Episode 1 – Ross Tavendale

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Audio Transcript:

Chris Simmance (Host):

Hello, and thanks for coming along to And we have an Office Dog, the Digital Agency Podcast, where we talk to digital agency owner/directors and learn about what makes them tick. From the things that make them similar to the things they’ve rather known sooner, we’re here to hear all of the successes they’ve had along the way and where they’ve learned some lessons. All will be revealed. I’m your host, Chris Simmance, the agency coach and I’ll be talking to a different awesome person each episode, asking them four key questions and seeing where the conversation takes us over the next 25 minutes. Okay, so let’s begin. This is the first episode here and I am lucky to have Ross Tavendale, MD of Type A Media. Hi, Ross.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Hello, Chris. Thank you very much for inviting me on your first ever podcast. I hope there’s a lot of firsts in here that won’t be topped by other guests.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Well, the good thing is with the first one, less people will listen to it. So I thought I’d just get an easy guy in first, you see.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Oh, not with this Twitter account, mate. I got at least 10 people that follow me.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Just one retweet and it will go viral, I guess.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

That’s it. But tell your server maintenance people to stand by.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah, I’m a bit worried about that, maybe I’ll send them an email after this. So firstly, this is the bit that you get the value out of, I suspect. So give us a bit of a plug, who is Ross, what is Type A and what does it do, when did you start? All of those things that make anyone listening, maybe want to work with you.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Ross is a Gaelic-Celtic name, meaning… No.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Let’s start a little bit closer to home.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Okay. Type A Media is a SEO agency that specializes in digital PR. In particular, we’re very good at data journalism, so making fancy, interactive things that tell stories with data.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So thingers?

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Thingers, the wonderful, the enigmatic [Jonah Alderson 00:02:02] called it a thinger, which is the most reductive thing that I think I’ve ever heard in my life of what we do. But yeah, we make these thingers to get people links, ultimately.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So cool interactive stuff that people will feature, which is pretty cool. How long have you been going for?

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Four years. It’s been [crosstalk 00:02:21].

Chris Simmance (Host):

Four long years or four quick years?

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Well, the last two have been very long just because of all the lockdowns and stuff, but the first two have went very quick. It’s been a bit of a mottled history, which I’m happy to get into. It wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows. But I didn’t done MBA at university, so I just say that that’s my real life MBA that I got.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Exactly. It’s probably the most expensive MBA anyone can have, is running their own business. I pretty much say that to all of my agency clients because quite often, you set up an agency when you’re an expert at something and you learn the business bit along the way. So let’s get into the questions. I’ve got four questions here which I’m going to ask every agency owner/director in every episode and a fifth one if we’ve got time and if I’ve not beaten you into submission by that point in time. So plug your ear holes back listeners, we’ve got four great questions coming to Ross and the first one, Ross, is, what do you feel has been one of your biggest successes over the last four years of running Type A?

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

I think just survival, being like a [crosstalk 00:03:33].

Chris Simmance (Host):

I mean, we are just coming out of a pandemic, so hopefully you’re talking about the business survival or personal survival?

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Yeah, a little bit both. I mean, so survival, I always think of my business like a cockroach, like there’s been a couple of nuclear blasts but we’re still going. Survival in a couple of ways. I mean, when we first actually started Type A, it was birthed off the back of a company called Ideas Made that I bought into, in inverted comas which sounds very grand, but it was either put a deposit on a mortgage in Scotland, which is 10 pence or buy into this company in London, that’s what I did. Was there for a bit, two years, but then I fell out with a director and he put me through something called forfeiture which kind of struck me off as a director with them. So that wasn’t too fun and out of the ashes of that, came Type A and we’ve just been going ever since, really. But survival, I think is the big one, I’m proudest of, is just dealing with a lot of punches to the mouth.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. I think running an agency is often quite a lot of personal battles, both from a personal professional and from a at home professional perspective as well. You do have to take a lot of knocks along the way. So the biggest success being survival, what would you put some of that survival down to other than just surviving?

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

I mean, I’ve got the nice Disney answer and I’ve got the real answer. I’ll give you the-

Chris Simmance (Host):

Give us the Disney one first. Disney one first we. We do good news, bad news here.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

All right, so it would be the resilience and loyalty of my team and their ability to deal with difficult situations and see things through and the resoluteness of our clients, trusting that we would get them into a good place, regardless of what was happening in the world.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Very Disney. And the realistic one?

