On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by Workamajig — Kelly and Maggie Patterson, founder of Scoop Studios, discuss the myths that exist around running an agency and how to trust your instincts as a leader.
EP 94: Why One Size Doesn't Fit All Agencies, with Maggie Patterson
Kelly: So welcome to Thrive, your agency resource. There are certainly a lot of perceptions and assumptions out there as to what an agency should be. So today we're talking about why one size doesn't fit all agencies. And my guest is Maggie Patterson, who is the owner and editorial director of Scoop Studios in Ottawa. Maggie, thank you so much for joining me today. I'm really excited to talk with you.
Maggie: Thank you so much for having me Kelly. I cannot wait for this conversation because I know what's coming.
Kelly: Well, you told me that when you started your agency about six years ago, you and your business partner actually lived in different countries. So you had to figure it out, you had to essentially look at a different way than all of the other agencies that you had seen around you. Can you talk a little bit about that and the emerging start of the business?
Maggie: Yeah, so we had been in this collaborative relationship for quite some time where I would do work for her, she would do work for me. And one day, we were having this conversation and I was like, “I am going to start an agency.” And she looked at me and said, “Me too.” And we had such a great working relationship that we literally spent a full year planning out what it would look like to come together. So it wasn't like a hasty decision because there's a lot of complexity. We have cross border issues. We also had team members that we were already working with that were distributed. So we're like, okay, how are we going to make this work? She's in Indiana. I'm in Ontario. It’s very messy. So we had to do a lot of planning. But we had a very interesting experience in that a lot of people were like, wait, you can't do that? Or how does that work? But once people kind of got over that and we’re like, oh, look at us, we're blazing a new path for something that people don't typically do. And, we had a really strong working relationship for two and a half years and some personal circumstances resulted in her exiting the business, but it was the most amicable business breakup in all time, which is another thing. We often see the co-founders of an agency having a big creative difference. And we're still really, really good friends. We talk almost every day. So there's so many different ways we can do this, whether that be cross border, or how we're exiting our co-owner relationship.
Kelly: Yeah, it sounds like a conscious uncoupling to me.
Maggie: Yes, I mean, I'll be honest, I was a little angry for about two days. And then I was like, okay, I can see this isn't the best thing for you. And I as your friend, I'm going to put that relationship first and support you. And I will figure out what we're going to do next with the agency now with you exiting.
Kelly: Yeah. So that brings us to this next idea of figuring out what to do with the agency. Right? You and I sort of both have this rub around, do it yourself boot camps. And we see these ads coming up on Facebook, and an Instagram and all these different things for these sort of what we might even call fear based, even exploitative profit over people, courses, and these ads, and these things that are out there are really focusing on the idea that an agency leader or an agency owner is a practitioner first, and doesn't actually know how to run the business. So let's start to dispel some of those myths about why those actually don't work for most agencies, let alone trying to make them work for all agencies.
Maggie: Yeah, I love this question. And it's something that is actually a big reason I personally started mentoring agency owners, because I was working with a lot of freelancers, a lot of people who are pressing and they kept coming to me saying, should I do this boot camp, but I was like, no, don't do this boot camp. And, the reasons I had when we would have those conversations for don't do this boot camp was, do you understand that this is just the kind of get rich quick scheme that's being hustled by the bro marketers and online business people. Maybe we've exhausted the extent of the course market so now we're going to start going after agency owners and the blueprint they are pitching is very like you said, exploitative. It's about making as much money as possible. It's about getting you to your seven figures while you sleep kind of mentality. And it's tapping into the worst parts of us as agency owners. So many of us start our businesses, as agency owners, as you said, like practitioners. I'm a copywriter. I'm a content marketer. I didn't necessarily have all the skills to start an agency. Now I will say I did have a leg up because I did work in an agency for a long time. I did have a partner with many agencies as a freelancer. So I had a really good idea of all the things I didn't want to do when I started my own agency. And I think that's part of the reason I was just kind of like rulebook there, and knowing that those blueprints weren't there, but I think, I don't know, you've really got to watch for those signs of like, does this sound too good to be true? How does this make me feel? Do I trust this person? And what kind of business model are they personally running? If you can look at them and their agency and be like, hey, they're actually hiring $3 hour, people on their team in the Philippines, if that's not the type of business model I want to run because most of us are doing this in a place where it's not just about us acquiring wealth. It’s about really having a team that benefits from the collective efforts of the agency as the entire company, not just you as the owner. So there's so much to unpack there Kelly.
