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FT 103: How to Rapidly Grow an Agency with Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich, founder of Arment Dietrich and Spin Sucks, quit her job one day and decided to go out on her own to start a PR agency that does PR for its clients the way she knows it should be done.

Right away, she had her first client, and a few months later, her first employee. Then, over the next two years, she had her first fortune-500 client, then her first 14 employees, and her first $2 million in revenue. Ten years later, she has a 30-person agency that mostly runs itself so she can focus on doing the things she really likes to do, such as teaching, writing, and figuring out where the industry is going.

There is a lot to learn from Gini’s journey, from how she used her connections and sticking to her values to get her first clients, how her content marketing took off, how to hire the best people for her team, and how she had to change herself to become a better leader.

But, as Gini says, it all comes down to going out and just doing it, rather than getting caught up on what people say you should do.

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Gini shares with us:

How Gini got started:

Twelve years ago, at 28, Gini started Arment Dietrich. In 2006, Gini started Spin Sucks, which started out as a blog and became a book two years ago.

Gini worked at an ad agency as a PR professional. The challenging part was when the ad guys wanted the the PR department to tell the media about their latest ad campaign. Over brown bag lunches, Gini tried to explain to them what PR was and that every ad campaign isn't necessarily news worthy, as beautiful as the campaign was. After a year and a half of banging her head against the wall, a creative walked into her office and said that they were very concerned that she doesn't know how to do her job well because she isn't sharing all the campaigns with the media. She quit on the spot. Not exactly recommended to follow in her footsteps unless you want a lot of headaches.

“You very quickly figure out that you have to make your rent.”

Luckily, a former client soon hired her to run their PR department. So here is Gini writing invoices on excel for $100,000. Not bad, but a lot of work. Things changed when the client wanted to put on a big event, but Gini wasn't able to do everything by herself, so she hired an intern. The client convinced her to hire his niece, which was luckily a great fit!

And it unintentionally grew from there. Gini kept saying to herself that she would go back to working at an agency once the wedding is over and they bought a house, or after this thing or that thing. But she never did. Instead, she made her own.

“If you're going to be a quote-unquote expert, you're supposed to have books, and you're supposed to do speaking, and you're supposed to have a podcast, and you're supposed have a blog and you're supposed to do all these things. And I don't know if that is true.”

Really, it was naivety that let her build the business. She just went after clients whom she thought she wanted to work with. She would call them up and say, “Hey, I know so-and-so is doing your PR right now, but we're in Chicago and I noticed that you're in Chicago and we would love to do it.”

It worked! Three of the clients that gave her small projects at first ended up firing their global PR firms and hiring her.

Here's an example, based on fighting for what you think is right:

In 2007, Gini joined Vistage, which is a CEO membership organization where she could learn all the business stuff, like balance sheets and how a sales process should work. Right after she joined, Vistage hired a global firm to manage their PR, even though they always talk about supporting Vistage members and local businesses. Why not hire local PR firms?

Gini talked to a regional head about this who hired her firm to do an awareness campaign in Chicago, which got the attention of San Diego Chief of Corporate Communications who flew to Chicago to meet her. Now, folks, don't do this. Gini was an hour late for this very important meeting because she got lost on the transit line. Luckily, her work in Chicago spoke for itself and got her hired for a San Diego job which eventually led to her firm becoming the agency of record.

Another name dropping example:

Gini had GE, as in General Electrics, as a client for 10 years. This is a story about the power of networking. Gini had dinner with someone who was in the wedding of someone who works in the communications department at GE. He gave her the introduction, which was Gini's foot in the door. So, Gini told GE that their values weren't aligned with what they were doing and told them how she could change that.

So there is a benefit to being naive. Matt, for example, got stuck for 6 months trying to learn quickbooks when he first started compared to just doing the work and using excel for book keeping. This is Gini's advice:

“You don't have to have it all figured out to go do it. You just do it and then you'll figure it out as you go.”

So to recap, over two years, she had $2 million in revenue and hired 14 people.

Strategic Marketing:

Now, Gini relies more on strategic marketing through her Spin Sucks blog. The blog was started in 2006, but it was pretty sporadic, so it never really got traction. Then, in 2009, she took a more serious look at the blog and started sharing her opinions online, daily. It took off when Gini took a stance.

“People want you to be opinionated.”

Gini mostly writes how to articles about PR and media relations, but the opinionated pieces are the ones that get attention. Because of these, she has had numerous speaking engagements, published two books, and a huge, engaged community that sends her referrals.

The secret is that she writes every single day and nurtures her community every single day.

“We have been extraordinarily consistent and have stayed top of mind.”

The blog and the associated opportunities with a large following shows potential clients that she is really good at PR. But, Gini doesn't think that starting a blog is the best idea today because there is a lot of competition and noise there.

“I think podcasting has not reached its prime yet and continues to increase. I think there are things, content-wise, that you can do, but I don't know that a blog, a traditional blog, is where I would start today.”

If you are more introverted, audio podcasting is a bit easier compared to video. But if you are more extroverted, try Youtube, or Facebook live. You need to try a different medium other than a blog, but you can still get your content out there.

How to Grow:

Gini advertised her “intern program” at local colleges, including Northwestern, which is one of the best communication schools. The intern program hires four senior interns every semester, and hires one full-time person from the internship. The intern hired full-time would have to do a year of apprenticeship with her before moving up to more senior positions. The advisors from the colleges would recommend the best students graduating each year, so it was really easy for Gini to give internships to.

It worked really well! She had incredibly smart interns competing for a job and doing high-calibre work.

Gini also hired one person at the executive level as the managing director who was twenty years older than Gini and was really good. She reached out to Gini and was a great fit. Now, Gini doesn't manage the internship program; her managing director does it.

“It's been a very expensive process because I've had to teach myself a lot of things.”

It was really hard for the first 7 years because Gini was working, literally, 100 hours a week. So, Gini hired a leadership coach who changed her life. He was really hard on her and helped her change her bad habits, such as micromanaging, so she could become a leader. She started to delegate and trust her team, and how to interview really well.

“When you tend to micro-manage, you have a team that you don't trust. And that's your fault.”

She had a problem with her team working 80 hours a week and she didn't want to have a culture that worked an burned out. Her coach said that they are doing this because that is the example she is setting by getting to work at 6:00 am and leaving at 10:00 pm. They were following her example.

So, she started to come into the office only during the hours she wanted her employees to work, even though she would go home and keep working. And she would schedule emails and slack updates to go out during work hours instead of in the evening, when she wrote them.

“If they are doing it, and it's just not the way you would do it, that's ok, because they are doing it and the client is happy. Just let them make the bed the way they want to make it.”

She figured things out as she went, but also made a lot of mistakes along the way. If she had to do things again, she wouldn't have quit on the spot, but instead learned from her boss about the business side of things.

Now, Gini is in a place in her business where she can do what she wants. She can pick who to work with, she can trust her team, and she has the freedom to follow her curiousity. She gets to teach people and stay ahead of trends. It took a long time to get there and Gini admits that is was really hard for the first couple of years when she was working 100 hours a week, but it was worth it.

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