What’s one of the top reasons for the failure of a marketing agency?
According to Daniel Ackerman, CEO of Degordian, it’s a lack of an agile and innovative culture.
Ackerman joined this week’s Growth Marketing Chat to share his own digital agency experience and reveal his best tips for scaling a marketing agency, from how to succeed in talent acquisition to what kinds of systems and processes need to be in place.
“...For example, [digital] demand generation. Seven years ago, nobody was talking about that and now it's like super hot, but in the next seven years, again, it'll change. So, you have to stay agile, you have to...keep this startup mindset.” -Daniel Ackerman, CEO of Degordian
The Art of Scaling a Growth Marketing Agency
Gain valuable insight and actionable tips for Ackerman as he reveals the best things a growth marketing agency can do to stay agile, innovative, and successful, including:
- Having the right motivations when scaling and hiring
- Always remembering what you’re trying to do for the customer
- Creating strong systems and processes
- Maintaining ambition and a vision of the future
- The importance of iterating and experimenting
- And much more...
Watch the full interview to learn more about how to make a marketing agency a long-lasting success!
About the Growth Marketing Scaling Expert
Daniel Ackermann is the CEO of Degordian, a strategic-creative digital agency founded in 2009, with HQ in Zagreb and offices in Mostar, Belgrade, and New York. He is also the co-founder of two sister companies – Mediatoolkit and Bornfight.
During the decade that passed, Degordian grew from a two-person project to a company with over 100 employees. Apart from several offices, they have clients all over the world, and their fields of expertise are digital production, employer branding & HR, performance marketing, and brand communication. Each of these fields of expertise is organized as independent unit in order to ensure that the people working in those units are niche experts in the field.
The agency was voted “Best employer in Croatia” six times in the annual inquiry by the business website MojPosao, and as such remains the most awarded Croatian company in the history of the award.
Degordian was also on Deloittes’s Fast 50 list of fastest-growing tech companies in Central & East Europe.
In 2014, they launched Mediatoolkit, a media monitoring tool used for tracking relevant brand mentions on more than 10M web resources and sending notifications on brand keywords across digital media in real time.
In 2018, they spun off Bornfight as a separate company focused on advanced product development, custom software, web, and mobile apps. In 2019, it was elected "Agency of the year" on the coveted Awwwards web competition and has recently changed its business model to a venture-building company.
This year they launched their new Product, Stethoscope – an employee satisfaction and engagement tool that has already proved a great success.
NICK: All right. Welcome everybody. Today we have a very exciting guest. Daniel Ackerman, founder and CEO of Degordian. Degordian is a digital agency focused on performance marketing, brand communication, digital production, and employer branding, Daniel, welcome to Growth Marketing Chat.
DANIEL: Well, hi Nick. Thanks very much for having me and hi everyone. Looking forwards to this talk and discussion.
NICK: Yeah, I'm very excited to have you today. Dan you had a really kind of interesting journey in the world of marketing. Can you maybe just start by walking us through your, kind of the, your journey, your path that led you to start Degordian?
DANIEL: Yeah, sure. Well, first Im a Croatian Southeast Europe and we started 12 years ago. Then social media was super hot topic, especially Facebook. So we knew everything about digital, but we wanted to focus on one thing. And Facebook was the big thing then. So we started a social media agency and which was very, very smart because we were growing like every six months we doubled and in like two, three years we had fifty employees. Later we switched to that much more to full service agency. We started opening offices, mostly Southeast Europe, and then we started, we call it exporting. So working with global clients and then slowly we are now much bigger. So Degordian is 130 people. But also we have sister company Bonfire, which is 80 then media toolkit, which is our product 50 people done status scope five people. So total, I think now maybe 300 something.
NICK: Wow. That's, that's explosive growth. And, and how many years over, how many years was this all accomplished?
DANIEL: 12, I think 13 and I think, yeah, it's growing very fast. But still when you see some other startups, you know, in like five years, they do like 1000 employees. So I could see even bigger, maybe growth now.
NICK: Well, it's, it's different in the service industry growth, like this is harder I think, than, than in product. So it's even more impressive. Absolutely.
DANIEL:. So we have also service based business of the Degordian born with our services and then media toolkit and status scope product. And that's exactly the true, so it's so easy to start service based business, but to scale it it's super, super, super hard and it's products, you know, it's so hard to start and to finance like the whole product development, but when you have this product market fit, it's so easy to grow that. So it's 100% true and you are right.
NICK: Yeah. It's there's there's, it's kind of the balance, right? It's the ying and the yang almost. As far as your personal background, can you talk a little bit about kind of what you, what you studied and kind of what led you into marketing and what got you passionate about starting an actual company?
