Zara Deegan, founder of EXT MKTG talks all about going from working in house at agencies across the globe to going it alone and why she wants to work with other mums, the importance of the work / life balance, why less is often more and some of the exciting plans for EXT MKTG in 2023 and beyond!
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Welcome to The Agency Collective Tales with Ellie Hale, our podcast where we talk to our brilliant agency owners about all things agency life.
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So today on the podcast, I am joined by Zara Deegan from EXT MKTG. Thank you so much. I like it that you just put your spectacles on to a have nice, proper, serious chat with me on the podcast.
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Exactly. And trying to put my serious voice on.
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Ellie & Zara [LAUGHTER]
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Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. You've been a member of the Agency Collective for quite a while now, and so I thought it was about time we hear your tale, so like we always do. Let's start right at the beginning. How did you first get into Agency Land?
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I have been working in agencies for well over a decade. I was in- house doing sales marketing for different companies, and I did PR agency land and then I went and changed after university and went in-house at an agency again. And I just love the creative vibe that you get in agencies. And I worked enough to work out what I liked and what I didn't like about it and worked at quite a few doing sales and marketing and just absolutely loved it.
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I've always worked at agencies where they've never done sales and marketing in house before. They've always sort of outsourced bits and pieces of it. So I've always been the first person that's done it, which has been quite nice and exciting and fresh, but it's also been sort of like rummaging around in the dark, trying to work out what to do. So I've worked at tons of agencies in London.
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And I also worked at an agency in Toronto, so I'm quite proud to say that after I left there, they replaced me with three other people.
That's, I guess that's how busy I was. 00:01 31:22 - 00:01:33:02
Working your bum off.
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Yeah, but they do strict hours: They're very strict nine to five over there, which is great.
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How did you then decide to branch out on your own? Was it a seed of an idea when you were in Toronto? Did it happen when you came back over to the UK?
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Well, I came back from Toronto pregnant with my eldest Louis, and the world was in COVID and I thought, I'm not going to be able to go in-house and demand a great salary and a great role because people aren't going to have in-house marketers at this point of flux aand uncertainty. And I also was sure that I wanted to work part-time because of my child and now children.
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I wanted to make sure that I only worked three or four days a week because before they joined school I wanted to make sure I have lots of time with them to help them, to take them to swimming and, you know, football and whatever classes they end up doing and that sort of thing. So I needed flexibility. The economy was in tatters and I thought, right, what should I do?
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And I've always wanted to work for myself. I've got documents all over my laptop of different business ideas I've had. I also come from a lot of different business owners in my family. So my dad or my uncle ran our family business and before that, my grandpa ran it and his dad ran it, and that was cotton weavers.
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And then my mum worked afor herself as well. She was a freelance teacher, working at different places, teaching adults. My grandfather he ran a baker's shop, had a few branches, and then after he passed, my grandma took it over for quite a few years. I always thought that was pretty awesome. And then also on my dad's side, my dad's mum, her father had a sweet shop and so everyone had businesses.
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I'm quite a strong character and I think that it must be in the genes just to sort of be brave and just do.
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Yeah. And just do it, just crack on, thinking, what can I do? What can I do? I want to help loads of agencies do marketing, so I should just do that. And I want to come up with a plug and play sort a programme at some point that works on just for B2B level. But for now I'm just basically an external marketing team for different creative businesses.
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Did you specifically pick agencies to work with because you had a ball working in them yourself?
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So yeah, I did specifically want to work for agencies because I know that they don't do marketing and they all need to do it and they just choose not to, but they always want to do it and it's always been that flex where I've gone in and worked with different agencies and said, Oh, I can, I can just take all this off your hands, you know, And obviously when I was in-house, I was writing people's proposals for them, which is such a godsend to have somebody write your own business proposals and then looking after the website and getting in an SEO agency and getting in social media companies and graphic designers, to like pull content together and all
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that sort of stuff. But you just need someone to gather and put it out there and that's what I do with companies.
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What have you learnt? How has the agency developed, starting it in a COVID landscape to now back in the free world, but obviously we've got the cost of living crisis looming over our heads. How are you steering that?
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I think that to begin with I was offering too many services because there is quite a lot that I'm a dab hand at and I just tried to narrow that down, niche it down a bit. And when it comes to the economic crisis for now, I think just having like flexible model and for me personally and many employees, I work with freelancers where I need to, so just be mindful of the outgoings of the business.
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But I think that in terms of where we are, I think that there's still lots of freaks out there. It is the economic crisis going on as we speak, but there's lots of people still pitching. There's lots of money to be had in terms of people wanting to do more creativity. So I don't think that Creative Services is going to be affected yet.
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Maybe next year when the mortgages like go wild, but I think there's definitely cakm waters or steady waters for the next 12 months.
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Is your model just using freelancers: Is that a deliberate move? Have you've got plans to take on permanent staff, or do you want to keep that level of flexibility to be able to scale up and scale down as and when?
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I actually just want to work with mums. So at some point I would like to have full time staff. Not yet though, just I want to wait until my youngest is at school. I just want to work with really good people now, churn out really good work, be really proud of everything that we're doing. But then ultimately over the next few years, like the children to do come first, but at the moment I am actually hiring.
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I want some mums that know marketing just to pitch in and help out for few hours a week and any hours that work. I mean I work evenings, mornings, like afternoons, during lunchtime nap: All sorts of hours. And I think that a lot of mums have sort of put off getting back into the workplace because of lack of confidence and because they have got a new identity and they're not really sure where they fit and they want flexibility like I wanted.
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So yes, I'm looking for people to help me out at the moment and I've got a couple of people interested which is really exciting.
