Episode 139:

Every agency has an internal culture. The only question is – did you build it on purpose. Intentionality. That is the bottom line. If you want to consciously create your team’s functionality and effectiveness, what kind of clients you attract, and where your own focus should be – that takes intentionality. That level of thinking has helped Raman Sehgal build an agency that allows him to work with clients from all over the world and enjoy a staff retention rate of 80%.

Raman Sehgal is the owner of a UK-based marketing agency called Ramarketing, an award-winning, creative, digital and PR agency. They are in the business of helping fast-growing companies in the life science, pharma, and manufacturing sectors get noticed.

Nine years ago, he was working from a desk in his home. His agency has now grown the agency to a staff of over 20 and they working with clients across the UK, the US, and Europe, and still have the very first client that they landed almost a decade ago.

 

 

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • What it looks like to go from freelancer to running an agency
  • How the job of owner changes over the lifecycle of an agency
  • Why it’s possible to run an agency from a kitchen counter or a big corporate office
  • How most agency owners become accidental business owners
  • How Raman’s agency model compares to how a traditional agency runs
  • How to build a family first, work second culture in your business
  • What it takes to serve clients in multiple markets around the globe
  • The power of being “meaningfully specific” in an agency
  • Raman’s agency billing structure and the difference between billing by the hour for the US compared to the UK
  • Building a fee structure on deliverables
  • The correlation between giving clients a good return and the margin you receive on your work
  • The red flags you can use to vet prospects and make sure they are a good fit for your agency
  • How trying to make a difficult client happy can actually cost you and your staff
  • Best practices to keep your team productive

The Golden Nuggets:

“My job now is very different than when I started nine years ago. I’m sure all agency owners can attest to that. It’s part of the journey.” – @ramanelli Click To Tweet “Certain prospective clients will come to us, and we'll recognize very quickly that we are not the right fit for them.” – @ramanelli Click To Tweet “There are lots of ways to run an agency, but I’ve found there’s nothing better than being in a room with people.” – @ramanelli Click To Tweet “Turnover and burnout are very common in agencies. I worked hard on our culture, so we keep our best and brightest.” – @ramanelli Click To Tweet “Clients don’t care how much time we put into a project. We don’t even talk about time. We bill based on deliverables and outcomes.” – @ramanelli Click To Tweet

“We have a rule – no internal or external meetings before 11:00 – the morning is for focusing on bigger tasks.” – @ramanelli Click To Tweet

 

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Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build a Better Agency Podcast, presented by HubSpot. We’ll show you how to build an agency that can scale, and grow, with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner, and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey there. And welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. This is Drew McLellan, and I am here with another guest to help you think a little differently about your agency. And today we’re going to talk about everything from niching, to scaling, to productivity. It’s going to be a lively conversation, I think there’s going to be a lot of takeaways for you. So, buckle in, this is going to be a great hour. So let me tell you a little bit about my guests. So Raman Sehgal is actually the owner of a UK based marketing agency called Ramarketing, which is a award-winning creative, digital and PR agency that is in the business of helping fast growing companies in the life science, pharma and manufacturing sectors get noticed.

Now, they sound quite impressive and they are, but they started off in a very different place. It actually started with Raman in his bedroom, basically in his spare room, and he started in ’09, and has now grown the agency to be over 20 folks, and they are working today with clients across the UK, the US, and Europe, and their very first client that they secured is still with them today.

And Raman’s mission is really an interesting one that we’re going to dig into, which is, his goal is to do things differently, to build an agency that does not operate with the traditional agency model, so we’re going to find out what that model looks like today. One that creates and delivers world-class work that gets clients noticed, creates value, revenue, wealth, and employment.

Away from the office, he is a blogger, a speaker, a guest columnist, and occasionally a lecturer at the universities, and is covered in many trade publications in their niche industries, and was also recently named one of the Journal’s 35 under 35 rising stars in business, and in 2016 was a finalist for the Entrepreneurs Forum Emerging Talent Award. So Raman, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Raman Sehgal:

Thanks Drew.

Drew McLellan:

So let’s start with, what prompted you to decide that you wanted to hang up a shingle, and start an agency to begin with?

Raman Sehgal:

Well, it wasn’t that straight forward as you can imagine [crosstalk 00:02:37].

Drew McLellan:

It never is, is it? Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

So I used to work for a pharmaceutical company back in 2008, 2009 and it was two parts to the business, and one business was sold, and I went to effectively work for the other side of the company that was still retained by the same owners. And the bit that was sold, they asked me if I would do their PR, if you like, manage their PR activities, trade PR activities in my spare time, and I thought, “Hey, that sounds great. I can work a weekend day, I’ll work an evening or two and make an extra few bucks.” And that was about as much strategy that went into the creation of my agency. It was a means-

Drew McLellan:

That is many agency’s origin story. “Something weird happened, I said, why not, and all of a sudden shoot, I own an agency.”

Raman Sehgal:

Yeah. That’s exactly what it was. And it was quite a… For the first couple of years it was very much myself, and then as I started to get a couple more clients, and I was still working full time, and then about four days, and then three days, so I was balancing if you like, the consultancy side of things with my day job, and then started using a couple of contractors, and the kind of… In 2011, my employer at the time, so the same company that allowed me to do this, said, “Hey, you’re on to something here. We’re going to ask you to leave, not in a negative way. We’re going to give you your wage effectively as a consultancy agency client.”

So, they were incredibly kind, and they could see that I had something interesting to offer the market, and I was very fortunate that they became a client, as opposed to my employer. And that was in 2011, and that’s when the real journey started, I think is from solo agency, or solo freelancer to agency owner.

