For 15 years, Kelly Campbell owned her own digital agency, weathering the usual ups and downs while also starting her own holistic health and wellness platform. After selling both companies, she sought a new venture, one that would allow her to use her talents for good while feeding her passion for helping people.
Today, Kelly is an agency growth consultant who helps digital shops to hone in on four focus areas and transform their businesses. With a firsthand understanding of what it’s like to start, scale and sell an agency, she’s helping others to do the same. Tune in to hear Kelly share her take on the two biggest challenges agencies face and why it’s important that owners put their oxygen masks on first.
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Carl: Hey, everybody and welcome back to the Bureau Briefing. We have got an interesting episode for you today. I think you're going to learn a lot. You're going to learn even how to take care of yourself a little bit, and we're going to talk about a crazy trend in the industry. Today we have got a serial entrepreneur who has now moved in to doing coaching and is doing all kinds of crazy stuff with agency owners. She has her own podcast called THRIVE: Your Agency Resource, and she's here today with us. It's Kelly Campbell. How are you Kelly?
Kelly: Carl. I am doing great. Thank you so much for having me on the show. Really, really excited to chat with you today.
Carl: Yeah. We circled around each other for a little while.
Kelly: A little bit, we danced.
Carl: See, you reached out to me and I was like, "Ah, I don't know. I'm not sure because it looks so awesome," but sometimes you get those things and then I had other people saying, "Would you talk to Kelly because she's really awesome?" So if you don't mind, tell everybody listening a little bit about your backstory, this serial entrepreneur thing I always love and I know you were doing like a holistic platform and then you ran your own shop. So tell everybody a little bit about that time.
Kelly: Yeah, sure. Long story short, when I got out of college, I worked in corporate America for a few years, two or three years, and we were oil and water as I like to describe it. I was riding my motorcycle to a tech company that was sort of like a spin off of a hedge fund company and I just ... We just didn't fit. I mean we were literally like the odd couple. I was listening to like Ani DiFranco and everyone was looking at me like I had seven heads. So I figured out pretty quickly that that was not the path for me. I didn't realize how quickly it was going to happen, but I ended up starting my own company. It was me at first and then I hired an outsource team abroad.
That's how I kind of started things off, literally cold calling small businesses out of the phone book. Not that I'm very old at all, but I mean that's kind of like where it was at that point. So that's kind of how I started the company. It was initially branding, graphic design, a little bit of website design and development, and then I just kind of had this spidey sense that things were going to be changing, web, digital, email, all of that were things that small businesses, which is what I was serving at the time, that that's what they were going to need. So I just kept pace with that and brought that to the clients. Then once I had enough clients to be able to quit that full-time job, I did that pretty quickly.
I would say for the next seven years after starting the agency, I groped my way along. I made the same mistakes once, twice. I didn't make them the third time and without any kind of degree other than graphic design. I just kind of figured it out, you know? I would say the next seven years I really started to hone in on what was working, what was not working, focusing on the importance of culture, really making sure I was taking care of my employees. The problem was that I was not taking care of myself. So I tacked on a bunch of weight. I was super stressed all the time. Anybody listening knows those like waking up at 2:00 in the morning with super indigestion, maybe early on in your company, wondering how you're even going to make payroll on Friday. These are all the wonderful things about owning a small agency, right?
Carl: So rough.
Kelly: So toward the tail end, I had that business for about 14 years and toward the tail end, I would say the last two or three years I just realized that A, I was losing passion for it. B, I kind of felt like I had a bigger purpose in this life. I felt like I could be using my talents, my intellect, my skills, my people skills for things that were going to create more impact in people's lives. Quite honestly, I just didn't want to deal with managing clients or deal with putting out client fires. I had the most amazing team. They were like my kids. I don't have any children of my own. So this team was-
Carl: Do you have somebody else's kids? Oh my goodness.
Kelly: So these were really like my kids and I loved seeing them grow and get promoted, whether they were staying at my company or not, didn't actually matter so much to me, but if they were up leveling their own careers and they were buying houses and having babies and getting married, I was like a champion for them. I think the ones that were with me for a long time, they really understood that I genuinely cared about them. So they were very dedicated, very loyal and that taught me a lot.
