Karl SakasExpect More from Your Digital Agency

Want your agency to stop running you? I answer questions about business strategy, team structure and roles, scaling, hiring employees, marketing, sales process, and other areas of agency management.

I've advised ~400 agencies in 36 countries on 6 continents and have worked in digital marketing for 20+ years, so we can focus on answering your specific questions instead of your needing to explain the industry to me.

Request a call, or send a message first to ask—I'm always glad to answer questions about fit before you request a call!

To help you get more from the call, please complete my pre-intake survey before our call. It'll help us dive-in faster. http://bit.ly/clarityintake

Recent Answers

What value do THEY get from subscribing to your newsletter? The answer should be: "lots of value, and I make it obvious to readers in language they care about."

I've written two how-to books. In each, I point to a book-specific landing page with resources. For my first (on public speaking as a form of business development), I describe the resources as templates that will save them 20-50 hours of work. In my second book (on managing marketing & creative teams), it's how the templates will help them become a better manager.

Throughout each book, I have relevant Call to Action (CTA) blocks that point to the resources—an easy "sell" for how-to non-fiction.

If you write fiction, think about what would be compelling. Perhaps your subscribers get first updates about your next book, and private updates about your progress on the writing process (similar to what some Kickstarter campaigns will do).

Make it about value to them, and signups will follow. I'm glad to do a call to discuss further. Good luck!

You "convince them they should pay" by publishing your 'no equity-only' policy on your agency's website!

I did a version of this several years ago, when I was the head of operations for a digital agency. Sales leads kept saying they wanted to "partner" on mobile apps (that is, no cash up front). I updated our website to reflect a minimum price for app development. Overnight, our sales prospects were much better-qualified.

From what you've described, try something like this: "We provide development services for clients who budget at least $X for a prototype. We consider accepting a mix of cash and equity for 1-2 projects each year. We receive dozens of proposals each month; if you can't afford 100% cash, please indicate the terms you have in mind when you complete our client application."

Want help customizing a solution for your agency's situation? I'm glad to do a call to help. Good luck!

Are you sure you're *ready* to hire a salesperson? Your question implies that sales is not one of the "main aspects of the business." I disagree—when it's your business, sales is *never* a secondary activity!

Begin with the end in mind—what do you want a salesperson to accomplish? Assuming it's "sell more," that means a focus on commissions over salary.

To its extreme, you'd want them to be commission-only, since you pay nothing if they close nothing. But why would a high-quality salesperson leave their current job to work for you when your company has no track record, and you aren't willing to guarantee even a minimum base salary?

If you can't afford to pay a base salary, you're not going to attract quality candidates (or would need to offer enormous commissions that wipe out your margins). In that case, do sales yourself and outsource production instead.

I'm glad to do a call to help you find the right option for your circumstances. Good luck!

Pivot—they don't trust you yet, so you need to build their trust first.

Offer an initial "paid discovery" project, instead of pushing a long-term contract before they're ready to commit. They can see the quality of your strategy work, and you and they can decide if you want to continue to a strategy and implementation retainer.

With paid discovery, you'll get paid (good), and they get a concrete deliverable (also good). For SEO agencies, paid discovery typically involves doing an audit, but you could also outline an initial strategy for (for example) their most-lucrative artist.

Ultimately, you'll also learn what you're getting into before you commit, too—50,000+ pages is a lot to optimize.

And then improve your agency's own marketing (including positioning, testimonials, case studies, and other social proof). SEO clients are happier to sign long-term contracts when they already trust that your agency is the perfect match for them.

Want advice on that? I'm glad to do a Clarity call to help. Good luck!

You seem to be approaching this as a financial-only decision, which strikes me as a flawed decision model. You are likely to be much happier at one than the other, so they're not interchangeable.

That aside, let's look at financial implications of choosing to consult in marketing vs. web development.

As you noted, marketing is a better fit for ongoing retainers (for recurring revenue), more so than web development (which tends to be one-off projects, although approaches like Growth-Driven Design are bringing retainer models to web development).

If you choose marketing, you'll have a lower barrier to entry in finding consulting clients (because anyone can claim to be a marketer). You can probably adapt faster, too; it's easier to offer clients a new marketing channel than it is to learn a new programming language. And you'll likely build a portfolio of successes faster, which you can leverage to get paid on value.

In contrast, web development's higher barrier to entry (because you need baseline technical skills first) means less competition and the ability to charge more on a per-unit (hourly or project) basis. But longer projects and fuzzier returns mean it's going to take longer to build a salable portfolio of successes.

