Agency, The PPC Show

Making the Move from Freelancer to Running a Small Agency [Podcast]

Welcome to episode #73 of the PPC Show, where we interview the best and brightest in paid search and social media advertising. This week we're joined by Jon Quinton, founder of Overdrive Digital.

In this episode, Jon talks about making the move the freelancer to start his own digital agency in the UK.

Stay tuned to learn:

  • How he's transitioning from freelancer to small agency
  • How he's defining workflows so he can take on more staff
  • Checklists for account onboarding and set up (defining UTM structures, ad account access, GA access etc etc)
  • And his fictional scenarios built in to give some real-life examples of how to proceed for new account managers

Listen to the Episode



Jon Quinton

Jon Quinton runs Overdrive Digital, an agency specializing in paid social, paid search and SEO. Working with clients in both B2C and B2B, Jon enjoys the challenge of optimising campaigns for greater conversions, and always focusing on the fastest way to make an impact on the business. If you need a hand with your digital marketing, get in touch for a chat!

Show Notes and Transcript

JD Prater:                     Jon, welcome to the PPC Show!

Jon Quinton:                Hey, man. Thanks for having me.

JD Prater:                     Yeah. Guys catch that accent? Jon is coming to us from just the London suburbs of Guildford, as I have learned, and so I'm pretty excited to have him on.

Jon Quinton:                Thanks very much. Like I was saying, I've been listening to the PPC Show for quite a while now, so ... I'm going to try and not get all fanboy on you. Can we have a selfie?

JD Prater:                     Yeah. I'll just take a picture of my computer screen of both of us in a selfie.

Jon Quinton:                That will be perfect.

JD Prater:                     Nice.

Jon Quinton:                I'll frame it.

JD Prater:                     Cool. We got Jon on the show here to really kind of talk to us about some really ... an interesting kind of inflection point within his own career. So, Jon used to be a freelancer doing a lot of PPC management, and now he has started his own digital agency called Overdrive Digital. So, Jon, tell us a little bit about how you got started as a freelancer, and then starting your own agency.

Jon Quinton:                Yeah, sure. I've been doing online marketing now for kind of ... well over 10 years. The really cool thing about it for me is it started out as a hobby, so I've ended up doing something that I was doing for fun, but for a career, which I think is really cool. It started out kind of ... So, before I did this, I used to play guitar for a living, which was completely different, really good fun, no money, you know. But it was great, and while I was doing that, I set up a subscription site to do online guitar lessons, so people would pay me like, what, $6 or $7 a month and they'd get some content, and it was kind of before YouTube went massive and there was loads of free content everywhere. It was a really cool project. Financially, it was a disaster, but for me, I learned a lot so it was okay.

But that classic thing of I've set up a website, loads of people are going to come read it, oh, no they don't. So I had to learn how to get traffic. I learned how to set up PPC campaigns. I learned how to do a little bit of PR and get into guitar magazines. I just really, really enjoyed it. Like absolutely, completely enjoyed that process. That kind of led to doing work for different people, and that led in some freelancing, and then spent some time agency-side. Then about 16 months ago, I left my position in an agency called Builtvisible, who are in London. We were doing lots of SEO stuff at the time, and that's been quite a big part of my digital marketing, has been kind of organic side. Left there, set up Overdrive Digital, which initially was kind of me freelancing and contracting.

Honestly, I did that ... I set up just after my second child was born, so the goal at the time was don't lose the house, keep some food on the table, and if that happens, it'll be cool. And then it was quite apparent pretty quickly that it was going to be quite a bit better than that, and it was really busy, did really well, and it kind of came to this point of me going, "Right, well, do I just keep going as I am, as a contractor? Or do I try and grow this thing?" And there was just this itch and ambition to make it into something a bit bigger, and grow a team around it. That's kind of where I am now, really.

JD Prater:                     Nice. Well, we're going to be diving into that kind of itch, if you will, and some of those growing pains. But you've also set up a lot of really good processes to really help kind of understand and define the workflow, whether that's the day to day management, whether that's hiring people. Let's kind of jump into that, as I'm sure there are people out there listening who have always wondered if they could do it. I kind of wanted to start off with just kind of understanding, what does it take to not only go from freelance, but to maybe add your first, maybe second employee?

