10 Lessons I Learned in 10 Years of Running a Successful Agency

Updated on 25 November 2019

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agency Sylvia Schutte
Sylvia Schutte, MD of Stratitude. (Image supplied)

“Build relationships based on value,” is one of the first lessons Sylvia Schutte, founder and Managing Director at Stratitude, a full-service marketing agency, says she learned in her first three years of running an agency.

“I’ve learnt to not try and compete on price, as there are just too many small agencies and freelancers in the industry. Plus, whenever I see that a potential client is comparing our proposal with that of a smaller agency or contractor, I immediately know they aren’t right for us.”

In October this year Schutte celebrated a decade of running her agency. She started her business in 2009 with four employees and today she has a team of 18 employees and three interns, of which one is a person with special needs.

The agency has clients that includes ThemFour Seasons, Constantia Insurance, Cell C GetMore, Indwe Risk Services and Bosch Automotive and is the exclusive South African member agency of Advertising & Marketing Independent Network (AMIN) Worldwide, an alliance of over 50 independent marketing agencies from around the world.

Schutte says the idea for Stratitude came from recognising the frustration that clients feel at having to brief and work with multiple agencies.

“I saw a gap in the market for an integrated agency that could develop a communications strategy for a client and then offer all the marketing services in-house, from digital and direct marketing, to advertising, PR and social media.”

With a decade in the advertising and marketing industry, Schutte shares advice that has stood her in good stead over the years.

1. Be optimistic

A positive outlook makes all the difference. Even when you’re faced with problems and obstacles – optimism enables you to see the opportunity in every situation.

When we reach a crossroads with a client or we don’t win a pitch, I always ask why and then take a good, hard look at what we did, to see how we can improve the next time.

As Oprah says, failure is a signpost to turn you in a different direction.

I don’t pretend to know everything, I have admitted when I have made mistakes and asked for help when I needed it

2. Surround yourself with people you like

This doesn’t mean surround yourself with people like you. You want people who complement you, not compliment you, so whether it’s those who work for you or it’s your suppliers or clients, the people who share your values are the ones who will hang around and help you make great things happen. Even though we have a broad mix of personalities, skills and capabilities in our agency, we work really well together and have an amazing company culture.

3. Create an environment where magic can happen

Let everyone be creative and allow everyone to come up with new ideas and new ways of doing things. Some of our greatest work is the result of an individual taking ownership and running with an idea. I am also the voice in the office that always asks “Why are we doing this?” If I make my team think about and understand the bigger purpose behind a social media post, a press release, a new website or an SMS campaign, then the how comes naturally.

4. Keep on learning

I don’t pretend to know everything, I have admitted when I have made mistakes and asked for help when I needed it. I also read every book I could find and attended many talks by other entrepreneurs, who often faced the same issues and obstacles I experienced. All of this provided a bit of support and would open my mind to new ideas and different ways of doing things.

Three years ago we became the exclusive South African partner of a global network of independent agencies called AMIN Worldwide, and the insights and ideas we get from them are priceless. The same goes for continuous training and exposure, where my team will learn about new trends and best practice from industry talks and courses. We also invest in learnerships, which always come back to benefit the business.

5. Don’t make decisions in a haste or when emotional

I’m very guilty of reacting without first thinking things through. By taking some time and literally sleeping on it, the solution usually ends up being in a completely different direction to my initial reaction. While I still often get this wrong, trust me, it does work. I even tell clients to sleep on a creative concept or strategy before giving us their feedback.

6. “Drive care in the agency”

I always say that anyone can prepare a plate of food, but you can really taste the difference when someone cares about what they are dishing up. We drive care in the agency; care about the work we do, care about the team we work with and care about our clients and their businesses. Every time someone has stopped caring, we notice it immediately, and shortly thereafter there’ll be a resignation letter or a performance talk.

Surround yourself with a team you can rely on

7. Stay focused on the vision and mission

Stratitude is a full-service agency but I’ve often questioned whether or not we should drop some of our services and rather specialise in one or two disciplines. Then I remind myself that I started the agency because I could see a client’s frustration at working with multiple agencies and often being charged a premium to have the same work done. Our clients see this value, which is why our doors are still open ten years later.

8. Remember, building relationships is key

We cherish our clients as if they are extended members of our team, and they see us as extended members of their team. We never take them for granted and always focus on helping them succeed, be it in our strategies aligning with their business strategies, how we work with them, how we develop campaigns and how we measure them. If we aren’t making an impact on their business, we aren’t adding any value.

9. Hire the right people for your agency

As an entrepreneur you’re hardwired to do everything yourself because you want to be involved in every single operation but, the risk is that you start losing sight of the bigger picture. Surround yourself with a team you can rely on and then trust them to make the right decisions. This frees up your time to grow the business beyond what you could have achieved on your own.

About five years ago I realised that Stratitude would never grow if I tried to control and manage everything myself. I developed an organogram for the agency and had very specific roles and skills that I identified, which I had to restructure the business around and then hire for. I interviewed for quite some time until I found the right people for these roles and then spent a lot of time mentoring them into the “Stratitude Way”. Today I can happily say that it has paid off, because that entire team is still with the agency and not only are we flourishing, but I love working with each and every one of them.

10. Remember to love what you do – and to practice self-care

While I keep office hours for meetings, it’s not unusual that I work early into the morning or late at night. Running a business takes time and dedication, so you really have to love what you do. But it’s also about finding that balance and making time for your other passions and your family. I swim and run, which clears my head, and I go to the beach or mountain with my family, which helps me put things into perspective. By now my team is used to me coming back from a holiday with a head full of new ideas, a soul that’s well rested and a heart filled with passion for what I do.

Stratitude is ten years old and while I’ve had my share of challenges and lessons, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Here’s to the next ten years.

ALSO READ: 10 Pieces of Business Advice From My 10 Years in Business

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