Episode 4 – Hannah Thorpe

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Audio Transcript:

Chris Simmance (Host):

Hello, and thanks for coming along too, and we have an office dog, the Digital Agency podcast, where we talk to different agency owner directors and learn about what makes them tick. From the things that make them similar, to things they have rather known sooner. We’re here to talk about their successes and some of the things that they wished they’d learned along the way a bit sooner. All will be revealed.

Chris Simmance (Host):

I’m your host Chris Simmance, the agency coach, and I’ll be talking to a different awesome person in each episode asking them four key questions and seeing where the conversation takes us over the next 25 minutes. Okay, so let’s begin. In this episode, we’ve got Hannah Thorpe or as I call her Hannah Thorpe from Verkeer. Hello Hannah.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Hi Chris Simmance, not Simmance.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Fair, fair. So first of all, give yourself and Verkeer a little plug. What is it that Verkeer does and does best?

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Cool. So Verkeer is a digital marketing agency based out in West London. I would say what we do best is actually just take the bullshit out of anything digital and SEO specifically. So if you’re there looking for SEO support or not sure what to do with your digital, you’re guaranteed with us to get some honest advice. We have a really forward thinking approach that’s just focused on what’s actually going to help your business rather than what’s going to get you some SEO vanity metrics or tick a box in your budget lines. It’s really just all about having an actual impact.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So no BS, SEO is brilliant. There’s lots of agencies who say it, but I suspect having known you for a few years, I know that that’s something that you will not allow any BS in Verkeer. So how do you find that works with clients? How do they take that approach? Are there some that really hate that and that you just know they’re not a fit?

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

I think for us, it’s about how we communicate it. So there are some clients that want us to bluntly say, and be like, “You’re wasting your money. Don’t do that.” And then there are some clients that want us to maybe frame it in a nicer way so that their boss understands and they can present that back internally, but still get the point across. So we tend to work quite well with a whole mix of clients. But I think for us, the way we frame it with the team, because it’s really their job to make our internal clients look like rock stars in their businesses. So it’s not about credit for the agency. It’s about the point of contact looking like they know their staff and then making the right choices. So we’re happy for it to be their idea or their call not to do something publicly in their company.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. So I guess that works really, really well, especially as people who work at the level that you’re talking in businesses, in house, they often move across to other companies over 2, 3, 5 years. So I suspect they bring you into the next place they work at?

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah, exactly. And we consider it a win if we are able to get our internal point of contact promoted. That shows we’ve done a great job if we’ve helped them work towards a promotion.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Fantastic. So I guess the first question is what do you feel has been one of your personal biggest successes over the time you’ve been running Verkeer?

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

So I’ve actually only been running Verkeer just over a year now.

Chris Simmance (Host):

But this isn’t your first agency though, is it Hannah?

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Well, it’s not. And when you said you were going to maybe ask this question, I was like, should I go for a Verkeer one or something from… I used to run an agency called White.net, which we actually sold on to a slightly larger agency. But I think for me, most of my biggest successes actually probably have come through the year I’ve spent at Verkeer, just because there was such an interesting foundation to start from. So about a year ago, we were quite single channel focused and we had a team who were great and enthusiastic, but much more client management focused and specialists. So for me, my biggest achievement has really been how we’ve rolled out a really great integrated training plan and got those frameworks in place. So I know you always call them recipes.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yes, I do, I do. I’m slowly becoming famous for that and I’m not sure whether people like it or not.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

I mean, it helps you’re probably a good cook as well.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yes, yes, it certainly does. I think having those sorts of things as a stamp on an agency make a big difference. Having processes slash recipes is integral, isn’t it? Because you don’t want to take away the decision making from a creativity point of view, but you also need to make sure that there’s a benchmark for what good looks like.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah, exactly. And my team have some amazing ideas, but I would say sometimes getting them to push their amazing ideas forward and have the confidence to speak out can be the struggle, and having those frameworks in place where they can tie their cool, innovative idea back to a strategic pillar or they know how to express it to the client because they know the four steps and how we do that, just makes everyone feel more confident to think outside the box and push themselves a bit further.

