The Agency Ecosystem: A Story Of ‘And,’ Not ‘Or’
During the heat of the 2008 recession, I decided it was a good time to start my own business. Yes, you read that right. My vision was simple: rethink how we engage with clients, solve their problems, and use design to impact their business. From there, my first full-service creative marketing firm was born.
My drive to rethink agency models and client relations continued when I merged with my husband’s data-driven firm in 2018, then again when I launched a smaller branding shop in 2020 … all the way to today. But these aren’t disparate ventures—they’ve all been components of a larger ecosystem designed to better serve our clients. And as I reflect on the journey that took me here, I’ve realized how deeply vital that ecosystem has become.
Here’s a little more about how I’ve allowed client needs to dictate what our agency ecosystem looks like, with the hope that it helps guide you through developing and nurturing your own.
Recognize Growing Pains
After merging with the data-driven firm in 2018, the growth of our agency meant the growth of prospects we were going after, but a core aspect of our services was in our ability to put the right expertise on the right projects at the right time. And the bigger we got, the more we tried to be everything to everyone all at once.
It became nearly impossible to staff for enterprise and for small-business clients. Different skill sets were needed and different levels of expertise for each business size/model were evident. We’re in the business of serving our clients, not growing by any means necessary. It was time to get creative about what that growth looked like.
Design A Vertically Integrated Solution
After listening to clients’ feedback, we realized there was a gap (or opportunity) in our agency experience for entrepreneurs and small and early-stage brands. We felt passionate about continuing to serve these types of clients, so we knew we needed a solution that was more customized to their needs.
We decided to build out a separate agency focused specifically on leaders of small businesses and early-stage brands. If we were starting from scratch, this would be a daunting undertaking. But we weren’t.
Here are some of the ways our existing agency infrastructure made this a possibility:
Saving On Overhead
A robust agency comes with robust costs, and your various project management tools and platform subscriptions can start to add up. For smaller agencies serving smaller clients and projects, these unforeseen costs can significantly cut into your bottom line. Why not add a few more users to the accounts that are already live with your original business? Those costs then disappear.
Lead Gen Becomes Easy
Think of your additional venture as a lead funnel from midmarket agency to small business, ultimately providing support and having a place for everyone.
Optimize Funnels And Flow Among The Ecosystems
The result? Two separate firms that specialize in their respective client size and working style. Rather than choosing between enterprise or small business, we decided on enterprise and small business. This is how a successful ecosystem is built—where all the parts work together and there is flow, even among seemingly separate sectors.
Here are a few ways this ecosystem is able to thrive:
The agency community is tightknit, and we all have a rich history of co-workers and colleagues that we trust (and might even be desperate to work with again). Propping up your agency is not contingent upon hiring for every role immediately. You can remain nimble in your approach by keeping a bench of freelancers available and bringing them in based on specific projects—rather than hiring full-time employees and absorbing the full-time costs.
Leveraging The Ecosystem (And Its Talent)
While the roster of talent already in the building wasn’t built specifically to support this new venture, it still had an essential role to play. Agency work can ebb and flow, and you never know when a valuable contributor will have a week full of open hours and nowhere to put them—allowing you to tap into their skill set without sacrificing the work of the larger agency.
Let The Scope Define Your Resourcing
The small-business clients tend to have a smaller scope (and budget) for their projects, but this doesn’t mean they don’t deserve their own flavor of partnership. Your larger agency is probably more robust with its resourcing for projects—including project managers, account managers, multiple designers, creative directors, etc. But if a small business is willing to roll its sleeves up and engage with a scrappier team, you can start trimming roles (budget) from the project and patch together a team that works for both of you.
If you’re in a position of determining ideal clients and partners for optimal growth, I encourage you to take a step back and look at the ecosystem at large. Consider:
• What is something your clients are consistently asking for that you feel you can’t deliver with confidence? This is a gap in your ecosystem.
• Are there specific partners or agencies you collaborate with often? Think long-term; how can you drive a more official partnership or merger with them?
• Does your current model support long-term growth and/or funnel into another model?
• Does your current agency provide a full stack offering that can be broken up into separate agencies that work together (i.e., niche agency offerings, all working under one parent company)?
Embracing The ‘And’
While focusing on priorities is key, I’ve found that being an “and” rather than an “or” agency is how you can truly show up for your clients and their success—all while building a long-standing agency ecosystem. Growth is not always linear, and using creative models to serve the widest possible client base is the only way to evolve without sacrificing your core values. This ultimately helps more clients win, more often. And as I always say: When clients win, you win.
This MODintelechy authored editorial originally appeared in Forbes Agency Council