How to turn your agency into the “McKinsey of SEO”

Management consulting through the lens of SEO

Welcome back to another SEO MBA email - an email newsletter all about leadership, management and consulting skills for SEO professionals.

Quick headsup: early next week I’ll be sending out a signup link for the “executive presence for SEOs'' course beta. This beta program will be a live 4-week program with a small cohort of folks to test and refine the course material. Stay tuned.


One of my biggest consulting clients of all time started because the client had hired McKinsey and McKinsey had in turn recommended that the client do “some SEO work”. So here I was consulting for a company to improve their organic traffic - downstream of a McKinsey engagement. I worked with the client for close to three years and likely only earned a rounding error of what McKinsey had charged the client.

The fact that McKinsey is famous for charging a lot of money, having executive buy-in and for being effective is why it’s so common for agencies to come to me asking for help becoming “the McKinsey of SEO”.

Firstly, hopefully you’re not trying to build the McKinsey that has lost its luster, helped turbocharge America’s opioid epidemic or destroyed the middle class...

No, instead you’re probably trying to push your agency into something that resembles “management consulting”. An agency that can work with senior level clients, shaping strategy, getting things done and….. yes charging a lot of money.

So, if you’re running an agency that’s trying to do that, here’s what I’d do. I’ve broken the ideas down into three distinct categories: people, delivery & marketing.

Developing People - An Absolute Obsession

McKinsey is famous for developing their talent. An ex-McKinsey consultant I spoke to said the focus on people and training is “an absolute obsession”. From a competitive and aggressive hiring regimen to investing in continual training and development. Paul Millerd has this chart in Decoding McKinsey’s Culture of High Performance:

This virtuous cycle of developing talent with a long-term mindset is the foundation for building a culture of high performance. While it’s easy for every single agency to pay lip service to this idea of “developing talent”, the lengths McKinsey goes to develop talent is hard to fathom. From a McKinsey document “the art of being an engagement manager” (bolding mine):

At McKinsey, the role of the [Engagement Manager], is without question, the central role. We deploy, at our clients, one study at a time, surrounded around a person senior enough to take the lead -- the lead in a problem solving, the lead with the client, and importantly, the lead in developing our people through that problem solving. Being an EM is not easy to do in every situation. But when you reach it, it's the best job in the Firm.

Note how central developing talent is to this role - even over the actual client work, it’s not just about leading projects but it’s about ensuring that the team on the project can learn from you while working.

In addition - it’s not just investing in developing technical skill sets, but developing consulting skills, client management skills and executive presence. Yep you guessed it executive presence is a key skill that gets overlooked - especially in formalized learning and development programs.

Example: one of the practices that we believed in at Distilled was deliberately exposing junior employees to client facing situations. The idea is that through exposing your people to real situations you can give them the ability to watch and observe crucial tacit skills like executive presence. It’s impossible to learn how to deal with difficult clients until you’ve been in the room when someone does it well and exposing junior folks to this early really helps them level up.

Delivery - Close to the Client

The distinction between an agency and a consultancy is that agencies prefer to streamline operations and create muscle memory through doing the same kinds of things again and again, while a consultancy typically works on a wider range of problems but with a common methodology.

Consultancies are often able to command higher rates, but it comes at the cost of efficiency. There’s four models for delivery that management consultancies often use:

  1. Strategy from first principles

  2. Obsessing over client’s problems

  3. Complexity taming

  4. Being close to the client

1. Strategy from first principles

One of the reasons that big consulting firms are expensive is because they make everything very labor intensive. Agencies actively try *not* to do things from first principles - they attempt to create a process, template or “way of doing things”. Even where a consultancy has existing domain expertise they spend time creating strategy from “first principles” - this might mean:

  • Stakeholder research is spending time with various different stakeholders across an organization, either formally in a survey or informally in a round of meet and greets. This is what Heather Physioc calls “strategic immersion” and it’s incredibly useful for two reasons: firstly you make contact with the relevant players inside the organization which is helpful for getting things done, but secondly you also get a much richer and more nuanced perspective of the problems the client is facing - beyond what your point of contact *thinks* the problem is.

  • User research is taking the time to perform some surveys or interviews with real users. For an SEO project this might mean understanding what EAT factors are for this particular industry and client, or understanding which factors actually drive conversion.

The agency mindset seeks to create templates and playbooks to show employees how to do something a specific way. McKinsey instead creates “cases” which are narrative versions of a client engagement - they help employees think about projects in a certain way.

As a result, the interview process for somewhere like McKinsey relies heavily on how you think, not what you know. Check out a sample interview case here.

2. Obsess over the client’s problems

The agency mindset says: create a list of standardized deliverables. The consultancy mindset says: seek to work on the most effective work that meets the client's actual needs.

Standardized deliverables are useful - for the client they allow for a standardized RFP process and comparison between agencies, while for the agency they allow for standardization in delivery and scheduling. Unfortunately, standardized deliverables aren’t the most effective way of solving a client’s problems.

(I have a longer essay here about effective independent consulting and why you should reject deliverables as a unit of work)

From what I’ve seen of consultancies like McKinsey, while there is some standardized and templated deliverables, they tend to structure their deliverables and work units to be adaptable and generic. This gives them incredible freedom to really listen to the client’s needs. Any agency will tell you they care about the client’s problems but mostly everything they hear is filtered through “Client wants X, we can achieve that through our set of services Y”. 

