How to Build a Data-Driven Agency
Building a data-driven agency can be a tough challenge. In this post, we’ll share some core guidelines to help you get started.
When agencies ask me how they can build a better moat around their business, I always say the same thing: data.
Creative agencies already know how to work with data. They know how to collect it, visualize it, and analyze it for their clients (and their customers).
However, when it comes to running their own businesses with a data-focused bent, most agencies come up short. The problems are usually the same: limited data, outdated data, or inaccessible data.
Eventually, most agencies end up committing to data half-heartedly, leaning on it for some decisions, winging the rest of it.
If you are to thrive in the current decade, you can’t afford to ignore data any longer. You need to reimagine your agency with data at its center. From better operational efficiency to profitability, good data practices will help you unlock your agency’s potential.
And in this post, I’ll help you get started.
7 Tips for Building a Data-Driven Agency
Transforming into a data-driven agency isn’t an overnight process. You’ll have gaps in your technology, processes, and personnel. You will invariably encounter pushback from management as well as the rank and file - you are, after all, changing the way people work.
Below, I’ll discuss some strategies to make your data transformation successful:
1. Embrace Data Wholeheartedly
One of the worst things you can do about this transformation exercise is to embrace it only partially.
Any half-hearted attempt will eventually yield incomplete or inconsistent data. You might think you have something to work with, but such data obfuscates more than it reveals. The origin of countless bad business decisions can be traced to incomplete data.
Instead, go all-in on this agency transformation exercise. Some pointers to keep in mind:
- Start from the top: Data-driven cultures start from the very top. There should be a concentrated, visible effort from senior leaders to embrace data in their decision making. In meetings, for instance, management should ask for data instead of going by their “guts” to make decisions.
- Invest in data solutions: Buying data-focused tools or hiring data-oriented people is a tangible signal that you’re ready to go all-in on data. Moreover, the sheer sunk cost effect of this investment can force reluctant senior leaders to tag along.
- Help employees get onboard: A data-driven culture can alienate creative employees. This, in turn, makes them more reluctant to embrace data completely. Help them get over their fears by creating training and education programs.
- Bust the “creative myth”: There’s a dominant misconception among creative agencies that if they go all-in on data, they’ll somehow lose their creative spark. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. Addressing this myth is key to getting your rank and file to embrace data.
There is no straight path to building a data-driven agency, but committing to it fully is a good place to start.
Most businesses say that data is important for decision making, but only 57% actually use it, mostly due to a lack of actionable insight from their existing data (Image source)
2. Get Into the “Data Habit”
There’s hardly any business today that hasn’t attempted to gather some data and organize it meaningfully.
Yet, these efforts often fail because they are too limited, too fragmented, or too inconsistent.
Data, like most things in business, is about habits. Collecting data and organizing it isn’t a one-time thing; it’s something you must do every day.
In practical terms, building this data habit means:
- Gathering data daily and storing it in a centralized, easily accessible repository.
- Backing daily decisions with data instead of going by instincts
- Liberating data from department-focused silos and allowing it to be used across the agency
- Bringing transparency to the way you collect, store, analyze and use data
- Adopting automated systems and processes that reduce friction to data usage
3. Run a Data Audit
As I said earlier, most businesses already have some way to collect and use data. Before you create a new system, it’s a good idea to first understand where you currently stand.
Here are some questions your data audit should answer:
- What data are we currently collecting? Where is it stored? Who has access to it?
- Is our data stored in any proprietary formats? If yes, is it applicable across the business or department-specific?
- What metrics are we currently tracking? Are these “vanity metrics” or do they yield any actionable insights in our business?
- How widely accessible is our data? Is it easy for people from different departments to access each other’s data? If not, then why not?
- Are we using any specific systems, tools, or software to collect and analyze data? Are there any established best practices for handling data?
- Are there any people responsible for working with data? Or is data “everyone’s job”?
- Do we have any training programs to help employees get up to speed with data handling and analysis?
Eventually, your goal should be to standardize data collection, storage, and analysis. The closer you get (or are) to standardizing your processes, the more seamless your data efforts will be.
4. Change Your Data Organization Principles
There’s an old quote: “information wants to be free”.
The same can be said for data.
Data that is locked away, siloed, or inconsistent can’t yield any useful insights. You might have the best data analysts in the world, but if they’re working with incomplete, inaccessible data, they can’t really do much with it.