DANIEL: Well, I started like in high school and to be honest, I was much more, you know, playing games and maybe thinking about girls. And then there was one girl which I'm very lucky to be met then. And she wanted to learn like how to create a website. And then I thought, not that I want to learn how to make a website, but I was very interested in her. So I said, oh yeah, let's go there. Let's learn like how to do websites. So I went to one school, like to learn how to do websites. She didn't, but at the end I did. And I learned that. So I started in high school producing websites and I really liked it because I thought it's fun, like playing video games, but another side you're doing something you're really creating something. So I was totally amazed about that.
So I started it was much more like a web design. I started running some money. And then I realized like, I want to create some kind of business about that. But I was searching like about angle because websites already, then everybody was doing and then we found out about Facebook. And to be honest, my background was much more in websites, but Facebook was such a great niche than nobody was doing anything. And the strength was so amazing that we have chosen that segment and it was great decision. And then we started growing. So something like that, and I was starting like computer science, which I think helped me a lot to understand the technology and development later.
NICK: Nice. Nice. And, and what, what would you say are some of the most important skills you had to teach yourself along the way, and I'm sure early on in your career, it was different than the things you're have to kind of teach yourself now, but if you can just kind of talk through some of the, the big, the big skills that you had to learn along the way.
DANIEL: Well, I think that, you know, Croatia is Southeast Europe. It's very different than states mentality, culture. And I think that for me, the biggest thing, what I had to learn is like how to have really ambition and vision to create something bigger, because especially like 12 years ago, you know, the entrepreneurship was not very developed. And if somebody would do something, he would create a company and have 10 employees and he's like successful. And it's very hard from that mentality, like really to grow and really to aim, to create something international, something bigger, and like really let's do something like let's create an impact. And I think that's like maybe, yeah, the most important back in the days the second later I think is like how to create a system. Because if you're a small agency 10 people, 20 people, usually the founder is like the most important person and everybody else is like assistant to him.
So his driver and everybody else is just, you know, helping, but you have to create a system that you, as a founder, you are not part, let's say not part of the agency. So you are more like a mecanic who is helping car to become a better, but you are not car. So you have to create a system where you have some kind of sales account management, project management leadership team. And it's very, very hard to create that and to scale that, especially in our industry where it's so hard to find, you know, senior and then like team lead. So I think for me, those two segments were the most important ones.
NICK: Yeah, yeah, no, I as an agency ourselves, we're, we're in the process of kind of in the nascent process of creating systems and processes and I'm realizing how important it is for, for scaling service business.
DANIEL: I agree. I agree. But, but I think that what you said it's very important to focus on processes. The second it's very important to focus on like a system, but more of like here are he, you know, to have team leaders who are really good managers, not only, you know, like industry specialist, but third also, as you grow what you have as a smaller agency now, how to maintain culture of like agility and innovation, because that is killer for bigger agencies, it's very hard, you know, to innovate and this digital, for example, demand generation, which I think you are mostly focused like seven years ago, nobody was talking about that and now it's like super hot, but in next seven years, again, it'll change. So you have to stay agile, you have to stay to keep this like startup mindset.
And I think that's very hard, even harder than to define processes. And for example, our, we switched our organization like three, four years ago to tackle this. So we are now bigger company, but we are organized like in smaller units. And every unit is like standalone agency who is 100% specialized for one niche for one need for one approach. So we are bigger, but we are trying to stay like group of smaller agencies who are than 100%, you know, specialized in agile and much more innovative. So I think this is a big challenge and we are tackling this challenge this way and it works, but we are always still searching for like, if we can do even something better, maybe.
NICK: Yeah. Yeah. The challenge of scaling while maintaining that agility and that kind of scrappy mentality, if you will. I definitely wanna talk about talent acquisition. But, but first I think, you know, you've been able to, to double year over year and then that doesn't come without client acquisition. Right. And I, I want to ask you as far as growth and customer acquisition, what were some of the, the channels to worked well for you, you know, talking about inbound versus outbound, some of the traditional digital channels, but maybe some of the non-traditional digital, like offline channels, right? Like partnerships cetera. What, what has been effective for you early on, and then now,
DANIEL: And you're asking this me as agency. Yeah. Okay. I'm not sure if we are typical. So we were growing mostly organically and I know that we are growing fast, so it maybe sounds strange. But we did we are from small country and we were founded in like big recession and everybody was laying off then. And we were like very big and successful story. And we were kids, we were planted two years old then. So we were very fortunate that like the whole public recognized that success. So we had so many media coverage about us here, but it's writing about us so very fast. We developed our brand as a sexy company, which helped us a lot. At the beginning and it still is helping us a lot. But the challenge with that kind of growth, it's very organic and very, you know, you, you cannot control it.