Jon Quinton:                I think the ... there's a few different things, I think, that have to be there, and I think the mistake that I was seeing a lot of people make when you just kind of start reading around it is that they went and hired because they felt really busy. It's like, okay, that's a good indicator, but it's not enough. Is the revenue there? Is the profit there? Is the cash in the bank there, so if it all goes wrong you can survive for a bit? Is that there? Is there a sales pipe of leads coming in? Does it look like this current trend is going to continue? Is there enough of one type of work?

We specialize mainly in pay social, so a lot of Facebook ads, LinkedIn ads, do PPC, still do a bit of SEO. When I first started freelancing, it was, "I'll take anything I can get," in terms of I wasn't really trying to specialize in anything. I just wanted to work. Whereas now, with specializing, and as that has happened, there's become more and more of one type of role. So, enough consistency to fill a job, rather than ... You can't really hire someone to do everything as your first employee, because you're going to have to hire someone pretty senior who's going to be quite expensive, and it's just not realistic. For me, it was about kind of working out what those boxes were, and making sure they were ticked to make sure that it was a secure decision.

This whole topic around workflows and processes was a really big deal for me at that point, because I was going from, "Well, it's just me, I do it my way. I don't really ..." You can do it your way without putting a huge amount of thought into what your way is, but then you realize, "I've got to hire someone, so what are they going to be doing? What skills do I need to look for? What are they going to be coming in to do?" And that, for me, was the first point where I was like, "Okay, I need to really define these workflows, and define these processes to make that kind of hire possible." So, that's kind of how it started, really.

JD Prater:                     Nice. Let's start there, then. I think that's a really good point of, "Do I have enough business to justify it? Okay, great. I have enough business, it looks like we're moving forward, we're forecasting, we're modeling well. All right, let's hire someone." Let's talk about some of those processes. What were some of the first types of processes that you put into place, or you started documenting, of your own type of workflow?

Jon Quinton:                So, it actually started with just kind of having a Word doc open all the time, and I'd be kind of jotting down, "Okay, I'm doing this, and doing that." Every time I did something, I'd jot it down, and I'd try and have a little bit of detail around why I was doing that particular thing. So, if I was taking on a new client and I was uploading new ad sets, instead of just going through it, I'd spend an extra five minutes or ten minutes just writing some bullet points on what I was actually doing and why, and then that kind of grew, and grew, and grew until I have a pretty thorough set of notes. Then it's kind of going from, "What am I actually doing?" Through to kind of what we need to do.

For me, that's been a really interesting process, stepping right back and going not just, "What am I doing?" from a day to day basis, but, "If I could design the perfect way of doing this, from my experience and what I'm doing right now, here's everything that I would do." It's a really good opportunity to step back from the day to day and go, "Actually, is this really the right way of doing it, or should with put another check in? Are we looking at the right data at this point? Are we sending the client the right report? Is the onboarding process right? Do they have a good experience? Could we do anything that makes that better and more pleasurable for a client?" All that type of stuff. It's been a really good opportunity to kind of look at all of that, really.

JD Prater:                     Nice. I mean, I think that's something that is always interesting, when you break down why you're doing something. It sounds like as you kind of get into that, you started writing about it, you got into it. What are some of the onboarding, or some of the setup structures that you put into place? Give us super-tactical type of lists that you started putting together.

Jon Quinton:                I think the onboarding bit is really interesting because that's such a key part of, a critical part of any relationship. Again, that's where consistency comes in. One of the big reasons for me for doing this was if a client is trusting us with their budget, and they're trusting us with their money, that experience should be consistent. So, whether it's me working on it, or whether it's a new team member working on it, the client should be getting the same type of experience and the same results and everything else. The onboarding is such a big part of that. That's down to kind of anything from, "What do we need, as an agency? Account access, GA access. Does the pixel work? Have we checked that the pixel works? If the pixel doesn't work, here's a debugging checklist for doing that." So, it's usually the same things, right? And usually, fingers crossed, touch wood, they've implemented it through GTM, so you know your kind of right, if it doesn't work, here's some things you can look at, and here's some things you can try in GTM.