One of the things that I did, you mentioned at the top of the show about being a serial entrepreneur. I'm not 100% sure if I would categorize myself that way, but I did in about 2006 or '07, I did start a holistic health and wellness platform, sort of like, if you think about what WebMD is, it was like the WebMD but for people who were not really into conventional medicine, they were more into like holistic, integrative, alternative medicine. So we had practitioners. We had different advertisers. We held events. We had a podcast. I mean, the whole content marketing thing. I think at that point, like 2006 or '07, it was a little too progressive. People still thought of it as like woo woo and just not really mainstream at that point. So I ended up getting some venture money for that and then I ended up selling that in 2011 and then selling my digital agency in 2016. So that's kind of transitions to what I'm doing now.
Carl: I have to say, first of all, congratulations on selling both of them because it is tough. People think that you create something and then you sell it and then you're on the island sipping mimosas and-
Kelly: Not so much.
Carl: It doesn't work that way. Sometimes it's just, I'm not out of the hole, but I can see the top of it. Where do I sign?
Kelly: Yeah, well I'm sipping like PBR.
Carl: Nice. Well done. But the other thing is, it's funny when people think about owners and you said it, right, it's the wake up at 2:00 AM, you're sweating. I mean, we ended up with about 40 people at one point and I remember somebody told me that they wanted equity and I was like, "That is so fine. Do you own your own home?" They're like, "Why?" I was like, "Well, we're going to have to put your home equity up on the line of credit. It's at about 70 grand right now by the way. You might want to know that that's sitting there. Also when you skip paychecks, I just need you to know that you're not going to get that money back." They're like, "What are you talking about?" I was like, "I thought you wanted to be an owner."
Kelly: Right, right, right. Well reality check. Yeah.
Carl: Okay. So I just lost you there for a second.
Carl: Okay. You're back. Okay, good. Yeah, I'll totally edit that out. So let's go ahead and I will transition it into what comes next.
Carl: Okay. So you go through and you sell both of those businesses. Do you take any time off at that point or were you heading straight into the next thing?
Kelly: No, I mean, I wouldn't ... So yes and no is sort of the answer. I didn't jump into where am I going to go next. I just have to figure it out really quickly and take a job. I mean, clearly after being a CEO for almost 15 years, there is ... You're sort of unemployable. How can you possibly-
Carl: Oh my God.
Kelly: How can you possibly work for somebody else, right? That kind of felt like death to me. So, yeah, I took a few months, I would say probably three months. It wasn't that I was doing nothing in those three months. I was helping some people that I had met through the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program. Met some people through that that were in my cohort. Started helping them with different projects, mostly obviously in web and digital strategy and all of that. That was cool. But again, I was still back to having clients and I realized pretty quickly that I needed figure out what my personal passion was, where I could best apply my talents and what was really going to feed my soul, what was going to give me purpose because that's what I was lacking.
So I started thinking about, okay, well for 14 years I've owned a business that is a pretty unique model, an agency model is very different from a widget producing business, right, a product business. Your people are your products. There's so much that goes with that and the experience that I had of it being a little bit of sort of leading ... A little bit of a nightmare on some days and then like spiritual awakening on other days, right? It was like somewhere in the middle between the two. So I wanted to sort of help other agency owners and leaders normalize that and figure out where they could sort of sit in the middle of those things so that it wasn't this roller coaster ride every single day. I thought, "Wow, that really speaks to me. Let me figure out how to do that."
So I looked around and I looked at all of the other agency growth consultants and coaches and whatever and I figured, well, I had been doing a podcast for the holistic health and wellness venture, really kind of like that. So I decided to go into video format for that. Podcasting back in 2007 was like, "Oh, what is this?" It was like really cool, but it was like a sad-
Carl: It's so much fun.
Kelly: Right. Then it died out and now the resurgence is amazing because people are realizing what a great tool it is. Intimate content in, right, injected into somebody's years, right? So I thought, "Okay, let me do a podcast because that's how I can add value to a lot of people with a larger platform." Even if they're not my clients, at least I'm serving people in the way that I want to and that felt really authentic to me. So I did that and I looked around at all these other agency consultants and I invited them onto my show. So I've had Jason Swank and David C. Baker and Carl [Sakis 00:11:09] and everybody that when I looked around and said, "Okay, who are my "competitors", let me learn what their differentiations are. How am I going to stand out?" Over, I would say over the course of about a year, it was pretty clear to me how I was standing out.
