Tips for Running a Successful Digital Marketing Agency in the 2020s

The last decade has given birth to nothing short of a marketing renaissance. The rise of digital, mobile, and social advertising into a position of prominence in media mixes has created a set of opportunities and challenges that would have seemed like the stuff of science fiction in the 1990s. Now, digital advertising has arguably surpassed broadcast as the dominant media channel for many industries. Understandably, many businesses’ in-house marketing staff can’t keep up with all the new platforms and interfaces. This means that many companies that would never have sought out an agency before are in the market for a one-stop-shop to handle traditional and new media.

Advertising agencies have, of course, been around for the better part of a century. However, the changes in the media landscape have affected their business model, too. It’s an exciting time to be running a digital marketing agency, but staying successful means staying focused as you evolve at the same time. Here are some tips that should guide you along the way.

Respect the Fundamentals of Marketing

Think about great ballroom, tap, or hip-hop dancers. If you ask them to show you the basic first steps they learned in ballet, they will most likely be able to do it. Ask a professional musician to play a C scale, and they’ll do it easily, regardless of their instrument. They have mastered the fundamentals of their craft and respect the fact that they are the foundation upon which all their skills are built.

The same principles apply to marketing. Whether you’re selling toothbrushes or informing consumers about a federal solar tax credit, you’ll apply some universal fundamentals. Get people’s attention. Demonstrate a value or benefit the product or service being advertised provides. Differentiate from the competition. Ask them to buy and show or tell them how to do it.

Even the most creative, minimalist ads adhere to this road map when you break them down. Don’t think of these as rules that stifle creativity, rather consider them the fundamental foundation upon which creative advertising is built. You can build almost any kind of metaphorical marketing house on this foundation, just respect the tenets of the craft.

Understand WHY People Hire an Agency

Any advertising agency should consider themselves a service organization, dedicated to providing value to its clients. Having a reputation to go the extra mile or bend over backwards for your customers should secure plenty of work for you. Of course, there are reasonable limits to what you should accept and endure from demanding or abusive clients, but those are hopefully the exceptions to the rule.

In any event, for a service organization to succeed, its staff must be empathetic to the needs of the people it serves. If you worked for a community agency that secured temporary housing for displaced people, you would work hard to imagine the difficulty of their situation. Thankfully, the stakes are usually considerably lower in marketing, but they are there. For a small business owner, especially one that’s just starting out, your fee is a lot of money. In the early life of a new company, it’s difficult to predict when and how much (if any) revenue will come in. Funds are usually stretched thin on inventory, physical space, and materials. Smart entrepreneurs know they need to advertise, but they may be tempted to save their marketing budget and apply it to a seemingly more pressing expense.

If a business owner or manager has entrusted your agency to handle their marketing efforts, you need to show gratitude and instill confidence that you know how to do the work that will bring them results. This must be a top-down attitude from the Creative Director to the production assistants. Let them know you are connected to local media outlets and will fight for the best rates and placements you can get them. Tell them about your process to craft a customized strategy from social media presence to surgical ad buys. Always be grateful. Always be confident.

Stay Ahead of the Curve with Professional Development

Beyond knowing they need to advertise and not having the resources to develop their campaigns in house, there is another critical reason entrepreneurs hire agencies: they exist on the cutting edge. An agency, as opposed to a broadcast, radio, or newspaper commercial production department, exists solely to produce effective ads and strategies. Digital Marketing Agencies are expected to be full-service, one-stop shops with art and production departments that can handle print, broadcast, digital, radio, and social. They must also be ready for whatever is coming next.

Your agency probably doesn’t have a crystal ball, at least not a functioning one. So how can you know what the next emerging platform will be, or which one is dying out? The short answer is that you can’t, but you can certainly be well-versed on popular trends and tactics in the marketing world. An agency MUST invest in continued training and professional development for its staff. Some of this can be self-motivated; designers tend to notice when typography pendulums swing from thin to thick fonts, or when color combinations come in and out of vogue. However, you cannot expect everyone to pick up on every new queue on their own. Subscribe to trade newsletters and blogs. Take advantage of e-seminars and training offers. The return on investment can be truly incalculable.

Failing to stay on the cutting edge will cost you business, plain and simple. Does that mean that every account executive and every producer needs to be an expert in every single platform? Absolutely not. What it does mean is that you, as an organization, need to evaluate new and emerging platforms and decide if you can or should integrate them into your offerings. Not all social media platforms, for example, lend themselves to practical commercial applications for local businesses. A paint store probably doesn’t need to rack up hits on TikTok. A funeral home probably shouldn’t have a Snapchat. Your job is to be able to speak knowledgeably about these platforms and their audiences to your clients.

The last thing you want is for a client to present you with an opportunity you haven’t heard of. It’s far better to at least be able to say, “We’ve been keeping an eye on (insert platform name here), and while we see that it’s connecting with (insert demo here), we’re not recommending it to our clients as part of their media mix because (insert educated reason here).” That may only be the start of the discussion, but at least you have demonstrated a level of expertise.

Create a Culture of Teamwork

Teamwork is a little bit of a different beast in the ad agency world than it is elsewhere. After all, you’ve hired specific people for specific skills which don’t necessarily overlap. Your account executives probably don’t know much about the process of building dynamic banners. Likewise, your digital designers probably can’t articulate a winning sales philosophy. That’s okay! While you should always have backups in each department in case someone is out or leaves the organization, you don’t need to concern yourself with cross-training extra-departmentally.

So, how do you foster an environment around collaboration and create a culture focused on teamwork? The answer is simple when you zoom out to the big picture. Everyone in your agency, regardless of their position or skillset, should be focused on your organization’s mission and vision statements. Hopefully, your mission statement in some way states your commitment to providing superior creative service to your clients. Your vision statement should reflect your company’s core values. This is where concepts like teamwork, blameless problem solving, respect and support come into play.

What if you don’t have a mission and vision statement? This can be the first step in your work culture revolution: get with your managers or leadership team or create a focus group of people from each department. Brainstorm and develop a concise and easy-to-remember mission statement that is condensed to a short sentence. (Stack the deck by making sure a copywriter is involved.) Once agreed upon, instill that statement into every employee. Print and hang it in every department and ask people to memorize it. Think of the mission statement as the “what,” as well as the “why,” and the vision statement as the more tactical “how.”

Don’t Forget to Market Yourself!

Lastly, don’t fall victim to one of the biggest mistakes that most marketers (ironically) make: failing to market their own business! Not only is self-promotion and advertising one of the top ways you’ll generate business, but it should also (a) come naturally to you and (b) show clients that you walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Being able to tell a prospective customer that you recommend a platform because you use it and have seen great results is a selling point, especially if you’re able to share some top-line data. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for testimonials or references from trusted clients who have worked with you for years as their agency of record. They will understand that you are in business just like they are.

A digital marketing agency must deliver tried and true marketing solutions while keeping its eye on the horizon for new opportunities. Instill this and the notions of teamwork, gratitude, and service to each of your employees, and you will lay a great foundation for success.