it. I still do. It’s one of the main driving points for me. Of course, a viable digital marketing agency needs to be profitable, but if that’s the starting point you’ll be missing the key element. Being purely profit driven means your decisions are made from profit focus versus what’s right for your stakeholders.
Gain experience first
The digital industry can be tough. Just when you think you’ve mastered it, enter a new trend, requiring learning, training, testing and certifications. It moves fast, and the best stems from the best players. There will be valuable experience gained through working in the field, working with challenging projects and giving it everything it takes to make the work you do best-in-class.
Find your niche
Do you want to provide exactly the same as everyone else in town? Not to mention with the same work. If so, there’s no reason to work with your agency over the next. Or the next after that. If you provide search engine marketing, WordPress web design and pay per click, so does every other agency. If you outsource and lack quality control, many do that as well. Given your strengths and structure, what can you be the best at? What can you become known for?
Bootstrapping is better
As a new digital marketing agency, you’ll likely find opportunities for funding. However, our experience shows the more funded and partner-heavy, the slower you are; and this is in an industry that’s fast-moving.
While the idea of fast growth through quick funding sounds alluring, we’ve found through the lessons learned from decades in the market, the sweat equity gained from pouring your heart into your clients and into the work you’ve created over all those years, your own is better. Savy has been able to innovate and grow year-over-year without the risks of funding. Our lightness makes us nimble, responsive and hungry for the challenge. We’re driven by success and humbled by growth.
Be service minded
I can recall learning to code. I can also recall failing miserably at it— all those nights trying to find one break. Amazing results takes time and experience, and through it all, you will receive a complaint from a client here and there. I think your most challenging clients teach you the most. At the end of the day, digital marketing agencies are professional service entities. So it’s important to remember that you’re providing a service. It’s not about you; it’s about your clients. They’re not buying a product from you that defaults to their problem once they own it; they’re buying a service from you.
You’ll find early in the game that the time it takes to put into clients you don’t fit well with takes time that you could have put into clients your agency fits better with. Since red flags, for either party, often waive again, I find it’s better to deal with those early on in the relationship. Remember, working with a digital agency is a service, not a product.
I think the more transparent you are, the more people trust you. Think about it: most clients you work with may not often understand the in’s and out’s of what you’ll be doing for them – whether it’s designing a moveable brand or developing a social media plan with lots of metrics. One of the core values at Savy is to always be transparent. We ask for feedback, are open and honest with our clients when we have information that’s in their best interest and are open to feedback between each of us as team members.
Never stop learning
There are many digital marketing agencies that drop off the map. Many of those have fallen behind because they may have been slow to change. The digital industry is what it is because it’s always changing. What worked a couple years ago no long works today and what will work tomorrow may not even be released yet. If you’re 100% focused on the success of your clients, you will be changing. Because that’s what it takes for them to stay ahead.
Our team at Savy stays up-to-date on the new information and trends that are relevant to each role — whether it’s social media, SEO, PPC, content writing, email marketing, web design, web development or branding. We feel this keeps us in an innovation mindset and always moving forward.
Quality above all
None of us are perfect. This means there is always room to get better. Success is a process of doing, failing, learning and succeeding and there is always room for improvement. This is true in life and for creative work as well. I think the day I stop being hungry for quality and for fantastic work is the day we’ll be just that. It takes the drive to do fantastic work, the ability to do so — this of course means fantastic people — and the desire to always improve and always do more. Every time we go back to the drawing board, even if it means more work on everyone’s part, we always result in improvement. This helps to make a more successful project and, ultimately, to attract better clients. And it goes on from there.
Endeavoring to start a digital marketing agency is tough work. It’s not for the faint of heart, especially if you’ll be good at it. It’s a lot of work and a lot of focus on every other brand but your own. At Savy, we like to take flex days, to stop and drink a few beers when we need them and to get outside to enjoy the beauty of Bend Oregon where we’re headquartered and hop down to Santa Barbara to see clients and soak up the sunshine. You want to stay your best, so ensure you find balance so you can have fun at it. Although at Savy’s 10th year, this is still tough for many of us, learn to shut it down when it’s time to enjoy your friends and family.
Savy is my baby. I’ve raised it from an idea. Soon my husband and agency director, Rob, came on, as did design director, Luisa. We all love what we do and have grown together to create something amazing.
I look forward to your questions, comments and thoughts in the comments section, below, and to learning from you. — Christina
Christina is the Founder and Creative Director of Savy, a digital marketing agency with locations in Bend Oregon and Santa Barbara CA. Christina grew up in Santa Barbara, has a supportive husband, Rob, shoots a Nikon D750 for select clients and loves her three children, chocolate lab, Badger, and wild kitten, Nala.