Episode Eight, Choosing an Agency Podcast

Published on August 10, 2021 by Climbing Trees

Listen to the Eighth instalment of the Choosing an Agency podcast.

In episode eight Alex interviews Nick Redding, Co-Founder of Reddico an SEO agency. They discuss the importance of communication, red flags to notice and really understanding an agency prior to committing to working with an agency.

Episode eight transcript 

Alex: Hello, and welcome to choosing an agency. My name’s Alex and I’m here to talk about how to select the right agency to grow your business, giving you the inside line on things to look out for the next time you need external support. I’ll be interviewing industry figures from all manner of backgrounds to get hints and tips on the things to consider when choosing an agency. Today, I’m joined by the wonderful Nick Redding from Reddico. Hi, Nick

Nick: Hi, Alex. How are you doing?

Alex: Good. Thank you. So, for people who are just meeting you for the first time, could you share a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Nick: Sure. My name is Nick Redding, I’m managing director at Reddico and we are a 35 plus or 35 ish. SEO agency.

Alex: What’s your experience in the agency world? Have you been around a long time?

Nick: So, I’ve been running Reddico for about seven a half years now. Then prior to that, I worked for an SEO agency based in London, so about four years. So, a reasonable amount of years now in the agency world. Yep

Alex: So, you’ve been seeing the ups and downs?

Nick: Yeah, I think seeing different experiences, different ways of running companies, how they’re kind of structured, I think you learn quite a lot from working in different places, both inside and outside London. My first agency kind of experience was a smallish agency based in Ashford, and so you kind of get to see the differences between how the larger and smaller agencies are structured, how they communicate, their approach to things. And I think I kind of took a lot of that and fed that into how we wanted to set up and how we wanted to run Reddico.

Alex: And there is a very different approach to running an agency as a new small, sort of local independent, to a large sort of London agency, isn’t there?

Nick: There is, it’s interesting though. You kind of go through different phases as you grow, and you get different challenges that come up. I guess the biggest thing I’ve taken away is the challenges around communication and transparency, as you scale and as you grow. And that’s the layers of a hierarchy that can get introduced as, as the bigger the company gets and so it’s just looking at how you still build and maintain the transparency and the visibility across the team. When if you’re a relative, in the startup phase, you may be sort of 2-3-5-people, you’re kind of sitting around a table, and you’re just having discussions and everyone’s fully aware at that point. And then as you start to grow, you get challenges with certain people having certain conversations. So, there’s transitions to go through from that as a growth perspective.

Alex: Looking at the client side, what’s the worst piece of advice you’ve sort of heard a client ever be given?

Nick: This is a really interesting one. I think, for being in the SEO space there’s obviously a lot of challenges historically around selling SEO, and what that means. And I can’t necessarily recall a specific piece of advice that I’ve heard been given to a client directly, but more in terms of how SEO has been sold to clients, in terms of the guarantees, in terms of relationships with people, Google that can alter rankings. I’ve seen some really extreme, unfounded statements that have been made in sales pitches, which I know just been completely untrue. I think those early days of the lack of understanding, lack of transparency around SEO and what the process is – has left and to a certain extent, some clients are still kind of feeling the effects of those sales pitches. We still have people that come to us that have a tainted view of SEO and what it involves.

Alex: And for those awesome agencies like yourself, to have to go through a period of almost like relationship counselling with a new client, where you’ve got to almost counsel them about what has happened previously with an agency in the past, and what you’re going to do to actually differentiate yourself – it’s really, really tricky. I think part of the reason why I wanted to do this series of podcasts was because of that association in the SEO space, because there are some areas of our industry, unfortunately, which reputationally you might have estate agents, used car salesmen and then SEO people sort of falling into that kind of sphere. And that kind of stuff bugs the hell out of me.

Nick: So, I’ve been in SEO probably 15 years and definitely seen a lot of change. I think one of the challenges earlier on with this is actually the lack of transparency from Google’s side, in terms of the understanding of how things worked. I think that’s changed a lot in 10 years. And I think that’s meant that people working in the SEO industry can actually educate clients better with more certainty around what’s going on. So, that’s definitely helped conversation, Google’s become more transparent with the types of content and information that it publishes. So, they’re steps forward from that respect. I think I’ve also seen a shift that I guess when I first started out, there was a heavy reliance and dependence on expertise from agencies. And I think what we’ve seen over the last decade is actually a transition from agencies to in-house, and the level of expertise and understanding in house has grown. Those people are better able to educate the marketing teams, the content teams, or sort of the senior level management around SEO, what it involves, and I have better conversations now, with people asking better questions around SEO – the implications, updates, things like that, that perhaps they wouldn’t have had visibility or wouldn’t have understood previously.