Right from that kind of debugging set, to also from the client's side, what should they be getting from us at that point. We have things like no matter who they are and what they're doing, they're going to get some form of strategic overview. So, context, here's what we want to achieve, here's why. Here's what we're going to try and do for you. Really kind of almost dumb it down to the, "Here's what we want to achieve over the next six months," and I've found that's really useful for just setting things off on the right path, and setting expectations. We'll be quite honest and brutal at that point to say, "Look. If we're inheriting this account, we're going to try loads of stuff in month one. It might mean that it doesn't look as good for a month because we're testing, so be aware that that might be a thing. But by month two, we want to be here, and then by month three, we want to be there." It just gives us a really good point of things to review as we go through. Trying to avoid the situation where we're just going, "Let's do some stuff. Let's launch some ads." Or, "We're just doing some things." It's always constantly working towards something. Having a really clear process for what that onboarding structure is makes that possible. It just facilitates that, I think.

JD Prater:                     Nice. I think that's a really good thing to have in place, especially when you're starting out with a new client. I've been in places where that wasn't really in place, and so you're just kind of, every account manager's kind of doing their own thing, and when you think about consistency, it's not really fair because some account managers are better at setting those expectations, getting that access. You can't really scale that knowledge and you can't really scale yourself, because this is a reflection of you. Overdrive Digital, that is you, Jon, and so I'm really happy to hear that you have that in place.

Jon Quinton:                Completely. That's one side of it, but the flip side to the process and the workflows is, I think there's a really fine line between having a process that's genuinely helpful and adds value, and one that's so rigid that people can't add their own creativity. If someone's had experience with doing things elsewhere, they should be able to add that in. It should be, "Here's what you do, and don't deviate. If you haven't done step nine, why not?" That's not what this is at all. It's, "Let's look at this and make sure the big, important stuff is done." I think that's really important.

JD Prater:                     Nice. So, we've kind of got onboarding, right? Let's move on to the next level. So, you've been onboarded. Can we talk about management now? As you were saying, you had to start documenting all of this information in a Word doc. You start questioning yourself on, "Am I doing too much? Am I doing too little? Am I doing the right things?" How did you put that together in a way that was also scalable, but also made sense to new hires? After that, let's get into some training, of how you kind of trained people as well. So, let's start with the checklist, if you will.

Jon Quinton:                In terms of putting it in a format that makes sense, we're still working on that. This is always going to be evolving. It's never a certain thing, it's a living, breathing process. Someone will look at it and go, "Okay, I just don't understand it." Then you go, "Okay, why not?" And you might reformat it based on that feedback. Generally speaking, it's almost in that structure of how we talked about it. So, first thing they're going to do when they get a new account is they're going to have to onboard them. So, that's the first thing. The next thing is, okay, setting up ads. What should we do? What's the starting point? How many audiences should we be testing? What types of audience should we be testing? All of that type of stuff as well.

And then in terms of the management, what we've got at the moment is a set of weekly tasks, so it's make sure on a weekly basis, you're checking your CPMs to see if they've gone up. We set up lots of dashboards in Google Docs with Supermetrics, and we just pull in data and we'll look at trends over time, like for CPCs. We'll be able to look at an outset level and say, "Right, well CTR's gone off a cliff. Why?" Obviously, something's now fatigued with our audience, let's move on, try something else. If we're making sure that everyone has access to that data and is looking at the right data, at least we stand a chance of making the right decisions. For me, that's one of the biggest skills or things to develop when you're managing pay campaigns. It's the decision making. Anyone can set up a Facebook campaign and put some ads in, and spend some money. But what do you do if that thing that you wanted to happen, doesn't happen?

JD Prater:                     That's a tough one, man. That's ... I think the "Then what?" is a good one. I think what you were saying, too, is it does depend. Maybe it's the locations that you're targeting. Maybe it's the type of client. Maybe it was the offer. Maybe it was the hook. Maybe it was the image. But I think having that checklist of, "Okay, CTR dropped, CPM went up, go investigate." And then start developing that hypothesis of what you think might be the problem.

Jon Quinton:                Exactly. I really like scenarios, to bring it to life a bit. Within the processes that we're building out, we're going, "Here's everything you should be checking every week, and these things are helpful, and those things are helpful." And then it's, okay, let's say two weeks into a campaign, your CPA's still really high. What do you do? Go back and look at the performance. Is it because the CPC is really high? If the CPC is really high, is it because the CTR is really low? Is the relevance score really low? Then you can start to go, "Well, actually, maybe it's not the audience, maybe it's the creatives. Let's test ... instead of a picture of the product, let's test a picture of a human being and see what that does. Or let's try some video, or an animation. Or let's try something completely different on the creative and see what we do then."

