Embracing the unconventional came about, in part, due to failures for Jacques Du Bruyn and his partner Ruan Oosthuizen, co-founders of Flume Digital Marketing and PR. The duo have tried and rejected numerous conventional business practices. Doing the opposite or slightly modifying the “usual” has gotten them the result they could only dream of.
They developed an odd assortment of practices that seem “wrong” such as presenting price before service details, hiring “expensive” staff, and systematically developing the writing skills of every person on staff.
It’s worked. In just five and a half years, Flume has achieved remarkable local and global success.
Jacques and Ruan have grown this South African marketing agency from nothing to an agency that works with Adidas, Cannon, Cisco, Club Med, Hyundai, and Nedbank—just to name a few. The tough lessons they learned while trying to use some conventional business practices reinforced their pursuit of effective—but unconventional—methods.
Bonus Action List PDF: [sg_popup id=”205″ event=”click”]Get our 1 page PDF summary[/sg_popup] of action items you can take to grow your marketing or PR agency based on Jacques’ advice.
3 Critical Steps at the Start
Jacques’ resume had several years of experience working for established companies when he quit his job to start Flume. He set out to build an agency that would “make people aware of your brand, build your reputation, and bring business to your business.”
Flume does things differently, Jacques told us. “We don’t have a traffic department, for example, like most agencies do,” he said. “We’re nimble, lean, and focused on delivering real business results for our clients.”
All services are now handled in-house by 32 staff members. The firm recently added public relations to it’s growing list of offerings that range from strategy consulting and social media content to influencer marketing and media buying.
It all started with a rather conventional approach; Jacques cultivated new clients by meeting one-on-one with individuals in his professional network. But following other conventional business practices made it clear that not staying the course was the better way to go.
Specifically, here are the against-the-norm strategies Jacques told us that have worked extremely well at Flume:
Growth Lesson #1: Don’t “Fake It ‘til You Make It”
In the early days, Flume tried “fake it ’til you make it,” an approach that resulted in some spectacular fails.
They had to go back to prospects and explain, no, they couldn’t deliver on requests after all.
“Never, ever fake it, because that grounds a business in dishonesty,” said Jacques. “Be honest with yourself and your clients. It’s not good for your reputation, saying you can do something when you actually can’t. Don’t ever do that.”
One way Flume keeps things real by using a client expectation triangle.
Jacques doesn’t use the triangle as a direct client communication tool. He doesn’t have it in his pitch deck or sales presentations. But he does—in principle—establish expectations with each new client so they know what to expect.
Establishing which two elements of cost, quality, and control (time) the client will own and which one the firm owns governs the scope of work. By clearly defining these elements from the beginning, Flume’s staff is better able to meet client expectations.
In practice, Flume consistently chooses clients who prioritize “quality” as the element they want Flume to manage. This clearly defined structure supports the end result because the firm set up to do the brilliant work. It also helps if a client objects to Flume’s pricing. More about that in a moment.
Growth Lesson #2: Be Obsessive About Communication
According to Jacques, who is “big on” effective business writing, effective communication skills are a critical tool for his agency. Flume intentionally cultivates communications skills in general and writing in particular by using an in-house marketing platform—the Flume blog.
“Everyone in the business contributes a blog piece,” Jacques explained. “If you visit our blog you can see all of our employees contribute. That’s really us trying to get them to write—because the only way to get better at writing is to write. And to really push yourself when you don’t want to write.”
He went on to explain that this helps reduce client misunderstandings and problems caused by poorly written emails and reports.
“You need to be able to communicate well to project confidence. But you don’t want to come across as arrogant, so you always need to upscale your skills,” he said.
Growth Lesson #3: Don’t Even Think About Pocketing Agency Profits
Both Jacques and his partner get a regular paycheck, just like the rest of the staff, to make sure the firm continues to grow and thrive. They might be partners, but on paper they’re just salaried employees. All “extra” money coming in is for the business.
He called that extra cash the “war chest”—a resource for doing the things that are necessary to attract and retain more clients. That could mean hiring more experienced staff or covering costs when it’s necessary to cut ties with a troublesome client (more on both of these below).
It can also mean investing in company assets like branding and office space—items many agencies treat as frivolous or unnecessary for a modern agency.