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Cash in bank.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Well, often they say cash is king, I guess. But it is true, cashflow keeps things going.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Yeah. So I was always ultra conservative, so having a good cash runway, a lot of people say three months, we typically hold a little bit more than that and that allowed us to have a big cushion during the pandemic. It meant that when we need to hire people, we can do so preemptively instead of reactively, which is something that is a new thing for Type A. Certainly when we were first starting out, you couldn’t just have a bunch of people on payroll just for the sake of it, but now we can, which is nice. But yeah, I think that cash runway is so important and also just being incredibly paranoid that something bad is going to happen.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Those first couple of years, I was sitting on every single client call. So from Monday to Wednesday, I would just have calls from 10:00 till 6:00, back-to-back with all clients and that just allowed me to keep this iron grip on the quality of work going out. However, one of my ex-employees actually said to me as they were leaving to go to another agency, in their exit interview, they said, “It’s kind of just like working for a really good freelancer and we’re in the background.” I’m like, “Oh, right.” That really sparked something in me to change things.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. It’s a struggle that a lot of agency owner/directors have actually because like I said in the opening, you often start your agency because you’re technically great at what you do and you’re able to sell yourself really well. The hardest part is trying to learn how to delegate properly and delegating isn’t just giving people work to do. It is performance management and things like that which is often harder. The hard bit around that is letting go and it’s your baby. You’ve crafted the services, you’ve crafted all of the documentation, you’ve brought the client in, you also feel a bit scared potentially about losing the client if you lose the connection with them, potentially. I remember when I was running Optus a few years ago, I used to find it really hard to not see things done exactly how I wanted to, so I’m guessing that’s a similar type of thing that you’re talking about?

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

It certainly was and if I think back to some of my early employees and some of the stuff that, hoops I used to get them to jump through, I just think, “God, they must have had the patience of absolute saints.” I think with a lot of startups, not just agencies, that you’re really at the mercy of whatever the neuroses of the owner is at the and we actually see it with some clients. Like for small clients where you’re talking to the owner, wow, very emotional and all their little built-up traumas they’ve got over their life really comes out in the style of how they’re a leader and how they run their business.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

But I think the biggie for me is that I’m really into logic. There’s a great website called thoushaltnotcommitlogicalfallacies.com, gives you a big list of all the logical fallacies. And if I think about, “Okay, so you think you got big brains, Mr. Tavendale. You go and hire this person to do a job and then you train them and then you don’t let them do the job.” I actually used to get people to do deliverables, seen they weren’t quite right and then redo them and secret without telling them. How thoroughly mental is that?

Chris Simmance (Host):

It’s exhausting.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Yeah, yeah. You just got to think, “Well, if you’re so smart and you’re hiring these people, what’s going on?” There’s an inner game there, where you just need to let go and trust. I think the reason why people don’t let go is not that they don’t trust the other person that they’ve hired, it’s they don’t trust their own training and leadership yet and that’s where you get that neurotic stuff from. It’s never about [crosstalk 00:09:55] it’s always the individual.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Absolutely. I mean, leadership is a skilling of itself. It’s very hard to be naturally good at leadership. It’s also very hard to push yourself into a leadership role. When you’ve started out for yourself and you’ve built it all for yourself, it’s very hard to do that. And oftentimes, you spend an awful lot of time putting these things together and the last thing you want to see is it come crumbling down around you because someone wasn’t quite up to it or you didn’t spend the time delegating it properly. It’s always on you if it goes wrong. So I guess the second question, which neatly sort of ties into this, if you were to go back, say four years and talk to the younger, more spritely, potentially slimmer Ross version of you, what would you tell him? What would you say?

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

I would tell him that one day you’re going to buy a chest size 46 blazer which I did not ever expect would happen. What would I tell him? This is a bit personal, I’d probably tell him to go to therapy earlier, figure that stuff out because I think a lot of the problems that you end up having as a leader is just all your own shit manifests into a company. Because a company, we never say, “Our company is like have family.” I think that’s very toxic, bad stuff, but at the start, that’s what we actually said, it’s like, “We’re like a family.” But when I look back at it’s like, “We’re not. We pay these people to come and work here.” That’s really bad [crosstalk 00:11:29].

