Episode 6 – Stephen Kenwright – Open Dialog

Sam Marsden
Sam Marsden

On 25th November 2019 • 77 min read

Welcome to the sixth episode of Open Dialog, the podcast for collaborative SEOs and digital marketers. In each and every episode, we’ll be speaking with the best and brightest minds in SEO, digital marketing and beyond to find out how we can work more effectively, efficiently and productively with other teams, departments and clients.

In episode 6, DeepCrawl’s Sam Marsden spoke with Stephen Kenwright who is the Cofounder and Technical Director of Rise at Seven.

A visual summary of this episode has been sketched out by the supremely talented Katja Budnikov for your viewing pleasure. The full sized image can be found here.

Stephen Kenwright Open Dialog Sketch Notes


How did you get started in SEO?

I think, like a lot of people who get into SEO, the reason I got into it was to do as little as possible, originally. So that’s the reason I got into English. I did an English degree at uni because, once I was looking around the halls of residence, met a girl who said: “I only go in six hours a week.” I thought that sounds perfect!

So I actually changed all of my A-levels and did English so I could go and do that. And then didn’t hear of SEO until afterwards. And it was only because I was kind of, while I was doing an MA, I was freelancing for an agency writing various articles, a bit more advertising style stuff, a lot of it. But some of it was kind of SEO articles as you might do in 2010. And yeah, they weren’t great. But it was a living, so to speak, and paid for papers and beer. And then they got acquired just as I was leaving uni. They offered me a job straight out of uni, and I was into the copywriting team there. They also had an SEO team and I just kind of gravitated towards that team. Found it really interesting.

What was your journey with Branded3 like?

Branded3 was a weird, unique and special sort of place where everything combined. And timing was just perfect. For me at least.

So Branded3 got acquired while I was still in the link building team really, I think. So I was kind of like doing a bit of very, very rudimentary PR. Not like what the SEO industry does now. I was kind of moving into the SEO team and to the more technical side of things at that point. And then, because it got acquired, we grew rapidly and we had an investment from a parent company. Our founder, Patrick, retired or was retiring. So you know, there was an imperative to replace him on the speaking circuit. He was where all of our new business came from. So I kind of got stuck into that as quickly as possible.

And then, through a combination of having a really great mentor in Tim Grice, who ended up being the CEO, he definitely pushed me quite a lot. And it was really clear, as an agency, what they value; what’s important to Branded3 and how you can progress there. So that people like me and Laura Crimmons and David White and people like that, who really did move up quite quickly.

It was because it was really clear where we were going as a business. And I think I did eight different jobs there, and I started in outreach. I moved on to SEO, then content, then back on to SEO and then all of search. And then I ended up doing… well everything. I managed dev, design, CRO and everything else too.

it was really straight-forward. It was very much a case of, you’re now in the business. You could see what the gap was. You could see, “Well we need someone to do this.” And then it’s the type of business where you go: “Well, I’ll do it.” Then you start doing it and then someone eventually notices. “Hey, that guy’s doing that. We should give him a job doing that.”

And then you kind of move through. It’s really clear a lot of the time what a business really needs to be able to get something done. And they very much, were the type of business that would reward people taking initiative and getting stuck into it.

You moved in-house briefly with Pendragon but started Rise at Seven soon after. What happened there?

I think long-term, I’d always been interested in starting an agency. Not like always, but definitely in the last couple of years. I kind of thought I will go agency side again, whether it was mine or not. So I wanted to go in-house cause I think, you know, you’re working with clients all the time. That is literally your job and unless you’ve done it yourself, I don’t think you can really empathize in the way that you should be able to.

You see that all the time where people are kind of saying the same sort of apparent truisms like, “Alright, we understand that you are busy. We understand that there is dev resources to combine,” and that kind of thing.” And I’m like, “Well, do you understand that? Do you understand why it’s like that?” So I was pretty clear I wanted to go in-house and experience it for myself.

As is every business at the moment – lots of change going on. Lots of things happened at the same time. Again, a load of coincidences, which meant that this was an opportunity to start up a lot sooner than I originally anticipated. I was thinking maybe two years, something like that. And yeah, it all fell into place with some good backing. And you know, it just made a lot of sense.

Is there much crossover between the PR and SEO parts of Rise at Seven

It’s not split at all. And the reason is because, when I was at Pendragon, we were running an SEO agency pitch and we had two real issues. We had a website that was a mess – lots of JavaScript that was unreadable, sub domain and all the technical issues that you could possibly imagine on a massive sort of scale.

But also, we hadn’t really done much in the way of link-building for a really long time. We were really reliant on TV. We spent a lot of money on TV and PPC. And I was concerned that if we turn those things off, there wasn’t much propping that brand up. So we were running a pitch for both of those things.