I had a different framework. I had a different philosophy. I was actually an agency owner who sold an agency. I know Jason has as well. But I didn't want to go down the path where maybe adjacent or Brent from UGURUS, those guys do more of like a sort of like a bootcamp or a DIY model. It just didn't feel authentic to me. So I had to be true to myself and I wanted to work directly with these agencies, whether it was agency growth consulting, working with agencies for four to 12 months and really being very embedded in their business or if it was on an agency leader transformation coaching standpoint where I'm working directly with the agency owner, helping them to sort of sort out what is, what are the opportunities for business growth, what are the opportunities for my personal and maybe even spiritual growth and how do I blend the two of those together. That was really interesting to me. So that's kind of the direction I went in.
Carl: So how do you find your first clients? Because as you mentioned, it's kind of a crowded space. There's a lot of stuff there. The fact that you said Jason had a shop and sold it. That's one of the things. There's so many coaches out there that never had a shop. They never did anything. It's one of the things. I had somebody say yesterday, "I'm starting to think there are more coaches than players," and it had that kind of a vibe. So you come into it with the experience, you've got the podcast rolling. How do you find those first clients?
Kelly: So I'm very, very much a fan of a very diverse business development mix. I figured that out for my agency. So I applied that to my consulting practice. I kind of took everything that I learned from marketing and applied it to the consultancy. So my wheelhouse is very much in search engine optimization. So I created a site. I optimize the crap out of it. So I'm like page one for agency growth consultant, agency consultant, agency coach. So that actually was probably how I got my first couple of clients. I also did some outbound LinkedIn prospecting. Just looking at a couple of different agencies. I'm based in New York, so ones that were in the Tri-state New York area that were of the size that I was looking for and I would just reach out to the CEO and ask to chat, what's on your mind. I know you probably woke up at 2:00 last night. You want to talk about it? So that was definitely very effective. I would say for every 10 messages I sent out, I probably got seven or eight responses.
Kelly: Yeah, yeah. But again, it's a big pain point. If I'm introducing myself as saying, "Hey, I literally walked a mile in your shoes. Let's just have a chat." I mean, I was just, again, being authentic. If it led to a sale, great. If it didn't, at least we had a really nice conversation and made a connection. So that was important to me. Then I had a really nice referral system, different strategic partners that were sending me business. I would say it was very much a mix and it didn't take very long, I will say. The other thing that I will mention as sort of a caveat is that with the podcasts, I attracted a sponsor for that podcast really early on and I was never thinking about the podcast as an income stream. I was looking at it more of, like I said, value add content.
But the sponsor who also works with agencies, that's Workamajig, they are putting content out to agency owners. I don't know what the size of their list is, but they're putting content out to the agency owners all the time. Every time I do a podcast episode, they're pushing it out to their entire list, so, and on all their social platforms. So I got a lot of visibility from that partnership as well. It's been a wonderful partnership.
Carl: Oh, that's great that. It's interesting that you had success on the LinkedIn stuff. You've been running for about three years. Is that right?
Kelly: Yeah, yeah.
Carl: Okay. So, and maybe it was different three years ago, but now I literally play a game. If I accept a connection request where I try to guess how long it will be before they pitch me because ... Sometimes they've gotten really good in understanding that they have to put a title that's more like digital project manager, right? It's like they're so tricky. But those are more of the spammier ones. They're not the custom ones, or not custom even, but authentic is one of those words that doesn't feel authentic to me anymore.
Kelly: Yeah, yeah. It is a little overused.
Carl: But real, right? So like you were saying, "I did it. I understand." It's kind of a hell of a thing to say when you're don't know somebody, right? But you can tell from looking and that I'm just blown away that you got like 70% started a conversation.
Carl: That's amazing. So congratulations.
Kelly: Yeah. I haven't really had to do that. I mean, because things have taken off so much.
Carl: Exactly, yeah.