And especially when you grow, we have now five units and always you have free units, which are having too much work. And then let's say you have one unit which is maybe doesn't have enough work. And if you're just waiting to get invited, that can be a challenge because maybe you'll get tomorrow five inquiries and day after zero inquiries. So that is a challenge. And to be honest, like two years ago, we started developing some other systems and here we have our outreach team which I think works, but works if you're very, very specialized for some niches where the competition is not strong and where, where the pain point is strong and where, where you have strong expertise. So if you're offering like development, you know, everybody's offering development, you won't do anything. The second one is inbound.
So, you know, producing block posts, gated content and we are doing this for a ton of our clients, but for us, we just started and we see results also here. And I think it makes sense. The third one, which we have are partnerships. So basically we have a network of business development people worldwide, and usually they have their own like day work day job. But then they have some kind of network and they're helping us, you know, to open the doors, you know, to new clients. And that part is in theory, very strong. But in practice it's okay. And you have like five partners and then one really works, I would say. And we tried also some kind of advertising, but I don't see a big, you know, like Google search. I don't see a big benefit here. And also, well, United States is very big, so I think it's very hard to grow a brand and state level. But when you have a smaller market, it makes sense to grow a brand. So there, for example, in Croatia, we are doing, you know, we are very active on conferences on media to grow our brand as employer, but also as, you know, a great agency for clients. So I think this is basically in short.
NICK: Yeah. No, very interesting, very interesting journey, because you, you kind of became a big fish in, in the small pond of Croatia and then used that as a, sort of a trampoline to other markets which is yes, different and how most companies in the us operate where very small fish in a giant ocean here. So it's a different, almost like a different
DANIEL: Approach. And, and to be honest, it's challenging. It makes sense because we have so strong hub, we are best employer in country. We can employ like amazing. Also it's like cheaper market. So we have, you know, cost benefit, but on other side it's very different. So we have a challenge that, for example, when you're in small market, everybody's much more full service because you cannot specialize. And we are like very wide, but in states, states, everybody's asking, you know, okay. Like, but in what you are the strongest, like tell me, like you have to have one thing and to be super strong, we have several things. So it's much harder for us, for example, to position. And we are little bit now thinking how to do that better. So it's not the easiest journey I would say.
NICK: Yeah. Yeah. There's always new challenges when you, when you grow and approach new markets. You mentioned you were voted best employee Croatia, which is congratulations. That's an amazing accomplishment. Thank you. Thank you. Can you talk a little bit about growth in terms of talent acquisition, but also how, how you're retaining talent, how you're developing your talent and, and keeping them, and, and really motivating and inspiring them to do great work?
DANIEL: I think at first we are not typical company. So when we started, we didn't make this company, you know, to produce profits and to buy houses. We really did something, you know, to have like great team and that we old friends and happy, and this was our first motivation. And to be honest to this day, like it's the same. And I think that this is the reason. And because of this awards, like all the time somebody is asking me like, okay, tell me like, what is the secret formula? We want to do that. And I think it's not about benefits. It's, it's not bio salaries. What I think is the most important thing is that you as CEO or you as management really deepen your heart, want to create best possible workspace and that's all. And if you have it in your heart, then every decision like about office, about perks, about growth, you'll be always thinking about people and always thinking, you know, how to get most to the people.
And if you don't have it, then you'll be thinking like, ah, yeah, we have a problem with talent. Like let's let's buy a new toys or something and then they will come. And of course, like, it's better if you have nicer office, but that's just like one small, small parts. But I think it's really important that you really want to create the best for employees. And then you will do like, not one perk, but 100 things, not only perks, but really help them grow, help them to feel respect, help them, you know, to be happy, to have amazing team around that and so on. So I think that that is yeah. The most important thing.
NICK: Yeah. That's, that's really, it sounds simple, but so many people fail on this, on this thing. And I, I think I agree with you a hundred percent. It's it's about having the right philosophy and then that shines through every decision you make and it's obvious you don't have to sell it almost to your employees. They know because of every decision you've made is consistent right. Along the way. Absolutely.
DANIEL: So, and also I think that the whole, this talent segment is super transparent. So when you do marketing, maybe you don't have the best product, but you can always talk like, oh, this is the best product, but here, you know, all the potential employees always will search for somebody who is working internally to ask to, you know, get your recommendation before getting hire and so on. So I think that you can really not fake it. Yeah. And what is your culture? How do you think, what is your vision, blah, blah, blah, it'll be felt? And this is important.
NICK: What would your advice be for, let's say an executive who has this mentality, who has this philosophy who wants to better their employees, but has to balance who, but who's also really busy, has to balance a lot of different priorities. And also obviously has to balance profitability, cash flow, things like that. What would you prioritize as far as kind of keeping people happy and, and inspired?