It's not necessarily that ... because you're right. Every client is different, every situation is different, and there's probably a different reason why things aren't working out. But at least if you've got a list of things to try, it instills that way of thinking, of, "Okay, well, don't panic. No knee-jerk reactions. Before I start panicking, here's a list of things that I know I can at least try." I think that's a really good way to start thinking. I think scenarios like that can really help to kind of bring it to life.

JD Prater:                     Nice. Let's take it to the next step. So, you were talking about, a little bit around training and hiring, so whenever we get and think about that. Let's start with hiring, and then we'll get into training. Whenever you've got a good process in place, you've got a good set of clients and you're thinking about hiring, you made the mention of, "I can't really hire someone super senior because they're the most expensive." So, when you're thinking about it, do you typically go for entry level, never done it? Or someone maybe a junior, one to three years experience? What are you looking for?

Jon Quinton:                Context wise, for this business, that is ... we're at the start of this journey, in terms of hiring. I've been involved with it quite a bit in other positions, but in terms of this business, this is a new thing for us. We have one full-time employee, we have a couple of part-times, we're looking for a new full-time employee, maybe two more in QT, that kind of thing. We're still figuring it out, but having that process means you know what skills to look for. It also helps you shape interview questions. "Have you had experience at this? If so, what happened?" You can start to work out where that fits into the day to day in a really easy way if you've got it written down and documented. It also means you can set tasks within that interview process, or you can set ... You just know where the weaknesses are, and you can match it against what you'd need in the position. Whereas, if you haven't got that written down, that's really hard to do.

JD Prater:                     Yeah, 100 percent on that one. So, this is my favorite kind of question. You've interviewed, I'm sure, dozens of people now, right? What are some of the skills that you think stand out? That if you have these skills, you're probably going to be pretty good, or at least skills that you look for in your next hire.

Jon Quinton:                That's a really good question. Doing this, this is another thing about kind of doing it when it's your own business, is it's a lot more personal. It's not personal, but it is personal. So there's the whole side of, "Do I feel like they're really going to care about this business?" as well. But in terms of skills, I think attention to detail is always a really big one, because if they're going to be client-facing, you've got to be fairly confident that they're going to be sending out the right information, and the right data, in the right way. That's a big one. I think analyzing why something isn't working, or spotting a problem in some data. So, giving someone a view of four outsets, for example, and you go, "Okay, which is the problem one? If this is your goal, which one would you be concerned about, and why?" And to start understanding that analytical thinking in quite a basic way. Then I think, again, with the digital marketing as a whole, you need that analytical side of the brain, and you need the creative side of the brain, and it's really difficult to find someone with both, and as a new business, it's really hard to be able to afford two separate people. You kind of have to figure out where the priorities are, and which side of the brain is more important at this particular point in time.

JD Prater:                     With that in mind, I know you were talking about how you're in the suburbs of London, are you guys all within your office? Or do you try to hire remote as well?

Jon Quinton:                At the moment, we're all ... we're in a co-working space at the moment.

JD Prater:                     Gotcha.

Jon Quinton:                Guildford's pretty cool. It's like a real hotbed for gaming, so there's lots of VR and game design studios. We're in a co-working space full of people with VR goggles on all day, basically.

JD Prater:                     Nice. I have another story about that that we can talk about after this. That's pretty interesting. So, you've got some hiring. You've got someone that's maybe starting, let's say week one, week two. What does that onboarding for your actual new hires look like? We talked about onboarding clients. What does it look like when you're trying to get members up to speed within your agency?

Jon Quinton:                Again, still figuring out precisely what that should be, and probably will never stop trying to refine that. The way we've kind of done it recently is working back from month three. So we go, right, month three, fully operational. This is what that looks like. Which means at the end of month two, you should be doing these things, which means at the end of month one, you should be doing these things. Typically, the first couple of weeks is just get familiar. Figure out who our clients are, figure out what we do for them. Ask loads of questions, no matter how stupid they are. Just be a bit of a sponge, and then it's on to kind of, okay, starting to be functional. So, doing basic, kind of like the easier tasks, like uploading ads, or doing things in Power Editor, where you can't really make a mistake until you hit that big review button.

