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What is a Growth Agency

‘Growth Agency’ is not the latest jargon dreamt up by companies that are trying to find space in a crowded market. Instead, the term is a genuine one that recognises the way agencies have evolved to serve their clients and provide value for money.

Over the last two decades, design agencies have had to widen their offerings to include website design, social media management, online content management, inbound marketing and more. Delivering a full service has meant increasing skill sets and taking on broader briefs. The agencies that have thrived in this period are those that have focused on offering integrated services and doing the hard thinking about making sure that the client is getting value for money. Adopting ‘Growth Agency’ as a descriptor brings a responsibility to focus on value over product, outcome over output and collaboration with clients on the questions that matter.

Straplines and Purposes

As a client, what do you choose? You’re looking for some help with branding, so you might go to a Design Agency. You need to refresh your website, so you might go to a Digital Agency. Who knows whether going to a Creative Agency in the first place would have saved you the bother of going to the first two? What about marketing? Well, a Marketing Agency is where you go, of course. But then the team there proceed to rubbish the decisions you made about your website and complain about the branding being flat. Is there another way of going about things?

As an agency ourselves, we have used nearly all these straplines and more. We began with ‘design and print’ and moved rapidly through them, avoiding ever being a Marketing Agency for reasons best kept to ourselves. There were two reasons for the rapid transition between straplines. First was the ongoing need to be able to adapt the evolving digital environment. Second, and more important, was our dissatisfaction with what it was saying about us. Although we were not able to express it as succinctly as we can now, we wanted to deliver more than just the product.

Hello, my name is Graham Stacey and I run Orange and Blue. Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks: “I want a new website!”. At least nobody that I know. Instead, what you want – what you need – is more customers, better leads, bigger clients, a better customer experience, more conversations, better backend admin… When we can focus on these, then the website gets put in its proper place, as a tool to be used correctly to achieve more customers, better sales, bigger reach…

At Orange and Blue, we ask the bigger questions, hoping to work with clients on achieving what they really want.

That was the typical content of a promotion slot delivered to thousands of people attending the hundreds of business networking meetings that I attended when slowly taking Orange and Blue from me sole-trading to the beginnings of a growing agency. The approach I had then still underpins the way we operate today, and we have been able to shift the focus of many of our clients from the concept of product to one of value. Some, of course, still just want a website regardless of how much you try to convince them to ask the bigger, more difficult, but ultimately more strategic questions.

So, we are where we are now – a Growth Agency. Unlike all its predecessors, this strapline best captures our approach to new business. It marks our focus on outcome and growth rather than on output, design, creativity and marketing. Of course, a Growth Agency will probably be able to deliver all of those things and more. But its purpose – the essence of its approach and the passion that drives it – will be the outcome, the growth.

Operational Values

Over the years of both observing and practising as a Growth Agency, even before formally adopting the strapline, four ways of doing things emerged as key. They are outcome over output, value over product, collaboration over reveal, and lean over finished.

Outcome over Output

“We have this website. It’s lovely. Great pictures. We update it regularly, and people tell us they like it, but it is not bringing in the business.”

I had this conversation with a, now, new client. The observation is simple.

You went to a website developer for a website. Their people asked questions about your logo, the colours you like, what kind of content you need and whether you have got images they can use. They did what you asked them to do, which was to design and build a website. You got what you asked for – a website – but that was not what you needed. What you needed was more customers.

A focus on the output -whether that is a website, a leaflet, an ad for the press or a social media campaign – can easily shut out the wider and critical questions about outcome. How do we measure success here? What are the real metrics? When we are seated here one year from now, what do we want to have achieved? What are the crucial areas of growth for this business? Where does it need to grow? These are questions that really drill down to the core business plan and strategy and inform the most important question – at the end of the day, what matters here? In this conversation, the colour of the header, the style of the images and the layout of the page are issues that are put in their proper place and do not become a point of dispute, or even agreement. For the client, it should not be about whether they like the design work. For the agency, it should not be about impressing the client with fancy concepts. For both parties, it is all about outcome.

Design, development, communications management, marketing and asset production should not be regarded as an expense. Looking at things like that effectively reduces the process to output. Instead, they should be seen as an investment towards an outcome. We measure them by how they work and what they achieve, not what they cost to produce.

For a Growth Agency, this focus on outcome over output will release the creatives in the studio to do their best work. They are not ‘just designing a new brochure’, they are contributing to the success of the client’s business. It gives the creative permission to think outside the box, to work collaboratively with other skills within the studio, to think about how their design affects the buyer’s journey, to challenge the received knowledge and produce something of value, rather than just another asset.

Outcome over output is a core operational value for Growth Agencies.