Chris Simmance (Host):

That’s great because you don’t hire people to be robots and if they’ve got great ideas, you definitely don’t them to be afraid of showing them. And like you say, having the framework for them to be able to do that, that must have been something that you’ve really see in a big difference in over the course of the last year then really, because that wasn’t there beforehand.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah. And it’s really easy to see how to discuss an idea internally as well, so there’s less fear about coming forward with that idea. And I think for us, we’re hiring at the moment, and it’s one of the things we look for in candidates where we’re like, can you think of something a bit different? Can you break a template and do something creative with it? We love our frameworks and we love our templates on deliverables and stuff, but we also, I’m more than happy for someone to come in and go, “Nah, that’s all right. But not for this client.” And come up with something new.

Chris Simmance (Host):

That’s great. That’s great, and I suspect that will serve you really well as you’re hiring more people. You’ve got to get the mix of people right. And the ability for them to have their professional opinion on these things is really key. So I guess I know that you said that you used to run White.net as well. So in general, in all of the time that you’ve been running agencies, what would you do if you went back in time and spoke to the younger, more spritely version of Hannah, what would you say to her? Oh, silence.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah, it’s too many choices of what I would say. Don’t do it. Yeah, I think I’d probably tell myself that it’s okay to make an absolute mess and make the wrong choice. So when I started as Managing Director at White.net, I was quite young and quite inexperienced, and I had a lot of pushback actually from the team at the time, where they were concerned about the business being handed over for me to make these decisions. And I let that get in my head I think, and I had that choice paralysis, where I was like, I don’t know the right decision so I’m going to hang out and make no decisions.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. I think the choice paralysis as you put it, I think that’s something that everyone has from time to time, but I guess starting at a relatively young age as an MD of an agency, it’s going to take its toll a bit, because like you say, the other people that were part of the agency at the time didn’t necessarily know your skillset and what you could bring to the table. So there’s probably that, but you got into your own head is what you’re saying.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah. And I think that fear of failure is something I know everyone has, but it’s about how you channel that into making a decision and then not being afraid to go back on it and say, “Actually, that was the wrong choice, let’s go again.” Pretty much every decision you could change afterwards. And I think I felt like everything would be permanent and I’d be tied to a root, which might not have been the right one.

Chris Simmance (Host):

I see. Yeah. And I suppose as well, at that point in your career there wasn’t a huge amount of opportunity for feedback from people that were a peer, I guess, from a peer network or from a friendship group that had similar roles to you that you could bounce ideas off of.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah. And I think that’s actually where I really developed as a managing director of that business, was when I started talking to other people that were doing that role. So I know that you had Ross on your podcast and a few others that I’ve worked with and spoken to before. And I became friends with those people through conferences and actually having that sounding board of, if I make a wrong decision, how bad would this be? And understanding that other people have made mistakes and made a mess of things before, and it didn’t ruin their business. That really helped. So I think getting rid of the ego to reach out and just ask someone is really, really good.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. I think as soon as I realized that it wasn’t just me, if that makes sense, I think that was when I really was able to open up myself and realize where my faults were and where my opportunities for personal and professional growth were. And I think you’re right, it takes time to find that. And once you’ve got it, it’s almost a superpower, isn’t it? Having a bit of ability to talk to other people quite a lot more easily.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah. And I think as well, realizing that not everyone’s against you and rooting for you to fail. So I used to not want to tell people because I’d be like, God, if I admit a weakness, they’re going to steal my clients and my staff and ruin my business. And actually most people are just quite a good shoulder to cry on and they’ll talk it through with you and help you. It’s not as competitive as maybe SEO Twitter makes it out to be.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. Let’s not worry about SEO, Twitter. I think there’s probably, right now whilst we’re talking, some sort of argument about the color of a link or something being a ranking factor and things like that. So yeah.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Well, it is. Blue links rank best.

Chris Simmance (Host):

10 of them. You’ll find there’s vitriol wherever you go in those sorts of spaces. But having a competent group of peers that you trust is vital, I think, as a business or agency owner. So apart from trusting yourself and listening to other people and things like that, is there anything that you regret or wish that you’d done differently, or even maybe sooner over the years? Is there something that you learned now that you wish that you’d put in place sooner or something like that?

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

So I would say, probably related to how I present when I’m passionate about something, is actually both my biggest regret, but also probably one of my biggest learnings as well. So when I was younger, running accounts and actually dealing with clients day to day, I would find that I would be so fiercely passionate about doing the best thing, that sometimes I’d communicate it so strongly and then actually the outcome would be the client was almost turned off by that. And they’d just be like, “Oh, it sounds difficult, nah”, and run away.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. That makes sense.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah. And I think learning to fix that and that you can still… I went through a phase where clients weren’t doing what I wanted. So I thought change my communication.