Drew McLellan:

So, what was the first sort of aha moment for you, when you shifted from being a freelancer, to really starting to launch, and run an agency? What were the surprises early on, that you learned from?

Raman Sehgal:

I think that’s a great question, and I actually think one of the, I suppose things I’ve seen a lot of young agency owners, or freelancers, much like myself when I saw it, was thinking that you know everything best.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Raman Sehgal:

And actually, what really was a learning to me was getting people who are much better than me at specific skills. So, for instance, my background is in B2B marketing, and PR, so getting someone who was strong on consumer PR, or someone who was strong on SEO, or knew their way around an AdWords campaign. This is going back in 2010, 2011 time where there wasn’t many companies like us around, certainly not in where we are, based in the UK. And I think that was a real surprise to me, that actually recognizing you shouldn’t be doing everything yourself.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

And I think most agency owners, even I still today wear multiple hats, and that’s fine. But, as time has gone by, some of these hats disappear, and you end up doing… My job now is really different to what it was eight, nine years ago, and there’s constant surprises along the way, which I imagine most agency owners like me can kind of verify that that tends to be the journey.

Drew McLellan:

Well, I think for most agency owners, when you start, you’re sort of the chief bottle washer, emptying the garbage, serving the clients, and then at night, doing all the administrative things, the billing, and the HR, and all of those sorts of things. And as you start adding bodies, you’re able to compartmentalize where your time should be spent in a different way. So, I think you’re absolutely right about that.

But, in the bio, in the intro, I talked about the fact that your vision was to create an agency that was not typical in its structure. So, what was it about a typical agency structure that didn’t appeal to you? And what did you, and do you believe, is a better structure? Help us understand the variance in how you work, in terms of bodies, or process, compared to how a traditional agency might function?

Raman Sehgal:

Yeah, absolutely. And certainly, in the early days, we were very much an associate kind of business model. So, for three or four years, we ran effectively, as a group of a few employees, but actually, lots of freelancers effectively, that were actually treated as part of the team, as staff, and almost given the same perks to an extent of being a guaranteed income, and that type of thing. And what that allowed us to do was scale, without adding all of the overhead.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

You often see smaller agencies where they’ll add bodies, they’ll add lots of bodies very quickly, and all it takes is to lose one or two clients, which is very likely in the early days, to then hit a cashflow problem, and that type of thing. So, our model was very much with matching the client needs, with the expertise in the team, and that’s something that we still do today, which is part of our makeup, which is making sure, and that’s kind of how we ended up doing specific expertise is, we have ready made experts to go on specific types of clients. So, certain clients will come to us, and prospects will come to us, and we’ll recognize very quickly that we are not the right fit for them, and we won’t try and force that fit.

There was a time where, which were growing very quickly, and we were forcing the fit, if you like, and we kind of lost our way a little bit. But, I think that happens with most agency journeys, but certainly the bit that was really interesting for us, and that kind of bit of difference was not having a huge overhead, and being able to offer relevant expertise for relevant clients, and it was right in the middle of recession when we started as well. So, in 2010, 2011 time was a tight time for most companies. And the other thing that we did, we didn’t have an office for the first few years. So, we kept our overhead down even more, and it allowed us to be very competitive with our offerings.

Drew McLellan:

And did you find that clients or prospects were bothered by the fact that you didn’t have a physical presence? Did you tell them? And if so, how did you explain that?

Raman Sehgal:

So in the early days, not at all, I think because the nature of the clients were after very specific expertise, and they didn’t care whether you were in working out of the bedroom, or anything else. I think where we added our office in 2012, or 2013, offices, and actually, the switch came when you’re getting to work with bigger companies, and bigger clients, and the question is, “So where are you based, and how many staff do you have?” And certainly for us, we couldn’t… We didn’t have the infrastructure, and we didn’t have the collaboration in place by not having the office. I mean, there was fantastic tools around like Google Hangouts and things like that, but there’s nothing better than being in the same room with people to collaborate.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely, right.

Raman Sehgal:

When you’re developing a PR campaign, or a creative campaign, and that type of thing, and I think for us, it was just, as we were growing as an agency, where we’re notching up working with bigger clients, and different types of clients. So, having a physical space, and having multiple disciplines, so PR, creative, and design kind of under one roof, that became more, and more important. And I think, for the people working for us, it felt more real as well. It didn’t feel like working at home, on a laptop or whatever. It felt like, “Oh, wow. We’ve [crosstalk 00:10:53].”

Drew McLellan:

You’ve grown up, yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

Yeah, it feels like a proper business now. And that’s part of the journey I’ve personally been on, where, I mean, you’ll think I’m being daft, but up until we moved to a bigger office, the one I’m in right now, and I remember, my wife walked in about, we moved in, in March earlier this year, my wife walked in, and she went, “Oh, my God, you’ve actually got a proper company.” And there was this realization of, it’s like eight years down the line that we both kind of had that feeling of, “Oh, my God, this thing’s real, and there are 20 people here.” And all that type of thing.

And it’s hilarious, you go on this journey, and without even realizing, you arrive in a place that… The journey’s so fast that you rarely stop and think. “Wow.” And [inaudible 00:11:39] I was saying to my staff, one of the first days you arrived in this office, I was sat having lunch at one of the desks, looking out the window, and I turned to one of them and I said, “I felt like I’d just started working at a new agency.” And I was like, “Well, this is a cool company to work for.” It was just a bizarre situation, where it never felt… It stopped feeling like it’s like someone else’s company, and not mine, which is quite an interesting situation.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, I think a lot of agency owners are accidental business owners, where it happens exactly the way it happened for you, which is an opportunity presented itself, you start doing some work on the side, you need some help, so you reach out to somebody that you know, that has some expertise.

