What are the best strategies to scale a team and agency?


My guest Ellyn Savage is the VP of Media at Mindgruve, a global independent digital agency that leads media strategies that help brands identify and acquire new customers.


In this episode, she’ll share her expertise on scaling, including:


  • Retaining talent in a sustainable way
  • Developing processes for growth
  • How to avoid a siloed approach
  • The top 5 lessons she’s learned on her journey
  • And more


Mentioned in this episode:



Voiceover: This is Performance Delivered, Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success with Steffen Horst and Dave Antil.


Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host, Steffen Horst. 


The topic for today’s episode is scaling a team and an agency. Here to speak with me is Ellyn Savage, who is the VP of media at Mindgruve, a global independent digital agency comprised of strategists, creatives, media experts, data scientists and engineers. Ellyn leads media strategies that help brands identify and acquire new customers. 


She draws upon her deep experience in market research and consumer insights to drive revenue growth by leveraging data to optimize client campaigns. Before Mindgruve, Ellyn worked on Madison Avenue before moving to San Diego. Some of her past clients include Olive Garden, Mars, Martinelli’s, Procter and Gamble, First Horizon Bank, and cars.com. Ellyn, welcome to the show.


Ellyn Savage: Thank you. Thanks for having me.


Steffen: Now, Ellyn, before we start talking about today’s topic, tell our listeners a little bit more about yourself. How did you get started in your career? And what led you to your current position at Mindgruve?


Ellyn: Yeah, so I actually started college as a film major. And then right away, I had a freshman seminar about advertising specifically, I never thought about advertising as a career before that. But I really loved the storytelling angle that they talked about. And I felt like, oh, maybe it’d be easier for me to find a job after college if I actually switched my major to advertising. 


So there was something really exciting about that to me. And so I kind of stayed on that path. And then I moved to New York, right after college, and always worked on the agency side. I realized right away that I especially loved digital. And I loved working at smaller independent shops. So I’ve kind of stuck on that path my whole career, even after moving to San Diego about 10 years ago. And I’ve been at Mindgruve for about eight years now. Actually eight years as of yesterday. 


And when I started at Mindgruve, I was an associate media director specifically for paid media specializing in video, display, social. And since then, I’m now the VP of media, managing a team of 50 plus, on just the media side. So it’s been a fun journey. But I’m excited to be here. And it’s really going great.


Steffen: Yeah. So when we talked previously, before the recording, you had mentioned, when you joined, there were like three people in the media team. Now, as you just said, you’re overseeing a team of 50 plus people. That’s huge growth within an eight year span. What do you attribute to the agency’s growth success over the years? 


Was there something specific that kind of enabled, first of all, you need to get the business. I mean, just hiring people without the business doesn’t really make sense. But, you know, getting the business in and then finding the right people. What had helped to spur that growth?


Ellyn: Yeah, we really have grown organically. So a lot of our business comes from referrals, or when our clients move to different brands, they bring us along with them. So that’s been a huge part of the success. But then I think most of the success just comes from the people. The clients keep coming back, we have a really strong value prop. A lot of the people that work here have been with the company for, you know, seven plus years. 


And so they know they’ll get that consistency and that focus on growing their businesses. So I think it’s just kind of the right people at the right time. We kind of not on accident, like I know, when I started it was it was sort of, it was always in the plans to take off and grow. But I think we got really the right mix of people there with the right skill sets. And we worked so well together, that I think that’s really what led to the growth.


Steffen: Talk about the value prop a little bit more. What is it about having a proper value prop that kind of resonates with clients that can help grow an agency and make companies come back or make people that change companies come back to you?


Ellyn: I mean, this might not be unique to our agency, but we focus so much on just business growth. Like we don’t want to come in and just be a vendor. We want to be a business partner. Like we always come in and we say you know, we’ve done meetings with CFOs, we meet with boards. Like we are your lockstep partner in this. And we always will focus on what’s the business goal before we even recommend any sort of media KPI. So I think that’s our value prop that keeps people coming back.


Steffen: How do you deal with companies that approach you from a different angle? So out of my experience, or our experience here at Symphonic Digital, we also have companies that come and say, well, we want to do paid search, we want to do a bit social, or maybe we want to do some programmatic without necessarily having thought about what you just said. About what is the end goal. You know, why do you do these things? And what do you want to achieve with the media activities that kind of helps you grow your business. How do you deal with those kinds of plans?


