Most agencies could only dream of their 1:100 client-to-employee ratio. However, ICS manages to deliver results to their clients with the help of five employees and a handful of their favorite go-to freelancers. At any one time, they have no more than twelve people — owners included — working on client business.
Their business model is a mix of one-time services and recurring work that generates consistent revenue. Many of their clients come to them for a new website, then purchase a hosting plan when it’s complete. Although websites are their specialty, ICS Creative Agency does a lot more than build websites: They also work with clients on search engine optimization, marketing automation, social media management, and inbound marketing.
How do they cover so many niches with such a relatively small team? The key, according to Zack, is automation and talent.
In this article, we’ll look at how ICS approaches hiring, along with the specific tools Zack recommends for agencies looking to do more with the same amount of time.
Bonus action list: Get our 3-page PDF summary of action items you can use to automate your agency’s processes based on Zack’s advice.
Hiring Agency Employees: Four Tips from ICS Creative Agency
Before we dive into the technology that makes ICS Creative Agency tick, let’s first explore what they do to attract and keep their talented employees.
Zack has four main pieces of advice in regard to hiring.
1. Hire Multi-Talented People
When you have a small team, each member “needs to be able to wear different hats,” Zack explained. While in the past ICS Creative Agency has hired individuals who were good at only one segment of their business, they found it wasn’t a good strategy for their company. “Unless they’re really great at that one thing, it just doesn’t work out,” he explained.
True to form, their communications manager also does social media management and content creation. Their business development manager focuses on sales and has a strong knowledge of marketing. Their creative director is an award-winning graphic designer but also is an expert videographer, editor, and photographer.
It’s a policy that reflects how the owners themselves work. Zack started in development before specializing in digital marketing, and he can still pitch in with graphic design when needed. His partner, Mike Capson, is a developer who also has experience in design, video, and photography.
Had they not hired multi-talented employees — and been multi-talented themselves — they would have needed a much larger team to cover the same amount of work.
2. Hire a Salesperson
To be fair, hiring a salesperson wasn’t even on the radar for Zack and Mike until they were approached by an individual in 2010 who offered to work on a commission-only basis. Once they heard his pitch, they realized it could only help their agency.
If their salesperson didn’t succeed, it wouldn’t impact their numbers. If he did succeed, their only challenge would be keeping up with the pace of their work orders. In Zack’s mind, this was a challenge worth having.
When their sales did increase rapidly, they pulled in freelancers to assist them with the workload, ultimately leading to more in-house hires as well.
3. Prioritize Referrals
Some of Zack’s best employees were referrals from people he knew and trusted. Others were freelancers they’d worked with before who were ready to transition to salaried employment.
That’s not to say you should only ever hire people who have been referred to you, but it’s worth asking your peers if they can refer talent to your agency.
4. Pay Attention to Slow Response Times (and Other Red Flags)
In hindsight, Zack realized there are a few simple signs to watch for when you’re interviewing a potential hire. How quickly do they respond to your emails? How is their grammar and spelling in their email responses? If you send them a Google calendar invite, do they accept it?
If a candidate takes more than a few days to respond to them, Zack considers that a red flag. And if they can’t figure out how to schedule a meeting with you, it’s not promising, given that most agency hires need to be technologically proficient.
As you hire more team members, you may find other small behavioral tics that act as clues when someone won’t be a good fit for your agency.
The Tools That Keep ICS Creative Agency Running on Schedule
The talented, multi-tasking team members who keep ICS Creative Agency running are key to the agency’s success. Unfortunately they have the same limitations as everyone else: There are only so many hours in a day.
ICS Creative Agency is so successful because of the way they’ve used technology to increase drastically what they can accomplish on any given day. Here’s a look at their favorite tech and how they use it to handle so many clients efficiently.
Anyone running operations for an agency knows how difficult it can be to:
- Get everyone using the same project management software
- Find a software that really works for agency workflows.
“I’ve honestly used every project management tool ever made,” Zack said. That search led him to a relatively new tool called ClickUp. The tool offers four different dashboard styles, along with over 130 features which cater to different use cases — handy when you want people in very different roles to collaborate.
“I like the prebuilt templates. Say we have a new website: All I do is go to ClickUp, create a space called (client name), and select the type of project — in this case, new website development. Then it just builds up that entire framework with who’s doing what, what the due dates are, and how long it should take,” he said.
Zack loves how rapidly the product is improving. “They have around 50 developers, so they’re releasing new products and features almost every week. The integrations are awesome,” he said. His favorite integration is with Slack. “We can create tasks directly in Slack and see them in ClickUp,” he added.
ClickUp is free up to 100MB of storage. After that, they charge $5/mo/user for unlimited storage, unlimited integrations, and advanced reporting.
ReportGarden: Campaign Reporting
Meeting with clients to go over campaign data is time-consuming. And while he’s happy to answer questions and schedule meetings as needed, Zack isn’t a fan of monthly meetings just to go over numbers.
So, he uses ReportGarden to set up custom dashboards for relevant clients. When they want to see how their campaigns are doing, they log into their portal and view the dashboard Zack set up for them. If they want to talk with someone from the agency after viewing the data, they can click a link and schedule a space in his calendar.
While some clients prefer reports, most of his clients have enjoyed the dashboard feature the most. “The more engaged clients like the custom dashboards and being able to see the real-time data. They like that they can go in and think, ‘Oh, okay. This is how many hits I have today versus a report that shows me the numbers for the month,’” he said.
