Smart Agency Podcast: The #1 Digital Agency Podcast for Social Media, SEO, PPC & Creative Agencies

Are you trying to grow your agency fast? Trying to posture as a big agency to impress clients? There are a lot of big decisions to make when you're growing. However, you could be making mistakes that actually hold back agency growth. Today’s guest learned some lessons from growing too quickly the first time. He shares what he learned and how he overcame it to grow more consistently. He talks about leaning too hard into vanity metrics and hiring a team too soon as well as which roles to hire first.

Christopher Marrano is the founder of Blue Water Marketing, a digital agency that works with direct-to-consumer brands to generate sales using SEO, Google ads, and Facebook ads. Chris started his agency focusing on SEO and grew quickly solely with referrals. However, he did not know which systems to implement to scale and it almost failed as a result. He soon learned from his mistakes and now has a successful agency that continues to grow.

In this interview, we’ll discuss:

  • The downside of growing too quickly.
  • Why you shouldn’t get sidetracked by vanity metrics.
  • Why sales should always come first.
  • A strategy to fill your agency’s pipeline by trusting your results.


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Sponsors and Resources

Dot & Co: Today's episode of the Smart Agency Masterclass is sponsored by Dot & Co, client management specialists that will help digital marketing agencies keep their clients happy. With the help of their knowledgeable account managers, agency owners can step away from the day-to-day and focus on driving results. Check out and get 20% off your first month working with them.


The Downside of Growing Your Agency Too Quickly 

In 2010, Chris was fresh out of college and into a job market still feeling the impact of the '08 crash. Finding his first job after studying advertising took longer than expected, he ended up working at a pretty prominent agency. He worked on big accounts like Lending Tree,, and National Geographic. It was the perfect preparation for the complexities of agency work.

Since the digital revolution hadn’t taken the world by storm yet, he was still working on traditional media. He later worked on the client side while learning more about the new digital technologies. Eventually, he needed a break from the corporate ladder and started to freelance, which led to his starting Blue Water Marketing in 2016.

Chris’ agency broke the six-figure mark very quickly. After reaching that milestone, he went straight to renting an office, hiring a team, and focusing on a niche. However, within a year everything came crumbling down. He was forced to lay off his team, working alone in that office space with the one client he’d had from the start. This led him to question the decision to even start the agency.

Are You Getting Sidetracked by Vanity Metrics?

Vanity metrics have always been a thing. Even when Jason was growing his first agency, conversations with other agency owners would eventually lead to asking “How many employees do you have?”. If they didn’t have 50 or 100 employees, they would posture based on media spend or revenue. Looking back, it never really mattered -- it's more about the value you provide not the size of your team. That said, there are still people that see a big office and a big team as indicators of a successful agency. However, the move to virtual meetings has made it so that in-person client visits are few and far between.

The problem wasn’t his vision but rather giving too much value to vanity metrics. Nowadays, his vision hasn’t actually changed much since that first attempt. In fact, maintaining that vision is what helped him get through the difficult times. He let himself get carried away by the vanity of being perceived as a legitimate business. Having a team and an office made clients take his agency seriously and, he thought, would help attract more clients. It was sort of the Field of Dreams approach of “if you build it, they will come.”

Chris still values having his team work in the office, for at least part of the week. But now it’s not about the vanity metrics but rather because he likes the camaraderie and relationships the team can only build while working in the same space.

Defining Your Worth as Agency Owner

When everything was crumbling at his agency, Chris took a step back to figure out what went wrong. He brought in a person to work with him on an effective way to grow and scale the agency. They knew there was something there but first, they had to figure out the why behind the failure. This person is now his agency business partner and they’ve continued to focus on things they can improve each quarter. They also work hard to identify and speak to a unique audience and develop effective processes for their teams.

From that experience, Chris learned measuring his self-worth based on competitors' and clients' perceptions isn't good for the business. Currently, he focuses more on team unity and growing effectively while providing the best service.

Who to Hire First and Why Sales Are the Key to Agency Survival

One of the first mistakes Chris made after growing quickly was focusing on hiring for the wrong roles. Once he had an office space, he hired four people. The first was a graphic designer. Looking back, he realizes this was a big mistake because his agency did not offer those services. He also hired a website designer, a Google Ads expert, and an account manager.

If he could go back and do it all over again, now knows sales is the key to survival. At the time, it felt important to hire for fulfillment but that is pointless if you don't have any clients. He realizes he should have approached it differently, focusing on getting the clients first and then hiring the staff as the work grew. Sales always need to come first, followed by delivery.

A Strategy To Help Fill Your Agency's Pipeline

Another thing that really helped the agency grow is having enough confidence to ask clients for testimonials. Chris needed to learn to trust the relationships he has with clients and that they would feel comfortable recording testimonial videos.

They start with a list of ten questions and let the client focus on the ones most important for them. The end result was some very powerful videos about the results achieved by the agency. They have built custom landing pages based on what the topic of the client videos and post them on Instagram and Facebook.

This strategy was a game changer when it came to the agency's pipeline. Now they have a predictable pipeline of prospects that they can pick and choose. One month they may onboard five big accounts and the next they may take no new clients while they focus on the new ones.

Do You Want to Transform Your Agency from a Liability to an Asset?

If you want to be around amazing agency owners that can see what you may not be able to see and help you grow your agency, go to Agency Mastery 360.  Our agency growth program helps you take a 360-degree view of your agency and gain mastery of the 3 pillar systems (attract, convert, scale) so you can create predictability, wealth, and freedom.

Direct download: Lessons_from_Growing_an_Agency_Too_Fast.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 5:00am MDT