Ellyn: Definitely ask a lot of questions. We won’t accept the work if we feel like we’re just doing it in a silo or in a vacuum. We really want to understand how we’re contributing to that company’s success. Even if the clients don’t necessarily know what that looks like, or means we want to help them get there. So a lot of times, we’ll say, okay, do you have a brand platform? And then if not, how can we help with that, specifically. 


Making sure you have a really strong sense of who you are. And then, you know, where are you trying to get in the next five years? Like, what is the ultimate goal? Are you trying to go public? Are you trying to sell? Are you just trying to grow? Like, we just really need to understand that before we’ll make a recommendation for a piece of that pie. Or, you know, just paid search in general or programmatic.


Steffen: So what I’m hearing here is, you don’t concern or I wouldn’t say you concern yourself, but you don’t focus so much in the beginning, on the media part, you really want to understand the business, which is what a partner does, right? A vendor takes orders, takes the insertion order and kind of books the media. A partner understands the business and therefore is able to navigate the hurdles that might come along the way. 


Is able to make specific recommendations to achieve certain milestones that have to be achieved along the way to as you said, you know, do you want to sell? Do you want to take the company to a certain point, etc? It’s not like one long journey. It’s several little steps in between that get you there. 


Ellyn: Yeah. 100%. 


Steffen: So you also mentioned people. You talked about consistent, or having people that have been with the company for a long period of time, like yourself. Eight plus years. Now, a lot of companies struggle, like the last few years, when there was a lot of hiring going on at bigger companies, those companies came with sometimes really ridiculous salaries, you know. 


And if someone is just focused on money, it’d be easier to say, you know what, I’m moving from A to B. How have you established a way of maintaining the talent that you have, and then not having to go into the direction of oh, we have to constantly raise our salaries in kind of a way that might not even be, you know, sustainable from a business perspective?


Ellyn: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. Because we did see that happening in the market. And I felt like we were good about kind of holding the line. Like, we’re not going to just pay people this exorbitant salary, just to stay competitive. Like, we want to attract people for different reasons. Like we’re here because people want to be here for the culture. And if it doesn’t work for them, then they’re free to go find something else. 


If it’s just chasing money. That’s not what it’s about for us. It’s about we’ve built this team that really cares about clients, we care about each other. It’s a really like, no ego, no drama type place, very relationships based. You know, the executive team is super in the trenches alongside the team. That doesn’t always work for everyone. 


Like that’s different maybe then, you know, what I experienced when I worked at a holding company, for example. So, you know, I think it’s just about we are who we are. And if you fit in with that and you love it, then I think, you know, we kind of bring you under our wings. And then that’s how we have been able to kind of have a strong retention rate.


Steffen: If we go back to when you just joined Mindgruve, when you took the job, did you realize where the agency was going, or what the goal was of the agency, and what that actually entailed?


Ellyn: Yeah, so one of my former bosses at another company actually encouraged me to consider the role. He felt like the company was going to take off. So we actually had this really, we had a different office back then. And they were working on building a new office. So he was like, don’t look at the office, don’t worry about what it looks like, you know, they’re not putting money into it because they’re moving. Because it was, it was a little bit, I don’t know what the word is, dingy, I guess. 


So he kind of gave me that heads up that he thought it was going to take off. He thought it would grow. When I started we had three people on the media team, as we said. One person was doing SEO, the other person literally just started a month before me and he was focused on paid search and analytics, and I was just doing the rest. That included trafficking, everything that from a coordinator to director would be doing. And right before we started there was like a little bit of an exodus before we started. 


Not huge, but you know, the team that was working on media, maybe three or four people had left. So we kind of felt like we didn’t inherit any processes or templates. We had to kind of build from the ground up which is not something I really felt like I was going into, but I was up for the challenge. I definitely did not know how to scale a team or company as I never did that before. But I was kind of in for it. Just building the plane as we’re flying as they say.


Steffen: So you just mentioned processes. Obviously you know when you grow, you want to have processes in place that help you pick up certain tasks, right? If you get new people in, if you have a handbook, if you have, I don’t know, an online platform that outlines exactly how things have to be done. It makes things much easier, compared to you having to sit down or someone else in your team having to sit down with every single person and explain everything step by step. 


Now, when you’re small, it’s sometimes hard to put the time aside to build those processes. How did you do that? How did you identify which processes would help you to kind of grow? And then how did you take the time, or what did you do to actually take the time to develop those processes?