Kelly: I know. We could spend an hour just on that alone. But I want to actually build on something that you said, because I think it's important. You were talking about do I trust this person? When you're looking at those things as a way to vet it. I think it's do I trust this person? And then also, do I trust my own intuition? Because that then sort of leads to this idea that, as agency owners, and you mentor agency owners as well so you know this, we can give them permission to create the agency that they want, not necessarily following a blueprint of what everyone else is doing. Clearly COVID has made that more true than ever before, right? Because now we had to be remote teams for the last year, probably another six months at least. But yeah, it's like trusting that you have the ability to do whatever you want. You can create literally the agency that you want in terms of the type of team, where they're located, the service offerings; we'll get into that in a minute. But talk a little bit about more of this. And, one of the reasons why more clients from what you're saying are actually more open to working with these micro agencies as we're calling them.
Maggie: Yeah, personally, I could not be more excited about this, because I was like, oh, things are changing. I've been waiting. And the changes we're seeing. Obviously COVID has changed everything in terms of remote teams. And I know you've talked about that a ton already on the podcast. But the other things that are happening are companies are a little more budget conscious. So they're willing to look at alternatives to where they are paying for extra layers and layers of management and complication in these big agencies. I mean, I come from a big agency, I know exactly what that looks like. They're looking for ways to have people that are very involved in the account team, not these big teams, where they're training the juniors. They're looking for people who are the best at their craft, not necessarily the biggest, or the flashiest agency that's going to send them the really fancy Christmas gift. I think there's a greater willingness and understanding to embrace that. And I think, I'm seeing with some of my clients that own agencies, it's like opportunities that I literally two years ago, could never have imagined would be on the table. And I know, we've seen that, for us, our team to like, I'm always, is this really happening? Like the quality and the caliber of the companies that will come to us, and a lot of things have just been stripped away, that would have been a barrier attempt. They don't need to come to our office. They’re okay with us being distributed. They’re okay with us specializing in one specific thing. A lot of those rules have just been like, literally burnt down. And that really works for us, as small or micro agency owners.
Kelly: Yeah, I'm actually seeing the same thing with my agency clients. So that all checks out. [Commercial] To that end though, can you actually share an example of how sort of giving permission to a client really led to a substantial impact for them?
Maggie: So one of my clients I mentor, I always think of her because she runs a very similar agency to what I do. She does content marketing, and she was struggling with something I had struggled with years before, was that I have to do everything and the perfect example was, she had these clients who wanted video production. And she's no interest. She's a writer. She's just like, I can write your scripts, but she got embroiled in managing independent contractors and video shoots on location and illustrators doing animations. And she came to me and she's like, Maggie, I can't do this anymore. It's like, so dope, right? I was like, wrap up the contracts you have, and you no longer offer the service. And the second she did that, you could see the weight was lifted. We've all been there as agency owners, the thing that's like, kind of tethering us down, the weight was lifted. And she discovered that those services were not profitable. They were draining so much of her time that she didn't have time to run the business. And then from there, a lot of things were able to open up for her. And she, after that, started cutting out different things. And I'm always forever encouraging people to be like, do you really like that service? Because every time you talk about it, you get this look on your face.
Kelly: And so just to turn that back on you for a second, you actually did that in your own agency, right? I mean, I know I did it when I had my agency. We cut social media marketing and management. I was like, it's not profitable, four quarters in a row, like we hate doing it. Done. But what did you do in your agency?
Maggie: Yeah, so it's been a wild adventure. But one of the things we did is we started off full service, like I think so many of us do, because we think, no one's going to hire me if I don't offer all the things.
Kelly: Oh, can you pause and say that again? So it really lands with people because this is a myth.
Maggie: Yeah, we think that people are not going to hire us if we don't do all the things, that we have to be good at all the things when really, you can't be good at all the things. So we started off with websites. I don't like website projects. They’re long. They go over budget. I don't like them. But we are doing them because we thought we had to. And we did a lot of websites, and I hated every one of them. We were doing a lot of text setup, a lot of email marketing management, a lot of integrations on things. And I was just like, this is not for us. So we basically exited an entire half of our business, anything to do with tech and web. We were like, bye. So we only do content marketing now. And specifically, not just content marketing, but content production, focusing on blogs, because I like it. I don't want to do social media management. It’s not profitable. We are writers. And that's what we do best. So we can come up with your strategy and help you execute that strategy. And a lot of times, this means we don't go into certain opportunities. Like I had an amazing RFP for a company I'm like, just cannot wait to work with. But I was like, hey, it's not a fit, maybe later. Director of content, I had a great chat. And I know there'll be an opportunity in the future because I was honest with her versus kind of contorting us to get to meet the requirements of the RFP because I like them so much.