In the early days, for example, Flume invested in developing a logo. And recently the agency moved its office into a high-visibility office building on one of the most visible roads in Sandton, South Africa.
“We opened an office on William Nicol Road in Bryanston, Sandton,” said Jacques, “In Sandton, South Africa this is one of the main streets, the place where everybody will see your company. It’s one of the addresses.”’
Flume now looks as upscale as the service it provides, and its new location is already generating sales leads from other upscale companies based in the area.
Growth Lesson #4: Hire Employees Who Can Contribute Immediately
Inexperienced staff won’t command a high salary, but that also means “getting what you pay for”—staff that requires time that could be spent on sales and other things.
Jacques isn’t against hiring junior staff members and training them. In fact, Flume has an internship program to help identify up and coming talent. The key, however, is finding individuals that can join the team and contribute quickly.
“The first experienced professional we hired was a designer, and I never regretted it,” said Jacques.
The experience might be needed in client service or some other area. But whoever it is should enable delivering the “brilliant work” clients expect, further building the agency’s reputation.
At the start, those seasoned professionals will be reliable. That means having confidence that the work that they do will be solid.
That will do more than build the reputation of the company, it’ll free up the founder’s time and energy to focus on the things only they can do.
Growth Lesson #5: Put Your Fees on the First Slide of Your Sales Deck
The desire to secure work was the driving force behind Flume losing money in the early days.
“We always undercut ourselves because we so badly wanted a specific project,” explained Jacques. “That’s an important mistake we made.”
It wasn’t just valuing time, but taking pride in the value given for the money. That’s why Flume now puts its fees on the first slide of a presentation.
Conventional sales wisdom says to explain what the prospect will receive before revealing the price. But Jacques believes that approach conveys a sense of shame.
“Be confident in what you’re charging,” he said. “Don’t be arrogant, but putting the costs up front says, ‘We’re proud to present this costing, because we believe in what we deliver. We are going to absolutely knock it out of the park.’ I’m not saying always push the money. You must never be greedy. But if you’re not confident in costing, you will always get undercut.”
Not covering costs puts added stress on everyone doing the work. Ultimately, that will undermine the quality of the work that the firm should be taking pride in.
Growth Lesson #6: Don’t Coddle Employees
Equally important is a culture of honesty. Treating staff as professionals requires an effort to be both respectful and direct.
“We stopped telling people they weren’t doing a great job because we tried to be nice,” said Jacques. “Then the employee hung around thinking they were doing a great job. That doesn’t help anybody. It’s not about being mean; it’s about being honest.”
Intentionally creating an “environment of honesty” makes open communication possible. Recognizing when someone screws up and doesn’t deliver on expectations is necessary to identify improvements and better performance.
Being candid breeds professionalism because everyone is clear about priorities and what it takes to meet client needs. It also challenges professionals to learn and grow in a way that’s meaningful.
It also gives staff the freedom to share their honest concerns about problems with clients.
Growth Lesson #7: Don’t Let the Client Be the Boss
Instead of saying, “the client is always right,” Flume is realistic about the people they work with.
Miserable clients are the source of extra and unnecessary work. They can take an emotional toll on staff that’s corrosive to individuals and the entire team. Flume had some of those toxic clients and Jacques noticed a change come over the staff. They weren’t coming into work excited about the day, fired up to dig into a project.
He found that worrisome because Flume works hard to maintain an atmosphere of mutual respect and professionalism among staff members. So the partners decided that same approach must extend to clients.
“If clients are making your life hell and your employees are unhappy coming to work, fire them. It’s not worth it,” said Jacques.
He finds that when one person in a company chooses Flume and someone else is assigned to be the contact person, it can cause trouble. It comes out in the way the contact person interacts with Flume staff, being rude or unreasonably demanding. In those situations, Jacques’ attitude is, “We’re not your slaves, we are your partners.”
Miserable clients will undermine the professionalism of the firm overall, undoing all the hard work that went into building the firm.
Always Be Improving
And at the end of the day, it’s all about building the firm.
Flume has developed its own unique approach through trial and error, but Jaques and Ruan continue to refine and test new ideas to compliment these rules of thumb.
That openness bucking the system could be the most important lesson for some agencies.