Ellyn: Yeah, I would say we did. We didn’t come in and just create all the processes right away. It was more about what do we need today. Because, you know, we’re three people and some things already exist, and they’re fine. And we can iterate. But for other things, it’s like, you know, the tools. First, we need tools. So that was probably the first step that we took was getting our, you know, getting campaign manager 360, and whatever it was called back then, double click in place. Getting the tools. 


And then from there, as we were winning business and able to hire more people, then it was like, okay, now we need job titles. We need, you know, what are the different levels that we have as a company in terms of progression? And what are the titles that you can get promoted into? Making sure we had a clear accounting process for all the money that we’re spending for media. 


Just in general, making sure we’re doing reviews and have a process for that and different feedback loops. So it was just kind of like, as we grew, we would create processes as we needed them. It wasn’t like, let’s make it all right away and see how it goes. You kind of had to, like, grow into it, and build into it.


Steffen: Now, developing processes is one thing of the equation in growing. What I have seen in my different roles is that the longer people are within a company, I don’t want to use the word lazy, but the less they follow processes. You know, they’re the ones that are really sticking to the process. But you always have a group of people that kind of trying to cut corners in a certain way. 


How did you keep people motivated to follow the processes? Because the processes are there for good reason, right. Best practice processes, as you said, accounting processes to ensure that, you know, the money the client pays you from a media perspective is actually spend and lot more or less, and so on.


Ellyn: Yeah, I think part of our kind of culture in general is that everyone is pretty willing to flex and pivot. And if someone didn’t follow the process, then I feel like we would learn pretty quickly and there would be a mistake made. And then it’s like, oh, yeah, I guess we better follow the process, and here’s why. It doesn’t work if you don’t. And we don’t want to be over processed either. 


So sometimes we’ve created a process, and then we just killed it a year later, because it’s like, that’s just creating more inefficiency. So I think just being willing to flex and I think we have the right people in place that are willing to do that. And that’s part of our culture is just we’ve grown every single year. So you kind of have to be along for that ride.


Steffen: Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. Now, what have been helpful resources for scaling the team over the years?


Ellyn: Yeah, I would say first is team feedback on an ongoing basis. So we actually do a quarterly survey, where it’s anonymous, but we’ve gotten some really helpful feedback that way from the team. Just in terms of what’s working, what’s not working, what are pain points they have. And another thing is prioritizing annual reviews for everyone making sure they’re done on time. That’s one of those things that can just get pushed out, pushed out. 


But that feedback is just so helpful for people. And not only that, but like giving feedback in real time, asking for feedback in real time. As you see issues, not letting things build up. We also have a mentorship program here, which is optional for people to participate in. But I really love it because I get more face time with entry and mid level teammates. And I think I’ve learned a lot through that too. 


Just getting that one to one feedback about how things are going for them. And I think otherwise, just being okay with being uncomfortable is a helpful resource. Just knowing going in that you’ll be doing stretch projects. Like it’s not just the same thing every day. You have to be really willing to get your hands dirty and keep learning and that’s really been what’s helped us scale up over the years.


Steffen: Now the success or failure of bringing on people and growing depends on the people that you’re actually able to hire right. You know, there are people out there that are really good at selling themselves as their interview and then once they come in, they might not look as good as they looked on the piece of paper or during the interview. What have you learned over the years to separate the ones that are more kind of show and might not be as good in reality as they look like on a piece of paper or in interviews, and how long have you avoided bringing those people in?


Ellyn: Yes, sometimes we do make that mistake, and it has happened. I think one thing that’s been helpful is a lot of our hires are actually references like someone that someone knows. And that’s how we first started growing out the team. It was like, well, I know this person, and I know this person so let’s bring them together. And a lot of our team, especially on the executive level, are people that have worked together in the past. 


And that’s huge, because then you already trust those people. You already have, you know, collaboration, and you know how to work together. And then I think it’s just we have a lot of, not a lot of interview steps. We go through at least three steps in an interview process, making sure that there’s a few people talking to them. And we have like a few interview questions we ask that are super, just not work related, just related to personal getting to know people, and we ask it on the fly. 


So they don’t have time to really think about it, we call it like, it’s a rapid fire sort of approach. And that helps us too, to kind of figure out, okay, who are these people? How genuine are they? That kind of thing. But again, sometimes we do, we have made mistakes over the years. I think with time we sort of get better at it.