Chris Simmance (Host):

That was a phase, was it? That’s changed now. Clients all listen.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Everyone’s controlled now. No, so I thought it was because I was being too passionate and annoying them with it. So then I became a boring account manager where I’d just vaguely tell them something and not get excited, and they didn’t respond to that either. And I was like, what am I doing? And actually I had some really good professional coaching about how to communicate better with clients, how to express your point even if they’re not interested, and all of that, I think has just really helped. And that’s what I’d probably do different, is get that in a lot sooner.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Well, that’s a nice segue into, if you’re listening to this and you want some professional SEO agency coaching, click here, in the air.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Just here to set them up for you.

Chris Simmance (Host):

There you go. I mean, you set them up, I hopefully knock them down. But no, you are quite right. I think that you’ve got to get the tone right with people and passion doesn’t always translate to the right thing for people because sometimes passion is often scary to other people, especially if they don’t really understand it. And I suppose as time grows anyway, you work out your own rhythm for getting your point across. So I think running an agency, you need to learn that very quickly, don’t you? Because everyone you work with in a team is very different as well as the clients.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah. And getting your motivation across as well to clients. So I guess as an agency owner, quite often clients assume that I’m just there to take the paycheck. And I’m like, how do I get more money on your retainer as fast as possible? So we’ll do things like, we’ll say to a client, you should really start this a month earlier and we’re saying that because we’re approaching peak maybe for them. And we want to get our tech changes in two months before they’re peak rather than the month of, because we don’t want to risk something. And to a client or a potential client, they might think you’re just trying to make an extra month’s revenue. So being able to communicate that passion comes from a place where you are rooting for the client and not rooting for yourself and what your actual motivation is. That was really key for me.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. I think you’re spot on there. I think that makes a lot of difference. It makes a lot of difference in the long term. It’s hard to spot immediately though, isn’t it?

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah, definitely. And I think what I worked on a lot was what really motivates me. And I used to think when I was working for someone else, I always thought it was money. And then I had a boss tell me that I was motivated by being right and being the best.

Chris Simmance (Host):

I don’t believe them for a second.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Well, then I thought about it and I was like, I’m not that bothered. There’s things I don’t want to know or learn in life. And then I tried to work it out, what it was. And then I had another coach who actually said to me, “Well, you’re just motivated by winning.” And actually that really hits home for me. And it makes me sound like one of those awful marketing people, that’s up at 5:00 AM and in the gym and reads 20 books in an hour kind of thing. And that’s also not my vibe.

Chris Simmance (Host):

One of those people who throw an entire essay onto LinkedIn to say they got up at five and fed a two-legged dog and they went to an interview and gave someone a mansion and things like that.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah, exactly. For me, sometimes my win for the day is that I can finish at half four and watch something I’ve been meaning to watch on Netflix. So my motivation is setting my own goals and having my own checklist for the day, the week, the month, the year, and achieving that. It’s nothing to do with someone else’s scale of success. And I think realizing that in myself has made me a much better leader as well.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. And you’re quite right. I think there’s problematic though, isn’t it, if you’re an agency leader where you’re trying to market yourself in a market where everyone else is talking about wins all the time, so I can imagine once you are happy enough in your own self, then that’s a lot easier. But getting into that takes a bit of time, I suppose.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah. We describe it like at Verkeer, luckily my CEO and I are motivated by very similar things, so we work quite well together. But we just describe it as winning, but not at all costs.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah, I like that.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

So yeah, it wouldn’t be a win for us if we got all of our client work done and loads of revenue, but our team were having breakdowns, exhausted. That’s not a win, even though it might look like one on paper.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. The winning, but not at all costs, I like that a lot. I think that’s a nice way to live because like you say, you focus on getting the win done, but if it’s going to cost more than you’re willing to put forward, whether it’s people, whether it’s time, whether it’s ethics or whatever, you can happily say no and it doesn’t impact that winning mindset.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah. It doesn’t make you feel like you failed. It feels like it was your choice to pull away from that.

Chris Simmance (Host):

That’s really good. Yeah. And how do the team feel when you give them that approach? Do they live like that as well?