Value over Product

You can find someone to design a logo for a new business or product very easily. There are plenty of portals where freelancers offer their services and other online design mash-up services that will provide a logo very cheaply, for $5 in some cases. The same is true for websites, social media management, content writing, images and marketing – although for slightly more than $5. With no disrespect intended to anyone offering services like these, they are the places you go when you are looking for products and services at a price and billable by the hour. We have worked with clients that engaged us to deliver a design for print services and used a different agency to produce their annual report, a sole-trading freelancer to deliver the website and someone else for print services. Price is a driving factor, and design direction and marketing strategy decisions are made by project managers and administrators who have been told by their managers to do things as cheaply as possible. A Growth Agency will want to avoid these kinds of situations completely because as an agency it understands and believes that what it is offering is more than the sum of its products.

Whilst this might sound like just another take on Outcome over Output, but it is subtly, but crucially, different. It is about the value of the work being done by the agency with and for the client. If the client can look at the product and think, “I could have got this done down the road by a talented freelancer at half the price”, then the agency is not providing value. If the client is finding issues with the product, then the agency is not providing value. If the client is looking at the invoice and questioning how long it can continue with this expense, then the agency is not providing value. This is not about crude value for money. Clearly, anyone with a basic understanding of how to use Google is likely to be able to find a better price for the product. Instead, this is about the client valuing the work done by a team of talented and experienced professionals, and the agency providing way more than the sum of the parts. Perhaps an example…

A call comes out of the blue, and the chairperson of a small charity is looking for someone to ‘professionally’ re-design the awareness-raising leaflet that they hold in their hands. They themselves put this leaflet together in Word on their computer at home and went to a high-street printer to get a print-run of 2,000, which has all gone. It has generated some donations, and they now want something that is more ‘professional’, so that it can be given out more widely, hopefully with greater donation-raising effect. They have a budget of £500 for the design and print.

A product-led agency will look at the leaflet, quote three hours’ design time and say they can arrange the print too. The designer takes two hours to put the new design together, working with copy and images supplied by the client. Revisions take an extra 30 minutes, and the print run is ordered and delivered. They invoice for £500. Everyone is happy.

We invited the chairperson for a coffee and asked all about their charity. We spent two hours listening and hearing their passion and drive for their cause; it’s infectious, and at the end of two hours we are ready to put our hands to the plough and raise money. Crucially, however, we now understand what they are trying to achieve. We can picture their audience. We appreciate the issues. We can see the blockages and the opportunities. Now we can advise, not just with experience and expertise, but with passion and empathy. We advise against a leaflet. Instead, we suggest three things. A much smaller and cheaper business card-sized handout that they can use while networking and meeting people. This was a crucial thing for them, to be able to do it face-to-face. The card encourages people to the website because there we can collect data, which is crucial for strategic planning. One hour’s design time, £50 print cost. Second is a video. It is a short video of her talking about her charity, or rather the people benefitting from her charity. We pulled out a mobile phone and shot the video right there and then. Fifteen minutes of editing and straight up on their Facebook page. She shared this with her friends and family who, of course, shared with theirs. It did not go ‘viral’ by internet standards, but the reach was far greater than anything they had had already.The third thing was an easy online donation integration on their cheap-and-cheerful website. This took 30 minutes for our developer. In the subsequent two weeks, they received more than double the donations they had managed to raise in the previous eight months. Total time? Three hours and 15 minutes, plus two hours over coffee. Total expense? £50. We were under budget!

Now, put a price on the value. At our going rate of £60 per hour, that is £195, or £375 if we charged for the coffee time. Is it fair to charge that? Is it fair to the talented and experienced creatives who listened, understood and were moved by passion to deliver? Is it fair to the client? A strange question you might say, but underpricing is as damaging as overpricing because it paints an unrealistic picture of the value of the goods and the value added. If this were accountancy advice that saved the same amount that was raised in Charity Commission fines, then the accountancy fee of £180 per hour would be expected. If it were legal advice that saved them facing litigation, then – lawyer jokes aside – the fee could easily have been £360 per hour. Then why should similar not be charged by the agency that, fuelled by the client’s passion, applied its experience, insight and talent to, yes, deliver the ‘products’, but also to add enormous value, delivering way more than the client was asking for or expecting?

Value over Product is not unique to Growth Agencies. There are plenty of agencies with other straplines that could, would and do deliver enormous, unexpected value to their clients. However, for a Growth Agency, it is core. It is the focus. It is the fuel that drives them. They will turn down work where the client is not open to re-imagining the brief in order to re-focus on the growth goal. Had the chairperson, in the above example, declined our ideas and instead just asked for a re-design of the leaflet, then we would likely have politely accepted the decision and given them the contact details of a talented designer who charges half our hourly rate and would do a fantastic job. Working with clients who, for their own justifiable reasons, focus on the product, has the unfortunate effect of devaluing the skill and talent of the creatives. Can 20-plus years of experience and skill be reduced to an hourly rate within a competitive market, an hourly rate for both salary and billable time?

Collaboration over Reveal

The scene has been portrayed on the screen many times. The board gathers, the agency representatives are there with a computer and projector, there is a tense build-up as the agency reveals its work, hoping to wow and woe the board.

The routine, of hearing the brief, then beavering away behind closed doors to produce the goods before revealing to the client, has been at the heart of what many agencies do for decades.

