You literally can’t do digital marketing without people—but somehow, even in today’s modern world, most agencies forget that. That top-down lack of empathy and understanding isn’t anything new, it’s “a tale as old as time” (ok, come on—most of you would be sorely disappointed if I didn’t have at least a few movie references in here).
As the inimitable Ruth Burr-Reedy always says, “it’s called show business… not show friends”—but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t important. Most agencies completely forget that they can’t do anything without their employees. Digital marketers have been commoditized.
I’ve worked at several agencies over the last 20 years—and for most of them, people didn’t matter. Everyone was just a number on the P&L sheet:
- Someone wants more of a raise than the pathetic 3% that was company policy? “F ‘em—let ’em leave, there are thousands of people waiting in line to replace them.”
- A rock star applies to join the team but wants a few thousand more than our standard salary? “Ha ha, what idiots! Who do they think they are?”
- Someone on the team is privately struggling with a mental health issue and asks for a day off? “Sorry, man, you’re out of PTO.”
I’m not going down the “it’s cheaper to pay more to retain employees than hire and train new ones” road. I’m not going to spout the standard BS about how company culture matters. I’m not even going to share self-care tips to help y’all be in a better headspace.
I am going to tell you how to get into the right mindset to make all this stuff work.
I’m incredibly blessed to work for a visionary agency owner. Mark Bealin, founder of SearchLab, is not your standard agency owner. He puts his people before anything else.
Not only has he built a stellar agency based on hiring the right high-level talent—he’s done it with the right people-focused core values. I’m here today to share a little about how our agency does things differently, and why I think it’s the key to long-term success…
But even if it’s not, it’s the key to doing things the right way.
As you read through this brain dump, don’t holler at me about how you do the same thing. If you do things as we do, this post isn’t meant for you. Virtual high five, amigo! Thanks for being awesome.
Really, this is meant for all the other people out there who are either doing it wrong on purpose, doing it wrong without realizing it’s wrong, or who are thinking about building an agency in the future and want to do it the right way.
It’s worth mentioning that COVID-19 and the explosion of remote work has only made the problem of poor agency management worse.
For a lot of agencies, as long as the work’s getting done, employees are out of sight, so they’re out of mind. There’s a ridiculous amount of research that’s been done in recent years that shows that remote workers are prone to high anxiety, feelings of isolation and loneliness, depression, distraction, lack of motivation, and general malaise.
Again: not really going there with this post. It’s all been covered ad nauseum.
I’m here to champion the fact that there’s another way. I’m here to share that a people-first mentality actually equates to better results for clients… and a better bottom line for your agency.
If you’ve seen me speak at any event before, you know I’m all about sharing actionable tactics—so I want to try to steer away from the 10,000-foot view here. I want to share real-world examples from my own experience. So that, hopefully, you can either shift your perspective and start to give a shit about your team or, if you’re building a team in the future, that you start with the right foundation.
It’s Not About Culture, It’s About Mindset
A few years ago, I worked at an agency that was a sub-section of a larger company. The SEO office was at a separate location, and it was built out to be “cool” so it would contribute to a great “culture” (please read the words in quotations with sarcasm).
We had a massive break room, a huge couch with an Xbox, a shuffleboard table, and even a nap corner. We had a huge drop-down screen to run team events and training. From the outside, it seemed like an awesome place to work.
But the owners wanted a better bottom line, so we were forced to hire cheaper team members with less (or no) experience. Some of those people truly were rock stars and are still killing it in the SEO game today. But we started to have a big problem: we were training other agencies’ employees.
It was a revolving door of team members. The cheaper we skewed on hiring, the more likely it was that those people left once they finished training and got a bit of experience under their belts. Raise percentages dropped, and the problem got even worse. Every time I brought it up, the owners told me to deal with it, because we had no problems hiring new people to replace them.
Clients got frustrated at the turnover and morale dropped. It wasn’t a good situation.
They didn’t care about the people, they just cared about the bottom line.
And that wasn’t an isolated situation—it happens all the time with agencies that grow. The more you grow, the easier it is to lose sight of who’s allowing that growth to happen.
Mental Health Shouldn’t Be a Scary Topic
Isolation does some crazy stuff to your brain. Why do you think they have isolation cells for misbehaving prisoners? They’re already in prison, but being shut in a cell by yourself is far worse. Now that most agencies have gone remote, everyone’s in their own isolation cell.