Kelly: I'm really, really grateful for that but, and then obviously speaking engagements, that's the other part of that biz dev mix. So I do a lot of keynotes and run workshops or do seminars and summits and things like that, so.
Carl: You've got people advocating for you. I mean, that's why we finally were talking and as soon as we started talking, I was like, "Oh, she's great." It's one of those things where it's almost like barbarians at the gate, you know?
Carl: It's just like don't open the gate.
Kelly: Yeah, yeah.
Carl: But then you find out there are really solid people doing great stuff out there. So when you start to find your clients, the ones that you really want, and it is more, I think it's more on this longer-term agency growth consulting.
Kelly: It's a mix.
Carl: What does that engagement look like there? When you're talking to somebody about growth, what is that timeframe? Is it a number of months? Is it?
Kelly: Yeah, so the easiest answer to that is I'll give you ... I just literally got back from Columbus, Ohio last night, a 10-hour drive, which I'll never do again. But somebody, the agency owner, Googled agency consultant. I came up on page one. He filled out an intake, filled out our request. We hopped on the phone, told me a little bit about what he was dealing with and we put together based on my framework, the four Ps, people, positioning, pipeline and profitability. We put together a scope that made sense for the exact issues that he was dealing with. Everyone's dealing with different issues in their agency. There's always communication issues. We know that.
But beyond that, what is holding this organization back from increasing their revenue or certainly increasing their profit margin? Having a repeatable business system so that they have a really, really sustainable pipeline, predictable pipeline. All of that stuff comes down to positioning and if there's some kind of cultural misalignment where you've got high staff turnover and things along those lines, you got to fix those things. It's like the people in the positioning to me always have to be at the forefront of figuring out what the heck is happening at this agency, how do we shore those things up, and then we can go into business development strategies and making things more efficient and so on, and then obviously implementation of all of that.
So to answer your question in terms of timeframe, I've had those agency growth consulting engagements as little as four months long, if there are not that many issues and we can kind of clean things up quickly. I had one which was the anomaly go for about 18 months. But the caveat there was that the agency actually needed a complete renaming, rebranding.
Carl: Oh wow.
Kelly: I designed a brand new website for them, like whole kit and caboodle. So that was a longer engagement just because their needs were greater. I would say on average it's about six months.
Carl: So you actually did the website for them?
Kelly: I did.
Carl: You're a player coach.
Carl: Are you [crosstalk 00:20:24] coach?
Kelly: Oh no. I'm not one of those consultants who kind of comes in, drops my knowledge bomb and walks away. I mean, here's the thing, being an agency owner, if I'm going to invest this amount of money, I don't want somebody who's not gonna really get in the trenches. It's just not going to be as effective.
Carl: That is so awesome. The way you just said that, I had this vision of you like standing up going, "There you go," and on your way out you stop at reception and go, "Hey, can you authorize my parking? Thank you." Because that is the sense that you pick up on, but you actually went through, built the site, helped with the rebranding, did all that. Now one thing I'm really curious about because had I ever when I was running my shop had a consultant come in, I think this would have been some of the input and through all of the owner events that we've done at the Bureau and all the people I've heard talk, there is one thing that always seems to come up, which is it's you, right? As the owner, as the founder, there are things you're afraid of. You don't want people to know that you don't know and all these types of things. Do you find when you go in there that a lot of times the main thing that's holding a shop back is preconceived notions or fear or things like that with the owner themselves?
Kelly: I would answer that as 95% of the time.
Carl: Yeah. So does this get into some of when you're helping people get their personal health in order, their mental health, and you even mentioned spiritual, which for me is one of those things as a practicing agnostic, I'm like, "I'm not saying it's not there." But so is that part of what you do to help them break through?
Kelly: Yeah, because here's the thing, we're in a people business and we forget that. So if we're not being mindful of the way that we are showing up as agency leaders and we're not taking care of ourselves, right, in whatever ways that means, physically, mentally, emotionally, you name it, if we're not taking care of ourselves, then how can we possibly take care of the people under our care, which are are employees? I always like to say like we are stewards of our people and you can't have great stewardship if ... Sort of like the oxygen mask theory, you have to put it on for yourself first. It's not selfish. It's selfless. So if that means that we need to get out for a half an hour in the middle of the day and take a walk, if it means we have to meditate, if it means we have to do whatever we have to do, being more mindful of how we behave, how we speak, the words that we use, how empathetic we are in our agencies, that all has to play a part in this. If we're not having those discussions, I think we are missing big, big opportunities to reach our true potential as individuals and as companies.
