Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Nine mistakes agency owners make (and what to do to fix them)

By Felix Velarde, (an NDA 50over50)

I help agencies. More specifically, I’m the guy with the grey hair who comes in, appraises the agency, and extremely irritatingly I’m sure, tells the owners what they need to do about it. The funny thing is I very rarely tell them stuff they don’t already know, deep down. I then help them do something about it by showing them all the shortcuts.

This thing about them already knowing. They do. You do. Except you know a couple of hundred things about your agency that could do with being addressed. And what happens — what happened when I had a bunch of agencies of my own — is that you address the ones that are easy to do or that sit right in your passion area.

Like sorting out your website. Or learning how to coach people. Or sorting out your accounting (that one is usually an evil that you have to do because you keep getting bitten on the bum by cashflow).

So most agency leaders get two or three big things sorted every year, and a few bits and bobs that are low-hanging fruit or definitely absolutely urgent. You muddle along, and then *whump* and your business just went udders up. (There’s an unusual number of ‘u’s in that sentence – maybe it’s a sign.)

I prefer a more structured approach to it all. I work with frameworks that break everything down into task of similar size then distribute them amongst the team, and that gets the team all enthusiastic and engaged and not only do twenty things get done in a year, suddenly you find that it’s no longer just you that’s running your agency, you all are.

So here are nine things that are easy to spot from the outside and need to be fixed, because all of us since time began get this stuff wrong.

  1. Focusing on the wrong people:
    Fire your C-players. Do it now. They’re in the wrong job. Everyone knows it. They’ll be happier in the right job. Which isn’t the one they’ve got. I guarantee you’ll get people coming up to you asking why you didn’t do it six months ago.
  2. Cashflow:
    Sort your credit control out. It’s not difficult. It’s just a process you have to follow. Reducing your debtor days from 75 to 45 puts an extra 8.3% of your annual turnover into your bank account. Email me and I’ll put you in touch with a brilliant consultant who can show you the process in two hours.
  3. Me-too positioning:
    Nail your proposition. Make it crystal clear what you do. I’m not going to tell you how to do it here but it takes a two day workshop and then you will stand out a bazillion miles from your competitors and clients will come to you. Trust me. I do this for a living.
  4. Hiring by the seat of your pants:
    Learn how to hire, motivate and continuously asses A-players. Partner this with firing your C-players and you’ll find you have an amazing, highly motivated team.
  5. Doing it all yourself:
    Sort out your succession. If you plan to sell any time in the next three years get your succession team lined up and well-practised at running the agency. Buyers will discount their offer or walk away if they think when you leave the place will fall to bits. Even a little bit.
  6. Leaving incentives until it’s too late:
    Sort out EMI options today. The law has just changed and you need to hold your shares for at least two years in order to qualify for Entrepreneurs Relief. Get this done as soon as you can. Get your lawyers to do it, not your accountant. Again, get in touch and I’ll put you onto a brilliant corporate law firm who I use for most of my client agencies’ sales and corporate stuff.
  7. Being unprepared when opportunity knocks:
    If you are going for a sale, sort out your Data Room. Too much to go into here but it’s relatively straightforward and again your corporate lawyers or auditors can advise you.
  8. Not knowing where you’re exposed:
    Risks can kill your business. Get your Risk Register up and running and work your way through it. The first time I did one we discovered our M&S contract (which we’d signed) required a million quid in Professional Indemnity cover and we only had a hundred K. Also you’ll be surprised at how many people want the Red Cross training.
  9. Doing the wrong job:
    Don’t do anything you can delegate. If 30% of your job is finding and winning new business, and you spend another 30% on PR, stop. Give that to a PR agency. This alone will double your new business capacity. Wow. Yes. Learn how to delegate.

So that’s nine. I could go on and on. There are probably thirty-six biggies (some infinitely more important than most of these) that I address frequently in the agencies I work with, and you can never quite predict which ones are going to be on the list.

All it takes is an outside view: my strongest advice is find an outside advisor, a non-exec or non-exec chairman who has actual experience of running agencies (preferably more than one) themselves. They’ll know the shortcuts, they’ll be able to teach you how to hire great people or sell on value not price, and they’ll hold your feet to the flames.  

They will also tell you you’re doing OK and there’s no need to get so stressed about the stuff that’s normal for everyone else too. Running an agency is a huge responsibility and it can get you down, but most people really don’t need to be as stressed by the buck always stopping with them as most owners are. Get an advisor. You’ll be fine.


Felix Velarde owned six agencies and was CEO of an agency group before selling up and going to Burning Man. Now he’s a non-exec chairman, board advisor and workshop leader, and usually triples the size of the agencies he chairs.