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

I think honestly, it’s a bit of a mix. So some people really get behind it and they understand it. But I would say the biggest thing we see with our team is they put themselves under so much pressure to do the best, be the best and always be achieving and that’s great. But I would say one of my biggest things as a manager is finding the skillset to communicate to them that it’s okay to drop the ball and go and look after yourself sometimes.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. It doesn’t hurt to tell them to switch off once in a while, turn off Slack or Teams or whatever, go and buy a bag of Maltesers and watch something on Netflix. It’s probably good for people once in a while.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah. It’s why we have a whole to-do list for the team every day of what we are aiming to get out the door. And we all use it as a shared list because then if someone finishes, they help someone else so that everyone finishes at the same time, it feels a bit more collaborative. And then hopefully there are those days when everyone’s out grabbing Maltesers and chilling, as if my team don’t just go to the pub, and they’re doing that rather than all working, slaving late or someone feeling the brunt of the work themselves.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. It’s a good mindset and it’s a good way for the team to work. And I think most of the time that’s going to be really useful, isn’t it? Because when someone is feeling a bit low or is feeling in a bit of need of some support, everyone else around them gets it, that that could be me. So I’ll help the rest.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah, exactly. And I’m definitely not saying we’re perfect though. I’m sure if my team listened to this after they’ve had a bad day, they’d be like, “What is she talking about? It’s not like that at all.” So I definitely don’t want this to cover across as preachy because I think it’s something we strive towards, but it’s also something that I think is very difficult to get right. So also if you’re another agency leader listening, and you are like, “God, I wish we could do that.” If you’re doing it more days than you’re not doing it, you’re doing a good enough job.

Chris Simmance (Host):

That’s really, really good advice. I think that agency owners often, you’re only as good as you were yesterday or something along those lines, I can’t remember what it was. Compare yourself to the day to who you were yesterday sort of thing. And if you’re not doing something all the time, there’s often a good reason for that. You’ve got a lot of things to balance, whether it be cash flow or new revenue, or client’s churn, staff churn, hiring, firing, all those sorts of things. There’s so much for you to balance that something has to slip. There has to be a plate that’s dropped once in a while.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah. It’s like a bit of a rollercoaster. My CEO and I have actually set a goal for this year, which is to not make judgements based on last week. And instead, to spend some time and actually track how we feel. So if something’s annoying me, I try, instead of picking up the phone to the CEO and being like, “I’m changing this. Everything must stop.” Actually giving it another week and then another week and then at the end of the month, making the decision.

Chris Simmance (Host):

That’s smart. Yeah, hopefully that works for the long term because that’s a really nice approach, especially when there’s two of you at the top of the tree.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah, because otherwise we just end up killing each other, screaming that we’re going to change everything and the business is so busy pivoting. What can you do?

Chris Simmance (Host):

Well, you’d have to be an acrobat. So if you were to give one piece of advice now to anyone who’s already an agency leader or someone who’s aspiring maybe to quit the nine to five in their own agency they work at and become an agency owner in the future. What would be the one thing that you would tell them? If you could just pop into their lives for one second and something that would help them out, what do you think it would be?

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

So I have two.

Chris Simmance (Host):

I said one, Hannah.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

I know.

Chris Simmance (Host):

You can do two, go on. You can do two. It’s fine.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Okay. The second one’s actually quite nice to you. So you should hear both.

Chris Simmance (Host):

I take two, I take two.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

I guess my first one is take the time to think about how you’re going to be organized. So I see a lot of freelancers and they just work off their own to-do list and they take on so much work and then they’re overwhelmed and they can’t get it done because they haven’t thought about how the hours play out and how they juggle it. And I think we see the same in agency as well. And it’s like, if you can get the right project management process in place and the right system for working out what resource you have, it enables you to make every other decision, like we don’t take on work that we can’t deliver and then disappoint a client. And equally we don’t hire when we haven’t got enough work and then panic about our wage bill. All of that just makes everything easier if you get that in place first.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah, no, absolutely. But any business will fail no matter how much money you bring in, if you’ve got a leaky bucket, it is just a race to the bottom, but a very slow race to the bottom if you’re bringing in loads of cash. So yeah, you’re right. Get your ducks in a row, your systems, your processes and things like that in order and know how you are going to be organized. I love that you’ve said two things today that I’m going to take away, know how you’re going to be organized is quite a big one.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah. And for me, I get very stressed and very anxious, and knowing that there’s a list and that everything is organized and planned in and is physically doable makes me feel better, because I like everything immediately. If you could finish my month’s worth of work in the first day, I’d be a delighted manager because I just feel like everything needs to be instant. And I think having the organization really slows me down and makes me realize everything’s going to be okay next week and the week after, so you can take that mental break and it’s just better for everyone’s health.