And I’ve got a lot of friends in the industry who, I really rate the work that they do, but I think it was pretty clear for me, that there wasn’t an agency that could do both of those things. And yet they are the only two bits of SEO. So as much as you know, there are plenty of agencies who are decent at technical but maybe phenomenal at link building. Or who are a really great technical agency that can’t build links. I think the ambition for me and Carrie as well, we’re as narrow as it gets. We were an SEO agency, but it would be great if we could get something that works together with only those two things.


Was it difficult moving back into the agency side?

Well, every business is different as a starting point. So, you know, you go in-house, you see what one business is like. So I’d not pretend to know what every business is like at all. I don’t think I’d really had a chance to slow down to the pace that in-house often is. And the projects tend to be bigger. The projects tend to be more long-term and have a lot more moving parts than what an agency might do.

So I’m still in that mentality that agencies have, which is kind of like: “Do this. Move on. Do this. Move on,” and get through projects in a completely different sort of way. So I feel like I was still in that kind of mentality. I hadn’t changed to an in-house way of doing things just yet.

Do you have any stories or learnings from working with developers and engineering teams?

Sure. Well, while I was at Branded3 – because it was a PLC and owned by a company that owns a bunch of other companies too – I actually worked as part of a dev agency called Realize, for quite a while. It was a great agency to work with as well. It was a lot of fun, but it was a development agency and it was really clear we could work quite closely together cause they didn’t have search as a function.

And so those two businesses work quite close together in a lot of things. So I kind of saw how dev agencies work. I wouldn’t pretend that I managed anyone there or anything like that, but I kind of worked on a lot of projects that they did.

I think the first thing that I definitely got wrong through seven years of Branded3 and Realize, that as soon as I moved in-house, cause you kind of have this vision of a dev queue, you often think that it’s the dev team’s responsibility to make a note of what you’re asking them for? And I think it was really clear as soon as I started managing a product team and an SEO team that, you know, SEO is often fire over recommendations maybe via an email or something like that. And then expect that, at the other side of the email, or the other person that you’re talking to, that they’ve written that down and they’ve added it to que and that you don’t need to think about it again.

Exactly. Where as, as soon as their recommendation comes through to the development team – you know, we worked using agile methodology – we did sprints every couple of weeks. If something was obvious, it will get into the sprint that we’re doing right now.

And if it wasn’t obviously, then it needed some scoping. Then it would be added to a queue to scope. And that que doesn’t really exist anywhere. You know, it’s not a kind of, “We’ll add this to the list and we will get to it.” It’s like: “We’ll add this to the list and that’s the end of it.”

So I think both sides – is probably the wrong way to describe that – but both teams have an expectation that the other one is aware of the big picture of what’s going on. And I think that was the first thing that I really understood when I’d been sending over a technical audit to a development team.

Previously, I’d kind of think, “Well, you’ve got that now. You have a list of things to do and I don’t need to maintain a list of things to do.” When in fact, it’s actually my list. My responsibility. They’re my problems this other team is working on for me. So that was one of the first things that was really obvious.

I think the first thing to do is to understand what the list looks like. Where is it? Where does it live? What kind of format is it in? Instead of trying to say, “You’re pitching SEO to a client, so this is our way of working.”

You really shouldn’t have a way of working. You should be plugging into another team’s way of working when you rely on them actually doing anything. So I think that the first thing to do is have that conversation with the development team: “How do you work? What format would this be useful to you in? And how can I make sure that we’re giving you these recommendations in a format that you can actually use them?”

And I think that a lot of the time, SEOs are just technical enough to be dangerous. Where we’ve got a solution. And we kind of know how to implement that solution, because we’ve done it before. But, if we’re actually giving those recommendations to developers in a format where we’re saying “This is what we’re trying to achieve. You know the technology better than we do. Clearly, you built the thing and you have probably done this before too. And the way that it’s built, it’s probably built like that for a reason. This is what we’re trying to achieve. This is one way I’ve done it before, but can you think of another way we could do this? Can you think of all the solutions that might work in this sort of scenario?”

Because until you’ve actually gotten through that conversation, you really don’t know how much time any of these things are going to take. So if you’re just firing them over in an email and saying: “Can you scope this out for me?” then they scope out something and they give you back, “This is what we think we might do.” And I’m like: “Well great, ok.”

And then you go and put a business case. But it’s so hard to do that when actually you’ve seen one possible way of doing things. And because you don’t have that context of that stack that you’ve got. You don’t have the context to be able to say, “Well, maybe there’s a different way of doing this?” And probably it makes sense to have that conversation with the developer early on and say: “Success looks like this. The methodology looks like what you want it to look like.”

Is it more difficult to work with developers while working agency-side?

I don’t think it is. No, I think it’s the same in a lot of senses because, however you look at it, you’re intruding on another team’s time. You know, as an agency, you have probably got a defined start and an end point to your project.