To unpick this routine, we need to look for the preposition:

The agency working above the client. The client is never right. As an agency, we know what you need and if you, as the client, can’t see that, then more the fool you are. We’d like to think that this attitude is rare, but actually, it can leak into an agency in very subtle ways that can be corrosive to the relationship between it and its clients.

The agency working below the client. The client is always right can be just as corrosive to the relationship between agency and client. When the agency lets the client direct creative and strategic decisions the creatives become undervalued and just a supplier of skills.

The agency working for the client. At a macro level, this is true – the client is paying the agency, the hire-and-fire decision is with them. There is clearly a sense in which the agency works for the client. It is difficult to capture what is wrong with this statement until you see our next statement.

The agency works with the client. Within the macro picture above, that the client hires the agency, the relationship between client and agency must be one of equals. Different skills, different appreciatations, different perspectives – but, in the end, all important contributions towards the agreed growth goals. We have talked about ourselves as an agency either filling in skills gaps, working with in-house marketing departments or being the marketing department within the client’s organisation. In each of these scenarios, we see the agency as part of the client’s organisation, working alongside other employees, management and directors in order to move towards the agreed growth goals. The power of the ‘with’ means that the agency is not always right. Sometimes it gets it wrong. The client can and does have unique and significant insights into its business, clients, market and opportunities, and it is important the the client educates the agency in them. The client can also get it wrong and needs to be open to the insights and experience that the agency brings. This relationship of equals is best served with values like honesty, openness and, above all, trust. Such a relationship is where true collaboration occurs. The client is not expecting the agency to come up with all the answers and the agency can be honest about where it is has got to and where it is stuck. They can reflect on the key indicators and measurements honestly and truthfully with no pretense about having to prove something.

When an agency is focused on working towards the growth goals, then working with the client – collaboration – is essential.

Lean over Finished

Finished is a rare word in a Growth Agency. Certainly, things get done and are ticked off the list, but finished is never something we are aiming for. Let’s use a website as a working example. Often, in conversations with prospects and clients, we detect a perspective that considers the website more like a book. A book demands a lot of effort, goes through various proofreaders and editors and is finally signed off and printed. There may be further editions, but essentially it is published and sits on the shelves of bookshops and readers alike. It may sell hundreds or many, many thousands of copies and reach a broad audience, which is excellent, but the point is that a book reaches a point in its life where it is finished and ready to print.

In contrast, I am struggling to imagine a Growth Agency would ever consider the website as finished.

The various trends in current website design approaches, such as agile and growth-driven design have beneath them the Growth Agency’s mentality in this regard: build, measure, learn – persevere or pivot. An approach that has been well developed by Eric Ries in his book, The Lean Startup. In an exercise where there is extreme uncertainty, then this approach reduces waste and moves you towards an efficient solution. Almost all activities untaken by a Growth Agency involve uncertainty, mostly because it involves humans as the intended audience. Personas change under the influence of a changing society and, more recently, technological acceleration. User and buyer journeys change under the same influences. Points of engagement change and importantly how the user/buyer uses them as part of their journey. Information parity between the seller and the buyer means that buyers are no longer the pawns in a marketing campaign, but active influencers in the success or not of those products. Channel construction is also under constant change; search engine and social media algorithms are changed and whether you are victim or winner of those changes is as much down to luck as planning. Key messages vary, too, or at least how we present them, although this changes over more extended periods of time. In short, there is very little that is certain in the life and work of an agency.

Agencies are not in a position of being able to promise results to clients. In fact, any that do are on thin ice. Of course, we can say that we have a track record of being able to deliver value and results to clients, but what we are selling is our ability and expertise, not results. A Growth Agency will be upfront about this. Things change, and so we need to be honest about what we can do and how we are going to build a product or campaign. A lean approach will simply say: “We will build a minimal viable solution/product, we’ll measure and test it and we will validate our learning from that measuring and testing. We will then be in a position to suggest a direction for the next lean cycle, whether to persevere in this direction or to pivot.”

This lean approach can be difficult for clients to appreciate if it is their first experience. When they see the emerging work from the agency, they will not see a finished product, and they will witness the agency asking questions about what has been produced; this can be quite unnerving and worrying. Instead, it is the agency recognising that it does not have all the answers and instead it is relying on collaboration with other experts, namely the client. The agency is working efficiently, trying not to build a supposedly finished product only to be shown that it missed some crucial aspect and it is failing its quality tests. At some point in this process, the client and agency agree on a release version, one that can go public, however, the lean cycle continues. Going public with a product or campaign means the agency has more data to work with when measuring and testing – real data with real users. It is at this point that the agency can respond to what it is learning from real users in the real world and provide the value and product that it is looking for. The pace of data and response – the pace of the lean cycle – will, of course, depend on the life-cycle of the product, the investment by the client and reach it has with real users.

These four operational values will be at the heart of a Growth Agency. Not necessarily because it is part of the definition, although they are not a bad place to start, but because they are essential for focusing on growth.

What is a Growth Agency?

A group of experienced, creative and skilled professionals working with clients, delivering value by focusing on the outcomes and learning together how to grow the client’s company.