Agency Trends & The Agency Growth Book With Baris Onay

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There is a new player in the agency education space and today I am chatting with Dr. Baris Onay from Agency Growth Events.  

We discuss some of the agency trends we can expect to see in 2023 and learn more about the Agency Growth Book and future planned events.  

Time Stamp

[00:00] Introduction

[01:37] How did Agency Events come about?

[03:31] Why start an event and write a book focused on the agency world?

[06:40] Key themes covered in the 115-page book:

1. Excelling at new business

2. Creating new products and services

3. Obtaining operational excellence

4. Technology

5. Leadership & teams

6. Business planning until your exit

[09:21] Why being an entrepreneur and managing a team don’t always mix well

[12:00] What does succession planning mean?  Not just selling your business

[14:55] Trends Baris spotted during the event and in his network

[19:48] Plans for additional agency books and agency events in 2023

[22:20] If you could back in time annd give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?


“Selling your business is not always the fairy tale you hoped for.” - Dr. Baris Onay
“The answers are not in the room you are in right now so get out and talk to people.” - Dr. Baris Onay
Let’s not talk ourselves into a recession - it will cause your agency to make bad decisions” - Rob Da Costa

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 Full Episode Transcription

Rob: What are some of the agency trends we expect to see in 2023? And what are some of the biggest challenges agencies are facing? Have you heard of the agency growth book, which yours truly contributed to? Those are just some of the topics we're going to discuss in this wide-ranging episode of today's podcast, where I'm joined by Dr Baris Onay, who is the founder of Agency Growth Events and is the mind behind The Agency Growth Book. So, without further ado, let's jump into the episode and get started. 

I'm Rob Da Costa, and this is The Agency Accelerator podcast. As someone who has stood in your shoes, having started, grown, and sold my own agency, I know just how it feels in the ups and downs of agency life.

So this podcast aims to ease your journey just a little by sharing my and my guests' experiences and advice as you navigate your way to growing a profitable, sustainable and enjoyable business. 

Hey everybody! And welcome to this week's episode of The Agency Accelerator podcast. I'm really excited to be joined by Baris Onay, who is the CEO of Precision Communities and the founder of Agency Growth Events and The Agency Growth Book. Now, we met because I was involved in the launch of the agency growth book last year. So I was keen to have Baris join us today and learn a little bit more about him and what he's doing to support the agency world.

So welcome to the podcast. And why don't we just kick things off with you, giving us a bit of background on yourself and how Agency Growth Events came about? 

Baris: Thanks, Rob. And the thing is, I actually have to start by thanking you because you did contribute to the book. You’re one of the writers and thank you for that. Well, we ourselves are a company called, just like you said, Precision Communities, and we are an events company. We are people that come from events and not the world of agencies. And The Agency Growth Events is a media brand that we're running, and it is tailored to the growth of digital marketing agencies worldwide.

And, this came about in the pandemic as everything that in the past four or five years, I guess, the huge accelerator was a group of people who were employed in the, let's say events live–face-to-face events industry. And then that crumbled. We started our own thing because what happened is some of the incumbent players in the world events did not want to support “virtual” as a format, whereas we thought it did have legs. So we launched our own company and now we're partnering with different communities out there to launch events and media brands on top of them.

So I just got events that came about in one of those collaborations, and it has been quite a journey because we always say, “You cannot just go and launch in advance on the media.” Let's say brand on top of, let's do it today for dentists. You don't do that. Yeah? You can only do that for an industry you have a brand and reputation in. So, by that, let's say definition, we could only do events for events so we can do that. So that's why we're partnering with other people to launch events in content and books. Transition yourself to come right in our books, to bring our events to life. So, you can think of us as more of a platform.

Actually, we are a platform company that hosts know-how and, let's say, media and marketing. Let's say we know our way around how to do virtual events and bring communities together. And agencies are just the worlds that we are servicing. 

Rob: Yeah. And tell us why did you decide to launch an event and write the book for the agency world? What was it that got you into the agency? Was it a partner that approached you? Or how did that happen? 

Baris: Yeah, we actually started off as partners with the digital agency network, and that was the first community that we started working with. 


And we kind of liked it a lot. And the thing is that I might personally have worked in the events in my life, but I was heading up digital and marketing for a very big publicly traded company here in the UK. So I'm not a complete stranger to the world of marketing agencies. And what we've come to find is just like, you know, Russian dolls, a big agency. Another small agency, another small agency, another–so there is a proliferation of agencies and this was so for us.