It’s not one of a million things that you’re doing that you’ve said you’d try and deliver by such and such a date. But there’s all this other stuff and all this other context. With an agency, you don’t do it, you don’t get paid. “We’re going to get this project done by this day, or otherwise we’re going to have issues.”

So actually, it’s potentially a little bit clearer in a lot of ways because you can start to have that conversation with development teams in the same way that an in-house team would. And really be on their side rather than just kind of being the external invading force on that team.

I don’t think it really makes that much of a difference. It’s nice to obviously be in the same building or whatever, so you can say: “By the way, I’ve just thought of another way we could do this.” But most of the businesses I work with, tend to be multiple offices, maybe multiple countries. This is not how they work anyway, so it doesn’t make that much of a difference.

Have you had any troubles in getting developers to care about SEO recommendations?

I definitely used too. I can’t think of any instances recently, and that’s probably in the last two to three years, where I’ve kind of struggled to articulate what we’re trying to do. Because more often than not, SEO is common sense and you kind of run into troubles when you go for “Google says this. Google wants that.”

And when you start to maybe ignore some of Google’s recommendations, and you realize that actually not everything is important. So, obviously we’re talking when rel=“ugc” is now a thing. And my first thought is: “I don’t care.” I know plenty of times in the past, I might have said to the development team: “Can we implement this?” And they will go: “Where do we implement that?” And I go, “I haven’t really thought about it actually.”

Best practice is one of the worst problems in SEO, because best practice is quite broad. And actually it’s quite average. There’s a lot of things that you could do that are far better than what best practice means. And realistically, half of the things that are considered best practice, are not very well documented at all.

So it’s not really clear what you would do. And you’d get found out really quickly. Whereas, I think if you’re kind of talking to developers and saying, “Well, what is the bandwidth that you have? How much can we handle when it comes to SEO?” Realistically, most of our clients have targets. They have some sort of reason to be doing it and they will push through recommendations and we’re all on the same side. So it’s not a kind of fight with the developers at all, certainly not in recent memory for me.

So it’s a little bit more straight-forward to say, “Well, overall what we’re trying to do here is, we’re trying to make sure that this chunk of 70,000 pages that we aren’t supposed to have, disappears.” Rather than saying, “Well what we need to do here is implement rel=”prev”; rel=”next”. And then we’re going to do something else. And then we’re going to do something else. But here’s the big picture. We need to get that down to the 500 or so pages we’re supposed to have. Here are some different things that we might do. Can we have a conversation about which is going to be the best thing?” Because it should be, you know, every developer on that website knows they probably shouldn’t have 70,000 pages.

I think that I’ve definitely got better at understanding what should and shouldn’t be a priority. I’ve definitely learned by, kind of implementing things, that have had no effect. And you know, maybe implementing them again, actually, and still had no effect. And then starting to work out that maybe this isn’t that important after all.

And that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done ever, because some teams find it really easy. So actually, I think it’s not an understanding of doing SEO for a really long time. It’s an understanding of working with people for a long time.

And you get an understanding better of how you should actually communicate. That’s the big gap. And I think that’s what SEOs really learn with experience. That’s the bit that really makes a great SEO: Being able to communicate properly rather than actually knowing any more or less about SEO.

I feel weirdly like I know less about SEO now than I did five years ago, because it was just so black and white. “Here are all the things that we need to do.” And actually, we didn’t need to do half of those and another half of the things that we did.

Has it been difficult learning how to speak about SEO to senior stakeholders?

No, the senior stakeholder part does come naturally, because I think everyone’s personality is different. And my personality often matches Marketing Directors, et cetera, because I’m very “Big picture. This is where we’re going. This is what we want to get to. Here are a bunch of stuff that we’re going to try, but actually overall success looks like this.”

That’s a lot easier actually than talking to an SEO Manager or a Web Product Manager, or someone like that who wants to understand the detail. Actually, the moving up through Branded3, I find it a lot more easier to communicate with people from that point of view. And then I’ve worked pretty hard to try and get into the detail. That’s the bit that doesn’t come naturally, shall we say.

I definitely do think that over the years I got pretty fed up of not implementing things. And by the time I was in my last year or so at Branded3, and it was kind of – I never really got to see the impact of any recommendations. We’d be doing a strategy for a pitch, and I never really saw what ended up of it. And that’s really frustrating from my point of view.

What I really like about SEO is the results. That’s what I think is one of the most fun parts. Being able to see the impact that you’re having. Being really clear that, unlike a lot of other forms of advertising, it’s quite obvious what you’re doing, because you have more data about performance than TV, for example.

And one of the main reasons I wanted to start Rise at Seven, is so that I could get stuck in, rather than just being a new business guy. Which is where, the more senior you get in an agency, the more your job is actually just sales. And to be fair, that’s probably true of every single company, whether it’s an agency or not.

Have you got any stories of when SEO has gone wrong?