He also likes how easy ReportGarden is to use — and interpret. “I’ve looked at other reporting tools, and they come off as super complex, whereas this is going to the average person who’s not a marketer,” he said. ReportGarden makes it easy for him to customize reporting and easy for his clients to understand how their marketing efforts are doing.
Pricing for ReportGarden starts at $149/mo.
HubSpot: Workflow Automation
Ask any marketer, and they’ll tell you that HubSpot is known for marketing automation. But Zack and his team use HubSpot for workflow automation.
Initially, they started using HubSpot for the CRM. “We found ourselves telling clients about HubSpot CRM, and it led to them asking us how it works. We realized that if we were going to spend time on it, then obviously we need to charge for it,” he said.
So, he forced himself to sit down and get a number of HubSpot certifications, knowing the knowledge would be extremely useful for his clients. In the meantime, he realized they could use it for their internal process.
“We have every type of service that we offer in a folder. We’ve written out, with personalized tokens, all of the emails we would send out during that project,” he said. They can automatically send things like the kick-off email, an email that explains which team members they’ll be working with, an email documenting what they’ll work on in a given week, an email notifying them that their homepage design is ready for review, and so forth.
Emails for their entire workflow goes down the funnel they built. “We spent a lot of time initially to create those emails because it’s all basically the same skeleton. If you’re doing the same project or the same type of work, you can just reuse and then personalize it,” he said.
HubSpot operates on a freemium model and can go up to $3200/month.
There are so many reasons why Zack and his team like using Slack. “It’s convenient, it’s on your phone, on your desktop. There’s a history of everything. It keeps all the files in one area. It keeps every client in one area,” he said of the instant messaging platform.
Currently, they use the application both for internal communication and for client communication. The team has a client-specific channel internally, but they also maintain a “support channel” for each client. “It just makes the conversation way easier. There’s no more, ‘Hey, I emailed Eric and I haven’t heard back from him, do you know the answer?’ Everybody’s on the same page. I think it’s a good idea to stop using email as much. It keeps everything very transparent,” he said.
And even though he shares office space with his employees, they talk more on Slack than they do in person. “It’s an open concept office, but we’re still talking on Slack all day,” he laughed.
Slack is free for most users; premium features begin at $6.67/active user/month.
Zack uses PandaDoc, a proposal tool, for creating legal documents during the sales process. He also uses it to create questionnaires for the client to fill out. “One of the first workflows we enable is where the client receives a questionnaire in an email. It’s all about what you want the site to be like, who your main competitors are, what you do and don’t like about their sites, whether you have a company tagline… just getting as much information as possible,” Zack explained.
It’s the alternative to him getting all the information in a meeting, which eats up his time (and means his creative director gets a secondhand account of that information). Instead, it’s the client’s responsibility to fill out the questionnaire.
“If there’s ever hesitation from the client, then they are probably not a good fit. If they’re not going to spend five minutes to do a questionnaire, that’s a red flag, because there will be more information that we need from them during the project,” Zack added.
Now that they’ve built up some templates, the tool is mostly drag-and-drop to get contracts moving. And whenever they learn something from a client interaction, they return to PandaDoc and tweak the template.
The team plan for PandaDoc is $49/month/user.
Marvel App: Prototypes and Mock-Ups
“We use Marvel App in our design process. Instead of sending somebody a long .png of a homepage, we use it to give you an idea of what it’s actually going to look like on a desktop and mobile,” Zack said.
Before they started using Marvel App, they spent a large amount of time explaining to clients that their webpages wouldn’t look exactly like a super-long PNG file.
“It also gives a way for the client to have direct feedback on the design. They can click on whatever it is and say, ‘We don’t like this,’ or, ‘Change this to that.’ There’s no guessing,” he said.
Combine that ability to get feedback with the fact that all communication on the designs is stored in one place — Marvel App — and you have a prototype tool that saves hours in back-and-forth communication with clients.
Team plans for Marvel App start at $42/month.
Gone are the days of spreadsheets for crunching company numbers. Any agency owner looking to reclaim a lot of time and sanity without paying a full-time accountant needs a software solution.
Since QuickBooks works in the cloud, it allows ICS Creative Agency to connect with one of their payment processors, PLOOTO. PLOOTO allows for electronic funds transfer and recurring payments; it will tie with an invoice in Quickbooks Online and mark it as paid when the payment is completed.
Zack uses Quickbooks to manage the agency’s accounting and to send invoices to clients automatically. It means he’s rarely involved with following up if a client is late on a payment.
Pricing for Quickbooks varies considerably depending on which version you choose and whether you purchase while it’s on sale.
Technology has transformed the way that ICS Creative Agency does business. So much of their process is automated, which allows them to allocate human labor to the activities that count.
“It definitely gives you more of an insight into what’s going on,” Zack said about the tools they use. “Everything’s transparent. You can see who’s doing what; there’s no need for you to guess what’s being done. And that allows me to focus more on growing the business than doing all the hands-on stuff.”
Meanwhile, keeping hiring costs down means they have more revenue. Currently, they reinvest those profits into the business.
“Anything that we’ve gained has gone back into the business and the employees. We do regular salary increases, we do regular benefits, and we do a lot of team-building activities to make it a good culture. And then obviously, we’re investing in these software products, which aren’t cheap. But it makes everything better down the road.”
Bonus action list: Get our 3-page PDF summary of action items you can use to automate your agency’s processes based on Zack’s advice.