As agency owners and leaders, it’s our obligation to understand that and to help people lessen the impact of not being in a face-to-face office situation every day. Yet, so many agencies don’t care about mental health, or at best are terrified of talking about mental health. If the topic is even vaguely alluded to, it’s “hey, you need to go talk to HR about it” (and then it’s lost forever in the HR black hole, and nothing ever changes).
That’s why SearchLab has been such a shocking departure for me. I had just been suddenly let go from a new agency (through more non-people-focused leadership decisions) and was looking for a new home. One of the guys who was going to be speaking at the State of Search conference in Dallas reached out and asked if he could take me to lunch the day before the conference to chat about coming to work there.
That lunch changed my life.
Mark Bealin is the kind of guy that pretty much anyone who knows him would take a bullet for. Within maybe three or four minutes, it was obvious that this was a totally different approach to running a business, much less a marketing agency.
He talked about true work-life balance.
About how money wasn’t as important as having happy employees that truly enjoyed their jobs.
About how he wanted to be the one to change people’s lives, help them get houses, help send their kids to school.
It wasn’t about hiring me to build the agency to make bank. It was about hiring me to build an agency of awesome people who love what they do and enjoy doing it—but to also give people a better life outside of work.
About a year into COVID, we had one of our rockstar employees suddenly resign with zero notice, effective immediately. We were shocked, and it seemed utterly out of character, so Mark called and talked to them to see what was going on. It turned out that they were really mentally stressed with trying to maintain work and dealing with a few personal issues.
Instead of shying away from the conversation or just giving up, Mark asked if they’d rather just take a leave of absence and come back in a few months when they felt more comfortable. They were shocked that it was even an option, and took us up on the offer.
Most agencies wouldn’t have asked, they’d be upset that they lost someone with no notice, and more importantly, that employee wouldn’t have been welcome back in the future. Instead, we helped someone through a difficult period and welcomed them back with open arms.
So now that I’ve rambled for a lot longer than I probably should have, let me get to the point:
You have to focus on your people. Period.
Top-down or Not At All
Managers and team leads can talk about culture and inclusion all day long, but if it’s not part of the lifeblood of your agency, it doesn’t make much difference. Everyone from the top down has to be a part of making that change.
I’m not talking about the normal BS of touting that you’ve got work-life balance. Or that you’ve got a “sweet culture, bro”. I’m talking about a complete shift in point of view.
At SearchLab, we have several core values that we live by daily:
- Continuous drive for learning and self-improvement
- Have integrity in all that we do
- Relentless pursuit of exceptional results
- Demonstrate accountability and responsibility
- Contribute to a positive, supportive, and collaborative environment
That’s five core values, and really only one has anything to do with the standard “snappin’ necks and cashin’ checks” mentality that most agencies have.
So before this becomes a blog post that’s got more content than the entire BrightLocal site, let me share some of the things we’ve done.
Tactics for a People-focused Agency
When COVID hit, we went remote, like everyone else. Before COVID, everyone but me and our developer worked in the Chicago office. We adjusted quickly to remote life and realized we could hire remote workers without any problems. Pretty quickly we became a widely distributed team (we tripled our headcount during COVID, so it was a lot of growth).
We realized pretty quickly that we had to invest a lot of time and effort into recreating the in-person-ness and connection that we were lacking. We’ve honed it over time, and while I’m positive that there are improvements we can still make, I think we’ve got a pretty good system in place.
True Focus on Work-life Balance
Volume isn’t important to us. Could we make more money if we made our people work longer hours? Sure. But life isn’t all about work. We make sure that workloads don’t exceed 35 hours a week. Standard hours are 8 to 5 central, five days a week. We even tell our clients that we’re only available during that window.
Some agencies let people work whichever hours they want, as long as work gets done. We tried that, but then saw people splitting their workload to a few hours a day, but working every day. Breaks are important, so now we don’t let people work over the weekend. At SearchLab, you actually get in trouble if you do weekend work. That’s you-time, not work time.
We also close the business completely from Christmas to New Year’s – again, that’s you-time and family time, so why make some people work while most of the office is enjoying a break?
Unlimited Time Off, Done Properly
We’re always looking for ways to make our employees’ lives better, so last year we switched to unlimited time off. We already had an incredibly generous time off policy when I started: from Day One at SearchLab, employees would get three weeks of time off and unlimited sick days (that didn’t count against time off days). But we knew we could do better, so we switched to unlimited days off.
(Personally, I’m most excited about this because it’ll make it much easier for me to be on Survivor someday soon…)
But then we noticed something… people were actually taking less time off. When it’s a “use it or lose it” situation, you feel like you have to take the time off. When you can take off whenever you want for as long as you want, it becomes less of a priority.
