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Lessons learned from starting and finishing an agency
Maggie Fox and Social Media Group (SMG) broke through in the summer of 2007. Just a year after she opened her agency in a suburb of Hamilton, Ont., it won the social media account for Ford. Not Ford Canada. It was the global business, awarded out of Detroit.
After the Ford win, the agency hummed along winning other accounts, like SAP, and hitting a highwater employee mark of 17. Bright, articulate and engaging with an innate understanding of how social media is driving change, Fox became a popular draw on the conference and event circuit.
And at some point, the Maggie Fox brand started to pull away from that of SMG. It’s one of the reasons the agency could never scale up and a factor in her decision to wind it up now, she says.
“I think it’s probably the single biggest weakness of the business. Because you can’t scale me. Right?” She had great people working with her who were invested in SMG, but the fit wasn’t quite right for the business to take off.
“The reality is I didn’t know what I needed, and so I never found it. What I really needed was someone who was an operational genius to really make sure that we were operating at maximum profitability, and that our costs were contained, and all that sort of thing.
“I did [that part of the business] because I had to, but I wasn’t that interested.”
The realization started to take hold three or four years ago at the same time the game was changing. Traditional agencies were jumping into social en masse. SMG was more than holding its own, but the big shops had the benefits of existing relationships to earn business from clients that SMG coveted.
So then it was either buy or be bought. There were serious discussions on at least three occasions, but the earn-outs would have locked her into doing the same things she was before. And so she got out and her former staff have moved on, even though the company still exists in name.
She is working on a book about leadership. Lesson one: “Starting a business, especially an agency, when you have no partners is a really stupid idea. Nobody should ever do that,” she jokes. And she is working closely with a handful of important clients, “where I sit on the same side of the table as the client.” And she’s feeling good about what’s next.
“I was in Austin for SXSW, which is really where my people are,” she says. She was telling some of those people about her plans. “Somebody I’ve known for quite awhile said, ‘You look happier than I’ve ever seen you before.’ So I thought that’s probably a pretty good sign.”