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Growing pains: how can digital agencies scale more effectively and efficiently?

Tom Whiston
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Tom Whiston
November 17, 2022
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Three growth challenges digital agencies face as they scale, and how to overcome them

Digital agencies have built their business on repeatable, replicable products and services for multiple customers with very similar projects and workflows. Many reach a point where they need to look at how to scale their product, or service, if they want to maintain business growth.

From building websites to providing SaaS products – as the business becomes more successful, developers will find themselves having to replicate essential tasks at scale to simultaneously handle a larger number of projects. One issue they need to address is how they deliver what customers want without creating inefficiencies for themselves. For example:

  • How do they rightsize technical resources (such as RAM, storage or network traffic) for specific projects? 
  • How do they deal with fluctuating resource demands for those projects? 
  • How do they ensure the team spends its time creating value, rather than engaging in unnecessary repetitive tasks? 
  • How can they make changes or provide fixes effectively and efficiently, while ensuring consistency and quality?

If a digital agency wants to scale its products and services efficiently and cost-effectively, it must solve three key challenges.

1. Cost control

When operating on a small scale, an agency has a good view of how technical resources are being allocated to projects. It is easy to keep track of a small number of projects on a regular basis, but, in order to achieve sustained and manageable growth, the agency needs to retain control over how it assigns resources to each job. How does an agency ensure it has the ability to scale resources up (and down again) for specific projects according to demand? 

For example, if a customer plans a marketing campaign on its website for a specific time period, the agency will need to allocate more resources for the duration. If an agency does not assign resources correctly, a project may not be able to meet end-user demand, leading to a disaffected customer. 

However, if it assigns too many technical resources to a project, it costs more to service and therefore makes it less cost-effective. The real risk arises when that inefficiency is replicated across multiple projects, then an agency could end up using a lot of money and resources.

What the agency requires is a platform that enables it to scale technical resources easily between defined boundaries and share resources between projects. This will equip the agency with the ability to effectively and efficiently control costs – being able to both vertically and horizontally scale when required.

2. Workflow efficiency

An agency that has built its business on a repeatable service will have developed workflows to match. Those workflows will be standardised for much of the project, possibly with some room for minor customisation at the front end, to meet the client’s specific needs. 

While many new digital agencies will have automated workflows, many more established businesses will still rely on workflows that feature a number of manual processes. As the number of projects rises, it becomes increasingly difficult for those agencies to maintain the effectiveness of their repeatable service without making workflows more efficient. 

One key task agencies must contend with is how they maintain control and prevent diversion if two different teams are working on separate projects which share an underlying codebase – often requiring modifications to code in order to fix issues, or add features for each project as they go along.

How does an agency structure its processes to ensure there is consistency and integrity across all projects? It achieves it by automating more of the workflow, for example by using Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) tools and stripping out manual processes, helping to make the service deliverable to the same high standard across multiple projects. For this purpose, digital agencies should select a platform which encourages the use of automation, whilst providing support for their technical teams in adopting essential DevOps principles.

3. Quality control and security

Dealing with an increasing number of projects creates headaches for lead developers to ensure all projects have, for example, the latest security updates. Traditionally companies have implemented processes such as Change Advisory Boards to ensure that updates or additional features meet the security and quality needs of their company. However manual processes such as these greatly increase the time to deployment of changes. 

Research carried out by Nicole Forsgren PhD, for her book Accelerate, suggests that one of the true indicators of quality is how quickly code is deployed to production. By allowing developers to deploy quickly, and implementing automated processes to ensure quality, new features can be delivered faster and issues can be fixed immediately. This is particularly important when critical security issues are detected.

Scaling to focus on business growth 

As digital agencies grow, they are in danger of spending time and money on operative and repetitive activities, at the expense of the productive business. It is important to remember that it’s not always purely about growth and expansion and in uncertain economic times, agencies may look to scale their product or service to do more with less. One proven way for businesses to achieve that goal is through automation.

Automating workflows and improving scalability may be the preferred outcome for those agencies, but they need to try and achieve it with the least impact on the business – and avoid complexity while they do it.

If digital agencies want to serve customers better and more effectively, they need to address the challenges that come with scalability. For some, scalability might be better enabled with the aid of an external provider. Much of the complexity attached to making the service or product scalable – and the associated requirements for cost control, more efficient workflows and greater quality control – can be addressed by an external specialist, leaving the agency’s team to focus on the core business. 

Technology, such as Kubernetes, can play a powerful role in enabling agencies to simplify the deployment of new projects, continuously distribute changes and automate the scaling of projects. When considering how to scale a service or product, savvy agencies understand that they need to focus on both technology and business processes.

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