Not that I would like people to know about! Yeah, there’s definitely a bunch of things I’ve done wrong. I think some of the biggest mistakes that I’ve made are believing the SEO can do everything. And I’ve worked with a brand to launch a brand new site with just PR link-building and technical SEO. And that’s not gonna grow very quickly, in all honesty.

And definitely – I’ve backed myself and the team to say “We could do that!” and we can’t, because it’s just one part of it. It’s a competitive niche. And you know, one thing that I hope I’ve got better at, is understanding the big picture. And how SEO is really the last part of it. SEO is a result of every single thing that you’re doing. It’s not a thing that you do on its own.

And especially when it comes to technical. Technical is probably the thing that most big brands should really be focusing on right now. Boughts, authority, building, link-building, PR, advertising is the thing that most start-ups should be focusing on right now, because they don’t have that technical debt. That thing that’s holding back a brand.

That is one thing that springs to mind. I’ve done loads of stupid stuff. I accidentally robots.txt’ed out a client’s website once and I’m reminded of that every time I speak to Branded3’s old Head of SEO.

Thankfully, it was spotted in a day and it came back and there wasn’t any long-term damage. The client did realize. You could tell them, “I’ve done this. Sorry, please do this,” and it was back within a few hours.
That was literally my first or second SEO client. And it just came from a place of inexperience where I’ve made a recommendation in a robot’s file that I thought was the right way to do it. And just a lack of oversight that kind of comes when you’re an agency with a PLC behind you with big sales targets and just, “I need to get these templated audits out the door.” And I don’t think I’d ever do that wrong again, which is obviously some comfort to the clients that I’ve got.

What’s the difference between a good and bad client for you?

I think this is what everyone would say, but I think a bad client is one who doesn’t value what you do. And we were lucky so far. We’re up to 14 clients at Rise at Seven, and every one of them has come towards because we do things the way that they wanted to do things.

I’m sure we’ll at some point come to the situation where someone’s got a different view of strategy to we do. And to be honest, I don’t have any issues with having a debate of what the strategy should be. I don’t have any issues doing things other ways competitive wise, your sort of usual big creative thinking outside of the box kind of approach.

So I think that a bad client is one that doesn’t value what you do in the sense of, they don’t really want you to shout about the fact that you work with them.

I want to work with clients who are thrilled to work with us and who understand that actually we’re really happy that they’re a client of ours.

I’ve had that a couple of times and we’re only two months old. But I’ve walked away from relationships like that. I’ve walked away from relationships where the retainer amount is great, but actually, “We want so much for that, that we’re prepared to pay you a day rate that’s half of what you’re asking for.” And I’m like, “Well, you don’t decide how much our staff are worth. I decide how much our staff are worth. And then you decide whether you agree, and this is kind of how this relationship goes.”

So, I guess the ultimate test of whether a client is a good client or not, is that they value what you do the same as how you value what you do. And I think that we’ve been pretty lucky so far, but I also think that most clients are good clients. And I’m aware of many instances where someone said, “You work with these guys now? They’re a nightmare.” I’m like: “No, they’re not. They’re lovely people.” It’s just a combination of who the whole team is, and what their team’s like. And how things change and all that kind of thing.

So I guess my view of a bad client – I’ve got a couple of clients on my list of “I will never work with these businesses.” And the common denominator, it’s the fact that it’s the CEO who’s the problem. Because that person is not going anywhere.

[Sam]: I do remember you sharing a tweet – I think it was like a few weeks ago – about a client meeting, where someone said like, “Bring along a few women,” or something along those lines. Sounded very seedy.

[Stephen]: It was. I was on a new business call. We’ve got a brief coming in and the person we were talking to says, “Oh, by the way. For your pitch team, make sure you bring a few attractive women, cause director likes eye-candy.” And you know, it’s hard to really sort of articulate what you kind of think in that sort of situation. In the end, we actually did go for the pitch, but I refused to take any women to the pitch.

I wasn’t in a position to be able to – again in PLC land – be able to turn down business when things are the way they are for big agencies at the moment. And I went to the pitch anyway, took a team entirely of men, lost the pitch because we were told this is a female focused brand, you need women on the team.

And I’ve definitely had a few messages afterwards from people who know exactly who I am talking about. The agency who won that, didn’t keep it for very long, and they knew who I was referring to. So I think that, when you’ve got a warning sign like that, that’s probably a good sign that there is a real problem.

And one of the huge advantages of owning your own business is you can call it out without fear of what that means for your long-term career. And how your not a team player and putting the needs of the business first. It’s your business! And then treating the needs of the business are making sure that people feel they’re in a safe working environment, and want to work for you and the clients that you’ve got.

Would you turn away a potential client offering you a lot of money

Yeah, 100%. We had a client at Branded3 that paid into the £50,000 a month sort of bracket for SEO, and I wouldn’t work with them for the same money. I wouldn’t work for twice that. And at the end of the day, I think we’re going to be fine really.

