Why office culture is key to digital agency success
I am now working at my fifth digital (well SEO) agency as either an SEO, technical director, head of research and development, head of strategy, or director. In each of these companies (apart from the first one, where it was just myself), one thing has been consistent – office culture improvement being a major reason for rapid company growth.
If I am good at one thing in particular, it is melding a team of disparate personalities and skills into a team all facing the same direction. I have done this to grow digital agencies and non-digital agencies alike. Creating an office culture is so important to grow. And SEO agencies with poor office culture very seldom grow into something special.
SEO Agency Office Culture and Growth – some statistics
These are the statistics (as best as I can remember), for SEO/search companies that I have helped to grow by implementing my own particular brand of office culture.
- Company #1 – I joined when the company had 19 employees, and left 9 months later when the company had sold and had 91 employees.
- Company #2 – Started with just me and one other person, it grew to 24 people within 2 years.
- Company #3 – Started with 3 or 4 people, grew to 40+ people in 2.5 years.
- Company #4 – I joined as employee #32 and left when there were 88 people, some 2.5 years later.
Now, I would like to think that these numbers were not accidental. I am not naturally a cocky person, but I do know that I create a winning culture at each company that I have worked at or run myself. Now, it could be that I just joined some of those companies at the right time – or it could be that my ways to bring a team together were the reason. This will have to be your decision to make.
Ways to build an office culture in an SEO company
To help to explain how I have made office cultures in SEO agencies work, here are a list of things that I have done to make SEO teams, content teams, social media teams, and web developers (they are always loners, even if in teams), and other departments work together well, and helping companies to massive growth.
- Show what the future looks like
- Most people want a leader whether they admit it or not. Often, business leaders keep their goals for the future of the business to themselves. How is a team of young people (digital agencies are usually staffed by young people) supposed to know what to aim for if the business owner doesn’t explain the future plans.
- My first few weeks with a team are filled with small meetings about what the company is aiming to do, and what we will be doing to achieve this.
- Get rid of energy sappers – immediately
- Every time I have joined an existing company in a management or director position, the same thing has surfaced – energy sappers. Each time I have either removed these energy sappers within short spaces of time, or they have left – usually because they know that they will just not be able to cope with myself. They know they wont get an easy life with me. Whether they are skilled, unskilled, have been at the company for a long time, it matters not one jot. Removal of these people is always the catalyst for getting the best out of the staff that remain. The very same thing happened here at Embryo, and we have tripled in size in just a few months.
- Who are the energy sappers? Those that say things like “we’ve always done it like this”, “it sounds like lots of work”, or “it can’t be done”. You know who they are.
- If you are on the fence about an energy sapper…just bite the bullet and do it. You are just wasting everyone’s time the longer that they are in the company’s employment.
- Give people confidence
- By removing energy sappers, in the following weeks, the remaining people will start to realise that things can be done, work isn’t so hard, and that working can be fun. Add to this the vision that you have added, by explaining what the future is, and you add tremendous amounts of confidence to people that could have easily been just ‘going through the motions’.
- It is my belief that people WANT to enjoy their job and the work they do. No good person wants to simply just get through the day. My methods listed here can bring this out of people – and this is where confidence comes from.
- Set goals
- In ‘Release Your Brakes’, the best self-help book ever made, Jim Newman says, “People who do not have goals – for whatever reason – literally, physically die” and that “Groups, like individuals, must have goals or they die. Some sense of purpose is essential to the continued existence of every epi-organism, whether it is a marriage, a company, or a sales team.” and SO right he is.
- Goals are important, and showing them visually on a wall, or a whiteboard, is crucial for people to aim towards them. Even if some goals are not reached, the way that people work, having set goals, is so much more potent than without them.
- Employ young people
- Show me an agency that hasn’t employed young people for a while, and I’ll show you an agency that is shrinking. Young people, especially in agencies, are crucial in many ways, including keeping team members on their toes, but bringing in new, ‘innocent’ ideas.
- Apprentices are an excellent way to grow a team in your own image, but with the freshness of youth adding to the melting pot of ideas.
- A good mix of older and younger people is required, just like when creating a good football team. Look at the success of Manchester Utd under Sir Alex Ferguson for all those years. There is no coincidence that the blend of old and younger players made for a world class brand that is still growing to this day.
- Be reasonable
- I’m often derided for being very friendly with teams that I manage, and not having a strict ‘boss-to-employee’ relationship. I make no apologies for this, as I feel that working ‘on a level’ with a team, especially in the creative world of digital, is very important, so that you stay close to the pulse of the team, and can quickly make decisions that are influenced by their needs, as well as needs of the client.
- While this method of management certainly has its pitfalls, it also brings so much value, and otherwise unheard voices, and amazing talents, can go unheard and unseen forever.
- Be unreasonable
- However, just like your favourite teacher at school that was friendly and fun, there also needs to be an unreasonable streak to working with a team. We British seem to think that unreasonable is a bad word, but it’s something that I am extremely proud of being. If being unreasonable means that I expect only the best standards from my content team, or from how SEO processes are done, then so be it. If I ask a young team member (that is benefiting from a great work environment and extra confidence) to do some work in their spare time, then I expect this to happen.
- There is exactly nothing wrong with being unreasonable when it comes to setting high standards – especially when you provide so many benefits that they will take through into their future career.
- Instill passion
- A wise man told me once to “live with passion” because any other way is cheating yourself out of a life. I do my very best to be passionate about the work I do, and the work that I do for my SEO clients. By being so passionate, this rubs off on a team, especially if all of the above factors are in place.
- Passion makes growth much more smooth, and helps to separate great SEO companies from the less good SEO agencies.
- Be yourself
- It took me a very long time to realise that there are many things that you cannot change about yourself. The die is cast on many of your traits long before you know it. In that respect, you have to live with some of the things that you are born with. In my case, I am a natural buffoon. I know it, as much as I would like to be serious at certain times. It works to my advantage on numerous occasions such as raising morale after a bad day for the team, but it can cause me trouble every now and again. But the good outweighs the bad, and so I live with it. It is never malicious. And this is the point of being yourself. Too many people think that they have to have a certain persona when dealing with a group of people in a digital agency. You don’t. Authenticity is much more powerful than pseudo ‘hard man’ tactics – especially when you are not. People that fake authenticity never get what they actually want – and it’s always sad to see.
- Be the example
- I decided at the age of 26 that no matter what department or company that I worked at, that I would be the hardest working person there. To create a great office culture, you have to be an example to others. For all of your messaging, your pomp, your predictions for the future, team members MUST see that you work as hard, if not harder than them. If you don’t do so, then NEVER expect your team to do so either.
- It goes without saying, and is even overused, but never ask a team member to do something that you haven’t done yourself, or wouldn’t do yourself.
I find it hard to understand how an office culture in any field, not just in search engine optimisation agencies, can be created without most of the above factors. How can technical skills alone make for a great client experience? How can amazing content writing happen without engaged employees?
This is why I think that a digital agency cannot be successful without a really good office culture. The stagnant companies that I know of don’t have a great office culture, and the companies that are currently hitting the high notes, with plenty of new clients have envious office cultures.
Too much coincidence?