Chris Simmance (Host):

You pay people to come over there and then you have an argument over dinner.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Yeah, exactly. But the thing I would say is, at the start, I was listening to tons of Gary V and Tony Robbins and all these guys and one of the things Gary V kept going on about was like, “Oh, just reinvest into the company and grow and grow and grow.” I think that was actually terrible advice for me because if you’re in a position where you’re a… Gary V already had several million pounds of cash in his back pocket, sure do that-

Chris Simmance (Host):

Whatever happens, he’s okay, yeah.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Yeah. But my net worth coming out of the last agency I was with, was whatever I was paid that last month, like hard zero. So you’re just in this weird place where you don’t have any personal security and neither does your business. And then you’re thinking about adding more liability through hiring just because your ego is telling you, “It’s a good thing to do.” So what I would’ve said to the more spritely Ross is, “Put some money away first and build your own personal runway and get your finances in order before you start being Billy Big-Balls with hiring people.”

Chris Simmance (Host):

Okay. Well, that’s reasonable. I wonder whether Ross back four years ago would’ve listened to that. What do you think?

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

No. I’m still very impressionable, but one of the things I would also tell my younger self is, “Just don’t list to anyone’s advice because it’s so choice and it’s so related to their own little weird world.”

Chris Simmance (Host):

So I guess with quantum tunneling or something, we could send this podcast back to you.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

I just wouldn’t listen. I wouldn’t even listen to myself. I don’t know my younger self anymore. My younger self would not recognize who I am today, so it would be an interesting little thought experiment, but yeah-

Chris Simmance (Host):

So I guess other than seeking advice/therapy or listening to yourself a little bit, is there anything that you regret, I guess, or wish you done differently or maybe even just sooner than you’ve done previously?

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Yeah. I think not recording things and building compounding assets into the business I was [crosstalk 00:13:49]. So what I mean by that is, I would start these little shows or these little things for marketing, but I mean technically, I’ve been at it now for, coming up for eight years really, as a freelancer and then our original agency, then Type A, but I don’t really have a ton to show for it in terms of compounded value. Would you imagine if I was writing blog posts and landing pages eight years ago and putting that on a site and reviewing things and getting into the industry more, that compound value for eight years would be huge.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

So that’s what I would say, I didn’t really invest in building assets into the business. I was very concerned with sales. I was great at sales and that was actually one of my downfalls. Year one of being a freelancer, I would lose 30% of my entire business every year, so I’d sell so much that I could barely do the work, barely go on calls. And of course clients would be like, “What are you doing you little dickhead. I’m not giving you money for this,” and then they’d fire me. So I always had the sales thing nailed, just the servicing the client happiness thing on year one, God, I must have been what, 25 or something, clueless.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Fair enough, fair enough. And I guess, you have to learn some lessons the hard way. That’s reasonable I think, but if you consider what you can build as compounding assets as an agency owner now, rather than just the marketing, I think that… I mean, we’ve had conversations in the past where you personally spend a lot of time writing your standard operating procedures and building things that are templatable, that are not necessarily the things that get delivered to clients, but from a operations perspective. That sort of thing is essential to a growing agency, right? So when I work with lots of clients, they, “Oh yeah, we’ve got all the systems, we’ve got the processes. We don’t need to worry about that bit.” And then you look at it and the process is a Word document with some bullet points or the systems that they use are a very heavily overburdened, overladened version of Asana.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And I think you used to use Asana. I remember we had that conversation in the past and as did I with Optus and it becomes very messy, very quickly and it’s very easy to undo things by mistake or change due dates without making things transactionable or even transparent. And lots of agencies build their business off the back of what they think is something because they’ve read a blog or they followed a book somewhere. And not having things that you can compound over time that are assets inside the business, is usually a lost opportunity. People come in, people leave and you lose that knowledge over time and you can’t expect the new person to come in and be able to immediately learn all the stuff that’s in someone’s head. And I think, not just from a marketing point of view, but from an actual operations and growth point of view, it costs more to have to keep going backwards and forwards, isn’t it?

