The classic agency model is under pressure, and it’s continually changing. That’s a good thing — agencies were always the first to respond to business challenges, and they weren’t afraid to try out new setups. When it comes to remote companies, apart from pure technology products and SaaS businesses, creative agencies were the first-movers. It’s easy to understand why — creative professionals love remote working and they often collaborate with each other thus creating remote creative companies.
However, what about those who were in the game before this whole remote working concept? How can they adapt to this new challenge? How can you, agency-owner with a solid clientele and in-office team, avoid the mistakes and fallbacks when switching to remote?
I have worked for big network agencies as a senior strategist, spent time with medium-sized creative workshops, plus had my own classic digital marketing agency. These came with offices, in-house teams, global & regional campaigns and all the belongings you are familiar with. Now I’m running my own remote consulting business and helping entrepreneurs to transform their companies into a remote business and grow beyond their limits.
There are many crucial areas where you can make mistakes when you are running or switching to your remote agency setup.
Overhead and margins.
Yes, let’s address the money issue first and get this out of the way. There are obvious benefits for remote business ROI.
First, your team can be flexible. Meaning, your overhead costs are manageable. You can hire freelancers for projects on-demand and for as-needed.
Second, your remote team will be more productive. Period. If you don’t believe me, look at the fact that remote workers are less likely to call in sick. Tools track those who work most of their time remotely — they have a hard time to fake their timesheets. All in all, they get things done more effectively for you, which means more work, which means more revenue.
Third, no office. It’s a significant amount in any agency’s budget. Plus there are no furniture, supplies, catering, and so on.
Last, if you based in a high-income city, you will have the option to find equally talented people from lower-income cities. It means less money spent on fees and salaries. Oh and most of the remote agencies work with their team on a freelancer contract basis, so no benefits and taxes on top of wages.
What can go wrong with your budget?
As an agency, you will have severe savings on your current setup if you switch to the remote business model. It can be tempting, and you can forget what’s on stake here: your reputation and your quality of services.
Improving your team and your services should be the number one goal for you when switching to the remote agency model. Here’s an example. If you save $10 with the switch, this is how you should distribute it:
$3 should go to your team as bonuses. Pay them well, and they will be more likely to stick with you and do better work. If you use many on-demand freelancers, pick the expensive and talented ones, don’t be cheap. They are more likely to prioritize your projects over other projects they are doing. If you have long-term employees, pay them bonuses. They will be more loyal to you.
$3 should go to your remote office. No, you won’t have a traditional office. However, you will have extra expenses that you haven’t had before. You will travel more to on-site client meetings. You might rent more meeting rooms and coworking spaces. You need tools and software to work remotely. You might need to invest in solid home office equipment. You might also want to do retreats and team building events with your remote team. All of these cost money which you shouldn’t skip.
$3 should go to experimentation and pet projects. The most significant benefit of having a remote agency is flexibility. It allows you to do fun stuff. Experiment and try out new things. You have a PR agency but always wanted to invest in digital marketing? Try it out, hire a salesperson and a digital marketer on-demand — see if you can sell those services to your existing clients. You had a fun idea that can turn into a PR stunt for your agency? Do it. It is the time. Build something amazing.
$1 is the increase on your margins. Enjoy it. Put it somewhere safe for those times. That’s your bonus check and also your safety net when SHTF.
What would your clients’ say?
Your reputation as an agency is essential. I get it. You had a beautiful office with excellent coffee and motivational quotes hanging from the wall. You filled up your client’s meeting room with an army of account managers. Now, you are meeting with clients in coffee shops and dialing in via Skype wearing your panties. Your clients won’t get this.
Of course, if you are starting and you are young and agile, this won’t matter anyway — having a remote agency is flexible for you and you can find clients who will cherish this. However, those agency owners who’ve been in this game for a while now have a reputation to risk.