I think Rise at Seven is going to be a successful agency. And I don’t need to take every opportunity that comes our way. Because ultimately, money is only part of the puzzle. If you’re an agency that’s growing, what are you going to spend that money on? You’re going to spend it on getting the best staff. If you take the money and lose the best staff, then you spend that on recruiters and getting slightly worse staff and you end up in a much worse place than you were otherwise.

So when you don’t have the same sort of targets, and naturally you’re owned by a big company who’s making promises to shareholders that you’re going to grow, because that’s the purpose of the company. When you’re owned by shareholders, then it’s very hard to turn away that money. Whereas actually it’s pretty easy. Well, because you know, we can find another one of you before you find another one of us. And I would be upset if I wasn’t in that position.


What kind of clients are you working with now? What knowledge of SEO do they have?

I think we’ve got a real mixture more than we’ve ever had, and more than I’ve ever worked with. And we have a lot more owner managed businesses than we’ve had previously. And I think it comes from having a pretty bold approach. “We think that SEO should be done this way. We think that when we do a campaign, when we do PR, and when we create content, you should be thrilled to take that home to your wife, to your mom, to your kids, whatever, and show them.”

We had a campaign where we are working with a brand that does mock exam papers and private home tutoring. And so we decided that we would get professor Snape lookalikes to teach Chemistry, and that sort of thing. And then we had a comment on LinkedIn a couple of days ago from a former client that said: “I showed this to my daughter. I should have known it was you!” That how we think SEO should be done.”

We should not just be getting graphs that go up. We should also be saying: “You enjoy making those graphs go up,” because we enjoy making those graphs go up as well. So we’ve been pretty clear and vocal about how we want to do that. And as a result, we have a portfolio of brands who may be on the boring side by traditional standards. We love that. That’s not a problem to us at all, because we can get excited about anything. And we can get our clients excited about it too.

But likewise, we’ve got clients who are global brands, with our point of contact is the head of SEO and that’s always been our bread and butter. They’re the people that we’re really used to working with. And again, you know, it’s more the relationship is, “We have a clear idea of where we want to be in a year, two years, three years.” And I don’t think those relationships are actually that different anymore.

I think if you’re of an opinion that SEO should be done the way that we think SEO should be done, then the fit is pretty good, regardless of what level you are or whether you own the business or not.

How do you communicate the bigger picture to someone with less understanding of SEO?

I think that’s a bit of a trickier question, because I kind of want to say, “We are who we are,” and we are always ourselves in that sort of situation. So I modify my sort of approach a lot less than I have historically when I’ve been thinking, “Okay, so this market and director is this type of person and we need this exact team. And we need to be saying this. And this is where we need to sit in the room,” and all that kind of thing.

So I’ve definitely done the whole choreograph, rock opera kind of thing. But I think we kind of just be ourselves and we’re very much of that opinion now where we think “It’s this way. If you agree with us that it’s this way, then you probably agree with us that we’re the right team for the job.” So it’s a bit more straight-forward from that.

But then I do think that everyone requires something different, depending on what they’re trying to achieve. So an owner of a business isn’t trying to get their recommendations, get their strategy, get their roadmap in a format that they can then show their boss – because they don’t have one. They just care about the numbers going up. They just care about doing something cool that they really enjoy, that they can show the family.

Whereas an SEO manager, Head of SEO, Product Managers – we work with everyone that sort of, who has a boss, who probably has a company that’s, you know, traded on the stock exchange or whatever like that. They have multiple people that they need to tell what they’re doing and then, you know, we’re on their side at the end of the day. So we’re not going to do anything different overall. We know how we are going to get the results, but we do format those recommendations in a different way.

It’s just a conversation. How do you report on that? Why should we say “This is what format an audit comes in. And this is what format you report comes in,” when you’re already doing an audit. You’re already doing reports. You already have a way of working. I’d rather just fit into that kind of way that they already do things.

Have you got any examples of a way that you might communicate something to the owner of a business, differently than you would to the Head of SEO?

So I’d say out of most of our owner managed businesses, we tend to work on probably longer term relationships most of the time. Not all the time. But we’ll say, do four, five, six campaigns over the course of a year or 18 months.

And with an owner managed business, we will probably go, “We think we’re going to do a campaign. It’s going to look like this.” And they go: “Okay, go and do that. That sounds great.” And when we work with a team, we have much more of an approach where it is, “We’ll show you some options. Here is, you know, big option. Here’s the same idea, but smaller. How things could look if you’re managing the development of this asset. How things could look for your social team.”

We can package that up, but we don’t need to, you know, so there’s a lot more planning involved in a campaign where we are thinking it through from beginning to end, up front, and saying this is all the ways it could work. And let’s negotiate basically all who’s doing what and how we can make it happen.