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Yeah. When it comes to compounding assets in a business, I always used to think of it as an external thing. So compounding traffic, which is a very SEO thing to think, actually-

Chris Simmance (Host):

Really is.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Yeah, but internally, actually that works as well. And I’ve been through that, of our operating procedures were so vast, they became… it’s a weird thing. It’s like you want to tell people how to do the job, but also too much of that will kill their creativity and it just becomes cumbersome and hard to use. So one of the great things that we’ve been able to do is exactly that. We break our operating procedures down into questions, so when… because you need to think of how it’s being interacted with and how it’s been searched for. Because typically, those operating procedures, yes, when you first onboard a junior, they will probably go through it in a linear fashion, but after that, they’ve not put all of that in their head. They need to go back and query what you’ve just built, so if we’re doing a document on keyword research, that needs 30, 40 different Q and A style videos so they can [crosstalk 00:18:10] in that question and get the right thing. So just little things like that make quite a big difference.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And you almost need a full time person to be able to keep on top of that from a revisions perspective. Not just making the revisions themselves, but also just keeping on top of the process for keeping on top of the things you need to keep on top of. I’ve found that quite a lot of the agencies that I work with, over time, they often end up hiring someone whose direct role is operational efficiency stuff. So projects management, but the business level, as opposed to the individual project level. And I think that quite often, the amount of things you just talked about there, that’s not enough. That’s too much for one person to keep in their head, especially as the agency owner with all the other stuff going on. If you’ve got a person who’s typically brilliant at operational procedures and project management, then you end up having that person help you along the way. “Hey, Ross. Don’t forget next week we need to re-record the section two of the keyword research document because this tool has changed,” or something like that.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Yeah. Internally having a process to change process. I know it sounds [crosstalk 00:19:24] but it’s quite important. And then typically, heads of department would be in charge of, “You sure that’s all up to date?”.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Agreed. I think that having the right people accountable for things is essential, but also being able to keep on top of the people who are accountable for things, it’s a never ending cycle and no wonder nothing ever gets done, hey. So what would you say then if someone is thinking right now, they’re listening to this and they’ve heard all these things about going to therapy and have some cash in the bank and get your assets and things all sorted out, if someone was thinking, “I’m looking to start my own agency. I’m going to leave in-house or I’m going to leave the agency I’m working in, start out for as self and build my own agency,” what would you say is the one core piece of advice you’d say to them on just first thing that they do, if they’re going to start out for themselves?

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

I would ask them why they’re doing it. I get that it looks quite fancy and there’s a little bit of prestige that goes with it and all the rest of it, but truly ask yourself why. If the answer is money, then an agency is not a good vehicle for you at the start. Especially in today’s market, just being a day rated freelancer, oh my God, you could do incredibly well… Just to put it in perspective, if an agency turns over £1 million, if they’re amazing, what would that be? A 30% net would be phenomenal, groundbreaking work.

Chris Simmance (Host):

That would be extraordinary. If they had full time staff as well, for sure.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Yeah. So if you’re a publicist group agency, to be bought, you need a net over 14%. So just let that sink in, to make 140 grand, you actually need to turn over a million quid. Now to make 140 grand as a freelancer is still hard, but making a million quid is really difficult. So I would say, just ask yourself why. If it’s money, think about the freelance route first. If it’s not money and you’ve got really good ideas, that you want to make something, you want to put together these processes, you want to build teams and all that sort of thing and you can’t really work with big brands and make a lot of impact as an individual unless you’re a high level consultant, which for SEOs, doesn’t really exist in our world a lot of the time.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

So if you were starting out now, I would make sure that you get your numbers right at the start, realize that an agency is a formula business and what I mean by that is, it’s been done a million times over and there is a formula to running these sorts of companies. It’s not some ingenious software startup where you need to be super creative. With your clients and the work, you need to be creative, but with the business operations, it’s a formula. So that’s what I would say to them.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. I often call what you call a formula business, a recipe, in the sense that it’s the same cake everyone is trying to make. But you might add a pinch of this and a little bit of that and make it your own, but ultimately you still have to bake it at 140 degrees for 20 minutes and you still have to mix things and you still have to use the same base ingredients. That’s why there’s so many different agencies out there and hence, the name of the podcast because almost every agency says, “Results driven, so on, so forth and we have an office dog, the chief morale officer and things.” That’s just because they’re all baking the same cake.