Steffen: Can you distill some of those questions you just mentioned? What are those rapid fire questions that you just throw out to see how someone is more from a personality perspective?


Ellyn: Yeah, I mean, we switch it up. But you know, one is like, what’s your favorite band? What was your first concert? What’s your favorite color? If you were stranded on a desert island, and you could only have one fast food restaurant for the rest of your life, which one would you pick? What’s your favorite cocktail? If you were going to order a round of shots, which one would you order for us? Like things like that, where it’s just kind of getting to know somebody.


Steffen: I see. That probably also helps to kind of get a feeling for it if they fit within the team. You know, the culture of the team.


Ellyn: Like we really don’t want people that take themselves too seriously. And you can really tell from the answers there and how much they think about it. Like you don’t want someone that’s like, oh, I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ll get back to you. We want the fun snappy answers.


Steffen: Yeah, yeah. Now, going back to what you said earlier, you know that people seem to stay at Mindgruve for a longer period of time. Now, in order to achieve that, there needs to be a place that allows or there needs to be a process in place that allows people to progress, right? No one is going to stay with a company if they’re for years a coordinator or a manager. Like people, most people, they want to see a career progression, right? And whatever that means to them. How, or what have you done to help people progress? And how have you set that up?


Ellyn: Yeah, so we have a really clear structure doc that has all the different titles we have at the agency. And then really objective things you have to do to get to the next level. So we tried not to be subjective about it. Because, you know, we want people to understand and set goals for themselves based on this doc that we have. And it’s all the different expectations at the level. And you can literally set a goal against each item if you wanted to. 


And then just having regular meetings. Like it’s required that you meet with your manager on a regular basis. And then we make it optional that you meet with a second manager on a regular basis. And then the optional mentor program I mentioned too. So if you are someone that wants to progress in your career, you absolutely can do that here. Because we just have laid it out in a way that makes that possible.


Steffen: You earlier mentioned when you were three people, you know, besides kind of having to split the work across three people, tools was one thing you mentioned that you looked at. What tools can we use to probably take off some of the manual labor, right? What tools did you use, or what tools would you recommend to a company that’s in a similar situation, as you were eight years ago. A small team, but we’ve kind of a prospect of growth, to look into. What are the tools they should have, for example, to help the team execute, plan, report, you name it.


Ellyn: Yeah, one thing we did, which I wish we did sooner, is implemented Trello as a communication tool. So we actually, for some reason, I don’t know, it was just magical. We did it right before COVID, when everyone had to go remote. And we implemented Trello to help cut back on email. And we have a different board for every client. And so every team is assigned based on what clients they work on, and everything’s in there. 


That’s our task management system. So for one, it cuts back on emails, and two, it’s a complete record of everything that’s ever happened on that client. So that’s been a huge efficiency gain for us. And you know, there’s like a minority of people that don’t love it, and would rather just deal with email, but I think that has been a game changer for us.


Steffen: Interesting, interesting. What tools do you use from a more execution perspective, optimization perspective, reporting perspective, that have helped you and your team to cut back time. You know, we think about reporting, right? I mean, back in the days you said you worked at a holding company as myself. 


Back in the days we used Excel and the amount of time as kind of coordinators spend to pull information to put tables together, etc. was ridiculous. Obviously, that’s no longer required these days. These days now in 2023, there are easy tools that you can just plug in with your accounts, or plug to your accounts and then pull the information out and display things nicely. But back in the days, how did you approach that?


Ellyn: Yeah, back in the day. Well, now we have Tableau, which is amazing. And we also use Data Studio a lot. But I would say when I first started, it was a lot of Excel. And just, you know, the other thing is, we are kind of on the Google stack. So we always use something like a Data Studio and Google Analytics, and then double click and all of our search, search ads 360. It’s all together in Google. So that’s been helpful just to consolidate things. But yeah, I think just now having Tableau is super helpful for the data visualization.


Steffen: No, what has been the hardest part about scaling organically?


Ellyn: Yeah, I would say things that are still ongoing, and we’re still not perfect at, are one creating training processes for the different levels at the company. Like if someone starts as a coordinator versus a director, what trainings do they need. And so that’s been something that’s been ongoing and it’s hard to scale. And then just onboarding processes in general, and making sure that new people starting aren’t just thrown in the fire like we were because we’re much bigger now. 