We’ll probably have two or three ideas for what a campaign could be. Whereas an owner managed business, it’s like: “Well, here’s the KPI. Here’s what we’re going to achieve with this. And we’re just going to kind of do it and we’re going to make it better as we go along.” So if we think we can take this further, we’re going to probably drop you a message and say: “By the way, we’ve got this opportunity, we think we might film a video with it as well. Is that all right?” And kind of get the feedback from journalists on the fly. Get the feedback from teams on the fly. And do it that way.

So I’d say the biggest difference is when you’re working with a structured team, all the planning has to come up front. And then it’s just going through the motions of actually achieving the thing.

Whereas, when you’re working with an owner managed businesses, we know where we want to get to, and we all just make it awesome as we go along.

Well, we know what we’re trying to achieve. And we know roughly what’s going to happen with it. But then it is much more of a relationship where it’s like, “This is going wrong, we’ll fix it.”

You know, if we think we’re going to struggle to hit that KPI in the amount of time that we’ve got, do you know what, we’ll just spend more time on it and get it done. That’s not an issue for us at all. Whereas, when we’re working with a team where we’ve had loads of hoops to jump through to get that far, we definitely find it more straight-forward to justify going a week above and beyond, two weeks above and beyond on a campaign to make it into something special.

Do you build client churn into your projections for how you’re going to grow Rise at Seven?

I think that our mentality at Rise at Seven, is we have a defined beginning and an end to a lot of clients.

You know, we have a contract and at the end of that contract, we will revisit whether it makes sense or not. But we’ve got no expectation that that client is going to stick around, or unless we’ve done something awesome.

So it’s not the same sort of thing where we’re kind of really worried about retention in the same way. We don’t have revenue to replace and then revenue to stick on top, because we’ve got somewhat dissatisfied with it.

And so that’s part of it. I mean, there’s obviously an element of managing your cost base. But you know, we’re pretty clear a few of our clients, we just work on a project with, and we aren’t expecting to lose that client. But that doesn’t mean we’re expecting the end of the project, because we know what we’re there for.

We’re a narrow agency, you know? We do creative SEO. That’s our specialism. And there is more to life for a lot of clients. So we’re there for them when they need us to do that stuff. And I think that, when it comes to managing cost basis, et cetera, the way that we always used to work at Branded3 is we had a retained revenue base, which is about two thirds overall. And we would staff that two thirds of revenue, and then everything that we do as a project on top is profit.

So we’re kind of working similarly at Rise at Seven, I would say. We’re looking at utilization of about two thirds for most people, in fact nearly everyone. So we’re kind of expecting that there’s going to be months where people have pretty much seven days with nothing to do, except spend their time on writing blog posts or go to a conference or teach themselves something. And you know, that means costs are covered.

That means they’re going to do something productive with that time. And you know they’re adding value to the business during that time. Just not with a client paying for it. That doesn’t mean that an agency who has a 100% utilization isn’t expecting that of all their people anyway. It just means they’ve got to work late. So I think we don’t have those targets, right. So we want to grow, and if we don’t grow, fine. Not an issue. You know, the end of the day we want to do great work and enjoy it.

So I think, you kind of want to start by looking at what kind of utilization are you happy with? How much time needs to be paid for, for you to break even? And then how much time do you need to add on top of that to make sure you aren’t gonna have to lay people off if something goes wrong? Because inevitably things go wrong. We’ve been lucky so far. Things are going to go wrong. They always do. And I think that, you know, it only becomes an issue. You only really lose clients when you start doing things that aren’t in the client’s best interest. And you fail to communicate that that is what you’re trying to do. Things happen, you know? Teams change at the client’s side, new CMO comes in, new Head of SCO comes in, whatever it might be.

So there’s so many unforeseen factors. But there’s plenty of businesses. Like with the economic situation, businesses can go bankrupt, that kind of thing. So you just got to be really clear, what is actually the costs that you need to cover? And it’s obviously a very different situation if you then need to double your size in the next two years or whatever it is that, you know, targets suggest.
Is that what you’re aiming to do, double your size in the next two years?

Um, well it’s hard to double nothing, because it was just two of us, three months ago. So we don’t have targets. We have an amount of money that we told our investor we would make. Which we’ve so far doubled, which is nice, in two months. And we were pretty clear that we are going to grow as it suits us where we are still able to do a great job for clients.

We are working with brands that we really want to work with. And at the end of the day, SEO, running an SEO agency isn’t that difficult. It’s got challenges. It’s a mentality you’ve got to have, but it’s not like if you’re good at something you shouldn’t be able to get paid for it. So it doesn’t worry me too much if I’m honest.

Did I hear that right? Running an SEO agency isn’t that difficult?!

Well, no. Not really.

