10 lessons from 10 years running a digital marketing agency

Boiling 10 years down to a blog post (even if it is 2,500 words) is no easy task. What lessons have I learned over the past decade? Happy 10th birthday Browser Media!

You are reading: 10 lessons from 10 years running a digital marketing agency

Whilst I always kick myself when I find myself saying things that my parents used to say, there is no doubt that time seems to speed up as you get older.

I can’t quite believe that Browser Media will be celebrating its 10th birthday on Thursday.

A decade is quite a long time – 2005 saw pubs being granted 24hr opening, the airing of the 2nd series of X Factor, Prince Harry wearing a Nazi costume and Charles and Camilla getting married.

It is a natural time to pause and reflect on an amazing phase of my life. I wanted to share some thoughts on what I have learnt along the way. I have split them between general thoughts from running (any) business and thoughts that are specific to the digital agency world.

a] General thoughts:

1] Growing a business is like raising a child

I have two young sons. They are great boys and, having grown up as one of 3 boys, I wanted to have sons, so I really have landed on my feet and have everything that I ever dreamed of.

They are also, at times, incredibly hard work!

Growing a business is very much like being a parent and Browser Media is my third child. It is a rollercoaster ride with epic highs, but also challenging lows.

I find it very hard not to be protective of the business, take things very personally and I father issues / people when I really should be letting go. Just as you need to allow your children to learn to be independent, a successful business cannot depend on any individual. That includes the individual that founded the business.

Being a parent introduces a whole new world of worry. Growing a business is no different and it is very much a 24/7 job that you can never leave. It is also one that I wouldn’t change for the world.

2] Don’t be afraid of change (or failure)

The human psyche does not like change. We are all creatures of habit and resist change, whether it is for the better or not.

Businesses must evolve to thrive. Over the past 10 years, Browser Media has changed more than I could have possibly expected.

What we do, where we do it and who we are continues to change and I sometimes feel scared of the pace of change.

Changes of face have always been something that I find challenging. I don’t like people leaving the agency and used to take it fairly personally but the reality is that it is a natural process and invariably leads to a better world for both the individual and the agency. A healthy business must adapt to changes of face – an individual should fit a role rather than roles adapt to an individual.

I have also learned that good ideas can fail. Life is tough, but failure should be seen as an opportunity to learn and improve rather than defeat.

3] You are better off without some clients

As a general principle, I adopt the ‘client is king’ mantra and whilst we will fight our case if we believe strongly in something, I accept that the ultimate decision needs to be made by the client.

We also need to attract new clients and keep our existing ones to continue to grow. It is therefore unusual to voluntary resign a client. It is also the right thing to do in (thankfully isolated) occasions.

Some clients are simply toxic and can destroy morale very quickly. It can be the agency’s fault for not communicating effectively enough, but some clients will have expectations / demands that are unrealistic and will never be met. In this scenario, the sooner the relationship ends, the better and it is important to think of the bigger picture rather than worry about the lost revenue from that particular engagement.

Over the years, I have challenged briefs that we have received and have withdrawn from the pitch process if I do not believe that the strategy is in the client’s best interests. This has obviously had an impact on our own growth but I maintain that we must stand for what we believe, at our own expense, and I would rather build long term relationships with clients than set off on a project that is doomed to failure.

4] A company culture is important

Just as a brand is much more than a logo, developing a strong company culture is crucial. A company’s culture is not immediately tangible – it will not appear in financial reports nor can it really be measured, but I believe that it is one of the most impactful assets a business has. Culture acts as the glue that holds successful companies together.

At Browser Media, we strive to be a friendly team who put transparency and integrity before profit. We are humble folk but we are passionate about what we do and have pride in the service that we deliver. I often feel as though we are too humble and need to get better at shouting about our success, but the long working relationships that we enjoy with clients proves that clients like the way in which we work.

Whilst it is ultimately the responsibility of the leadership team to build and maintain such a culture, every single person in an organisation makes an important contribution. The key thing that I have learned in the last 10 years is that recruitment is absolutely vital. I don’t want to recruit clones, but there is definitely a Browser Media ‘type’.

I would like to think that I have got better at spotting the attributes that are needed to be part of the team, but there is no doubt that I have made some horrible mistakes along the way. Probation periods are important (for both parties) and you need to be strong if you can see that an individual is a square peg trying to fit a round hole.

A good company culture is also critical for attracting and retaining the best talent. The notion of a career for life feels alien in modern times and recruitment is a challenge for most businesses. The physical working environment is important but treating people as people rather than cogs in a corporate machine and having a shared ambition is, in my humble opinion, more important.

5] Money does not equal happiness

I am no hippie. I like my toys and especially love my house. That house is a material by-product of the financial success that Browser Media has enjoyed. Money is important and it is naive to say that you don’t need it.

There is no doubt, however, that money does not give me the deeper satisfaction that I achieve through coming to work with such a great team and the pride that we feel when delivering excellent work for our clients.

I also suffer from a strange psychological issue whereby I am much more worried when things are going really well. When you are flying, you have a lot to lose. When times are tougher, you have a mountain to climb but the motivation to succeed leads to a deeper sense of achievement.

Perhaps I should take up buddhism but I have definitely learned that money does not guarantee happiness and that, for me, deeper satisfaction is not related to a bank balance.


b] Industry specific thoughts:

1] Digital marketing is dead

For many years, commentators have been proclaiming the death of SEO. I have written about my thoughts on this many times (in short – it isn’t dead, it is just different… and better!) but I am going to raise the stakes as I am increasingly of the opinion that digital marketing is dying.