And all of a sudden, in a blink, or five years, or however long that takes, now you’re running an agency of five, or 10, or 15, or 20 people, and it has an all different set of requirements that are all… It sounds ridiculous, but kind of come up by surprise, because you’re moving so fast, and you’re juggling so many balls that you don’t really take a lot of time to reflect on where you’re headed, or the consequences of where you’re headed. And then all of a sudden, boom, you’re there. And it’s like, “Shoot, I’ve got to figure all this out.” So how are you structured today? And how is it different than a traditional agency? Or are you today a very traditional agency in terms of structure?

Raman Sehgal:

Yeah, I mean, there’s an irony in it, actually, because we are, it’s quite interesting, because we are moving more towards what we set out never to be actually, in a sense, because we… And I think it’s just we’re dictated by our clients, and were dictated by our market, and actually having infrastructure in place, and having operating systems and processes, and a clear vision for the businesses is just part of growing up in the market that we operate in.

I suppose, where we still differentiate in lots of senses is both in terms of sector specific expertise, and obviously, in the culture of our business as well. And we’ve always been big on, like, we were on day one, we have on our wall, “Family first, work second,” and we’re big on making sure people don’t just work 12 hour days, and kind of work themselves to the bone, because burnout is very common in agencies, and we’ve tried really hard to avoid that, and allow people to keep perspective of what we’re doing, and build a really positive culture here.

And I think we have a staff retention rate of about 80%. We very, very rarely lose people out of our team, which as you know, is one of the biggest challenges in running an agency, and running any business. So, I think developing that, retaining and maintaining that culture, and keeping our key staff, and adding people to the team without upsetting the applecart has been something we’ve managed to do, that’s allowed us to just sustainably grow the business, and reach into new markets.

Drew McLellan:

So, I think one of the things that listeners are probably thinking about is, there are a lot of agencies that are 20 or so staff people, and they’re basically a local, or a regional agency, they can break out of even their state, or their region, let alone break out into other countries. So, how does an agency of 20 people serve clients across the UK, and the US, and the rest of Europe? How does that happen at your size, for, like I said, because many agencies, they are having a hard time breaking out of their city?

Raman Sehgal:

Sure. Yeah. I mean, absolutely, we are very unusual in that sense. And I think, for me, it all starts with having… There’s a great phrase that Seth Godin uses, which has been meaningfully specific, and I absolutely adore that phrase, because with our business, we are meaningfully specific to a relatively small audience, in the kind of global pharmaceutical life sciences sector. So, the sector is worth, say $100 billion globally, so it’s a huge sector, and it’s a very global sector, but that’s our market, on the whole, predominantly, we work in that market. So, that’s allowed us to look well beyond our region, and even our nation, and develop business all over the world.

So, two of our largest clients are on the East Coast in the States, and I think we have clients in about 10, or 11 cities in Europe, as well. And we just today had a meeting with a company who, a representative was here from a company in China as well. And it’s all very much based on having a niche specialism, and that, to be honest with you, has probably been the driver behind the growth in our business. We did, for three or four years, we had clients in all kinds of sectors, and tried to do multiple clients, and multiple sectors, and found it kind of felt like a merry go round, in that we were growing, but we kept on losing clients as quickly as we could gain them.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

Whereas what now we’ve got, certainly in the last 18 months or so, while we really, ironically, focused actually where we started, the first three or four clients of our business were in the pharmaceutical life science space, and we have 40 plus now in this space alone, and it’s just given us that clarity, in terms of how we market ourselves, how we speak to our audience, what events we go to, who do we recruit, and all these types of things. It’s certainly given us real clarity in that sense, of where we’re going as a business.

Drew McLellan:

So, there are lots of US based pharma agencies, so what is it that you do that would… And what kind of conversation do you have with a prospect who is out of your market? So, either in another European country, or even more so in the States, what does that conversation look like that makes you the right choice over a pharma agency that is geographically much more close? So they’re niche just like you are, and they’re physically closer, so what does the conversation look like, as you’re discussing with the client? Because I have to think they ask. How do you justify that? Or what is it about what you do, or how you do it, that makes them go, “Forget the pharma agency in New York, or Philly, or wherever, let’s go with these guys over in the UK?”

Raman Sehgal:

Yeah, I mean, that’s a really interesting question, and one of the things that we found is that it’s one of the things I was keen to also chat about, is understanding the kind of nuances of your audience, and something that we found was a real quirk in the system, in the pharmaceutical, or the life science sector was, you have a lot of US agencies that are very strong in the US, but you have very few, apart from, I suppose the big, big global guys have got offices all over the world, but there’s very few that know the European market in our sector. So actually, our US clients, our [inaudible 00:19:05] three or four of them that we have is predominantly, “Can you guys make us famous in Europe?”

Drew McLellan:

Got it.

Raman Sehgal:

“And how well can you get us known?” And that’s a really interesting niche, but actually what happened is, even within those tie ins, is once they get to work with us, and see how we work, then we ended up actually doing some work in North America with them as well, because a lot of the work can translate, or there might be opportunity to support in the US.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

It’s like once you have that relationship and trust with the client, they know that you know what you’re talking about, and that you can deliver results, then it becomes a much easier transition into supporting them in other areas of their business. So, I think that’s an interesting kind of marketing, and market positioning that we have. But again, going back to clarity, I mean, I was at an event in Germany a few weeks ago, and there was 50,000 pharmaceutical professionals there, and there’s a bunch of American companies there, and straightaway, I know these guys are people we should go and speak to, because the fact that they’re physically in Europe, looking to do business tells me that these guys need some help.

