Can you run an agency without any employees? You’re about to find out.

Recently I received an email which in essence asked how feasible it was to run an agency without employees.  I thought it was a worthy discussion to share here.

Here’s the question I was asked:  In the last year or so I’ve noticed more and more agencies that have an organizational structure like this: a strategist or two lead the agency, do new business, do client strategy and service. And the design, technical work and production is done by virtual assistants.

This seems to be a particularly popular model with agencies that are Hubspot partners (or partners with other marketing software vendors) or focus on inbound / content marketing. I’d love to hear your experience on this. Particularly, where you see this model working well and where you see the more traditional agency model (a model fully staffed with strategists, account people, creative, etc) working well.

My answer: I see this model working with smaller agencies that deliver something that is almost formulaic — like SEO or email automation.  If you can sell it like a product/package — it may work. Typically these agencies are smaller, could be virtual and have little to no staff. They are also at great risk of being commoditized.

But for an agency that wants to dig into strategy and really be at the decision making table (in contrast to the more order taking product/package model) it’s really not effective. I don’t believe account people (AE/strategist — whatever you want to call them) are great new business people.  In most cases, they lack the sophistication in business acumen to truly have the kinds of conversations that CEOs/CMOs want to have.  I believe the root cause of what you’re seeing is agency owners looking for an easy way out because they don’t want to sell.

But the truth is — no one sells better.  AE types can sell projects or smaller clients but for an agency to truly grow and have recurring revenue from fewer clients as opposed to a ton of small clients who all require a lot of hand holding (translation — lost hours/revenue to un-budgeted account service time) — the owner has to be knee deep in the new business process.

They don’t have to manage it or produce all the assets but at some point, they need to be:

  • Defining the agency’s niche/differentiation
  • Articulating the agency’s sweet spot clients
  • Being the focal point of the thought leadership strategy
  • Closing the deal

In January I did a soft launch of our new online. on demand business development course.  It outlines how to do all of the above (and much more) because although you’d think most agencies would have this nailed, given what they do for a living — they do not.  So far, early feedback on the course is really positive.

The owners love the step by step instruction/homework that literally walks them through the process of truly creating a new business program that is sustainable and will keep their pipeline full of their best potential clients.  (Shoot me an email if you’d like to be considered for the next cohort)

Which gets back to the question — can you run an agency without any employees? Most agencies today are a hybrid — they have in-house account service people and a core creative/digital team. For overflow work and areas of specialty where they don’t shine — they have strategic partners — be that another agency (AMI agencies often partner together), a freelancer or depending on the deliverables — a VA.

What is changing is that all of those employees may or may not reside under the same roof anymore. Many traditional agencies, especially those with a niche that removed geography as a barrier, are able to hire nationally/globally and get all the work done even through the team may be scattered among several time zones.

But for most agencies that are truly delivering custom work to clients — it’s pretty tough to do with literally no staff beyond an AE or two.