Thus, before you can start building a data-driven agency, you have to change how you organize your data.
There are three core concepts in data organization:
- Centralization: Data that is siloed or fragmented is rarely useful for a business. All the data you create and collect should be stored in a single place where it can be easily found and used. As far as data is concerned, centralization should be a core guiding principle.
- Security: Centralization brings up the problem of security. Thus, user access controls, security best practices like 2-factor authentication, etc. should be a top priority. You should be able to grant or revoke access to different individuals on a case-by-case basis.
- Interoperability: Data from each department or team should be readily accessible across the entire business. No team/department should use proprietary data formats or tools. There should also be consistency in metrics across departments. If your Sales and Finance teams are using different metrics, you can’t really draw any meaningful insights from your data.
5. Free Your Financial Data
Your financial data is arguably the most important data trove in your agency.
You are, after all, running a business.
Yet no other data is as siloed away as financial data. It’s usually locked away in your accounting software, incapable of being used by sales or project teams to make better decisions. Consequently, these teams end up marching into meetings blind, not knowing the eventual financial impact of their actions.
If you want to build a data-driven agency, your first target should be to free your financial data.
For instance, your financial data can reveal who your most profitable clients are. If you arm your sales teams with this information, they can better evaluate their current pipeline and target potentially profitable leads.
Similarly, your project managers can decide what kind of clients to prioritize when they’re creating project schedules.
The best way to achieve this is by bringing together your accounting, sales, and project reporting tools under one roof. This gives all your key teams ready access to relevant financial numbers.
In Workamajig, for example, you can track your most profitable clients and the number of hours worked on each project.
6. Find Your “North Star” Metrics
Data can hide as much as it can reveal. It’s easy to lose track of your goals as you get inundated with an ever-increasing volume of data.
I find that the best way to get out of this dark forest of data is to focus on your “North Star” metrics.
Swimming in data: 40% of respondents in a survey of senior leaders said that they have too much unstructured data to make good decisions (Image source)
These are metrics that help you track your core values and mission.
If you’re a profit-focused agency, your North Star metrics might be agency profitability (as opposed to client loyalty). If you want to build lasting client relationships, your North Star metrics would be client churn. If you prioritize employee happiness, you’d track the attrition rate.
And so on.
The purpose of tracking these metrics is twofold:
- Signal vs noise: Instead of tracking dozens of metrics to gauge agency performance, you can track a single metric to know whether you’re truly meeting your mission statement.
- Morale and motivation booster: Nothing motivates agencies more than knowing that they’re constantly meeting their goals. A single metric that tells you at a glance how you’re doing can act as a powerful morale booster.
If you’re attempting to create a data-driven agency, focusing on a key metric also simplifies the transformation process. It gives senior leadership a ready target to rally the troops around - a necessary tool to bring reluctant stakeholders onboard this journey.
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7. Don’t Ignore “Vanity Metrics”
“Vanity metrics” - metrics that look good on a Powerpoint but don’t yield any actual business insight - are rightfully derided as irrelevant and useless.
But in a people-focused business, they serve an important role: as morale boosters.
Metrics that excite senior leadership will rarely have the same effect on your rank and file. After all, why should a junior designer care if you had a blockbuster quarter or that you reduced client churn by 15%?
In contrast, vanity metrics - pageviews, likes, shares, etc. - serve as tangible proof that the designer’s work is being appreciated. It might not mean much to your bottom line if a video gets 500,000 views or 5M, but to the team that created it, it can serve as powerful motivation.
The key is to find vanity metrics that are directly tied to your creative teams’ performance.
Once you have these metrics, track them in a central dashboard and make them easily accessible to your creative teams.
Knowing how they’re doing will be a great motivational tool. It will also help them spot issues and improve their performance in the future.
Over to You
Adopting data in your business is neither fast nor easy. Every agency has different foundations and will take different paths to become data-driven.
The core principles, however, remain the same: get organizational buy-in, cultivate a “data habit”, and make sure that all your data is easily accessible.
The easiest way to achieve this is by adopting better agency management software. With a tool like Workamajig, you can track your agency’s work across departments. This frees up your data and gives you data-driven insights into your performance.
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About The Author
Hannah C recently joined the Workamajig Marketing Team. She enjoys a healthy lifestyle, loves all things furry and is always looking to learn something new. Send her your best recipe, a picture of your dog or your secret tip for marketing success at firstname.lastname@example.org.