Consider where you can demonstrate a bigger impact. It's easier for clients to see marketing as an investment in growing their sales. That's not always the case with web development, where clients are more likely to see your service as a cost rather than an investment.

Finally, whichever way you go, invest in building your client service and strategy skills. Those will help you stand out against competitors who may be technically savvy but poor at delivering the service, or great at the tactical work but poor at creating a coherent strategy.

Good luck in the process, and glad to do a Clarity call to answer any further questions!

If you're in the U.S., lawyers Gabe Levine (San Francisco) and Sharon Toerek (Cleveland) specialize in agencies.

Start with #4, for 5 reasons: You know conversion rate optimization (CRO); your target market *needs* conversion help; CRO is a high-priced service; you can do the strategy, implementation, and training required to get it done; and CRO lends itself to value-based pricing as you build your track record in the niche.

You'll have an easier time if you become known as a specialist for "bloggers who want to convert traffic to revenue" or "agencies who need to convert website visitors into leads."

You can always add other services in the future, but start with something where you can make a big impact with your existing skillset and where a market need already exists.

Good luck! Glad to do a Clarity call to answer any followup questions; I've advised agencies in 15 countries.

Require payment up front, either in full or as a deposit. During your onboarding process, make it clear that your policy is to pause future work if the client becomes past-due. And then follow that policy if it becomes a problem—be polite but firm.

Concerned you don't have the reputation or track record to require payment up front? Look at the social proof you're using in your marketing. Mention U.S. brands you've worked with (if you have permission to do so). Share testimonials and case studies. The goal is to reduce risk to your prospective clients, so they're less likely to push back on pre-payment.

In the U.S., I see independent agencies doing primarily Net 30 as their payment terms. If you're doing that now, shorten terms for new clients to Net 15. (Don't do "Due on Receipt" since no one pays on receipt; you should have a real due that that's some point in the future.)

Here's more on preventing this long-term: http://sakasandcompany.com/clients-who-keep-paying-late/

Onshore agencies struggle with this, too, so you're not along in facing this problem. Good luck!

Background: I led business operations at 2 digital agencies, have worked in digital marketing since 1997, and advise agencies about operations, strategy, and leadership in (so far) 15 countries. If you have followup questions, request a call here on Clarity; I'm glad to help!

I've worked in digital marketing since 1997, led business operations at two digital marketing agencies, and advise digital agency owners on improving the business side of their agencies.

Agencies tend to use some version of the standard consulting phases: Discovery, Analysis, Recommendations, and Implementation. Some agencies like to give them cutesy, proprietary-sounding names. In my experience, I'm not sure that really fools anyone.

You also want to convey that you understand their problem. When I evaluate proposals by agencies, the biggest problem is talking about the agency and not the client. Focus on how they'll benefit (including likely metrics and potential results), not what you'll do.

Milestones and deliverables will depend on the nature of the project. If it's implementation work, you might list typical deliverables (e.g., landing pages, nurture campaigns, or eBooks). If it's strategy work, your deliverables will be the research, analysis, and meetings you do to make recommendations. Beware of getting too specific about granular deliverables -- you don't want to prescribe a solution before you [get paid to] diagnose the problem.

Which leads to your second point -- don't give them the plan/strategy you have in mind until they pay for your help. Don't treat your strategy advice like the free coathangers at the drycleaner (so value-less that they're thrown in with your cleaned shirt).

Many prospects won't like this. I think you should refuse to do business with them. When agencies deliver spec work (a la 1960s ad agency pitches from "Mad Men"), they're making it harder for everyone else (and themselves), by showing prospects and clients that strategy has so little value, you're willing to give it away.

What can you do instead? Position yourself as an expert as solving their problems in their industry niche. (If you call yourself a "full service agency," you're already doing it wrong.) People hire specialists. If you need heart surgery, would you hire the surgeon who does general heart surgery or who's done your specific procedure 500 times? I know I'd pick the specialist-specialist!

Instead of sharing specific recommendations, use case studies of how you've solved similar problems for similar clients before. And if you don't have similar clients yet, use the closest analogy you can. You've got to start somewhere. And it's a reminder about doing the same type of work over and over again, rather than jumping around to a million types of projects.

Ultimately, don't over-invest in the proposal process. Once it becomes clear someone isn't a good match, gracefully bow out and invest your energies in working with clients who value your expertise by paying for it.

Good luck on your proposals! I'm glad to do a call to answer any followup questions.

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