Fear not, there are ways around this. For a start, most long-established agencies who switched to a remote setup, still have their core team in one location. They might not have a classic office, but they can serve their clients in-person. Plus, co-working spaces and short-let offices have evolved much, it’s ok to use them if needed.
My works-for-everyone solution is this: retain the core team you had before, mostly the seniors who will do face-to-face client work — but transfer every production related work to your remote team.
The outsourcing mistake.
Here comes the outsourcing mistake. Operating a remote agency doesn’t mean you are outsourcing your production work to external freelancers. It is one of the biggest mistakes — literally everyone, every agency owner falls into this.
You know that the better your team, the better your service is. Which means, the better your agency is. As a client, would you work with an agency, which has 2–3 great senior people in their team and a bunch of low-key people from a very low-income part of the world?
However, that’s not just about reputation, it is about time and ultimately money as well. If you have low-performing hired guns only, you will spend more time on briefing and correcting their output. You will lose money at the end of the day. Would you hire a burn-and-churn video production person for $5/hour and end up spending $500 on the freelancer plus your unbilled time on debriefing the work OR hire someone for $1000 and receive a quality product, plus a loyal team member who will get more work from you on the long-term? Investing in quality team members is a must, even for remote agencies.
Don’t outsource your work. Build an overseas team instead.
Those brainstorms that you value much.
Oh yes, those creative meetings... When you sit in a circle of bean bags and lavishly rambling about The Next Big Idea. How could you brainstorm online, anyway?
Well, first, you can. Of course, it’s less chemistry in it — but also less ego. It is hard to hide in the corner and stay put in an online brainstorm situation. Planning virtual creative meetings need preparation and well-rounded briefing. Online sessions can have live discussions, and there are online whiteboard tools available too. First, this might be a bit awkward, but later you would never do it any other way.
Also, if you have a significant client with a substantial brief, remember you are saving tons of money on not having an office. Organize team retreats and creative workshops, even if it means you have to make sure everyone travels to the same location at the same time.
The always-on agency.
Remember the buzzword, always-on? Now you are part of it. There’s a part in account management for clients which we call extinguishing the fire. Solving some minor but critical issue for your client, sending out material with a timely matter, handling a customer problem right now. These issues need to be addressed quickly so an agency should be highly responsive.
A remote agency model can’t make a mistake on this. A remote agency can be much better in responsiveness. The lack of location means the absence of timezones. With some preparation and planning, you can operate an always-on account management team, handling client requests 0–24, without the limitations of your client’s office hours.
The mistakes you can make as a remote entrepreneur.
These were the mistakes that are made mostly by agency owners due to the nature of the agency business. However, there are other, more general mistakes you can make as a now-remote entrepreneur. Just run down them quickly for reference.
Collaboration and communication issues. You have to keep everyone in the loop, in the hustle. Remote team members can feel disconnected from the core activities. Disconnected team members are more likely to leave you or become less productive or motivated. The solution sounds simple but it isn’t: establish clear communication guidelines internally, make the agency hustle transparent and use remote working tools to manage collaboration. It would be great too if your team members learn how to work remotely before switching to remote work.
Culture and retention. Remote team culture that will make your team happy and it will help you to retain them. It also helps to keep critical clients as your clients want to work with an engaging and inspiring team. Building a remote team culture is doable, and this is where you can get creative. Anything can fly, and anything can work. Some agencies have quarterly team retreats. Others have offline perks for team members. It depends on your team, your current cultural setup, and your creativity.
Preparation can save you from the setbacks.
If you think that switching your agency to a remote business is your thing, you have to make preparations. The switch can come with severe setbacks and lots of risks — but it also rewards you with unspeakable benefits at the end. Learn everything you can on remote business and when you think you are ready, go all-in.
If you need help, don’t afraid to ask. I’m helping entrepreneurs, including agency owners to transform their current solid business into a flexible, more profitable distributed business. Our resources are free to browse. This article is a great starting point on how to start the transformation. Join the remote revolution and build your remote agency that can grow anywhere.