For events people, it's a perfect ground because the supply of attention is self-perpetuating, yeah? There's always a new agency being founded, and they always lived through the same growing pains. And we have come to understand this when we did our research and found topics that agency owners are interested in. And for us, with Agency Growth Events, we only cater for the owners or, let's say, senior managers of agencies because our content is only about growing your agency for us. And so with that, we started, you know, a season one.

We did like four events. We had, like, 20-ish speakers, and we had accumulated a lot of content about how to grow your agency. And we looked at the top 4 or 5. Which ones were driving lots of, let's say, the attention our way, and we thought to ourselves, because I also come from a publishing background, “So let's put that into a book.”

But we quickly realised that we needed real experts to write the book for us. So that's why when we started approaching Rob yourself and some other highly regarded experts in the fields to bring together what we now call the “user growth book.”

And it actually has taken a life of its own. I've been told by someone else that it was a classic case of the right time, the right place. So we found ourselves in an incredibly lucky position where we had people like you wanting to write for us. So it has been an incredible privilege to host all that content together into one concise resource that agency owners can just go and download. It’s free for them. 

And it will give them a very good idea of the basics of growth because, as you know, much better than I do, most of the pain points are common and shared and, well, let's say articulated and perhaps already solved problems that they need to find answers to. 

Rob: Yeah. Now, obviously, we're going to share the link to the book in the show notes. So all the listeners please do go and grab it, because yours truly is in there, and there are a lot of other amazing coaches in there. So tell us about some of the themes that are covered in the book. 

Baris: We start well to grow a business. Let's decide now. I mean, you need to sell better and have better service so that you retain your clients and operate more efficiently. Yeah? So we started looking at those broader themes and then applied them to the world of agencies. And I'm just going to read out the chapter names with, like, six chapters in the book. The first one is “Excelling at New Business Acquisition.” Because that is the first thing perhaps we have to start with to make sure that you are getting more and more new business. The second one is “Creating New Products and Services.” So it’s actually sending more services to existing clients or maybe two new clients as well.

The third one is “Attaining Operational Excellence,” the third chapter. And that is about making sure that you operate in the most efficient way possible. And then there's “Efficiency Through Technology” as well in the book so that you get some vendors that might give you automation, power, or other things that might allow you to really jump to another, let's say level of efficiency. 

And then we look at “Leadership and Teams,” which is perhaps branded as a software topic. But I do believe it's perhaps the most important topic to make sure that you know what you're doing and you can lead people because I think the biggest thing you must also conquer–one of the biggest problems that you might be facing is actually learning. Going through your own maturity curve, yeah? 

Becoming, let's say, if it's a fresh start, a few people coming together, everyone's doing everything. Then you can go a bit more. It's about being able to manage–create, manage and lead teams. And then we look at business planning until your exit, because if you don't have a roadmap, you actually don't know where you're going. Just dancing with the wind. 

So it's very important to put your journey. That's the chapter that your article is in, putting your agency's journey in it, and it's about planning from day one until your exit, potentially, if you want to, from your agency and making sure that you do have a road map. So these are the big issues that we have covered in one big book. And you might be thinking that's a bit too much because the book is now 115 pages, so there's a lot of content in it.

Rob: So I would really encourage you. I want to read it because I've been working through it myself just to hear the perspective of other people in my industry that have a similar view to me or have different views from me, which is fantastic. I just want to pick up a couple of things that you just said, Baris. So, one thing is I completely agree with people. And I think that agencies need to think when they're talking about managing people–it might be an in-house team. It might be a remote team.

It might be a part-time team or it might be a freelance team. And if you want to be successful, you need to manage all of them in a similar way as if they were in the house. I'm sure that comes across in the book. But you're absolutely right. People, you know, we all start our agency for some reason. With this catalyst, there's an opportunity. We're very entrepreneurial and that doesn't always lead us to be great people managers, so you definitely need to acquire those skills. 

Baris: And you're right on the issue of people. Because I did find myself in my professional career because of all this. I have been a CEO of a company, of 120 people. We had, like, five business lines, and I was 32 when I was made CEO. And I found it a baptism of fire, actually. Because I was very good at what I was doing in my own department. So somebody decided that it was a good idea to put me in charge of everyone else. And this is actually what happens to most people.

They are thrown into the deep end, and you either swim or you don't. And I think, if you are enlightened enough, which I wasn't, you educate yourself on how to become a leader before you become a leader and then you live up to that. Then I found myself working for very big corporates here in the UK: companies that employed 1,500 people across the globe in 20 locations, whatever. And I've been like, I found myself in my career path up to the sea level. I did get a lot of coaching. And it has helped me a lot. So I would encourage everyone to listen to us.