Alex: Absolutely. I think there’s definitely been an industry move where there are a lot of advocates for doing work in this really good quality way. And that’s, like you say, impacted in-house teams and agencies as well. So, as an agency, how important is it when you get a lead to qualify it and to go through that process of working out, is this client a good fit for us?

Nick: This is such an interesting question. I think there’s quite a few layers to this, and I think part of that is that there is sometimes a continued ongoing analysis of that client and of that client relationship. And I think one of the key things is to is to get clear on who you are, what you stand for, and the types of clients that you want to work with. And we’re still doing some work on that ourselves and reevaluating, where we go in and the types of brands that we want to help, we want to attract going forward. So, I don’t think it’s a – I think it’s an ongoing piece. And then you’ve got the aspects of who is it that you’re actually going to be working with? So, you’ve got the brand, and then you’ve actually got the initial person that you may be having the conversation with, might not be the team that you actually end up working with. So, I think there’s a discovery piece, there’s that chemistry piece to kind of understand actually, who we’re going to be working with, with day to day, and is there a fit there? And then there’s the ongoing part of that where, in the past with – dynamics have changed, people move on, new teams come in, or personnel get moved around within companies. And actually, the relationship and the dynamic changes to the point where it’s not a good place and the relationship is no longer what it was, and the client isn’t in a place that aligns with our values and what we stand for. And there has been a couple of instances in the past, where – not too many -where we’ve moved clients on because the relationship has just deteriorated by a change of personnel on their side. So, it’s an interesting question. I think there’s a couple of layers to it. But it’s kind of just continuing to look at the relationship and I think the most important point is, it’s who you’re going to be working with day to day. And the earlier you can meet those people in the conversations, the better you can then judge actually, if they are a fit for you, and also for the team.

Alex: Absolutely because there are different types of client personas. You can have owners or busy marketing directors that are fairly hands off, that will just empower you and give you a very tight break so you can crack on and deliver the work. Whereas you might have people that are a little bit more hands on in terms of the management style and their management style can be anything from exceptional to sometimes verging on sort of bullying and that kind of thing. I think we’ve had to have a couple of conversations with clients where we have suggested there might be an agency that’s a better fit for them because what I need to do as a business is make sure that my staff are happy. And that kind of bullying relationship is not one – it gets quite toxic, and it can sort of upset people and how they relate to their day-to-day role can be really affected. And again, they can be quite down, and they can be having sort of confidence issues.

Nick: Like I say it works both ways. It’s like having a good relationship with the client, but also recognising that actually there are times when you might have to help a client leave because, essentially, that relationship has changed and you need to find the best way that you can to move them on and help them find someone that’s right for what they need.

Alex: We’ve had to do two things in terms of – so got quite decent client onboarding processes, but with our client offboarding processes and that can be for two reasons, one for the client that’s chosen, there might be a better agency that’s a better fit for them or they might be pivoting into, moving away from service, and going into PR or something. Or secondly, it could be one where we’ve actually sort of run the course and feel there might be an agency that’s a better fit for them. And we go through a hand holding process where we migrate everything through in a really sort of polite and gentlemanly way, for the client’s long-term greater advantage rather than putting any sort of tricky power games into things.

Nick: A lot of our thinking is around letting people leave well. Once someone’s decided that actually, they want to leave, whether that’s a member of the team, or whether that’s a client, or whether we’ve made that decision around the client, it’s like what’s the best possible experience for them, to help them move on to the next step of their journey? And with the team, it works in the same way. So, if someone’s looking to move on or someone’s not quite a right fit and we find out during the probation phase, it’s like okay, how do we then help them find the next step? What can we do to just support them to move on? Having those offboarding processes, where you actually actively look to support that person on the next step – I think it’s really important, and I think it kind of says who you are as a company, as a person. And, and for me, it’s always a belief that you never quite know where a client will go, or where client’s go next, or where people go next. And you always want them to have a good lasting memory of their last experience with you. I think, to leave that as a positive experience, that you never quite know what happens in the future, they can refer a piece of work to you, they could refer a new team member to you, they could speak highly of you to someone else. And I thin, that’s the lasting impression that you want to leave on a member of the team or the client.

Alex: Absolutely. I think that’s 100% right. So, when the clients looking at working with an agency, what are the sorts of things that they could do to start thinking about what this agency’s reputation is?