All those types of things just slowly, slowly, slowly becoming more and more functional within an account. Then, kind of moving on to client coms and things like that. So it's really to kind of learn the service, and learn the product, and learn the mechanics of it, and then start to kind of bleed in the, "Okay, actually how do you think about this once it's running? Or how do you optimize it, or what decisions should you be making along the way? What does the client actually care about?" And all of the softer side.

JD Prater:                     And are you having them maybe use your checklist? So you've got these checklists in place, are you having the go through and audit accounts? Are they sitting in in the background of calls with clients so they can kind of hear how you guys talk with clients and larger accounts?

Jon Quinton:                Yeah. That kind of exposure, I think, is key. The checklists, yes, particularly for things like ... I find it useful, myself. You know when you're really busy, and you've got a thousand things going on at once? That's when you start making mistakes, with the wrong ads going live, or ... We do things like Black Friday, for example, we had a load of clients where obviously, we had the sales going live over the weekend. So, you've got a number of accounts where you've got to get a load of ads live, a load of ads off, the right ads in the right place. Everyone's doing different offers, different percentages.

It can be pretty confusing, so we do this thing where, okay, here's the checklist, run through it. I'm using it. And then we do this swap over. So, when there's something kind of big like that, like if Hattie, for example, if she's done her campaign, I'll check that. And then she'll go and check the one that I've done. It's just that second pair of eyes, who's not kind of swamped in it, is really useful. That's something that's been really helpful. It's fun, but useful.

JD Prater:                     Nice. I'm glad that you guys had that in place, though. I've been in agencies before where sometimes the account manager gets really protective of their account, and they don't want other people looking at it. To that end, with the double set of eyes and everything, how do you guys within your agency share knowledge? Wins, things, optimization tactics. As an agency, if you guys are kind of continuing to learn from each other.

Jon Quinton:                Yeah, so that is super easy at the moment, because we're so small. It's just like, "Hey, look at this!" And then "How did that happen? Okay, well, we did this, we did that, we did that, and yeah, look at it." So it's so easy at the moment. I think that's probably, as things develop, the next thing. Training wise, the way we're approaching it is just, again, because we're small, everything's pretty open and transparent, and it's easy to spot where things may be a little bit weak. Sometimes it might be someone who's new to Facebook ads, for example. It can be hard to find the right data quickly, so you want to view these conversions, these metrics. How do you do it? If we're seeing that that's a problem, or not even a problem, but someone's struggling to get that quickly, we'll just run a half hour session on, "By the way, here's some really cool things you can do to get data quickly out of Facebook ads." Or, "Here's how it compares to what you might see in GA, and here's why the two things are different." It's kind of spotting things in the day to day, and then that influences, "Okay, well let's put half hour training session in on that thing."

JD Prater:                     Nice. With kind of thinking about your own journey, what's something that you wish you would have known? So, you're only a year and a half in, right? Somewhere around there. What's something that you wish you would have known, even just a year and a half ago, 18 months?

Jon Quinton:                When I decided to make the leap and freelance, I think probably that, actually, it will be okay. There's enough work out there to share. It wasn't half as scary as I thought it would be. Worse case scenario, I'll have to go and get another job.

JD Prater:                     That's very optimistic. I like it.

Jon Quinton:                It's a little different now because I'm responsible for other people, and it's a slightly different thing, but as a freelancer, that's ... The worst thing that's going to happen is you'll have to go and find another job. And probably have a dent to the ego, you know.

JD Prater:                     What are some of the hard things about starting your own agency?

Jon Quinton:                I think having a network was massive for me. So, having people that I knew, and knew me, and there was mutual trust, and that kind of thing meant that getting recommendations in all happened quite quickly. If you didn't have that, it would be incredibly difficult, I think, because if someone recommends you, you're probably going to convert that inquiry far easier than someone coming in cold. That's a huge thing. I think without that, it would have been quite difficult. I think personal financial discipline. I know that sounds really boring.

JD Prater:                     It's true, though. It's good.