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That's wonderful. That's the thing, isn't it? COVID also really helped in terms of the flexible working landscape and what that looks like, that actually companies that were terrified of it or thought, Oh, no part time or flexi worker - that you're not going to get the most out of them. Where in actual fact, if you played to people's strengths, let people work when they are most productive, when they feel the zing or feel the creative flare be it 9 a.m. till
5 p.m. or like be it like at 4 a.m. It doesn't matter.
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It's whatever works for you and your family. And I think that's when you get like a team that are really behind you in what you do.
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Yeah, I think that you're absolutely right. There's now like a certain amount of respect for people that work from home. It's super hard, working from home sometimes. You sort of need to sometimes just go to Pret and earwig and listen to what people are doing as if they were talking to you and just be amongst it
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I do miss living in London and working in London for lots of reasons, but I've got the flexibility of being around for my kids and doing more work by being at home ultimately.
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So what advice would you give to somebody that's maybe thinking about going alone or thinking about starting their agency?
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I probably would start with a client, unlike the way I did! [LAUGHS] Start with a client and work on that client and don't try and do everything. Just do what feels right. Do less. Less is definitely more. I've read so much about niching strategies. I remember a talk that I listened to by Rob Pierre from Jellyfish, and he said he wanted to be the best agency at a very specific thing in this very specific area.
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And then we went from there and I thought, that is such wonderful advice and I've recited that advice to so many different business owners. Since I heard that, just inform yourself everyone's going to make mistakes, so you just got to be brave and go for it.
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Yeah, it's a lot easier, isn't it, to make a name for yourself. And get referrals and recommendations if you're in a specific area or maybe like a couple. Do you have a specific niche in terms of the clients you work with? I mean, I know it's agencies, but is there a sector that you lean towards or is it pretty open?
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More brand interior design. That's my bread and butter, it's where I've been for so many years. I just really love the creativity I think designers are so clever, that would sit at a desk and
like draw what those hotels should look like. And I just find that absolutely incredible. I just can't imagine it. I definitely couldn't do it. I just think they're so talented.
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It must be really exciting to work with them as well and have each day be so different.
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Yeah, they always know where the latesr restaurants are that have opened, which is very good intel.
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Ellie & Zara [GIGGLES]
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So what is it that's next for EXT MKTG? Obviously you've got your first hire, which is very exciting, but what plans have you got into the next year?
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We're going to be working on our own marketing, LOL I'm going to working on my own brand , kind of build up my name a bit more, getting out to more events, more networking, that sort of thing. I do want to come up with a platform where people buy services for a certain amount of time and they say, OK, I need this much marketing, and they just put like a sum down and then we transform that into results somehow and hopefully take that into the B2C market.
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Lots of business ideas. Definitely sticking at this is the long game. I just think this is just the beginning and once the kids are in school, the priority will then build the business up and yeah, sky's the limit.
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That's really exciting. When you are a marketer and that's what you do and that's your agency. How do you then work on your own business? Do you have to treat yourself like a client? Do you schedule specific hours? What's your plan for that? Because I can imagine it's like plumbers never fixing their own pipes. It's very difficult to do it for yourself.
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It's like putting teeth. It's just agony. It's total agony. But I have to make yourself do it because I have to practise what I
preach, and if I don't, then I'm just lying because I have to do it. I make myself through a LinkedIn post every week. I just... I have to come up with something every week and I don't think that that's an unrealistic target.
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I don't do any email marketing, but for me it's a social media marketing at the moment, and networking and meeting people. I think it's just got to be realistic with what time you've got available and what time my business needs at the moment, or my client needs at the moment. So I think that social media at the moment and writing blogs, articles and things like that I think that's just what's possible and that's what I need to do and that's how I approach it with clients as well.
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You know, I always say to them, How do you win business? OK, so you win business from referrals and so let's look at an influencer marketing strategy, let's look at your LinkedIn strategy, let's look at this strategy or let's get you talking at events and let's just do what's the best way to sell your business and what's going to deliver you ROI.
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There's no point saying, OK, we need to do all these million different things. Let's do an e-book, let's do podcasts, let's do that because we work with your network and how you're winning business. And with the time that you've got available. Yes, you've just got to be really instinctive to what is going to work. You know what your business needs to do.
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The Agency Collective, like where your time is best spent to improve your marketing that's just where you've got to focus on what's going to convert.
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Yeah, I don't know if I do, actually, marketing is so tricky. You need to get the experts in.
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Yeah, but if you don't know, then you just try something per quarter, if it doesn't work. Try something else next quarter.
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Yeah, be more experimental. That's really good advice. So how do you find the right clients? What's your sort of new business strategy at
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I research businesses and I think I wonder what their marketing 's like, I wonder what their marketing's like and I wonder what their mark... And if their website is a shambles and if they're... it needs a rewrite and then I check out the link to you know, all the social media channels and they're not doing anything. And I think, oh, there's such a brilliant agency or, yiu know, sometimes agencies win awards, but that's all they do in terms of their marketing.
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And so I just get in touch with the founder and I say, you know, can I help? Do you fancy a call? And I've also introduced a referral scheme where if somebody refers me a client, then I give away either an hour's free consultancy or I do a charity donation. So it's up to them.
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Oh, that's nice!
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I thought it was a nice idea.
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Yeah, that's a really good idea. How's it been received?
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Well, it's only just started, but good so far. The charity I've chosen as well for now is Pregnant and Screwed. Again. It's on the mum theme. They're always campaigning. Parliament for better rights for parents. Yeah.
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They're a wonderful charity.
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... charities that need help, isn't there? We ll yeah.. They're doing a big march soon, aren't they?
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Thanks. So much for chatting, Zoara It's been really nice getting to know you and a bit more about EXT MKTG and best of luck for all the exciting things you've got coming up.
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