Nick: In terms of reputation, I think a lot of our work has come through referrals and they’re either through people or clients that we’ve worked with that have moved on, or people that have worked with us kind of directly, and then they refer us to another company or someone else that they know. I think a lot of the questions around reputation are somewhat eased when you when you have a referral, it makes it easier to have that conversation. It’s an implicit or an implied trust at that point, around kind of the work that you do. I guess from a client perspective, if I were on the other side looking look into that, I would look at how they run the company, how they structured the company, how they treat and look after their team. And I think that’s really important and that says a lot about what you believe in and what you stand for. And then look at things like results and case studies and referrals. Like if there’s a client or someone that they can refer you to speak to, I think having that third party there to help validate some of the work that they’ve done. And then the other thing that we’ve done in the past is, sometimes we’ve been asked to kind of work on an initial trial basis. And that can work quite well, where it’s like, you know what, we’ll see how it goes for the first three months. And see, it’s often about the relationship, as well as the quality of the work. You want to set out clear expectations as to what needs to be achieved in those first three to four months. And look at – because I I’m sure you know as well, like predicting any, or setting any goals around SEO in the first few months is a dangerous place generally, because it takes that amount of time to onboard, to understand, to do the work, to have conversations, to get the changes rolled out for it. And then you’ve got time for Google to catch up. But I think there’s ways to measure and understand that, if you’re working on an initial three-month period with them, it rolls into a longer-term contract, for example and there’s another way that you can structure that. And you can look at things like the relationship, the quality of the work, the delivery, the actions, communication, and you can start to look at the relationship that way.

Alex: I think the initial conversations with clients about the scope of the work will always uncover what the opportunity is, and sometimes the size of that opportunity gives us the confidence to maybe work for a period without contract. So, like you say, they can almost get a feel for it with quite a sort of limited exposure.

Nick: But a couple of things that we’ve done recently is more just discovery phases, pieces of work. So, we may do like a two-month discovery phase, where we do some initial scoping, initial opportunity analysis and we present that back-to-back to the client before engaging in a longer-term contract, where perhaps SEO hasn’t been a key channel for them. And they don’t want to commit to a 12-month contract period. It’s actually, let’s do a discovery piece, see what the opportunity is from an SEO point of view, see how we kind of work together. And it works both ways as well. If you’re working with a company that isn’t fully bought in or fully understands SEO, there’s more in a discovery phase for it, in terms of understanding what it can bring for a return for a business. Having that initial engagement without a longer-term commitment can just be an easier step before fully committing to something like a six- or 12-month contract.

Alex: Absolutely, that makes sense. So, Nick, what are the signs that an agency’s a good fit for a client?

Nick: Good question. And I think this is something that we’ve started to get a bit better around, asking more specific questions. I think, first thing is identifying kind of who you’re going to be working with. Can you identify that earlier on? understanding the context that you have, what their requirements are from an SEO point of view, right? What are they trying to get out of this investment in SEO? What do they need to report to the board or to senior management? What does the board or senior management care about?  What is their goal here? So, trying to work backwards from that initial objective to understand like, what’s the driving force behind looking at SEO as a channel? And then taking that away and saying, is this a client where we can actually have an impact on that business? That is kind of how we do a lot of proposals is, we’ll have our initial discussion with the client, try to understand the business, the business model, what matters to them, what they care about, and then going away and putting together a custom proposal pitch based on what it is that they’re trying to achieve from a business. And the better that we can tie it into core business objectives and what they’re trying to achieve, the better we can deliver our work and the better we can focus our roadmap or our set of activities that will help drive that

Alex: Absolutely, because the focus has to be on real sort of business metrics that are aligned to the business goals, rather than something spurious like ranking for this one term or this group of terms or getting this page ranking. It has to align to my business objective.

Nick: I think conversations like that have got better with clients over the years. And in the early days, it was very much focused around keyword performance or certain vanity keywords that the clients would just want to appear for, but they would have no revenue value. So, I think the conversations and the interrelationship between SEO and other channels, and the return on SEO has got more sophisticated in terms of the data, the relationships, and the return on investment, which is welcomed really. Because although on one end, it might have been easier to just go, we have a target of just ranking for these keywords and driving traffic, you can actually feel like you’re making more of a difference, more of an impact on a business, if there’s a reason behind it, and you’re working towards or you’re helping that business achieve that goal. So, I think having the sort of understanding of what the business is trying to achieve first is the key part to that. I don’t know if that answers the questions. 

Alex: Absolutely. No, I think it does. And then within that place then, how important is an agency’s values? And what can the client do to not interrogate them, but experience what those values are like? 