So, that’s really, that’s where the niche, if you like, has developed. And on the flip side of the coin, our understanding of the US market as well has increased, so we have clients in Europe saying, “Hey, can you help us raise our profile in the US?” So, we have this nice kind of niche where we can support clients on both sides of the pond, but all relative to the same sector space.

Drew McLellan:

So really, your niche is not just pharma, but it’s pharma that’s looking to break into a foreign market that you have expertise in?

Raman Sehgal:

Absolutely, yeah, so that’s exactly right. Yeah. And you can build an agency on that, when it’s in the right type of sector. This is a sector that we work in, is a huge one, and there are thousands of companies across the world. There might be other sectors where that’s not feasible.

Drew McLellan:

Right, sure.

Raman Sehgal:

Certainly in the sector that we operate, you’re able to… Certainly, we’ve been able to develop that niche, and compete with other agencies. The other thing I found, speaking honestly, is US agencies are a lot more expensive than UK agencies, or European agencies, just in my experience. So, I think that probably comes down to cost of living, and I suppose just expected agency rates, and stuff like that in the US, but we’ve… We are, certainly from the feedback that we tend to be on the, not necessarily cheap, or anything like that, but on the cost effective side, versus using a local agency that might have all the bells and whistles, but doesn’t know the European market as much as we do.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah. And so, your billing structure, do you bill by the hour? Do you bill by a flat fee for a project? How do you typically set up your billing?

Raman Sehgal:

Yeah, so we have multiple versions, because we’re always experimenting to see, what clients… One thing I found, certainly in the customer research that we do is clients never care about the time. They never ever cared about the time.

Drew McLellan:

No, right, right.

Raman Sehgal:

I can think of a handful of experiences where a client said, “Can I see the time sheets?” If it gets to that point in a relationship, that’s normally a really bad sign.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Raman Sehgal:

Whereas-

Drew McLellan:

It’s probably time to break up at that point.

Raman Sehgal:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

So, I think so the way we kind of cost it is, it’s based on time, but we’ll say, “It’s X amount a month,” for whatever the service is. That’s for PR, and content, we effectively base it on time. Whereas say, for web and digital, we normally put chunks of costs. So, we’ll say, “$10,000 for this, and $20,000 for that.” And if the client wanted to break it down, we can, but we normally, we kind of have an idea of what it’s going to cost us, and what the market’s willing to pay, and then we base our cost on that.

Drew McLellan:

So you’re presenting to the client a monthly fee against a bunch of deliverables, so really more of a flat fee against deliverables. But on the back end, you’re calculating, “We think it’s going to take about this much time,” right?

Raman Sehgal:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

Exactly that. So we… [inaudible 00:23:18].

Drew McLellan:

So what do you think in the UK then? Because I think this is interesting to people all over the world, what do you think in the UK, if you were billing by the hour, about what would it be an hour? Because in the US, the average is about 150 bucks an hour. So what is it typically in the UK, do you think on average?

Raman Sehgal:

So that, I suppose it differs from city, so in the region that we’re based in, kind of the North of England, I think typically, you’re probably looking at about, I’m trying to do my calculations, but it’s probably about 70 or 80 pound, maybe 100 bucks an hour.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. So pretty significant difference.

Raman Sehgal:

Yeah, but then, we tend to charge more than that, because of the nature of the companies we work with.

Drew McLellan:

Sure, right.

Raman Sehgal:

I mean, I’ll give you a really interesting experience I had as we worked with a company in Denmark, and it was our first ever international client, and I remember having the conversation, it was for a web project, and I can’t remember off the top of my head, I think the project value I think, was about 15,000, maybe 20,000 pounds or whatever. I remember speaking to the head of marketing a few months later, once we won the project, and he said to me, he said, “The only reason we nearly didn’t choose you guys was that you were too cheap.”

Drew McLellan:

Wow. Right.

Raman Sehgal:

So, relative to the market in Scandinavia, because they got quotes from local companies in Scandinavia, and we were significantly cheaper, and that was a bit of a lesson for me, it was kind of a, we need to up our prices to demonstrate the value, and not go in to cheap.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, because if it’s too cheap, the assumption is that you can’t possibly produce the same quality as the expensive guys. Right?

Raman Sehgal:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

It’s interesting, $150, because the benchmarking that we’ve done is, for some of the agencies say in Boston, and New York, you kind of could be paying 250 an hour as well, depending on the nature of the work, or 450 for like a head of creative, or sometimes it’s done on position in the business, so you pay more for say a director, than an exec, or whatever.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and I think too, I think if an agency has a depth of expertise, so they’re the brain surgeon, rather than the general practitioner, then again, those rates go up, you can charge more for them.

Raman Sehgal:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

So, agencies across the board in the US are going to be about 150. But you’re right, this scale is going to swing, and obviously in the larger cities, it’s probably more expensive, with New York probably being the most. And then you’ve got the consultancies, like the Accenture’s, and the McKinsey’s, and all those, they’re easily three or four or $500 an hour.

So, there’s a huge range, but I think there’s two takeaways from this. One, you sort of need to understand what your value proposition is, in terms to your competitors. But two, you also have to be careful that you don’t slide too low on the scale, because then you can get dismissed.

Raman Sehgal:

Absolutely, absolutely couldn’t agree with you more.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

And it’s interesting, because in the sector that we’re in, we don’t have to be dirt cheap, or anything like that, we can actually have a very… You make a reasonable margin on the work that we do, and the market respects that, and get good value for it, because in the industry that we operate in, the average sale value is half a million pounds, or half a million dollars. So, if we’ve contributed to them generating that lead, or that awareness, or that link, or whatever, then spending $50,000 a year with us-

Drew McLellan:

Right, seems like a bargain.