Right now, you don't have all the answers so be cool with that and just ask people who do have the answers. Because there are people out there that have lived the same art that you have, and it's incredible. It's cheap, just talking to these people and understanding them, asking them, "What can I do better?" And they'll just tell you. 

Rob: Yeah. And I think it's important for anyone listening to this who's thinking, “I never want to employ staff. I just want to be, kind of, a one-person business.”

But you will employ staff because you’ll employ a VA or you’ll outsource work to a freelancer, because when you need more capacity. And if you don't manage those people like an in-house team, then you are going to come across problems. So the second part of what I wanted to pick up on from what you were saying about the structure of the book is the section on kind of plotting your journey until your exit. And I just want to say that not everyone will always want to exit their business.

Not everyone that isn't a succession plan doesn't mean exiting a business, necessarily. It could be. But let's be realistic here. When you're selling a service-based business, you're not going to necessarily get the millions that you hope for, and you're certainly going to be tied in for longer. Now, if you do sell the business, that’s a whole other topic. So when you're thinking about your plan, think about succession, because succession can mean building a business that's less dependent on you. That's how my book, “The Self-Running Agency” and my group came about.

I saw that lots of people didn't necessarily want to sell their businesses, but they did want to build them, so it gave them more flexibility and freedom. So when you're plotting your course, just bear that in mind. We can kind of get our ego stroked and get our ego boosted by the idea of selling our business. But that doesn't necessarily–isn't always the smartest approach to succession planning. 

Baris: Yep. May I just interject? Because I did sell a business which is not the best business, and I have been on the buying multiple times because the world of events is a very acquisitive space.

And it's not always a fairy tale. Yeah? And I did get acquired. I saw the business that I was working as the CEO of, and we were living a dream. Yeah. We're selling to this PLC from London. It’s the mother ship. It’s going to be fantastic. Perfect. And the reality is we did sell and lots of people became millionaires, not me. And then the next morning, I received an email from someone I don't know at all. Yeah? Someone from corporate HQ said that they wanted my sales numbers by the state. So this sale is not the Holy Grail that will suddenly enable all of my dreams. 

Rob: Yeah. Listen, I've got a similar story. I sold my agency to a large US company, and I always talk about the two-year prison sentence that I did. It was not a very pleasant experience. And this story will be surprisingly familiar to many people. At the end of my two years, I was offered to buy my agency back for a pound, and I said, “No, thank you,” because I didn't want the stress of it.

And I have one of my first employees who has gone on to do amazing things. He has a multinational PR agency now, and you know he's been–this is Pietro Ranieri. He's been on the podcast a few times and he talked about his experiences as well. So you have to have your eyes open when it comes to selling a business, and that's a whole other topic I'm sure we could spend lots of time on. So tell me, did you see–I'm putting you on the spot a bit now because Baris was amazing.

On the day of the launch, there was a whole day conference, and Baris was comparing it. So I was speaking at about seven o'clock in the evening. You must have been absolutely exhausted. But, if you were able to pay attention throughout the whole day, did you see any sort of trends that you saw from the conversations that were taking place during the launch of the book? 

Baris: Yeah. I mean, I think this ties nicely to a broader topic about what emerging trends are. Not only from the event, but from what we're seeing on our network.

And I think there is this topic around the recession that never comes. I think we're talking about the recession for a long time, that much longer anticipation before it actually hits. But I don’t know if it’s coming or not. But people are looking at ways of becoming more effective and making sure that they have a very strong understanding of their profit driver. As in, yeah, becoming more profitable on the, let's say, accounting side of things but also making sure that there is pipeline management.

There’s a, let's say, better process. Yeah? I think it's about “without becoming corporate, learning from the corporate world on how to run stuff more efficiently and get more process driven away.” I think that's what I can say because of the charts I have with all the speakers during the day, and we do that on our own. Listen to network positions as well as the questions received. People are, of course, concerned about all this talk about 2023 becoming a bad year for everyone. There is this concern. Now, if that's going to be a reality, I do not know.

But that concern automatically puts people into a more defensive, more aggressive stance. At the same time; it's counterintuitive. You might become super defensive. You might just batten down the hatches, but that's not going to get you anywhere in a bad year. Yeah? You might become too aggressive. Then you're gonna be exposed at some point. So I think a defensive, aggressive sense if that makes sense at all. But that's actually one of the, let's say, articles in the book. Talking about that is, I think, the biggest trend I can see. Because you want to be aggressive where you can be, which is getting more new business and making sure there’s a process behind it.