Nick: I think this is kind of tied over into the culture, the wider culture aspect of it for me, and, and I think it’s not necessarily like there’s a right or wrong, and I think a lot of this is in the culture as well – it’s just kind of like looking for someone that shares the same values. In the same way that we’re looking for people to join Reddico, we’re not necessarily looking for a culture fit but we’re looking for someone that can bring something to the culture but shares the same values that we have. I think those early discussions, whether they are initial calls, whether you call them chemistry sessions, whatever they are with the client, I think getting an understanding of what the client stands for, what’s important to them, in those early days, can help to see if you’re a fit from a cultural point of view and a values point of view. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t work together – there may be some close alignments on things. But I think it’s where you’re kind of quite far apart in terms of how you work or what the expectations are from the other side in terms of how you work – that may be different to how you then run the agency. And so, that’s an interesting consideration before looking to take a client on.

Alex: Absolutely. I always like values to be the toolkit that you will utilise in the client’s management process. So, whether it’s, you’ll be able to demonstrate it when you’re onboarding clients, when you’re actually managing the day-to-day processes, and as you know, sometimes the biggest problems we have here are where we’ve got clients that are down year on year, or they’ve got some sort of technical problem with a website that we’re working with their developers on. Our numbers aren’t great, we can’t present a graph going upwards and to the right. And in those situations, we feel this sort of sense of existential angst, where we sort of think we’re paid to deliver results, and it’s not quite working. And so, what we find in those situations is we will own that problem, we will present the problem to the client with a whole array of solutions. And so, we don’t go in there fudging the situation, but we actually demonstrate that this is the problem, and this is what we’re going to do about it. And the honesty that’s in there – There’s a lot of people that would use, well I say there’s a lot of people, I think when presented with a situation like that, to choose honesty and brutal honesty, that doesn’t make you look good, really resonates with clients. And we’ve ended up with meetings where we thought we might go in and potentially be fired, where a client’s said, this is a great meeting, well done and they back us for another period of time.

Nick: I think it’s moving away a little bit – well, we talked about a little while ago, it might have even been before the podcast started about that perfection. And being number one and being the best. I think it’s that expectation that the agency needs to achieve perfection or has to be perfect all the time, and I think that’s a dangerous place from a client expectation point of view, but also a self-expectation point of view. The way that we talked about self-improvement and self-development and learning your lessons and seeing what you can do to improve that you have, we try and build that culture within the company in terms of how we run the company. So, we get a lot of team feedback, team surveys, looking at what we can do to improve. We also apply that to the client account. So, we send out NPS score, Net Promoter Score, looking to sort of say, what can we do to improve? We’ll have conversations with clients where we say, what’s working well and even better if and it’s like, okay, what are we doing well? I like the way that that that feedback is framed, because it’s framed in a positive light. It’s not what’s the positives and negatives of working together? It’s what’s working well, and then even better if and so, like, similar to what you just said that in quarterly presentations, or quarterly recaps, where we’ve presented to senior management, or even board level it’s like – here are our lessons learned for this quarter, here’s what didn’t quite go well and here’s what we need to change. It might be some positive framing of challenges on their side, but bringing it to their attention like this X, Y, and Z hasn’t been done – but we’ve spoken to these people, and this is what we’re going to do, a proactive approach to solving those and overcoming those. And I think if you can be honest and upfront with that, then I think it builds a better relationship.

Alex: Are there any red flags that a client should look out for?

Nick: Maybe just picking up on what we spoke about earlier? I guess in terms of promises that are made around SEO, and I think the more open and honest that you can be – like we’ve had conversations where people said to us, can you guarantee X in the first three months, or we need to hit a certain position on these keywords and things like that. And I think, again, it’s about setting yourself up for success. And if you make promises that you can’t deliver from the start, then there’s a lot of pressure in the team and that relationship is kind of challenged very, very early on. 

Alex: If you have that awkward conversation early on, it’s okay to have another awkward conversation further down the line.

Nick: I think it’s the same when you get asked for forecasting. There’s so many different variables that if you are – if you’re going to do it, or a client needs it, you have to educate and help them understand around that the fluctuations and the variations and the estimates and everything else that kind of go goes into it. I think if you get asked or if someone’s pitching or promising certain positions in a certain time frame or certain rankings or certain traffic numbers, that’s probably a red flag from a client perspective. Although it’s nice That clients often ask for it, like, what can we get? Where’s the traffic? What does the return look like? I think there has to be an open discussion and honest discussion. There’re so many moving parts, many of which we don’t control from an SEO point of view – one being delivery of an implementation of recommendations. And the second being, I guess, Google updates, Google processing the changes. Both of those can take three months to a year, maybe longer, depending on how quickly or how long client’s backlogs are: technical backlogs, roadmaps, that kind of stuff, bringing changes into those. So, I think, setting those honest expectations of SEO, and this can be challenging for people or companies that have a very strong performing paid search department where the results are instant, and you can forecast more clearly, and it is easier to see the direct ROI from that. We have to have a conversation where we say, although they are interrelated, they are different channels in terms of how they operate and the game that you play with those is different.

