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Agency Growth Series: Results, Rinse, and Repeat – Creating Repeatable Processes

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“Well That’s Bad F****** Business”

It was my first year of working at our agency. We had a good problem: the new work was coming in rapidly! We were in survival mode though, throwing people at the problem in order to deliver the work. At the end of that year, I presented our financial results to our ownership group. ~100% YoY revenue growth, had resulted in 0% profit growth. As one owner put it “So, we literally did twice as much work, and we made no more money, well that’s bad F****** business.” You could hear a pin drop in the room. The underlying question was: 

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So Wha’ Happened?

At the start of that year, the team was about 20 people. The owners were still the operators of the business, overseeing most of the accounts/relationships, reviewing and building strategies, websites, etc. The ‘problem’ was that they were really good at doing the work. But they didn’t realize just how hard the work they were doing was for people to learn. How do you replicate a decade plus of marketing experience into the brain of a 22-year-old straight out of college? 

By the end of the year, we were close to 60 people, meaning 40 new employees (including me) joined without a playbook to succeed, other than learning by osmosis. The wheel was being re-invented every time one of those 40 people started doing their work…and we ended up with a few square wheels. 

So How Did We Fix It? 

We had to document how we ideally wanted to execute in all facets of our business, both internal administration and client-facing deliverables. We had to create standard operating procedures and various poka yokes (fun word taken from lean manufacturing, look it up!). Here were the steps we took: 

1. Defined our business cycles – meaning thinking about how/what initiates a series of tasks to be done, by function, and what is the end point of that function. Ours were: 

  • New business to cash collection – how do we get a statement of work all the way through to how does that client payment go in the bank 
  • Procurement to payment – how does an expense get approved through to paying the expense 
  • Hiring to offboarding – what triggers hiring someone through to when that employee leaves the agency 
  • Work delivery by project type (DM retainer, website build, SEO audit, etc) – from the time an SOW is signed through to final sign-off by a client
  • IT lifecycle – how/when do we acquire new equipment, maintain our information, and dispose of equipment 
  • Month-end reporting – what financial and operational steps are taken throughout the month to be able to have a complete set of reports on the agency’s performance for the month 

2. Built out a workback plan

Picture a gantt chart that outlined all the cycles above, and on it each of the steps below, outlining roles and responsibilities for each step. This was done so that each cycle could be completed in a waterfall manner. In other words, as we were part way through cycle 1, we would begin process 2. 

3. Selected team members to be involved 

While this responsibility ultimately sat with me as COO, the entire team/company needed to be on the same page. Therefore, a cross-section of employees from different teams and seniority levels were selected to help steer each individual process. 

4. Identified the steps 

For each of these cycles we then mapped out each step in that process (e.g. for new business to cash, step 1 was drafting a statement of work, step 2 was someone approving the statement of work, step 3 was sending the statement of work, etc). We did a review of the current state by observing or ‘walking through’ each step with people that were responsible for executing that step, in order to find the different ways work was being completed. This way we had a repository of potential ways to complete each step to select what the ‘ideal’ execution would look like, and also to decide where we could give latitude. 

5. Documented the agreed upon standard

We reviewed the steps and the current state as a working group to determine the ideal state that we wanted to standardize. We then documented the flow of each process, step by step, in a workflow tool. At the time we used lucidchart, but have also seen others have success with tools like notion, or simply google drive docs. For each step, we documented the typical details such as roles and responsibilities, frequency, and any best practice templates to share. 

6. Trained the team

With the support of the involved team members, we began training the team on what our new best practices were and why we needed to implement this. Sessions were held by process and by individual teams so that more tailored discussions were had. 

Best Practices/Tips 

If you are going to embark on this journey of preparing for growth, here are our tips on how best to go about the exercise we did above. 

  1. Start this exercise early! If you are at 10 people and want to grow, that’s the time to do it. Get your ideas out of your head and onto paper (or hire someone to oversee this). 
  2. Act like a journalist, ask and answer all the typical “5 W’s” questions as you review and document the various steps
  3. Take a positive mindset by finding examples of ‘what is working’ and make that the standard, don’t harp on the inconsistencies or challenges you find 
  4. Document the procedures in different formats so different learning styles can consume it (word docs, flow charts, recorded videos) 
  5. For each cycle think about how work starts, what needs to be maintained in an on-going fashion, and what makes the work stop. Examples would be for a digital marketing campaign, defining what has to be done to launch the campaign, optimize the campaign and deactivate and report on it. 
  6. Integrate software (like we did with Morphio) wherever possible in the best practices to help alleviate risk from manual error. Select software (again like Morphio) that allows for customized business logic to define what alerts and thresholds matter to you as a business. This same thinking can be applied to all facets of process and not just digital marketing work, such as receiving automated reports from your project management system identifying a job’s profitability is at risk. 

Results

A year later when we sat at the ownership meeting to present financial results, it was a different discussion. We still had work to do (as always) but our profitability had actually grown exponentially compared to our revenue growth. We continued on that trajectory until successfully selling the agency! We hope reviewing this article does the same for you!

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