This has been a pretty exhilarating 12 months for us here at Scribewise. We’ve grown our offering, grown our revenue and grown our team.
We have lots of metrics that are trending up, plenty of cool new clients that we’re excited to be working with and some longtime clients that still can’t get enough of us. The holiday party was pretty cool, and the bonuses were generous.
This may come as a shock, but we did not do everything perfectly. Mistakes were made. Assumptions proved wrong. I thought I said this but you thought I said that and we went off on divergent paths more than once.
But that’s okay! Mistakes are not necessarily pleasant, but Yoda reminds us that “the greatest teacher, failure is.” Yup, we did some learning. We also know that we will unlearn some of these lessons in the year ahead, and then have to learn them all over again. Hey, we’re human, and we’re working on it.
So, with the understanding that we are probably committing yet another mistake by omitting one or two mistakes we made last year, here’s a list of our screw-ups.
Improperly estimating the work to be done
We’re usually pretty good at this, and have gotten more rigorous about it over the last year or so. However, when we’re figuring out what our fee should be for a project (BTW, we don’t bill by the hour), there are two areas where we’re guessing.
One is that we want to provide flexibility in what the final deliverable should be—we (both us and the client) might think we know the right channel to carry the message, and then realize after a few weeks that the story could be told much better in a different way. Sometimes, we can adjust the fee accordingly. Sometimes we can’t, and end up moving forward with the better, more expensive way, and eating the cost (don’t like that). And sometimes we can’t, and together with a client make a decision to not do something we believe is better (which makes everyone sad).
The other area where we’re guessing is the effort required to do the work. Obviously, we’re basing this projection on our past experience … but there’s still an assumption on what our working relationship with the client will be—how much they want to tinker, how many decision-makers will weigh in, how decisive they are, the pace of the approval process, etc. There’s also an assumption in our own ability and process—we think they’re pretty good and sometimes we just aren’t properly aligned with the client.
We can resolve this by spending more time up front. Slowing down to speed up, as we like to say. Sometimes, everyone is a rush to get the project started so the project can be delivered, and we need to do a better job of slowing ourselves down.
Focusing purely on deliverables when defining the scope of work
Deliverables are important, obviously. But when the focus is purely on “how much stuff do we deliver,” the relationship is automatically tactical and transactional. We tend to turn off the strategic part of our brain, zoom in on the details and forget to zoom back out every now and then.
This is a weakness we have to fight against here, but it’s also something we need to remember up front. We’ve figured out what makes our best clients the best—having a strategic relationship always creates a better outcome.
This does not mean that we dictate the strategy, per se. It means that we have periodic high-level discussions that inform the work we’re doing in the trenches. Of course, we have to earn this trust with our clients, and we have to keep earning it throughout the course of the relationship.
Allowing ourselves to be pigeon-holed as “just writers”
We’ve built a decent reputation as the “agency that writes” and so a lot of times companies will come to us saying they’re looking to hire a “writing service.” Which is fine, but limiting. We find that companies that come to us “wanting/needing content” often don’t have a strategy we can align to.
Sometimes, they just want bunches and bunches of words because they believe SEO is their best path forward. We’re not the right fit for that.
Other times they already have a strategy for distribution and just need the fuel for the engine. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But even when it does, we feel (perhaps selfishly) that they aren’t plugging into the total power of Scribewise (egomaniac alert!).
Yes, content is at the core of everything we do. Everyone here is a strong writer. But it isn’t all we do. And if we get to surround the content with other services, we feel we can have a greater impact for our clients.
That time we found typos on our website
Ugh. This is embarrassing. In Q4, one of our folks realized that we had a number of typos on one of our primary web pages—we had several CTAs that read, “LEARN MORE ABOUT OUT APPROACH TO BRANDING,” or “… CONTENT MARKETING,” etc. Look closely. It’s a bit hard to see because the copy was all caps, and was in a call-out box, but it doesn’t say “our approach,” it says “out approach.”
That was an easy fix that took five minutes. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t painful. We realized that the prospective client who reached out to us over the summer and then abruptly cut off the conversation because of “typos on our website” had actually been right. Ouch.
Now, I’d say that we’re really very good about catching these things, but every member of our team had looked at those pages at some point this year and had missed the misspellings. Typos happen even to the people with the most discerning eye. We know most of our content is grammatically precise and typo-free … but every now and then, we make mistakes.
Building a relationship on shifting sand
Over the summer we met with a prospective new client that seemed like a perfect fit for us. Experienced leadership team, cool new concept, an understanding that content is what would drive their marketing efforts and an easygoing-but-dynamic style that seemed like the perfect basis for a strong relationship.
