9 Lessons Learned: Leading a Digital Agency through several years of rapid growth

2nd November 2023

[This article originally appeared on LinkedIn here]. 

9 years ago this week I accepted a role to join Dan Fallon and team at a small independent PPC Agency in Bath called SearchStar. The best career decision I’ve made (so far!).

4 and ½ years later we signed the paperwork to sell the Agency to a much larger corporate.

At the time of writing, that was 4 and ½ years ago (quick maths).

Recently, noticing this symmetry and feeling a little nostalgic, I’ve been telling stories about our time there to anyone who’ll listen. Especially the things I think made SearchStar a success*. I thought I’d write them all down (so I don’t forget) and share them (just in case they’re of use to someone else).

To keep the symmetry, there are 9 lessons learned.

See if you can spot the theme that connects them all.

It’s important to stress here, these are the things I think made SearchStar a success. Others may think differently, however, still being good friends with the old leadership team, I’ve shared this with them and they all broadly agree.

It’s also important to stress that the Agency was already doing well and had an excellent reputation when I joined. This is my take on what we put in place to build on those foundations.

I think these lessons largely apply to anyone running a small to mid-sized service or consultancy organisation.

SearchStar team, do you agree? Agency owners, does this resonate? Clients, is this what you’d expect in your Agency?

1) Build a senior team to challenge you: Founders can’t do it on their own. You need to be confident investing in capable senior people who will challenge your thinking. Dan very smartly put together a Leadership team comprised of talented people like Donna Moorestephanie ilesEdward Arnall-Culliford and Emma Chun, who I was very lucky to work alongside. We not only had different skills, but we had different characters, views and experience. Luckily we all got on well too. Ultimately Dan had the final say but he allowed the team to challenge his thinking; I was a part of many discussions which resulted in more balanced decisions as a collective.

2) Promote from within: If you’re growing a business you need great people in that business to do a great job. Once you’ve found that talent you need to hold onto it. We’d occasionally recruit externally (the rate of growth demanded it) but, whenever we could, we’d find ways to promote people internally. Hesitate at this and the talent will leave. Do it quickly and the talent will repay the investment. Loyal stars like Laura PinneyJo PhillipsHannah MillerJack SladekVicky Cridland and Ian Batten are testament to that.

3) Share responsibility: Once you’ve got talented, capable people working for you, leave them to get on with their jobs. Don’t micromanage them. Don’t force them to follow rigorous processes. Don’t treat them like robots. But do provide them with an idea of how you think “great work” is achieved and let them find their own way of delivering to the same standard. That way, every single member of the team can find a way of adding value, in a way that works for them.

4) Share the reward: If you’re sharing the responsibility, you should share the reward. Not just by paying a salary, but by rewarding the success of being a profitable, growing business. Dan made the more senior people in the business shareholders, a few others had share “options” and everyone shared the profit (either through dividends or a 6-monthly performance related bonus). The impact of this on-going collective reward was a huge factor in us achieving our goals.

5) Have a clear business development system: We had great Sales & Marketing people (I’m looking at you Donna, Staph and Nick Livermore) and they put some great tactics in place (anyone old prospects remember Steph randomly dropping in to see them to deliver mince pies?!). But more importantly we had a great pipeline strategy. I won’t detail it here (ask me in person) but it was essentially:

Content > Target Prospects > Quality Events > Free Health Check > New client

6) Offer high quality “supplementary” services: You need to be clear on your core service offering – in our case it was performance media – and you shouldn’t dilute this (personally I’m not a fan of “full service agencies”). However, that doesn’t mean you can’t offer supplementary services that

  1. Differentiate
  2. Add Value
  3. Supercharge the core services

For us those services were Conversion Optimisation, Analytics and Programmatic Display delivered by incredible specialists like Jarrah HemmantJamie WillmottJon Boon and Rob Langan.

7) Demonstrate value to clients: Don’t get sucked into charging for time, or outputs, or dashboards, or, worse still, performance related fees. Instead, focus on understanding what challenges your client has and demonstrate that you’re finding solutions and providing insights. Clients’ businesses will be more successful if you’re providing them with this sort of value. And if it’s impactful enough, they won’t care how long it took you or how well it was presented in the report. (This is even more critical now, as Automation and AI increase the need for the “person” to add meaningful value).

8) Keep communication balanced: It’s important to be open with what’s happening in the business and what’s steering decisions. But that doesn’t mean you have to share everything. We’d share everything amongst the Senior Leadership Team, share most things with the Managers and Team Heads and regularly give business status updates to the entire team provided there was something interesting or relevant to share. I’m not sure it’s possible to get this exactly right, but I’m pretty confident that sharing everything with everyone is unnecessary and hiding important things breaks trust.

9) Don’t dictate the Culture and Values: If you asked 10 employees what the SearchStar culture was, I think you’d get 10 slightly different answers. If you asked them what the SearchStar values were I think they’d probably struggle to give an answer at all! However, I think the vast majority of people who worked at SearchStar would say that it was a fun place to work where people supported each other and built genuine friendships (in fact, 4 different SearchStar couples are now married!).

Ultimately I think we fostered an environment where people truly cared.

The sense of shared responsibility and reward meant we let people be grown-ups, so the culture developed organically. The annual Christmas trip abroad was the closest thing to tangibly represent our “culture” (memorable times in Berlin, Reykjavik and Dublin!).

We were pretty relaxed about the leaving it to develop naturally then, but I think it’s probably much more important now – with a significant share of people working remotely – for the leadership team to steer the culture and be very clear on values, in order to achieve collective goals.

That sums up what I think were the key ingredients.

Did you spot the theme?

There isn’t a specific decision or strategy that was responsible for our growth, but I think there’s a clear link between the things I’ve outlined above:

The People.

There are lots of other things I could mention and I’ve probably forgotten some others, but these are the elements that I feel played the most significant part in our success. We had some support from amazing clients and suppliers too, but I’ve focused on the internal aspects for which we had most control.

It’s testament to what a great bunch of people we had at SearchStar that alumni include the likes of:

I’m delighted and proud to watch them flourish knowing that the successful time we had together provided them with a brilliant launchpad to what they’re doing now.

If I haven’t mentioned you in this post, sorry. It’s not because I don’t think you played your part, it’s just that I can’t mention everyone!  

*What do I mean by “success”? SearchStar was founded in 2005 in Bath (UK) by Dan Fallon as a pure play PPC Agency. It grew to become a 60 person Digital Agency specialising in Paid Search, Paid Social, Programmatic, Conversion Optimisation and Analytics. Through the 5 year period mentioned above: Revenue grew 25-35% YoY, we smashed through the much sought after “£1mn” profit mark, the team grew from 18 to 60, we won & retained multiple DRUM awards, worked for organisations like Danone, Mars, National Trust and Intrepid Travel and sold for a healthy valuation that many would be envious of. In my opinion, this qualifies as “success”. 😊


About Ryan Webb Consultancy Ltd

Conversion Optimisation Consultant & Agency Advisor. I help improve the performance of websites and digital teams, promoting more sustainable growth.

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