I’m actually building a system right now to monitor when people take time off. Once I get it finished and working, we’ll actually require employees to take time off if they’ve gone too long without doing so.
Hiring the Right People for the Right Seats
It’s hard to hire without bias. Sure, we look at skill sets, but your own personal biases will influence who you hire. For example: if you’re a more social person, you end up hiring people you want to hang out and have a beer with. That doesn’t always work out, though.
About two years ago, we started churning employees. Even with the focus that I’ve talked about so far, people were leaving at a pretty high rate. We’d get comments like “you worked me too hard” or “you micromanaged my schedule” or “tracking hours is too controlling”.
We didn’t understand the comments, so we found a solution that helped us be better at hiring the right people.
We started using a system called Culture Index to help us hire the right people for the right seats. Far beyond the personality tests a lot of companies use, it’s a system that uncovers how people’s brains are hardwired.
Thanks to Culture Index, we now know how to better communicate with applicants, and more importantly, we know if someone is hardwired for success. If someone’s hardwired to be more of a “go with the flow” person, they’re probably not a great fit for the repetitive, task-based nature of agency life—even if they’re super social and interview like a rock star. It’s one of the biggest game-changers we’ve implemented.
We’re Not Afraid to Pay More
Dollar-focused agencies look to hire cheap. We look to hire expensive. We’re responsible about it, obviously, but we typically pay more than other agencies pay for similar roles. Experience is worth paying for, and I’m not interested in SearchLab being a training ground for other agencies.
If we pay better, we get a higher quality of people to join the team, and they’ll typically stick around longer.
… and We’re Not Afraid to Keep Paying More
We’re not afraid to keep paying more, either. I read the other day that the standard raise in today’s world is something like 3%. That doesn’t even cover the increase in the cost of living. We give aggressive raises to reward people for rocking awesome work. And again, that makes people happier and keeps them around longer.
Zappy Hour and Goofy Get-togethers
We wanted to figure out how to recreate those watercooler moments while remote working. Those random conversations that happen that aren’t about work really help connect team members and help everyone to get to know each other better.
Since everyone is remote, we can’t do the “let’s all go to happy hour together” thing. So instead, we have a weekly Zappy Hour (‘cause it’s happy hour on Zoom… get it?). People can grab their beverage of choice and just hang out together. We even had some team members start curating playlists for each week’s Zappy Hour, so everyone’s involved in the background music.
We try to schedule goofy meetings periodically as well. (I don’t want to brag, but I’m pretty awesome at most of the Jackbox games.) We purposefully mix up the groups and teams each time so everyone gets to hang out and have fun with different people.
And yes, all of this is scheduled during work hours—not after hours, where we’d take people away from personal time.
Weekly One-on-ones and Team Meetings
Getting work done matters, too! We couldn’t do any of this if we didn’t have happy clients. So we have weekly meetings for each team, along with weekly one-on-one meetings for each team member and their direct supervisor. A face-to-face chat over Slack or Zoom is so much better for personal connection than a typed email or Slack message.
Sharing Profits with the People Who Helped Us Get Here
I mentioned before that our owner isn’t only focused on profits, and he’s serious about that. We set up a profit-sharing bonus with the entire company: every month, a set percentage of the profits is dropped in the bonus pool. Every June and December, that bonus pool is distributed among the team, based on a simple seniority-based point system.
Everyone gets extra money for summer vacations and Christmas presents, but more importantly, everyone has skin in the game. Hard work and happy clients mean more money in everyone’s pockets.
Handing Out Even More Money
The salaries, generous raises and profit sharing weren’t enough for Mark, though… he still wanted to do more.
So last fall, he and I worked out a retention bonus program for our employees. We’re a boutique setup, so each team member “owns” a set number of clients and does everything for those clients.
For each month that they don’t lose any clients, money is funded to a separate bonus pool (which also pays out in June and December). Team leads and managers get to play here too, even though they don’t have accounts—they get funded when the team members they’re in charge of don’t lose any clients.
Not only did this help us give even more to our team, but it’s also refocused everyone on customer retention. Keeping clients happy keeps them around longer, which puts more money in everyone’s pockets.
We’re Not Stopping There…
Like the movie Popstar, we never stop never stopping. Because our team is more important than anything else, we’re always looking for ways to make our team’s lives better, both in the (virtual) office and at home (the “at home” after the home office).
At the end of the day, we’re only around for a short period of time, and there are a million-bazillion things that are more important than work.
Like Myles said in the first piece in this series:
“Never, ever, lose sight of the people, as without them, what are you?”