Alex: Absolutely. With the paid search, it’s easier to build a model based on groups of keyword positions in the funnel, based on what the ROI is going to be. And so that forecasting’s easier on the paid search side things. For organic, we it’s always – so when we were asked to forecast, we will try and elicit from the client how accurate they need them to be and what they’re going to be used for. So, we’ve been asked to forecast, then what’s going to happen is we will minimise the actual forecast. So, we won’t push ourselves because what we know is we’re creating ourselves a problem 3-6-9-12 months down the line. And so, what we’ve started doing – when we do have to do that for clients is have a low range and a high range and we track it, we usually end up roughly somewhere in the middle.

Nick: Yeah, I think ranges are a good middle ground if you’re asked to do forecasts. But it’s challenging because a lot of the forecasts and predictions often come from senior management board level, and they want to see, like if we’re going to invest X with you, what’s the return going to be? And it’s a difficult conversation to have, when you say well, I can’t guarantee a return – like they’re perhaps used to with other channels. I think a lot of it is education and kind of being as honest as you can, maybe looking at ranges and finding that middle ground.

Alex: And sometimes it’s then the confidence. So, when you’re onboarding a new client, you have to go through those conversations. But if you’re in year two, year three, year four of a relationship, you’ve been through that annual cycle, you’ve contributed to their annual plans and you’ve earned more trust. Perfect. So, in terms of agencies, are there any that you really admire?

Nick: It’s interesting, I’ve posted about it recently on LinkedIn about this exact question. And I think for me, I look at other agencies and other companies as people that can highlight our weaknesses. Essentially, people that I see as worthy rivals, people that inspire us to be better, to run better companies. I think I take a lot from that to kind of inspire us, essentially, to be better, to do more but I guess there’s companies – like Deeson. They’ve got an amazingly open and transparent culture, they have an open Handbook, which is published on their site about how they operate. I love that level of transparency, I’d highly recommend going to read to the Handbook, there’s lots of great stuff and initiatives in there. There’s a company called Happy, very much focused around building better workplaces and work cultures and looking at how sort of day-to-day operations are structured and what you can do to essentially build a happier workforce, a happier company. I think there’s a lot in there – we’ve taken a lot from that, been inspired by that, we’ve been on a number of the Happy conferences and courses. I just think their approach and Henry’s way of looking at running businesses, is inspirational and challenging. We talked about the nature at Wholegrain Digital before – I think the work that they’ve done from an environmental aspect, from a carbon footprint aspect, from just looking at how their business impact ties into to the environment, and what they can do to really improve in that, and it starts with real measurement. I think people like that, and that approach has definitely made me ask better questions of ourselves and how we run our own company and what we can do, and that’s what you want from a worthy rival. Someone that makes you question what you do and does it better than you, and just brings that to your attention. And there’s agencies in the SEO space as well, that I kind of admire for different reasons. But the ones that have probably had the biggest impact on us are the ones from a culture business point of view, where we’ve kind of looked to shape things differently.

Alex: Absolutely. So, the ones that have really provoked soul searching, where you and the team over there are already trying to improve what you’re doing.

Nick: Yeah, definitely, I think in that in that respect for sure. I give a big shout out to Propeller Net and they’re an SEO agency based out in Brighton and a lot of their work in the early days was around supporting people creating an up-front environment, being driven by purpose, looking after the team. A lot of those, I guess, ideas and talks that they put on around what they were doing to create a happy, more fulfilled, engaged workplace definitely inspired some of our early thinking and our early ideas. So, I look to them as someone that helped us go on the right path from a culture and from a business point of view.

Alex: Excellent. Well, Nick this has been great. Where can people find out more about you online?

Nick: Sure. I generally typically post more on LinkedIn than anywhere else. So yeah, just find me on LinkedIn.

Alex: Perfect, thanks for joining me today.

Nick: Nice. Thanks for having me.

Alex: Thanks for listening. If you found the conversation useful, please join me again next time for Choosing an Agency.

Choosing an Agency is available for you to download from all the usual podcast platforms or find out more, here: www.alexholliman.com