Raman Sehgal:

[crosstalk 00:26:58]. That’s very much part of, and I think that’s one thing agencies don’t do very well is often they’re so focused on whatever the cost is going in the pitch, they don’t actually think about what is the potential value in if you deliver what you say you can deliver, and that’s, again, a reason why we focus on, or predominantly focus on the sector that we’re in, because it’s high value, it’s high margin… Well, it’s high value for the client. So, they’re willing to invest to get a result, because the result is, the prize is big.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah. You said something that I want to dig a little deeper into, about saying no. But first, let’s take a quick break, and then I want to come back, and talk about that, because I know you have what you call a red flag system, that I want to learn more about. So everybody, stay tuned, we will be right back.

I get that sometimes you just can’t get on a plane, and spend a couple of days in a live workshop. And so, hopefully, our online courses are a solution to that. Lots of video, hours and hours of video, a very dense, detailed participant’s guide, and all kinds of help along the way, to make sure that you get the learning that you need, and apply it immediately to your agency.

Right now we’ve got two courses that are available. We have the Agency New Business Blueprint, and we have the AE Bootcamp. So, feel free to check those out at AgencyManagementInstitute.com/ondemandcourses. Okay, let’s get back to the show.

All right, welcome back. Let’s dig in where we left off. So, early in the conversation you were talking about the power of niching, and being able to say no, but before we hit the record button, you had been telling me that you actually have sort of a system that helps you make good decisions around what kind of clients you should, and shouldn’t take on. So, talk to us a little bit about that, and specifically around this idea of red flags, and how you use that to vet prospects, to make sure they are, or are not a good fit for you.

Raman Sehgal:

Yeah, sure. So, we developed our red flag system based on, going back about five years ago, we had a bit of a nightmare client situation, and-

Drew McLellan:

Everyone listening is nodding their head right now. Right?

Raman Sehgal:

And you look back, and you just, think, “God, that was just a car crash situation.” And actually, what we did is we had a really kind of… We had a big debrief afterwards, and were like, “Look, what have we learned from this?” And part of that was, “Okay, well, we will scope projects better, we will ask better questions, we will clarify what is meant by this, and what is meant by that.” So it helped us from a scoping perspective, just [crosstalk 00:29:45] how to scope the project.

But as part of that, as well, we looked for traits in people that… And projects that hadn’t gone as well, where they’ll say things, or they’ll act in a certain way which will almost give us enough of a hint to say, “You know what it is? We should probably walk away from this situation.”

And it’s kind of both from a demographic perspective. So, what I mean by that is, you look at the nature of the company, the size of the company, and what they’ve done to date, how they’re trying to solve the problem, and you if they’ve not done anything to date, that suggests that they’re going to solve the problem, or investor solve the problem. That’s normally a good hint.

But there’s also the behavioral side of things as well, and I’m sure most of us have been in that situation where clients, you meet a proposed prospect, and they say, “Yeah, okay, well, if you can send me a budget on that tomorrow, and yeah, we need to start out straight away.” And you kind of think, “Hang on a second.”

Drew McLellan:

Right, right. “Slow down.”

Raman Sehgal:

“You’re not giving us much time to solve the issue.” And so I think we take a real… We really look at the types of clients who’ve thought about their brief, and actually have a very clear idea of what they want from the agency, rather than the ones that just kind of want to just get to quote as quick as possible and start without thinking about it.

Because often, you don’t manage the expectation, and you can end up in an absolute nightmare situation where you don’t know what you agreed, and that type of thing. So I think that’s certainly, from my experience, a really worthwhile exercise for every agency to go back and have a look at all those clients where either the relationship’s gone badly, or it just hasn’t worked out, or you think about, “Well, we should have noted that down.”

I think that’s a… We’ve done that exercise, and that analysis was really worthwhile, because I’m not going to curse while we’re speaking, but we have another one, which is, if someone is acting like a… Explicit, or if they look like they’re not a particularly nice person, then we walk away from the situation straight away, because nine times out of 10, these things end in tears.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

And so that’s also part of… It’s not worth the kind of havoc to get someone who’s going to come in, and impact the morale of your staff, and drive your staff crazy. And I think you can always spot these, once you’ve done it a few years, I think you can spot them a mile off. And I think that’s something that most agencies should do, and not try and force. Ian Oldman is a great kind of speaker who I’ve been to see, and he always uses the phrase, “Forcing the fit,” And I think it’s absolutely right. It’s like, if you try and force the fit, it always ends up in tears somewhere down the line.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, well, I get the conflict, because for agency owners, especially if the agency has been flat, or is struggling, and somebody’s got a big pocket full of money, you want to keep your people employed, you want to keep the agency growing, and so it’s so tempting to take that project, or take that money and figure that you can make that person a better client than you, at a gut level, know they’re going to be.

But the reality is that I think people do demonstrate pretty quickly what they’re like to work with. And I think we have to heed that warning, because while you as the agency owner can absolutely make that choice, you have to understand the cost of that. So, A, sooner or later that client is going to go away, you’re not going to be able to make them happy, and now you have a disgruntled client, out in the marketplace talking about your agency.

But the biggest cost is twofold. One, I think you’re exactly right. I think it wears on the staff to the point that you can lose some of your best people. And I don’t know how it is over the UK, but in the US, agencies are struggling to find, and keep great people. And so, that is a huge expense for agencies. But the other part of that is, when the client is a jerk, and they make you jump through hoop, after hoop, after hoop to make them happy, you churn through all your profit. And so, now you are paying for the privilege of working for a jerk, which also never feels good in the end.