Jon Quinton:                If you start earning some money as a freelancer and then just spend it, you're into a nightmare there. It's difficult, because you're like ... but you've got business overheads and all that type of stuff to cover, and depending on what your ambitions are for the business, you may or may not need a larger sum of cash. That's a big one for me, definitely. I think the big one for anyone, I think it's the network, really. I think that's the ... If you've got that, you'll start to get business in, and if you start to get business in, you can figure most other things out, I think.

JD Prater:                     Cool. With people thinking about it, right ... Maybe there's some freelancers out there listening, or maybe one or two person teams. What advice would you give them for growing your agency, or growing a company?

Jon Quinton:                I think, again, it's going to be different for everyone. What we are looking at right now is looking at different sources of inquiries, right? Because without inquiries, we can't grow. We're looking at, right, okay, I definitely have a good network of people that can refer us, and do regularly refer us, but how can we just make sure that we're ever-present in their minds? It's that, how do we kind of improve our own marketing? How do we improve the perception of who we are? All of that type of stuff is what we're focused on, really, in a big way for Q1. It's thinking about it like a business, and not as just a job that you're doing. I think, again, that's a big thing. If you start freelancing, you could be the best PPC guy in the world, but that's now only part of what you do. You have to be good at sales, you have to be good at marketing your own business. You have to do your admin, finances, tax takes. The actual job is only a small part of it. That's a bit of a weird thing to get used to as well, I think.

JD Prater:                     Nice. I think that's definitely ... if I had to think about starting my own agency, that's probably the number one thing that I am scared of doing, is all the other functions that I don't know how to do, like HR, and accounting, and then selling. It's like, can I just go back to marketing? So kudos to you, man, for taking it on.

Jon Quinton:                I find those sorts of things quite fun. Maybe I'm weird, but I quite like bookkeeping. If you hate that kind of thing, then are you really going to enjoy running your own business, or working as a freelancer? Or can you afford to get someone to help you with that? There are other ways around it, and if you're bad at sales, that's not necessarily a problem because there's lots of agencies that will kind of share some work with you, or outsource some work to you as a partner. That means you only really need to connect to two or three people, and you can get quite busy quite quickly that way. So if you are weak at those things, you can think about other ways of doing it, I suppose.

JD Prater:                     Nice. All right, man. So, five years from now. Let's think about it. Where do you want to be, five years from now? What does that look like?

Jon Quinton:                As a business?

JD Prater:                     As a business, yeah.

Jon Quinton:                As a business, I think a really solid team. I don't know what number that is. For me, it's a really solid team that loves working on what we're doing, that loves getting the clients great results. I want to keep that kind of zest for good results and good relationships with clients. That's the most important thing. If we're the size we are now in five years, that's fine, if the results are still good and the clients are having a great time working with us. That's totally fine. But ideally, we'd be, I don't know, 10 people, a nice cool office, that kind of thing. We'll see.

JD Prater:                     All right. So, you guys are called Overdrive Digital. I know name is always a lot of fun. How did you guys come up with Overdrive?

Jon Quinton:                So, that goes back to me playing guitar. I loved overdrive pedals and overdriven amps, you know. I thought, yeah, that's cool. It kind of, for me, it's about being a bit loud, and it's growing, and it's kind of got a bit of energy behind it. And yeah, liked it.

JD Prater:                     All right. This is going to be my last question for you, man. Just what kind of advice would you give for everyone kind of listening out there, that maybe we haven't touched on yet so far?

Jon Quinton:                One nugget?

JD Prater:                     One nugget. What is your thing that you want to leave everyone with?

Jon Quinton:                I think if you're new to this, I would say drill down and get good, seriously good at one thing. If it's ad copy, it's ad copy. If it's data, it's data. Get seriously good at one thing, I think.

JD Prater:                     All right. Well, there you have it, man. From Jon himself, get really good at one thing, become a specialist. That way you can maybe, hopefully provide some really good value for your agency. Maybe even your own agency, or even maybe as a freelancer. Jon, thanks again for coming on, talking to us about Overdrive Digital. Really, your experience in prepping your coworkers, your team with lists, with processes, with workflow, sharing some of your hiring tips. I'm so thankful for that. Thanks.

Jon Quinton:                Pleasure. Thanks for having me.

JD Prater:                     All right. Well, everyone, thanks again for listening to the PPC Show. That was Jon Quinton from Overdrive Digital, outside of London in Guildford. I just wanted to thank him again for coming on, and then we'll see you guys next week.


AdStage Team