Chris Simmance (Host):

There are ways to be unique and your own, but that’s where you add a little pinch of something to add the flavor and that’s where you add your specific skillset into creating these assets like you do, for example. The thing is, as we call them, ingest, are pretty bloody good and that’s because you’ve done something that other agencies can do, but you do it in a different way and that’s why it has the success that it does, I think.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Yeah. Getting a USP is very important and would definitely niche down and be very… don’t be the everyman. Especially when you start out, pick your niche and really go after that. One thing I would also say is, when you think about USPs or you’re thinking the copy for your website, it’s very hard to be original. And one of the things I quite like to do with other competing agencies is read their mission statements and what they stand for and stuff and reverse it. So if they say, “We exist to give our clients good results.” Okay well, if we reverse that and say, “We exist to give our clients shit results,” that doesn’t make any sense. So if it doesn’t make sense in reverse, don’t say it because the words that you’ve just said absolutely are implicit and you don’t need to-

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah, absolutely. Same thing goes for values, same thing goes for purpose and in all senses of the word, if you want to try and be… you can be the everyman agency if you want and you could do all right with that, but you still come up against the same problems and then it becomes a marketing and sales problem. The-

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Hard to get margin out of those business [crosstalk 00:24:30].

Chris Simmance (Host):

Oh yeah, absolutely.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

When we started out, Facebook ads were really popping up. We’re like, “Yeah, let’s do Facebook ads as well.” And you need a creative, you need someone to work the ads, need a copywriter, I need an account manager to… it’s loads to get one set of ads out.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Absolutely. Yeah, I totally agree with you, I totally agree. And for all the hard work, for all of the effort that you put in and for all the time you put in, would you say that you would do it all over again? If you went back in time four years, knowing everything you know now and the opportunity of one path or this path were in front of you, would you pick it?

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Yeah, but I think I’d maybe change the ferocity that I went at it. Because you’re going to get tired and then all these great plans don’t always come a 100% to fruition, so what I would actually say is, just take it like that Bukowski thing, “If you’re going to go, go all the way.” I would take it to the absolute nth degree and don’t be scared about taking it to the nth degree. When you don’t see anyone else doing it, you get scared or [crosstalk 00:25:40] you do it, you’re like, “Oh, no one else does it like this. This is a bit weird.”

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

The four day work week thing that we do, that’s a bit weird and that was scary to do that. But if you do it enough, scary thing, if you actually become emboldened… there’s a thing in World War II, where people in The Blitz, they would come out of the bomb shelters and see their next door neighbor’s house had been flattened by a Nazi bomb, but they would actually feel more emboldened and emblazoned by it because of the near miss. They’re like, “Ha, can’t get me,” that sort of thing. And the more you do those things that make you feel brave, it can… that compounds. So I would be focused on that as well, I think.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. For anyone who’s listening who runs an agency now or is looking to run an agency in the future, I think one thing on the point that you’re making there, Ross, is, don’t bother with being on Twitter or ignore people who are trolls on Twitter because if you try doing something differently and you want to be brave and you want to go for it and you want to go to the nth degree, there’s going to be someone who doesn’t like it and that’s for them to worry about. There’s plenty of good to come from trying hard and trying to do different things.

Chris Simmance (Host):

When you did the four day work week, almost no other agencies were doing that sort of thing, if at all. It was scary because obviously you’ve had to operationally plan around that, but it could’ve easily backfired and you stuck with it and you did what you needed to do. There are some agencies out there that try different models. There are some agencies out there that try really hard to be big and bold and loud and it’s for other people to have their own opinion around that sort of thing, I think. So keep yourself strong to the thing that you try to do and only change it when you’ve got something that shows that it wasn’t the right way to do it.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Yeah. Keep it elegant. So we’ve got these values and one of them is, do not manage outputs, fix the inputs. And that means, think about what you’re doing in the strategy before you implement and if… got a bunch of stuff that feels messy or hard to manage, we don’t need to throw more management at it. We just need to fix the problem that’s creating the mess. That’s another one that we [crosstalk 00:28:01] by.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah, brilliant, brilliant. Well, thank you very much, Ross, for joining me on the inaugural And we have an Office Dog podcast. It’s been great actually having this conversation, so hopefully anyone listening enjoys it and shares it. If they don’t and no one listens, then that Twitter following you were talking about is a load of rubbish, Ross. But thanks for listening everybody and the next episode, soon to follow with another fabulous agency owner. So thanks very much, Ross.

Ross Tavendale (Guest):

Thanks, Chris.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Have a good day.

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