Chris Simmance (Host):

That makes a lot of sense. That makes a lot of sense. So you said you had two. I’m definitely going to like this one, you say?

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah. So my second one is look externally for some form of coach as soon as you can. In every senior role I’ve had, I’ve had some form of additional… Whether it’s a [inaudible] the business as a whole, or whether it’s a coach for the business or actually someone just one on one working with me. And I think the value that you get out of it is pretty much like… Well, it’s what you put into it. If you are committed to the process of opening up about everything and setting yourself goals and working towards those with someone external that holds you accountable, it can really just help you level up what you’re doing, but it also can really help you work on how you switch off, how you make the right choices and how you don’t get bogged down in the day to day.

Chris Simmance (Host):

You’re right. I did like that. No, again, spot on thinking. It’s the right person for the right job in these sorts of cases. And I think one thing I learned is that you’ve also got to be at the right frame of mind to be able to accept any kind of coaching advice or mentorship from people. Because I remember a long time ago, I tried to take some mentorship and coaching on when I was running Optus and it wasn’t the right time. And I used it as an opportunity to disagree with someone and carry on doing it my own way, which just added frustration, obviously had a cost to it. And you know what I’m like when it comes to, I know what I’m doing, leave me alone. But then the right time comes along and that’s when you can… If you’re ready to listen to someone then that’s definitely the right time.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And that comes at different points for everyone. It’s either early doors or it’s at a point where they see that there’s solutions, but aren’t quite ready for them or able to grasp them. And the key part of good coaching is that layer of accountability. You said you were going to do this, how are you along with that? Shall we move the goal posts? Do we need to change the process? Is there something that you can be helped with to get that done on time? You’re quite right.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah. And I think it’s the right coach at the right time for you. So when I was a bit younger, I would say I was quite temperamental. So I literally once had a coach get up at effectively 3:00 AM because they were in another country and I really needed to talk to them. So he gets up super early, gets on the phone with me, he annoyed me within two seconds and I stormed out of the room the phone call was on and just left him.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Now, other coaches would probably have something to say about that, and want to talk about you valuing their service, but he was right for me at that time because he really handled the fact that I was such an emotional leader and so lost in what I was doing, that he was very good at then communicating with me and making me understand why I was acting like that and what I could do next and how to recover from those situations. Whereas I think now, we probably wouldn’t work that well together and actually I’ve worked with coaches more recently who’ve had some very, very different approaches. So it’s like, test out different coaches and find the right person for you and the right fit.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Absolutely. Absolutely. And just like no two agencies and no two clients are the same, no two coaches or no two layers of support are the same. So I was talking to Nichola Stott from Erudite in episode two, and she was talking about how she’s part of a group called TAB, The Alternative Ball, I think it’s called, where lots of people from different businesses make up a large business board, and you’re just talking to business owner peers rather than necessarily a coach. And sometimes that’s a way of getting into understanding that it is the right time to listen because you’re listening to of the business owners.

Chris Simmance (Host):

In the digital agency world, there’s mastermind groups and there’s Zoom calls and you’re flying across the country. And there’s all sorts of things like that can be supportive as well without having necessarily the one to one coaching, but you still get some of the accountability as well there just listening to other people. And if you’re not quite ready for that sort of thing immediately, then like you say, you had the right person at the right time when you needed that person, that poor person that you abandoned.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Yeah. I mean, Nichola was actually my first ever boss. And so working with her, she really instilled the speak to people mentality in me. She had a really great connection of agency friends and owners and consultants. And actually when I started and was an intern, we were a team of three people at one point. So I didn’t really have many people to bounce ideas off and admit that I was stuck unless they were directly my employer, which was quite a scary concept. And she was like, “Why don’t you message so and so, and message this person. You met them at a conference, they’re a specialist in this.” And she really encouraged me to use my network and I think that’s a skill that proved really valuable to me once I got beyond needing the tactical skills, but actually needing the leadership and business skills.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Absolutely. Well, thank you very much Nichola for creating Hannah.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

God, don’t say that. She’ll never let me live that down.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Well, hopefully she listens to this one then.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

How awful.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Thank you very much for coming along today, Hannah. I do appreciate your time and I’m sure everyone who’s listening is going to have appreciated this as well. Please do listen in to the next few episodes. We’ve got some fantastic agency owner directors lined up for the next few and I’ll speak to you all soon. Thanks very much, Hannah.

Hannah Thorpe (Guest):

Thanks so much for having me, Chris.

Chris Simmance (Host):

No problem.

 

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