Within a couple days, we found out that the CEO was planning to blow out the marketing department. That was awkward for us, but certainly not something we had a hand in and—let’s be honest—just about every agency everywhere would relish the idea of working directly with a smart, fast-moving CEO.
We dove in to reinvigorate their messaging and marketing. We had some early success. Things were starting to percolate. There were some nuances of the industry that we were still playing catch-up on, but we always figure out those things pretty quickly.
Six weeks in, the new VP of marketing started. They were great. Plenty of experience. And, of course, their own opinions and way of doing things. Suddenly, we started zigzagging back and forth over brand positioning, which had been “settled.” They were ramping up on the company, too, and naturally having a more immersive introduction to everything. We were all moving at different speeds. Important things like tone of voice and key messages were shifting, even slightly, as the new VP (appropriately) began to have greater impact and authority.
We started guessing. Consequently, we started missing the mark. I will tell you that everything we sent them, as it flew from our email outboxes, I thought, “that’s good stuff.” But, way too often, the client disagreed.
They say in sports that “speed kills”—in this case, moving too fast did us in.
In retrospect, we should’ve heeded the Navy SEALs’ saying, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” In other words, go slow at the beginning to speed up. I suspect we’ll have to learn this lesson several times before it sinks in, but we probably would’ve been better off not starting over the summer, and waiting until the VP of marketing started; that would’ve put us all on the same page from Day One. It’s very hard to be willing to put an exciting new relationship on hold, but we believe it would’ve been better for everyone.
Paying the price for another partner’s shortcomings
If you drive 40,000 people to an ecommerce website in the prime buying season, you should sell more than 10 widgets, right? Even if those widgets cost close to $500?
Well, that happened in 2019. We had concerns about the website as it was being built by another company. It just didn’t have the right design aesthetic to give the potential customer confidence in the site.
We knew that, but thought, “maybe it’ll be okay.” After all, it’s just an experiment, and we’ve been doing a great job so far; maybe we’re awesome enough to make it work anyway.
It wasn’t. It didn’t.
What should we have done? Expressed our concerns more strongly and counseled the client to spend less on social advertising—that would’ve been better stewardship of their funds.
Relying on our brains
When you have smart people on your team and you have some success, you start to believe you can solve any problem. And, frankly, when you start to see the work of some other successful agencies, you start to get cocky.
And then, inevitably, things don’t go the way you thought they’d go (see everything I’ve written above). What we tend to do is get overenthusiastic, take shortcuts and not follow our process. Just because the path forward appears to be a straight line does not mean that we should toss our trusted roadmap to the side.
Process is the Steve Jobs’ turtleneck of efficiency. It enables you to quickly identify subtle differences from previous work you’ve done. It allows you to make sure everyone on your team and the client team is working cohesively, with the same levels of understanding. And it frees your brain for more complex work.
Scuffling along with individual team member growth
In Q4 2018, we instituted OKRs—Objectives and Key Results—as a management practice. Objectives are the primary things you want to accomplish. Key Results are the things that need to get done in order to achieve the Objective. By definition, if you achieve the Key Results, you achieve the Objective.
There’s been a lot written about OKRs the last few years and I’ve personally read a couple of books on them. But there is precious little knowledge out there about implementing OKRs for a services company, let alone a marketing agency; OKRs come out of Silicon Valley and are predictably oriented towards product companies. That means that it’s hard to find a template for us to copy that works perfectly.
But we’re working on it. And we figure that even doing a mediocre job has us moving in the right direction; so far, that thinking has turned out to be true, although we certainly want to improve.
Which brings us to the individual OKRs we had every team member create at the outset of Q3. The idea was for each person to set a personal goal for themselves for the quarter. We specifically did not tie personal OKRs to business goals, and certainly not compensation. We wanted to invest in individual growth.
We tried, but we came up short. We simply didn’t put enough rigor to them. That means not enough upfront time thinking about them and crafting them. And not enough internal oomph to create momentum for the entire team.
We’re working on it, and we’re working on our agency OKRs. But, yeah, it’s a work in progress.
A lot of these mistakes come from moving too fast or making incorrect assumptions. As we look ahead, we hope we never make these mistakes again … but we’d never assume that will be the case.
More importantly, I’d never want to work in a place that doesn’t make mistakes. Never making a mistake means you’re never taking a chance. Obviously, we want to minimize mistakes. But we also want to take big swings. We want to dare to be great. You’ll never find out if you can do something amazing if you’re afraid to look like a fool. So here’s to learning from a whole new batch of mistakes in the year ahead. And the year after that…