From zero to seven figures: Five lessons from building a digital transformation business in an agency


Happy Marketer’s Srotoswini Roy distils the five key lessons learnt in building a digital transformation consulting business within an agency environment.

This quarter marks my 18-month milestone of building a new line of business at Happy Marketer – Digital Transformation Consulting. As the person growing this practice from day zero, I take immense pride in how we have shaped a consulting business within an agency ecosystem from scratch and grown it into a seven-figure revenue stream within a year.

There were many milestones, successes and failures along the way, and here are the five big lessons I’ve learnt so far:

Lesson 1: Embrace the ambiguity of not knowing the answer – chaos is a ladder!

If I had a cent for every time I was asked, “What is Digital Transformation Strategy?”, I would be a very rich woman!

Strategy could be anything from Porter’s Five Forces to a Customer Journey Map – it’s a wide spectrum with multiple industry experts servicing clients at each of those points.

However, the critical spice to this chaotic pot is the client’s version of strategy.

CXOs are usually more interested in big picture thinking. Mid-management stakeholders are interested in charting the next one-year roadmap balancing upstream and downstream priorities. Executive level stakeholders may be farther downstream in their organization and have no need for upstream thinking.

We as strategists must adapt to the type of strategy a client needs rather than the type we are most passionate about. This lack of clarity, both internally and from clients, often ends up undermining the value of strategy. Despite the perceived influence of strategy, it will need clarity in function and value to thrive.

Zone in on clients’ need and define this space with your brand of problem-solving.

Lesson 2: Strategy is not a dirty word. Respect what you are up against.

I have sat in many agency meetings where the immediate response to a consulting strategy deck is usually one of dismissal – “Oh! This only looks good on slides. They know nothing about execution.”

Often, I’ve found myself disagreeing with that – of course they know what they are doing, their seven-digit invoices are proof of that! According to WARC’s Future of Strategy report, a whopping 44% of 800 global agency strategists surveyed, think that management consultancies will pose a significant threat to advertising agencies in 2020.

One of the hardest challenges we’ve faced is countering this mindset towards strategy, and propagating the understanding of why PowerPoint slides can buy a rather expensive seat at the strategy table whereas execution often receives downstream budgets.

Lesson 3: Challenge the holy grail of the agency business model – go beyond the brief

As a consultancy within an agency, our business model straddles both worlds. The agency business model is heavily reliant on receiving structured briefs from clients for a fixed set of tasks. My next biggest challenge was to disengage from that and impress the importance of engaging with client on their big picture vision instead.

Day-to-day client stakeholders of advertising agency teams are usually not decision-makers for big picture management strategy in their organisation. Even if they are, an advertising agency is not their go-to source for strategic planning expertise.

The next big consulting project is not in the next incoming brief or RFP, it’s in the minds of people who are emailing us campaign briefs, it’s brewing in the minds of the CXOs, taking shape in the boardrooms and corridors that we don’t get access to.

Ask yourself what would it take to have one of these C-suite conversations?

If agencies choose to work on upstream business problems rather than downstream briefs, their biggest lesson is going to be to structure strategy as a separate offering and not a value-add, and then figure out a different go-to-market model than their traditional offerings.

Lesson 4: Practice what you preach. Be Agile. Experiment. Fail. Learn. Repeat.

The one thing I hear most often from clients is “we need to be more agile”. “Being agile” is the most overused jargon in the history of consulting jargons but not without reason. In any business transformation, time is of critical essence. The ability to manoeuvre quickly, fail fast, and learn even faster is what decides the pace of your ROI.

Just like our clients, we are also on the cusp of change, forcing ourselves to experiment with various delivery formats and business models.

My biggest lesson was to recognize that the only way to move forward is not only to experiment but also to know when to pivot from our experiments.

One of the direct effects of this fail-fast culture is that I don’t have a fixed credentials deck, usually the holy grail of all agency offerings. No two client problems are the same so why should our solutions be boxed into offerings? If the client need can be addressed with a two-day workshop then we do that, if it needs a six-month accelerator program then we build that.

Basically, we service a customer need with best-in-class strategic thinking, we don’t force-fit them into 2×2 frameworks.

Lesson 5: Invest in growing the right team and capabilities

Recognize that you are nurturing a tangential set of capabilities, beyond traditional agency capabilities. I can’t stress this enough – you and your chances at success are as good as the team you are building. The strategist skill set in an agency ecosystem goes beyond marketing or media or tech.

We are developing nuanced solution orchestrators with one degree of separation from media, creative and tech – dipping their feet in all but always with an eye on the big picture.

We are building a team of problem solvers who thrive in ambiguity and who get things done by the right people, at the right time and for the right reasons.

We are developing a way of thinking that doesn’t start from structured briefs but rather starts from a mess and piece by piece structures it into a brief that can be pushed downstream.

It’s a rare skill to know just enough of everything to be able to recognise the breadcrumbs as clues to the big puzzle you’ve been tasked to solve. So, surround yourself with people who enjoy doing this, because I have not seen one person who can thrive here if they don’t absolutely love every minute of doing this.

These past 18 months have been a period of self-discovery and learning as much as it has been about witnessing, from the inside, an industry transitioning and reinventing itself. What do I look forward to most? The exhilaration of not knowing what tomorrow will look like and yet shaping that ambiguity with impunity.

Ask me tomorrow – maybe I’ll have a different answer.

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