But you also want to be defensive, as in getting more technology, doing the work for you, and making sure that you don't spend too much here and there. So basically being cautiously aggressive, I think, is the biggest trend I see.

Rob: Yes, such an interesting topic. And I do feel that we can be in danger of talking ourselves into a recession and talking ourselves into behaving like we're in the depths of despair and then that creates your own sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of using business. And, you know, we can be afraid to–like I had my group coaching call yesterday. And we had two questions about increasing prices and paying staff more and implementing profit share for staff, all based on “Could I increase my prices because it's a challenging time?” 

And it's like, “Yeah, of course, you can. If you are promoting the value of what you do to your clients and you are invaluable to your clients, then they should be paying a fair fee for that.” So I do feel like there is a danger that we talk ourselves into a recession and interestingly enough, I started my marketing agency in 1992 which was when the Gulf War was going on in the UK recession, and then I started this coaching business in 2007 at the height of the financial crisis. So inadvertently I started two businesses when we were in a recession and I've always believed that if I could survive that I can survive anything.

So I think I would concur with what you just said, Baris, and I think that we just have to do business as usual. But also be super mindful of making sure we're doing the right task because running a business is a simple equation of doing A plus B plus C and you get the results. And you just need to know what A plus B plus C is, which is keeping an eye on your costs. Make sure you’re investing consistently in business development. Make sure you're winning the right type of client charging.

Be really mindful of your margin because that's the number that really, really matters. And I know there were some great talks from people like Marcel Petitpas on the launch and in the book. He's been a guest on my podcast. He's done some expert training with my group, and he is fantastic. So, listeners make sure you grab a copy of the book because it is full of tonnes of insightful golden nuggets that will help you and definitely–

Baris: I was just talking to him yesterday, by the way. And yes, his speech was one of the most popular ones because there's a lot of practical information packed into that 10 minutes. So, I highly advise everyone to make sure that is one of the articles they read or watch on our website. 

Rob: Yes, so let's just move the conversation forward a bit. What's the plan? I don't know if you can reveal any of this, but what are the plans in 2023 for repeating this or doing it again or another agency? 

Baris: Absolutely well, more books. Absolutely. Because what we're going to do next year, we're going to do three books. The Agency Growth Book is going to become this annual growth conference that we do.

It will always be in the first week of December. So next year, this December 2023, you will have the new version of the book and hopefully with your new article in it, Rob. I'm hoping. And it will most probably be a two-day event this time. Agencies will be able to come, engage more with the experts in the field, and get a two-day immersive course on how to start growth. So that's definitely happening in the first week of December.

We're also going to be doing two other agency-specific type books. One of them is going to be for PPC agencies, one is going to be for E-commerce agencies. And so, for those before and after, right after this summer, and the same. Well, we're working with the experts in the field to give us related content to those types of agencies and how to operate them better. And on top of those three books and three events, we’ll be doing a lot of round tables.

Now, we're talking to some sponsors that want to have select roundtables, and some of them also want webinars. So we'll be doing some smaller events throughout the year in the webinar roundtables. But roundtables are interesting because that is where you get to weigh debate. That is a select number of agencies that come together around one topic, and there is a presentation, and then we all get the toll. It's like a two-hour call, and there's a more intimate interaction between people, so we'll be doing those as well.

And we’ll also have a special project which might be an in-person gathering in the US. But we'll see. We’ll see. 

Rob: Fantastic. So it sounds like you're going to become a fairly significant kind of provider of education and information in the agency world, which is really exciting. 

Baris: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Rob: And I was glad to be a little part of the game last year, and hopefully this year will be a bit more proactive and involved. 

Baris: Absolutely.

Rob: Let me ask you the question that I ask all of my guests, Baris, which is you've obviously–you don’t look that old, but it sounds like you've been around in the world of business for quite some time. So if you could go back in time and give your younger self a piece of advice, he was just starting out in business. What would it be? 

Baris: Let me start by reversing a question because I'm 45 now. But how far back are we talking? Are we talking to me at 25 or me at 35? Because my advice was different. 

Rob: Yeah, well, actually I’ll let you do both, but I would say it’s typically you at 25. The young, naïve, fresh Baris who is just starting out. 