Raman Sehgal:

I could not agree… I mean, I think you’ve summed that up perfectly. And I think, I think all of us who’ve worked in agency environment, or run an agency have all been in that situation, and the type of client that you see an email bounce in your inbox, and you shudder and think, “Oh God, what is this now?” Or your phone’s ringing, and it’s at 10:00 PM at night, and they’re ringing for something. I just think there’s more to life, and certainly running an agency, than dealing with people like that.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

And I think keeping that perspective is really important, not only as an agency owner, but for your staff. And I think most of us have probably been through that situation. I think the key is to learn from it, and try not to let yourself get in that situation again, and that might mean walking away from a really lucrative contract. But, as you said, the money is not worth it, if it’s going to cost you more than you can charge out for it. You can end up in a terrible situation.

Drew McLellan:

So, when the red flags are starting to wave, and you’re in the prospective stage, so you have not taken them on as a client, how do you gracefully extricate yourself from that, so that you don’t leave a bad taste in their mouth, but you also protect yourself from the situation?

Raman Sehgal:

Yeah, that’s a very good question. I’ve had a couple of recent experiences of this, and so, there was two companies that we had a conversation with, and said no to in the last few months, and what was really interesting was their reaction, because that often, I suppose, tells you, I suppose reaffirms that you made the right decision.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Raman Sehgal:

And there was one business that I actually really liked them as a company, really liked the guy, but I just didn’t feel we could deliver on the project. And so, they were really keen to work with us, but I just felt that we wouldn’t… I wasn’t convinced we could actually deliver what they wanted in the timescale. So, I went back and said, “Look, I’ll be really honest with you, I’m going to say no to this opportunity.” And I said, “Sorry, if this looks like I’m coming across as arrogant, but we try and work with clients that we’ve got the best possible chance of actually winning.”

And actually, his response was, “I don’t think you’re arrogant, actually, at all. And quite the opposite. I’ve got huge respect for you making that decision.” So you have that type of thing where the cultural fit was there, but we just couldn’t… We just didn’t feel like we could actually deliver on the work.

And there was another one that we had, which, it was a great opportunity from a financial perspective, and actually, it was in our market space, and got a good experience, but there was something about it that just didn’t feel right, and they wanted to start straight away, they didn’t have that much money, and they were… It was kind of, “We don’t have much money, we want it done tomorrow. And by the way, we want an exclusive agreement that you can’t work with anyone else.” And it’s kind of like, “Okay, that’s three major red flags straight away.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. No, no, and no.” Right? Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

And actually, I took the time to draft a really kind of heartfelt reason to go back to this person, because we’d spent some time together, and just say, “Look, this is the reason why.” And as they’re a service company, I said, “Look, you look at it from my perspective, and you’ll probably see where I’m coming from.” And lo and behold, I never got a reply back. So, that kind of taught me everything I needed to know about.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. There’s evidence that that was a good call. Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

Yeah, and [inaudible 00:37:47], because it was difficult to walk away from a situation where there’s clearly a potential really decent budget there. But actually, do I regret it at all? No, not at all.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah. I mean, honestly, sometimes just if someone is lacking basic manners, that’s all you need to know, because that tells you a lot about what it’s going to be like to work with them, and what you’re going to subject your team to. Because oftentimes, as the agency owner, after you sell the deal, you’re not in it day to day anymore. So really, you have to understand that you’re making a decision about who your team is going to be strapped with, in terms of a client, less so a headache in your daily life, but a lot more of a headache in their daily lives, so you have to be really careful about what it is you serve up, and put on their plate.

Raman Sehgal:

Yeah, and I think one of the things to I think, caveat that with, is I think it depends on where you are in your agency journey. We’re in a more fortunate position that we can make those types of decisions now.

Drew McLellan:

Right, absolutely. Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

Whereas I think, if some of your listeners, and community, I suspect, will be very early on in their agency lives, and it’s kind of beggars can’t be choosers type thing, and you have to make decisions at certain points of your agency journey, where you might take a view that, “Okay, we’re going to put up with this, but it might lead us into a new market, it might lead us to new contacts.”

And I don’t think… I would certainly not… We’ve never done that, actually at times, you have to look at, you’ve got to the cost, wages and everything, and you make the decisions. But, we make less of those decisions now than we used to do. And it’s interesting, one time we won, end of last year, they’re a US company, and they had a really interesting question in their RFP that we had to present, which was presenting a project that did, so as part of our pitch, we had to present a project that didn’t go well, and why it didn’t go well, and it was just a really interesting take, and I’d never seen that in the UK, where someone would ask for you as the agency to not just give your positive case studies, but also give one that didn’t work out to plan. I thought that was a really interesting thing for a client.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and that is a great opportunity as an agency to talk about when they relationship isn’t right, or the rules are broken in terms of deadline, or timeline, or whatever, that the impact that that has on the outcomes.

Raman Sehgal:

Yeah, absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yeah. So I know one of the things you had mentioned earlier was the whole idea of really making sure that you and your team are productive, and that, I think one of the shifts in our business is, it used to be that whoever was at the office latest was clearly the best employee, because they were working hardest, and longest.

But as we shifted away from the hourly model, and more and more agencies are pricing by the project, and agencies have slimmed down, so they’re a little leaner, and meaner, and so they’re working with fewer staff, I think the whole idea of productivity becomes much more critical. So, it’s not how much you work, it’s, how much work do you pack into every hour that you work? So, I know that’s a focus of yours. How do you specifically address that, and improve that, both for yourself as the owner, and for your team?