We can’t be doing that. We have to have a really more structured onboarding process. So that’s something that we’ve focused on in the last year or so. And then just also, I guess, setting expectations of new people coming in. Like as we scale, I guess, the way I think about who we are, might be really different from the perception someone new has coming in. 


So just realizing that we aren’t the same company I started at. We’re different now. And just kind of like coming to terms with who are we today and making sure that we can keep that culture and bring people into it in a way that they feel welcomed, and that they understand who we are too. 


And then lastly, just making sure we don’t get siloed. As you get bigger, it’s way easier to be less collaborative and more siloed and stick to your own channel. But we have to push really hard to make sure people are communicating and working together.


Steffen: How do you help avoiding, you know, that siloed approach? I mean, you’re overseeing the entire media department. So literally, whether it’s the paid search team, the social team, the SEO team, you name it. They kind of all report into you in a certain way. Right? Yeah. How do you make sure that they all communicate with each other?


Ellyn: What we do is we have an account manager and a media lead and an analytics lead assigned to every client. And those people are sort of the eyes and ears watching strategically for what’s happening for the business. And then they’re able to kind of draw people in and be like, hey, did you talk to the paid search person, SEO team? Because they’re working on this strategy, and it kind of ties in with what you’re doing. 


And then we also push to do quarterly business reviews with our clients. And that’s a good time too, to really make sure we’re looking at the holistic picture. And we try to encourage the whole team to listen in on those calls and to collaborate on the deck. And I think that helps people really see the more big picture story.


Steffen: Now, if you are in a conversation with someone that is in the situation that you were in six, eight years ago, what would you tell them, maybe the top five things that you learned along the journey that they should focus on or should be aware of, or should avoid?


Ellyn: Yes, I think one was early on, we thought everybody could kind of follow the same progression path, which is, you know, you start and then eventually you become a client facing leader. And that’s not always what people want. And I think what’s been helpful for us is really focusing more on people’s strengths, versus developing their weaknesses. 


So there’s a book I really like, Strengths Based Leadership. And that has been a little bit more pivotal in terms of how do we place people. Because some people want to be in the background, and they want to just, you know, focus more on the data and not speak to clients. And that’s totally fine. Another thing is we initially had people on one team handling way too many platforms. 


So we had paid social people handling programmatic. Realized really fast, that was a recipe for burnout. So and that came out of a survey where people were like, I’m doing way too many platforms. And we’re like, oh, wow, yes, you are. So I think just learning to pivot quickly to fix issues. And just listening to people, talking to people, asking questions. That’s been probably what we have learned from the best.


Steffen: Yeah. I love that. You said that kind of thinking that everyone wants to grow in a certain way. I mean, yeah, I remember in particular when I was in London and was running Reprise Media across Europe, Middle East and Africa, I had a gentleman in Belgium, who I thought was really smart, you know. And I could see him kind of move towards being the head of for that office. You know, head of paid search. 


But in conversation, I figured out that he didn’t want to do that. That was not what he was interested in. I think nowadays he’s much more upstream than he was back then. But back then he just loved the fact to be in platform and setting up campaigns, managing campaigns, finding the little nuggets, that kind of, you know, squeeze the extra little bit out of the campaign. And he loved that. He was not interested in, you know, the politics that come with when you move up the ladder, and all the other things that basically accompany that promotion and those kind of things. 


And I think it’s important to identify that because nothing is linear in that regard. Everyone, and even if they start working, they might have a certain way of thinking where they want to go, but along the way, they might adjust the way how they think about it. You know, you might start as a paid manager, and later on end up as an analytics person or an operation person.


Ellyn: Definitely.


Steffen: Now, unfortunately, we’ve come to the end of today’s podcast episode. Thank you so much for joining me on the Performance Delivered podcast, and sharing your thoughts on scaling a team and an agency. Now if people want to find out more about you and Mindgruve, how can they get in touch?


Ellyn: Yeah, so they could definitely visit our website mindgruve.com. Or you can find me on LinkedIn, Ellyn, e l l y n savage. And yeah, we’d love to hear from anyone.


Steffen: Perfect, as always we’ll leave that information in the show notes. Thanks, everyone for listening. If you like the Performance Delivered podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital, you can visit us at symphonicdigital.com or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.


Voiceover: Performance Delivered is sponsored by Symphonic Digital. Discover audience-focused and data-driven digital marketing solutions for small and medium businesses at symphonicdigital.com.