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4 Tips for Running a Small Digital Agency in Times of Crisis

Here are some valuable tips to help agency owners and managers keep their digital marketing agencies running amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Digital Marketing Agency-Focused COVID-19 Post I Didn't Want To Write

As an agency owner or manager, these are extraordinary times.

We are all desperately trying to figure things out in this era of COVID-19, just like you.

What follows are four tips on managing a digital agency in the current crisis

I hope these thoughts prove helpful to you.

I will also share some resources I’ve run across at the end of the article.

1. Communicate Quickly, Clearly & Empathetically

It should be no surprise that communication is at the top of the list here.

It’s not just cliche however, think about the brands you have respect for right now in this crisis, and that is likely because they have communicated in the following three ways:


It might actually be a little too late for this, but even late is better than never.

A couple of weeks back, we went through every client account, and worked up an email to communicate:

  • This is what’s happening in the bigger world at large.
  • Here is exactly what’s happening in your account right now.
  • Here are the steps we’re actively taking in this mess.

We wanted to get in front of it, even before some clients we’re fully realizing that their accounts could even be impacted.

The response we heard back was overwhelmingly positive.

In fact, the exercise was good for us because it forced us to really sit down and take stock at exactly where our accounts were, rather than rely on our assumptions.

Clients value agencies who evidence that you are thinking of their businesses even before they do.


This isn’t really the time to sugar coat things.

I mean, let’s not be alarmist, but if an account is on the struggle bus, be willing to honestly acknowledge that and walk the client through helping to weather the crisis.

If your clients can’t trust that you will be honest with them about the actual state of their business, then why should they keep you on retainer… even after it reverses?

Walk that fine line between remaining positive, yet realistic so you can look for solutions.


Have you ever heard the phrase “do to others as you would have them do to you” before?

(Believe it or not, that didn’t originate with your preschool teacher, but it came from a really cool guy named Jesus who lived a long time ago. ;))

This may seem silly, but think about how you feel right now and imagine how others feel before you communicate.

In many ways, this is an unprecedented event, whether viral or economic, that we are all facing.

Everyone in the world right now is a little more stressed about getting sick and losing money.

Add to that the fact that they’ve been cooped up in their home longer than ever before… and you have a recipe for people just being a little more annoyed in general.

Be the standout by choosing kindness in how you communicate and that will be remembered in your clients when the dust settles. (It will someday! I promise!)

If you need to reply to an email or talk to a stressed client, take a few deep breaths and consider that they may be worried about their ailing father or they might be wondering how they will deal with schooling the kids next year if this lasts longer than a few months.

You may be the last person they are actually annoyed with and yet their lashing out at you briefly.

Put yourself in their shoes and communicate with kindness and respect.

Not only are you a great person for doing that, but you’ll likely be who they remember when this is done and client loyalty will be at an all-time high.

2. You Can’t Help Your Neighbors If Your House Is on Fire

While we need to ensure we are taking care of our clients, we need to ensure we are taking care of our businesses as well.

A couple of thoughts on how to do this practically:

  • Make sure to investigate the EIDL and PPP (pdf) loan/grants for assistance. If they help you survive so you can continue doing great work for clients and helping to market for other businesses so they survive, then everyone is winning!
  • While you may feel badly about doing so, I don’t believe it is wrong to (respectfully and patiently) pursue delinquent payments in clients to which you are owed… especially if you have allowed some to fall several payments behind. This doesn’t mean you are a jerk about it, or that you don’t think through possible creative options for repayment (consider a payment plan, or % discount if they pay in full within the week), but you have done work for which they agreed to pay you and you also need to consider the families of your own employees as you make these difficult decisions. That being said, check out the next point.

3. Approaching Everyone’s Favorite Topic in a Crisis: Pricing & Agency Fees

One of the most insightful things I have heard about this crisis and agencies was from my friend Julie Bacchini.

She noted on Twitter a few weeks ago (or was that 29 years ago? I get easily confused these days) that she had owned an agency during the 2008 recession and learned a few things about discounting prices in a crisis.

Specifically, she warned agencies not to discount prices randomly for no reason without there being some reason or pull-back in scope.

This would only undervalue and undermine their abilities to stay alive themselves as profit was decreased in ever difficult times, and would also set a new lower standard for accurate value once the crisis was inevitably over.

Her suggestion was to reduce scope, or offer some sort of benefit in exchange for that discount.