[Sam]: I mean, I’ve seen a fair amount of memes on Twitter of like, “This is me before owning an SEO agency. This is me after.” With this corpse in the second picture.

[Stephen]: Let’s just say that the situations are different for everyone. And I have run SEO agencies where it was killing me, and that is largely due to the fact that I’m running it on behalf of someone else.

I think when you are in a situation where you’re running your own agency, and what you’re really trying to do, if you can distill it down, is to have a team that you like working with. Doing work for clients that you like working for. Where you make enough money to make a living and feel like the future is secure.

That’s not that hard because there are a lot of really poor SEO agencies out there who do crap work for clients who want better. Quite rightly. There are a lot of really poor SEO agencies out there who were employing people who want better. So really, as long as you do have good intentions and have the right attitude, I don’t think it’s a horrible industry to be in. I know people who are in much worse positions than people that work in SEO. Definitely.

You seem to have a knack for starting your own thing. That doesn’t come naturally to everyone. What would be the starting steps for something like that?

I think you always work backwards. You always think, “Where, you’re trying to get to? What’s the important thing for you in the future? What does success look like in your career?”

You can do that in a bunch of ways. For example (not something particularly for me), but say you want to retire by 50. “Okay, so how much money do you need to make to do that? Okay, how are you going to do that?” You don’t have to look that long term. You could be thinking, “Well, when I started at Branded3, my first thing was, I want to work as an on-page SEO strategist.” That was it. I was a link builder. I really wanted to do SEO. So I was aiming for that. And then I set myself a next goal, which is: “Okay, well I think I could probably be Head of SEO here and I want to do that.“

“So what am I going to do for that?” Well, you know, the head of SEO is a public speaker. The Head of SEO writes blogs, has an opinion on stuff. So that’s what I started doing in that side of things. And then I kind of always set myself a goal. Really, it wasn’t always a particularly big, lofty sort of goal. But I always had something that I was working towards. And I definitely thought the time was right for me to move on from Branded3 when I thought, “There’s nothing here in my future that I really want.”

There’s always opportunity. You can always earn more money, a big company, you know? But that’s not always what motivates everyone. And I thought there’s all this stuff I want to achieve now. So that was when I felt that I needed to find a new company or find a new thing to do, really.

But I mean, it can be really straightforward. Write down a hundred things that you want to do on a bucket list. And inevitably you can write 40 things that you want to do, and then write 40 things that you don’t really want to do. And then by the end of it you come up with some really good stuff that you hadn’t really realized that that’s what you wanted.

Yeah. So there’s loads of tricks to kind of get there. With SearchLeeds as an example, a lot of these things are accidents. And with SearchLeeds, it was a combination of working for a business that didn’t really have an issue with spending 20k on and attending a CMO event. And then realizing we don’t get anything out of this. Maybe we could spend 20k on a different event?

And then I had lunch with Chris Dyson at Harvester, and he said, “We should probably think of doing a meetup in Leeds or something. Because we’ve not had anything on search for a while.” I’m like, “Hang on. I’ve got 20k. I could do a big meetup with that!”

[Sam]: Quite a big meetup with that, I’d imagine.

[Stephen]: So we kind of built up through a selection of coincidence. And really, that’s what anything is. You just got to look at what the opportunities are and feel like. “I have a good understanding of what my future sort of holds. What gets me closer to that?” My friend Mike Jeffs who used to be Commercial Director at Branded3, always said he got to where he was just cause he said yes to every opportunity that came his way. Not a bad thing to do.

[Sam]: Yeah. Especially if you want to make sure that they’re the ones that are in line with those goals though. Just don’t turn anything away that’s going to be useful for me. That’s really good advice.

On the flip side, how do you make sure that you don’t get too carried away with pursuing your professional goals?

I think you always think about what’s important to you. And what’s important to you is different to what’s important to everyone else. It just comes down to motivation in different ways. It doesn’t mean you need to have motivation or you don’t have motivation.

But when I progressed really quickly through Branded3, my motivation was my wife was a teacher at the time. She hated it and I knew that she wasn’t gonna be a teacher very long. So my whole thought process was, “I want to be on enough money that she can quit and we’ll be fine. If she doesn’t find something she wants to do for a year, we’ll be fine.” And so that’s what really made me work the 12-hour days that were required to do all that stuff.

And now, I’m back in Sheffield, which is my university city. I love it there. Really loved my time at university. I stayed for a really long time because I did masters as well. And I genuinely like my institution and think “Alright, what could I do?” They were a client of mine when I was at B3 and it was just, “Tell me what I can do to help further the university?” And they said: “Well you could do this and you know, maybe do a guest lecture and maybe there’s this mentoring thing.” “Brilliant. Okay, I’ll do all of those things.”

[Sam]: So it really opens the idea. Because that’s something that I’ve kind of thought about before. And it’s like, I’ve known people that have done similar kinds of things, but it’s just like, I don’t know. It’s always the kind of thing that I’ve never really kind of get round to it. So it’s just a case of going to them and saying, “What can I do to help?”