Carl: What is the response like? Obviously you don't say it to them like you did to me or maybe you do.
Kelly: I do.
Carl: Maybe that is kind of what you say. [crosstalk 00:23:23].
Kelly: That is exactly how I say it.
Carl: You don't cut corners. You just get to it.
Carl: So what is that response like? You know what? I can see that. I'm sorry. I asked you a question and I'm going to cut you off [inaudible 00:23:33]. But I can see with especially somebody who's an owner, there's a time where you want somebody to tell you what it is and you want them to show you an answer that can help you get somewhere. I think that's why there's such an overwhelming number of people claiming to be in this space because they know it's such a pain point that people will try.
Carl: But you are there and you're basically saying, "Look, you've got some personal work to do." What is the response from those owners or founders when you get that, when you share that with them?
Kelly: Sometimes it's gratitude like, "Thank you so much for calling that out. I didn't even recognize that that was an issue. I probably knew on some level that I was part of the problem, but I didn't know what part of the problem I was." So the assessments that I do, every engagement for the consulting is literally me onsite with an agency having a 45 minute to an hour conversation with every single employee, from the CEO down to the summer intern. The insights that I gather, tell, paint the picture for me. They let me know what is fact, what is perception, where are we misaligned, where are we telling ourselves narratives that don't really exist. Then I literally present that to the leadership. In this last engagement just yesterday, the leadership said, "We are so into this that we want you to come back to the team before you drive back to New York, come back to the team and share all of this with them." That's what I did and it went over really, really well.
So again, to answer your question shortly is that I think most of them are grateful to hear it because it was sort of the missing piece for them. The ones who are a little resistant, they ultimately get there. It just takes them a little bit longer. But that's also part of the process. It's a bit amorphous of a process because I'm asking them to transform. I'm asking them to change and some people are really comfortable with change and some people it's like the last thing they want to do. So I just have to sort of figure that out and be very sensitive and very empathetic to what type of person I'm dealing with. For me, what I like about it is it's a lot of trying to digest a lot of different information, a lot of different signals in real time and making decisions on the fly.
It's almost like, I know Carl [Sakis 00:26:06] when he talks [inaudible 00:26:07], some people call him like an agency therapist. There is actually a psychological and emotional component to this work and if you don't understand that that has to be part of this work, then again, you're doing your clients a disservice.
Carl: The way you talk about everything is so straightforward and it reminds me ... I was lucky at one point I got to hear Jack Welch talk and I got to ask a question and my question was, "How should you share bad news with the team?" He basically said, "They know when you're lying. You've hired smart people. Tell them the truth."
Carl: Don't tell them Mary wasn't working out. Tell them Mary didn't do her job, right? Don't say that she found another opportunity say that she blew the account, right? It's like they know and if you don't tell them, then they're convinced there's a lot of things you aren't telling them.
Kelly: Right, that and then they start to look for other jobs or it just ... It snowballs.
Carl: Because one truth is that when bad people stay, good people leave, right? So you're going to end up with all the people who didn't care that you were lying because honestly they weren't really doing their job anyway, were just kind of muddling through. So it's just fun to hear you say that and realize that's always the way to do it. You don't have to be mean. You don't have to be harsh. But you do have to be honest. For some reason people feel like nice and honest are opposites. They're so totally not.
Kelly: Right. It's just about transparency and more communication. I think that's really ... If I were to say what's the one thing that is at the root of most of the issues that I see with agencies, it always comes down to communication. I'm talking about internal issues, not external positioning stuff. If I was going to say what's the one internal, it would be communication. The one external would be positioning. It's very easy. I don't think I've come across an agency yet that has not sort of followed with that suit.
Carl: Kelly, thank you so much for coming by the Bureau Briefing today and sharing this with everybody. I'm super excited and I want to find a way to get you in the communities. I'm going to be thinking about that because when the good ones get close, you got to hold on to them. For everybody listening, thank you so much and we'll be back next week. All the best.