Justin Wise suggested something similar in a recent Credo webinar.

He suggested an option like reducing the next 3 invoices by 10% as long as the client pre-paid those 3 months. Then there is a tangible benefit to both parties, and it isn’t just a fire sale of value.

If a client is genuinely having difficulty (as we discussed above), rather than hold their feet to the fire over a contract, recognize that these are unbelievable times and it’s likely that your client isn’t just playing hard to get… you may never recover anything from them.

In that case, I’d suggest along with Wil Reynolds not holding them to the contract and unnecessarily creating ill will, but working toward a resolution or temporary pause.

Keep them as a client, by being gracious and pausing your work temporarily.

You may not get paid for that month, but the reality is you won’t get paid if they go bankrupt.

This way, you are gaining client loyalty by acknowledging their difficult position and saving the relationship for the long-game.

John Doherty had a similar suggestion in an email post he sent out. That is, don’t let clients make hasty decisions in forgetting that there is a coming end to this.

That doesn’t mean holding their accounts hostage!

It does mean reasoning with them to use language such as “temporary pause” and potentially unbundling your services to maintain some level of revenue, but at a decreased scope so you also can grow your book without losing your time as well as the revenue.

Whatever you do, walk the balance in being empathetic and understanding, but also:

  • Respect the responsibility you have to your employees and debtors.
  • Be willing to think more creatively during this crisis timeframe when it comes to pricing than you normally would.

4. Avoid the Niche

Finally, I wanted to write a random thought I had… that I actually hesitated to share simply because I didn’t want it to come across as taking a shot at other agencies.

Doggone it though, sometimes the best time to think about this sort of thing is when we’re in the thick of it so I’m taking the risk and sharing my thoughts on this topic, during a really tough time.

I want to talk about niching out.

I’ve been thinking recently about agency niches.

What’s said next is my opinion.

There are different ways of looking at this stuff and many good points on the “to niche or not to niche” (by niche, I mean choose a specific, single industry – like foodservice, travel, events – to advertise in your marketing discipline).

The huge benefit of niching out is, once you find your groove you are “the go to” person or agency for referrals and you can sell it as such. “This is all we do, we know your industry and can rock.”

There are additional benefits to niching out as well that won’t be covered in this post, but have been covered (possibly even, ad nauseam) elsewhere.

That being said, the substantial risk to niching out that hasn’t always been obvious, until seasons like this, is the dark side of lack of vertical diversification.

Entire industries such as foodservice, travel, and events are wiped out right now.

Just terrible. Impacting so many lives.

I don’t know any agencies personally who only focus on one of these, but I imagine they are out there, and I take no delight in the survival fight they are currently engaged in.

Niching into one of those will have had devastating effects on an agency because of this crisis.

But, IMO, that is always a danger with niching out and why I think it’s worth talking about.

I remember once quoting out a prospect (SAAS Job Service), and the day after (or was it the same day?) I sent our proposal, Google released its job market product within SERPs and immediately caused this prospect to react in alarm as Google took over their SERPs.

My hesitant suggestion (and hopefully this will spawn discussion, there absolutely could be important alternative points to consider here), is to take stock of your current situation and be willing to pursue vertical diversification at this present time.

Even if your vertical isn’t currently at risk (that you know of), it might be wise to consider the risks when a crisis hits.

We have been ridiculously blessed, as so far we haven’t lost any clients at ZATO (my PPC agency).

However, we have clients in the foodservice and event industries who have been obviously impacted, especially in terms of spend.

I am very thankful we haven’t leaned too far into either of those industries like we could have in the past and would encourage you to at least consider the same.

To Sum Up

Hopefully these thoughts have proven useful as we think through this together.

I am genuinely and deeply sorry if your business has closed or you have lost your job because your agency was niched into a specific industry and that’s gone.

It sucks, and I’m sorry.

Check out the PPC Hero job board for Digital Marketing jobs if you’ve recently lost yours.

Also, here are some additional resources about digital marketing in a COVID-19 world that might prove helpful to you.

Stay healthy, and keep up the good work!

You’ve got this!

A Short List of Helpful Resources for Agencies during the Coronavirus Crisis

More Resources:

Category Careers PPC
Kirk Williams Owner at ZATO

Kirk is the owner of ZATO, his Paid Search PPC micro-agency of experts, and has been working in Digital Marketing ...

4 Tips for Running a Small Digital Agency in Times of Crisis

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