Baris: Just starting out. I think the advice I would give would be to be more patient and listen to more mature people on how to solve. Because I remember when you're young, you always have a sense that the world is different. Now it's going to be your world, and the people in charge now are from the world of the past. That's what you think automatically, which is just half true. Yeah, there’s some truth in that. But if you look at all the lifespans of humanity of a million years of evolution, yeah? And you find that the maximum lifespan of a person now is 80.

It is like 20 whatever. So 80 years, we live in 80-year cycles. Yeah? So lots of things change, but lots of things are so well repeated. All the mistakes that you will be making have been made before. Yeah? So basically, find a mentor quicker than I did find one. So quickly find a mentor and learn from that person. Choose someone good at what they’re doing, that you admire, or have more experience than you have. And spend time with that person. Because–for everyone listening right now, your mistakes were made before you.

They have been repeated by a lot of people. So some solutions will stick, even if the world changes into the world of AI and whatever, it doesn't matter. The mistakes will be repeated. The mistakes will be the same.

Rob: Wise words. I'm not sure that my 23- or 24-year-old self would listen to that advice, but–

Baris: Mine wouldn’t either. 

Rob: What would be the advice to the 35-year-old version of Baris? 

Baris: Yeah. And at 35, I was in the UK working at the city level for a very big company. And I got sucked into the corporate glam. Yeah? Globetrotting, business–all that and the board meetings and committee meetings, assistance, all that stuff, hundreds of people, That is–and I've been very lucky in my own personal career to reach that level much faster than a lot of people. 

And my advice would be to that Baris is to make sure that, because for a very long while I thought I was gonna make it until the very top–that corporate ladder and I wasn't too far off, by the way. But, now that I’m back to entrepreneurship, it's been, like, two years and a half.

I now know that this fits my personality so much better. And I do understand looking back at myself, that I, health-wise, am depleting myself. Although it was glamorous, it was cool. Although it was admired from the outside, I now understand that in that world, although I was striving, wasn't the perfect fit. Yeah? And I would advise myself 35, 10 years ago to really look at whether this is what you want to end up doing for all your life. Do you want to start? 

Rob: Do you think you needed to do that in order to get where you're at today? Do you think that was part of the journey to go through that corporate life? 

Baris: Absolutely it was. Absolutely it was. But to be open to all the listeners, and to show some more vulnerability, I did not choose to become an entrepreneur. Yeah? The whole world of events collapsed, so we had to become entrepreneurs. Yeah? I didn't all of a sudden raise my head above the parapet and said, “Oh, no, that's actually looking at my life goals relating to my life, so I would become an entrepreneur.” It didn't work like that.

But I'm happy that I am an entrepreneur now because this fits my personal stuff so much better and I feel so much more, let's say, grounded and happy and effective.

Rob: I think that's why a lot of acquisitions don't work very well because we go from, like for me, I went from running a 25-person agency to being part of a 2000-person business. And I went from complete autonomy to being part of a 13-person board and lots of politics and bureaucracy. So yeah, and the other thing I wanted to just kind of empathise with you on is I believe a lot of people who start their own businesses who are entrepreneurs, have a catalyst, have a moment that causes them to do that so often–and they’ll relate very much to what you said.

It won't necessarily be a pandemic. But I was the marketing manager for a very small software company, and I got made redundant. And while I was the marketing manager, I felt we struggled to find an agency that understood the tech that we sold. So I thought I could do this better. And then I got made redundant, and that was my catalyst to start my agency. So I think a lot of people will relate to that. Now I'm going to share the link to the book download. But if anybody wants to reach out to you, how should they go about doing that? 

Baris: Personally, for me, the easiest way to do it is on LinkedIn. Just type my name on LinkedIn and add me and, while you're adding me, just please make sure that you're writing a small message as well. Don't just press the add button. And I always accept people. I always love talking to people because I have a firm belief that my entrepreneur, let's say years now, has taught me that the answers are not in the room I'm sitting in right now.

The answers are outside, so I would say that's true for anyone. Yeah? Don't just sit in a room by yourself with, like, some pen and paper and sort out all your problems. You can't. Talk to people. Explain your problems and that's how problems get solved. And so I'm very open to talking to people. If they want to reach out to me, just use LinkedIn. That's the easiest way to get hold of me. So we'll include your LinkedIn URL and also the URL to download the book.

Just want to say a big thank you for doing what you're doing for the agency world and for joining us today on The Agency Accelerator podcast. 

Baris: My pleasure. Make sure that you promise in front of everyone that you'll be in the book next year. I will. Alright, cool.

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