Raman Sehgal:

Yeah, I mean, I can maybe attack both of them in the same vein, actually, because a lot of what I’ve been working with my team on, is kind of making sure we’re productive as an agency, as a team, so the types of things that we’ve put in place is, no meetings in the morning, so no one’s allowed to have a meeting internally or externally before I think 11:00 or 11:30 AM. And the reason for that is, the morning is there for you to focus on your big tasks, or what we call as your big stones, the idea of filling a jar, and you can put more stones in if you put the big ones in first. It’s that type of learning.

And linked very closely that we have, like in a radio station, where you have an on air sign, so we have one of those, which indicates everyone’s in the zone, so certain times a day, we have zone times, where people are basically asked to respect, not necessarily silence, but just keep it down, and also limit the amount of messages on Slack, and that type of thing as well. And again, the idea behind that is just focusing, allowing individuals to just focus on whether their content writing, or whether they’re designing, or they’re calling, or whatever they’re working on, it’s just respect for them, for each other, to actually allow everyone to do their job properly.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

I mean, I’m a big advocate for shutting down email, and Slack, and actually just focusing on the task at hand, and then batching things together, so doing similar tasks together, and that type of thing. So, and I think as an agency, when it’s kind of… I think we often get on our high horse and tell our team they should be doing this, and they should be doing that, and I think a lot of the time, we don’t practice what we preach.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Raman Sehgal:

And I think I, certainly with productivity, I try to set a really good example, and set the tone to my team, that they can see that I am working hard on something, but then I make time to have a cup of tea, and have a coffee, and have a laugh with my team, and that time to play as well, I think is so important for an agency to keep. So that you don’t want people hemmed into their headphones for 10 hours a day, that’s not going to be enjoyable for everyone.

So, it’s about just getting that balance between working really smart on what’s important, and not kind of being in your inbox, and answering every email straight away, and then getting to the end of the day, and thinking, “God, I’ve not done anything today, I’ve got nothing to show for my day.” And I’ve certainly seen a huge enhancement, as in an improvement, but probably enhancement in the quality of what comes out in our business, and that’s ultimately… And of our clients, and I think that’s ultimately the best kind of, I suppose, KPI, from my perspective.

And I think it’s just… There’s some great books out there, things like The One Thing, and Deep Work, and I’m a big fan of books like that, which kind of allow you to focus on single tasking, and not getting carried away with having 10 applications open up the same time. And these types of tactics have worked really well for me, and the team at Ramarketing.

Drew McLellan:

Well, I think what you’ve done though, is you’ve created a culture. So, every agency owner says, “Be productive,” and, “It’s okay to disconnect.” But then when people can’t be reached, or they don’t answer an email within a certain amount of time, there are owners that go ballistic around that. And so, I think what you’ve done, is with the no meetings before 11, and the zone time, and some of the other cultural things that you’ve baked into how the agency runs, you have said, “Look, I’m even going to change the rules to demonstrate to you how serious I am about this.” Which then gives your people permission to do what they need to do to be productive.

I think that’s sometimes where agencies have a disconnect is, the owners say one thing, but the culture, and the structure of the work, and how people get chastised, perhaps, for not answering a client for a couple hours, sort of negates what they say.

Raman Sehgal:

Yeah, absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

Absolutely. Couldn’t agree with you more.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So, we only have a couple more minutes, so I just… What’s next for you? What are the trends? How do you think you’ll be different in 2018, than you were in the past? What are you moving towards?

Raman Sehgal:

Currently, I’m banging my head against a brick wall, trying to sort systems, and processes and everything, as you or anyone who’s scaled up an agency goes through, where you [inaudible 00:45:51]. Our biggest challenges are things like recruitment, and getting the right systems, and processes so people aren’t reinventing the wheel every time. So, that’s a challenge for us, as we’re scaling up as a business.

In terms of where we go as an agency, so we are, we announced quite recently, we were fortunate enough to get some investment in the business, to allow us to actually open an office Stateside, so I’m off to Boston in a couple of weeks to look at things like office space, and that type of thing there.

Drew McLellan:

Awesome.

Raman Sehgal:

Yeah. So it’s really exciting. Again, one of the things, almost back to the start of the conversation, Drew, where I was out, and I think having dinner or something recently, and there’s a guy I went to school with 25 years ago, was there, and he was like, “Oh, I seen that thing on the news that you’re opening an office in America.” And it was really interesting. I had to take a step back, and I was like, “God, oh yeah, that’s it, we are actually going to open an office in America.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah. “Oh, yeah, that’s me. That’s me that’s doing that.” Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

You kind of have this weird, out of body experience, where you’re looking at it going, “Wow, that’s actually you doing that.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

And I’m incredibly proud, and it’s incredibly exciting. But at the same time, opening an office in the US is not… We’ve not done that before, so it’s a very new experience, so we’re [crosstalk 00:47:11].

Drew McLellan:

It’s probably not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

No, and understanding the cultural nuances, and you guys do things differently in the US than we do in the UK, and the language isn’t exactly the same, and your laws are different. And so what we’re doing is giving ourselves enough time to just do our research, and follow the examples of other companies that have done it well, and just learn as much as possible, and knowing that we’re going to get something wrong, but actually just alleviating the risk, if you like, and actually hoping that we manage somehow to get it right, and ultimately be able to service our clients in the States better, be able to win more clients in the States, and also help out.

For our clients in Europe, it’s really exciting, because we’re boots on the ground, potentially, in the US, and that’s something that will hopefully increase our revenues in Europe as well. So, yeah, above anything else, as you know, it’s exciting, and you’ve got to be moving forward, and you’ve got to be… I think agency owners tend to have monkey mind and get bored very quickly.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Raman Sehgal:

So, we’ve jumped from one thing to the other, and that’s my big focus over the next year or so, in addition to just making sure we’re producing the best quality work as well.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, it’s going to be fun to watch.