Kelly: Yeah, that's a great point too. I think we recently talked about the RFP process and all the inherent issues with that. But one of the things that came out of that conversation with Sophia Story was really around this idea of advocating for yourself, and again, this is in line with one size doesn't fit all four agencies, we could say that about RFP is too. And that's inherently why that process is broken, because you're trying to have people bid on something where there's very little creativity. It’s very self-prescriptive. There's an allocated budget, all of these different things. But what I hear you saying is that you advocated for yourself, you stood up for your company, and you did not have the fear of, hey, we probably are not going to get this client if we don't say that we can do everything. And so what that does is it tells you or tells your team that you trust them. It does so many things for the agency. And at the end of the day, that director that you talked to respected you for it, and will absolutely come back and say, okay, now we understand that when we need your particular services, we will come back for that service. So yeah, let's start to wrap up around that idea because I think that's really important here.
Maggie: So I think this goes back to as we were talking about a few minutes ago with trust and self-trust, and I talked about this a ton, in every aspect of my life, not just in business. But how do we say, hey, you know what, this isn't the best opportunity, and just knowing that there will be another opportunity. And I think one of the funniest lessons for me of 2020 was, I had the initial like COVID client drop off where it was like three clients freaked out and they were like, oh, our budgets. But guess what? They all came back. But through 2020, I was just like, you know what? We have a choice as a team and we talked about it at length. It was like we can start to chase opportunities that are not a fit, or we can have faith that this will work out, because it always has worked out. So trusting in the skills you and your team have, trusting your team to collaborate with you on decisions, and then trusting your own instincts as a business owner and as an agency owner. You just have to constantly build that muscle because we don't just show up fully formed and go, hey, you know what, I'm really good at making every single decision. And some of the decisions are going to feel hard at the time. But Kelly, I've never looked back and been like, oh, I regret doing that. Whenever I just lean into trusting myself, trusting my team, it always does work out.
Kelly: Yeah, I think that's great. But for me, it sounds like you called it faith. I think I would call it a healthy detachment from the idea of meeting the business. Right? I think that's a really hard thing for agency owners to really embody because it does take courage. It does take bravery to say, hey, we're not the right fit for you. Or, man, there's a ton of money on the table. But like, it's just not the right fit for our vertical or our team or our skill set, or our core strengths, whatever it might be years ago. I don't know if I've actually even shared the story on the show before, but years ago, we had Johnson and Johnson come to us when I had the agency, and they wanted us to build something for their pharmaceutical sales reps. And literally, the woman said to me, on the phone, “We want you to build this tablet application, iPad application for the sales reps so that they feel like they are selling something that is going to be good, that is going to be beneficial.” And the way that she said it, just stuck with me. And I was like it was a ton of money. I mean, it was an enormous amount of money, probably one of the top three largest projects that had come into the agency as a lead. And I remember saying, “Hey, can I take the weekend to think about it?” And I came in on Monday. And it was very clear. It was very clear, right? If it's not a definite yes, that's a definite no. And we passed on the project. And she's very similar to your story about the director. She said, I really respect your decision. And by the way, you're like the fifth agency to give me that same response. So it just goes to show that you really stick with the integrity and core values of your agency, and you will always make the right decision.
Maggie: Yeah. And I mean, you're also probably going to make some not so great decisions along the way that will remind you.
Maggie: Like we've all had those situations of the money is there, we could use the money, would help us meet our goal or whatever it is, the motivator for that, and then we do it. And then we have deep, deep regret. I have definitely done that. And it will never happen again because I just can't. I don't have it in me. My mental health, the sanity of my team, the hard boundaries there just, no, no. And I've learned that the hard way.
Kelly: Yeah, I would love to end with that note in terms of boundaries, because I think the better ourboundaries are, the more successful we are as leaders and as agencies. So Maggie, thank you so much for joining me on the show. I really, really love this conversation.
Maggie: Thank you so much for having me.