This probably sounds like a turkey voting for Christmas and raises question marks over our longevity, but I am actually talking about client-side roles. I absolutely believe that there will be a role for digital specialists / agencies but I think that ‘digital’ as a specialism within most organisations will go the way of the dodo.

I do not, for a second, suggest that digital marketing itself will die. Quite the opposite. It will become so mainstream that all marketers will expected to be digital marketers. You simply won’t be able to work in marketing if you are not strong on the digital side.

I can remember the days when we used to talk about ‘new media’. When was the last time you heard that? Even New Media Age, the essential industry weekly, did a disappearing act in 2012 so I really don’t think it is so extreme to suggest that digital marketing will fade and we will all simply talk about marketing.

One of our clients made their entire digital team redundant two years ago. At the time, I must admit that I thought they were crazy. Now, I think they were both brave and visionary. They saw digital as so important that they didn’t want to keep it in a silo. Digital was seen as core to pretty much all marketing so all marketers were expected to be experts at digital.

2] There is so much bullsh#t in this industry

Arguably the biggest single catalyst for my decision to start Browser Media was the frustration that I felt at the quality of search engine marketing consultancy on offer in the UK. Yes, I saw an opportunity, but I was frustrated by snake oil salesmen who over promise and then under deliver. Whilst I feel that most industries are affected by this, the wonderful world of SEO suffers more than most, due primarily to the fact that there are no real barriers to entry.

Whilst I do feel that things have moved on, there is still far too much bullsh#t and I often feel frustrated at the ‘wisdom’ being spouted by the so-called (and usually self-professed) ‘experts’.

I think that this is a real shame as the industry attracts some of the brightest minds and it is tragic to see everyone tarnished with the same brush. It is, however, also an opportunity as good SEO agencies shine and tend to be busy, like a good builder.I take massive pride in the fact that most of our work comes via recommendation. We have always aimed to be 100% transparent and honest and this will never change.

I am, however, confident that the bullsh#tometer readings will continue to fall over the coming years. General levels of knowledge and confidence are increasing all the time and I feel that clients are taking a longer term approach to digital marketing (SEO in particular) rather than the ‘I need to be top of Google’ panic of yesteryear, which fueled the growth of suspect agencies who promised the earth.

Unfortunately, it remains very easy to set up shop and declare yourself to be the best agency in the world and guarantee results. It is up to clients to do their due diligence and make sure that a prospective partner really are who they say they are.

3] Google isn’t always right

Without Google, we simply would not be here – we owe our existence to the search behemoth and must be grateful for that.

Google also drives me crazy and is far, far from perfect. This can make our job impossible as we have always preached ethical search marketing. I will always stand by this approach as pretty much everything that Google does is aimed at stamping out SEO spam, but it becomes insanely frustrating when the strategy isn’t working and you can see sites that are masters of spam out-ranking a ‘clean’ site.

I also have real issues with the fact that Google is so unaccountable. Communication with Google is far from easy and, despite having the power to make or break businesses, there is no legislation protecting organisations from what is effectively a monopoly.

The answer is not to rely exclusively on Google. A good digital marketing strategy will ensure that your brand enjoys visibility wherever your target audience is. Google will be responsible for driving the lion’s share of traffic in the immediate future, but there are plenty of opportunities outside search to engage with your target audience.

4] Wot no talent?

One of the most significant challenges that faces any digital marketing agency is that of attracting and retaining the best team. An agency is its people and the calibre of the agency is a direct reflection of the calibre of its people.

Whilst I am extremely proud of our team and have complete confidence in our ability to deliver a service that rivals any other agency on the planet, it has been quite a battle to get here.

As mentioned above, I have made some poor hires. My fault entirely, although there is no substitute for actually working together, but there have been times when it felt as though there simply were no decent candidates.

Before I unleash a barrage of recruiters telling me that they have thousands of perfect candidates, I think that this is simply a reflection of the immaturity of the industry. It is also reflective of what I have labelled the ‘big brother factor’, which has encouraged people to seek riches and fame rather than work hard to build a career. The endless dot com millionaire stories and the ridiculous wealth of businesses that didn’t exist 20yrs ago has created a gold rush. People want to get rich quick.

I know several dot com millionaires and not one of them has achieved that success without an incredible amount of hard graft and significant personal sacrifice and risk along the way.

I don’t know whether to blame university careers advice, Big Brother, Google or just the fact that I am turning into a grumpy old man, but the sooner that those at the start of a career in digital marketing appreciate that it will require hard work, the better. I am tired of having interviews with candidates who expect massive salaries, the ability to sit on a beanbag all day long brainstorming and to work a 4hr week, whilst not even considering what they can offer in return.

5] I can’t wait for the next 10 years

I feel immensely lucky to have enjoyed the ride over the past 10 years. Whilst I believe that you create your own luck, we cannot control the era in which we live and I am grateful for the opportunity to have been at the coalface of the evolution of an embryonic industry.

The industry has changed a lot over the past decade and will continue to evolve. Browser Media has changed beyond recognition since I founded the business and I have no doubt that we will also continue to evolve.

The past 10 years has taught me to enjoy the journey rather than seek a destination. Bring it on!


Latest from the blog