Raman Sehgal:

Oh, thank you. Thank you.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

I’ll come back in a year and tell you all the mistakes I’ve been making.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. You know what? I’m sure you’re going to learn a lot, so it would be great to have you back, and talk about what it’s like to open an office in another country, because I think you’re right, I think it’s a very unique challenge, and opportunity. And so, on the one hand, yay, and on the other hand, “Oh, my God, we’re actually doing this.” Yeah. Yeah. Congratulations.

Raman Sehgal:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So, if folks want to keep track of all of this, and learn more about you, and follow you on the interwebs, where can folks find more about you, and track you down?

Raman Sehgal:

Sure. So the company domain is ramarketingpr.com. So it’s kind of R-A, marketingpr.com and you can connect with us there. On LinkedIn, my username, Ramanelli, which is R-A-M-A-N-E-L-L-I, inspired by an Italian football called Ravanelli [inaudible 00:49:32], and that’s kind of stuck is my name. And then Raman Sehgal UK, I think on LinkedIn as well, so people can connect to me there and reach. I try and put some good posts there to tell people about all the mistakes that I’ve been making, and all the things that I’ve learned, and I’m a really big one for sharing not only the good things, but also the bad things, because I think that’s certainly how I’ve learned in my career.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Raman Sehgal:

People sharing their negative experiences, and what they’ve done wrong, and I suppose that’s the other thing I would do, final thing, I suppose. One thing in the last few years that has allowed me to, I suppose up my own personal game, and that of my businesses is just my own learning. I make time to read every day, I try to read a new, interesting blog every day. I’m obsessed with podcasts, obviously, great ones like yours. And I think as agency owners, you could get very easy into just doing work all the time.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yep.

Raman Sehgal:

And I think being able to step back, I mean, I think I was listening to your podcasts over, I think it was last weekend, or maybe it was this weekend, and it was a gentleman talking about pitching.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Raman Sehgal:

And I think he was talking about asking people what they wanted from the agenda, I think he’s talked about, at the start of the pitch, you ask, you go around the room and ask them what’s really important to them. And what’s really interesting is that I used to do that, and somewhere along the line, I forgot, I stopped doing that, and actually, it was a really, really timely reminder to me that actually, you get so caught up in pitch documents and stuff like that, that you can miss what’s important to the people in the room.

I just thought, going back to learning, and actually I was running, I think, and listening to your podcast, and I just thought, “Brilliant.” And I jotted down that in my Evernote, and thought, “Next time I’m in a pitch, I’m going to make sure I do that.” And it just demonstrates that you’re listening, and that you’re trying to address the issues, and you’re working on solving the problem together. And I think, listening to one of your podcasts gave me 10 ideas, and I think that’s exactly what people like me, or [inaudible 00:51:39] agencies need to always keep doing, keep moving, keep moving the needle, and keep pushing your [inaudible 00:51:43] team forward, and great things tend to happen.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, it’s easy to get irrelevant in a hurry in our business, especially as quick as it’s changing. So you’re right, I think an agency owner’s responsibility is, again, to set the example of, if you’re not a lifelong learner, it’s pretty tough to stay in the business. And so we certainly have to set that example. And we’re the ones setting the course for the agency, so we have to know what’s going on, and we have to be experimenting, and exploring, and the best way to do that is to learn from other folks. I agree.

Raman Sehgal:

Yes [crosstalk 00:52:15].

Drew McLellan:

So this has been, as I thought it would be, this has been a fascinating conversation. So, thank you so much for your time, I appreciate you carving out a little bit of your time to share with us, and to let us get a peek into your agency. It was really insightful, and I think a lot of people are going to be tracking you down, and watching your break into the US market, and we’ll have you back, and we’ll talk about that in a year, or so.

Raman Sehgal:

Yeah, well, thank you so much for having me in, it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking to you in person. I’m a big fan of the podcast, and I’ve benefited from many of your guests that have been kind enough to share their experiences. So, hopefully, even if any of your listeners get one thing out of anything that I’ve said that helps them in their agency journey, then hopefully it’s been a worthwhile exercise. So, thanks for having me on.

Drew McLellan:

Oh, I am sure they will. Thanks so much. Thanks so much for joining us. Okay, guys, that wraps up another episode of Build a Better Agency. I’ll be back next week with more, to stretch you, and push you, and hopefully encourage you on the journey of building your agency to be exactly what you want it to be. So, I will catch you next week. If you need me before that, you know that I’m at [email protected] I’ll talk to you soon. Bye.

All right, that wraps up another episode of Build a Better Agency. I can’t tell you how much I love spending this time with you. Thanks so much for listening. Hey, speaking of thanks, another way we want to give thanks is we’ve built a new tool that I would love you to check out. We’re calling it the Agency Health Assessment, and basically, you’re going to answer a series of questions, and based on those answers, the tool is going to tell you in which aspect of your business, maybe you need to spend a little extra time, and attention to sort of take your agency to the next level.

We’ve identified five key areas that really indicate an agency’s health, and we’re going to help you figure out where you need to spend a little more time. To get that free assessment, all you have to do is text the word assessment to 38470. Again, text the word assessment to 38470, and we will send you a link, so you can do that at your leisure, and hopefully that will give you some new insights, and some direction, in terms of your time, and attention in the agency. In the meantime, as always, I’m around if I can be helpful. [email protected], and I will be back next week, with another great guest, and more things for you to ponder. Talk to you soon.

Speaker 1:

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