[Stephen]: It’s like, “Who do you care about as a business?” and not “What does your business care about? Who do you care about?” Cause now at the moment, we are working with some clients where we’re like, “We really want to work with those guys.” So we’re just going to do what it takes to do it, because we want to.

And likewise, that’s the same thing with the university. “You know, we don’t have an SEO conference in the North anymore. Brighton’s a really long way away. It’s six hours drive to get back on Friday.” And if we don’t have that and we think we should, do I care enough to do that? Yeah. I do. So you know, that’s what sort of spurs you to put the time in really.

You’re a real ‘champion of digital’ in the North of England. Has that stemmed out of SearchLeeds?

SearchLeeds was, again, a bit of a coincidence. Leeds is a really strange place when it comes to SEO, because it is the capital, in my opinion, still. And the reason I say that is because when Branded3 used to pitch for new business, the weird small talk at the end of every meeting, or the beginning of every meeting like, “Oh, you’re in Leeds. That’s weird. We’ve got these three other agencies from Leeds pitching to us. And we didn’t really realize that that’s where they were.”

And well, eventually we just kind of decided that clearly you have to go to Leeds to find SEO. That’s not true anymore. And the reason I say that is because all those Leeds agencies have been acquired and are now going through their own trials and tribulations as inevitably happens. And that’s fine.

There’s competition everywhere. There are agencies, you know, we’re in the next wave. We know we’re at this position where everything is cyclical. And I think you kind of go through that stage where everyone goes for a big agency that can do everything for them. And then they need to grow in certain areas. Cause there’s always one or two channels that are under-performing. And they start to go for specialists again.

And we’re getting some really cool agencies now that are just sort of making the headway. I’m talking about Kaizen and you know, there’s loads about. And they’re in really strange places. Like Digital Often, the Lake District. We’re at this next stage now where, what we might find is that, suddenly there are four or five massive SEO agencies that turn up in the Lake District, because that’s where all the staff are. Who knows?

But we’re in a new age when it comes to SEO, I think. What I am pretty clear about is the North is definitely on the up and there’s a lot of investment in various initiatives there. The cost of living is completely different and there are still some really cool agents in really cool brands.

And you’ve got a lot of the bigger companies in London relocate and you’re thinking Channel 4 and Sky turned up in Leeds not too long ago. We’ve got a bunch of similar brands coming in Sheffield, Manchester, you know? So I think that everything’s moving out of London at the moment for cost reasons. And I think what you’ll find is that the entrepreneurial types of people that you find in SEO will really sort of appear in the North again as well.


What’s the key thing that you think SEOs should be doing better?

I think we should listen to Google less overall. Who Google wants us to do certain things and I don’t think we should ignore those things completely. But I don’t think we should do them just because Google said so.

I think that overall, we need to think more long-term and we need to look at what else is in the roadmap currently, instead of trying to stick new things in the roadmap. If we’re already looking at migrating the website, maybe instead of thinking about AMP, we should be thinking about “How do we make sure it’s fast?” And if we’re already looking at, you know, we want to be on TV again in Q4. “Brilliant, how do we make sure that we’ve got content on site that the supports that,” rather than thinking of things to do from an SEO point of view.

Because everyone already has these challenges. And everyone already has these work streams or epics or whatever you want to call them, within their day-to-day. And the last thing they need is another one? When really SEO is this layer on top of what they’re already doing.

The PR team is already building links. We could help them build better ones? We could help them build more? We can help them support that with onsite content. You know, their social team’s already doing something. The dev teams are already doing something.

And I think that as SEOs, our role is to connect all of those teams together and think, “Talking to the dev team, what’s coming up? Okay. Talking to the PR team, I feel like there’s a connection here. We can do something on the website that’s going to help further my agenda.” As an SEO, you should probably be able to do something that drives growth without doing anything yourself.

[Sam]: Right. So SEOs are essentially like the glue between different sorts of marketing functions and business outlets?

[Stephen]: Yeah. We’re Project Managers now. And that’s true of, when you’re talking to a senior stakeholder too. And when you’re talking to anyone in the team, it’s like, “What are you doing that I can optimize for search engines?” Not optimizing a website. It’s optimizing every marketing channel to make that brand work in search.


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A massive thank you to Stephen for being such a great guest and teaching us so much about his wide and varied experiences working agency side. You can find more episodes of Open Dialog here on the DeepCrawl Blog and make sure to be the first to find out about new episodes by joining our mailing list.

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Sam Marsden
Sam Marsden

Sam Marsden is DeepCrawl's SEO & Content Manager. Sam speaks regularly at marketing conferences, like SMX and BrightonSEO, and is a contributor to industry publications such as Search Engine Journal and State of Digital.



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