DANIEL: Well, I think in our business, we are talent business and we are selling talent. We are selling our knowledge. We are selling our time. We are selling our people. So our business is to attract best possible talent and to retain them them, this is our business and this is our like, you know, core. So I think in our business, HR segment is super important. In some other business where you have factory and like you have, you know, machines technology, which is the core of your business. And then you have like two employed people who are just doing something there, I guess this is not so important and you can focus on other metrics. So I think that HR here is like super important and maybe the most important. And then if you have great talent, you'll be able to sell them for a good price to, to achieve, you know, half the margins. So I think as profit is second coming, but if you have good talent, it'll come.
NICK: Yeah. Yeah. Great. Couldn't agree more. As far as, and you already touched on, on this a little bit how you've restructured your teams in order to niche down and also kind of keep them more agile, but can you talk about the process of creating process, the process of creating systems? What did that look like for you and what are some, some lessons out of that experience.
DANIEL: The process of creating process? I think, I believe, you know, very agile approach where I think that you have to start somewhere and I think it's better to start with something small and then to improve over the time. Because if you immediately start to know building everything perfectly, it'll take too much time. Also, if you, you know, stop and just start working on processes, process processes, you'll be too processed organization and you'll lose too much time on processes. So I think that processes are important, but even more important is start working and then start producing some kind of process and then evolving with time. And when you really grow that you have really super experience with that kind of project clients and so on. You can really develop like full scale of the process. So I would say that...
NICK: Starting kind of gradually over time. And you know, would you say that there's a danger to over document over, we kind of become too rigid almost, and the process then becomes unusable and people start skirting around the process instead of...
DANIEL: Following. Absolutely. I can tell you here, like two stories. So once we have very strong employee satisfaction and engagement surveys, and once we got very bad grades in like organization and our HR person came like, oh my God, we have to fix it. Like, what can we do? Let let's write down our processes and it'll be better. So we had, we were very young back in the day and we had like one month we are, all of us created all kind of, you know, like processes and like document about it and to write everything down it was like crazy. And nobody had time to read that and nobody was behaving according to those processes. So it was like big, big fiasco. So we didn't succeed. On other side, we had one person leading one team who was as a personality, very, very organized.
And this person loved, you know, to create process around anything. And she was too organized. And it was very hard because you know, all the time something is happening, but if you're always following exactly the process, it can become really slow, painful, and even frustrated. So I think that every extreme is not good. It's not good that you don't have any kind of processes, but it's not good that you have everything to define. So you should be somewhere in the middle. And also the processes doesn't have to be defined like in documents. It's okay. You know, you have like a team of five and everybody knows how the process looks like. But you have to keep some kind of flexibility.
NICK: Yeah, yeah. What we're doing is we're trying to define kind of the, the major milestones in a process, but not documenting the exact, sort of the minimal steps, because what I actually read a book called system systemology, or maybe systematology it's one it's either systemology or systematology I recommend that book. All right. And one of the things that the guy talked, the guy talked about the author who who's an agency owner actually he talks about if you, if you get too granular with every step, people start to feel like robots and they're not they're creative producers. Yeah. And you want 'em to have creative freedom. So it's, it's a, like you said, it's, it's a balance between not having any process and everything being chaos and then being too rigid, too specific. And then it becomes painful, slow, and, you know, and also systems change in our world. Software changes, platforms change all the time. So you have to come see update it if it's, if it's too detailed.
DANIEL: I agree. 100% that that's it. Yeah. That's it
NICK: Awesome. Well, we can talk about this stuff all day. But unfortunately we have to, we have to wrap up soon. Is there kind of one takeaway or, or one piece of actionable advice that you can give our audience of marketing leaders, something that they can implement over the next week, the next month on a more tactical level.
DANIEL: Maybe I have more about, you know for entrepreneurs and agency owners and so on. Sure. And I think, especially when you start like target for something super narrow, super niche it's like the best tactic when you start. And then later when you grow, like focus much more on building a system and then getting wider because if you get wider, then you have much more services and if you have clients you can up sale and grow much more.
NICK: Start narrow and then get wider as you grow.
DANIEL: Yeah. And this was our story. So we started social media and then we introduced other stuff. So it's much easier to grow. You have bigger revenue, bigger revenue for clients bigger projects, more complex projects and more tools. So you can always choose which tools to use.
NICK: Awesome. Well, Daniel, thank you so much for your time today. This was very informative and very helpful, and I'm sure our audience is going to find it very insightful again, thank you for your time and look forward to further conversations.
DANIEL: Nick. Thank you very much. It was great to be with you guys. Great for great talk. Thank you for great talk and yeah. Talk to you soon. Perfect.