How many times have you sat in a meeting with a client and thought “this is crazy, they don’t know what they want, they’re talking weird - what they really want is Z”. I’ve been there and done that too! But I’d challenge you to pay attention far more closely to the frustrations of senior executives and the specific language they use. There’s typically far more truth to the wild ideas than you might imagine.

Aside: a management consultant that I shared this draft with pointed out that perhaps management consultants have more empathy for how difficult a client’s job is because they spend so much time on-site embedded in the client’s organization. Contrast that to agency life where your day to day is working inside an agency. The environment you are exposed to shapes your thinking of how business works so there’s some truth to this. Interesting take...

This is the flipside of the coin for doing strategy from first principles - it’s about rejecting busywork and deliverables that don’t drive change and instead truly understanding the barriers in place for the client. 

3. Strategy & Stewardship

Yes we think of McKinsey as being good at making powerpoint decks but a focus on problem solving requires looking at the situation end to end. I like this diagram from the McKinsey Mind

It shows the value chain of understanding the client’s problem, gathering insights and data to create a solution and then the leadership to drive implementation. Another way to think about this is “strategy and stewardship” - a concept I reference a lot from the Helsinki Design Lab. They talk about the disconnect between strategy (the design process) and execution:

Without the broader stewardship arc, the design process is easily all about thinking and not doing — this is precisely what we see to be the difficulty with the ‘design thinking’ debate and its over-emphasis on helping people think differently. In the context of strategic design, ideas are important, but only when they lead to impact. Part of this is appreciating the quality with which an idea is executed and recognizing that quality of execution and quality of strategy are equally important. It is common these days for one group to be involved in analysis of a problem and designing the solution (consultants) while a different group executes these ideas (contractors). But this disconnects an essential feedback loop.

So, strategy without execution doesn’t work. But the people that do strategy don’t typically get involved in execution. The answer? Strategy and stewardship:

We invoke stewardship in place of words like “implement” and “execute” out of recognition that the latter imply a cleanliness or linear progression which is rarely found when working on a shared proposition in a complex environment. Inside a factory plans can be executed, orders implemented, and outcomes delivered, but innovations that engage with the messy reality of the social sphere do not happen so neatly. What we describe also goes well beyond “facilitation,” which suggests that others do the important work. Stewardship shapes the course of innovation; it is not a neutral role. Think of stewardship as a form of leadership. One that acknowledges things will change along the way for better or for worse, therefore demanding agility over adherence to a predetermined plan. Many individuals who work in alliances or collaborative endeavors act as stewards almost naturally. If you are used to continually calibrating the goals of a project with the constraints of your context, you are practicing stewardship. If you maintain a constant state of opportunism and a willingness to pivot when progress on the current path is diminishing, you’re a natural steward

While the “strategy” portion of management consultants is often glorified there’s likely far more operations work than you might expect - the work doesn’t end with the strategy presentation but rather the focus is on the change. Whether that’s implementation of a technology plan or hiring a team for a new stream of work the stewardship of the strategy is important.

In the SEO world this kind of operations work is often missing - it’s one thing to recommend a set of changes but something else entirely to create teams, processes and budgets that enable those recommendations to see the light of day...

4. Complexity Taming

I love this quote from Rohit’s piece on management consultants:

Clarification turns out to be a non-trivial skill.

What the above means is that consultants try to make decisions that are legible (understandable to everyone, within their own context), and defensible (one that's highly internally coherent, and if there's any fault it's not in the logic but rather some extrinsic dataset).

And that's really where consulting shines. It creates a clear storyline that is both data backed and internally coherent that management can use to do things. Not necessarily evil or stupid or premeditated things. Just regular normal business things that otherwise would've been shrouded in confusion.

Complexity taming is thus a big part of the value proposition.

This is why McKinsey is so good at putting presentations together, because they care about reducing complexity for their clients. Reducing complexity is a key skill and one that almost no SEO agency I know does well. Instead, a typical agency will balloon complexity - turning “we want organic traffic growth” into a project that sprawls across server logs, site speed, optimization and more…

If we reject standardized deliverables then we become free to create an SEO strategy and plan that actually focuses on a small number of high impact projects rather than a comprehensive “audit” and checklist of items. The consultancy approach is to create a clear simple plan at the high level that can gain buy-in and drive change.

5. Get close to clients

None of these styles of working: strategy from first principles, obsessing over client’s problems, strategy and steward & complexity taming are possible without getting close to the client. It’s why management consultants are famous for working “on-site” - and working as an extension of the client’s organization.

Being close to the client means understanding the context of what’s going on inside the organization, what their other strategic priorities are, what your point of contact cares about, how your point of contact is evaluated by their boss and so on.

This client context is crucial for understanding how to actually change an organization vs just provide recommendations.

Unfortunately, the agency mindset is often about “how to run good meetings” - i.e. creating a clear schedule of client checkins, runnings meetings well with good meeting notes and clear action items. This mindset is not wrong! Good meetings are important - but the consultancy mindset is all about building a working relationship with your point of contact so they feel comfortable messaging you 1:1 for advice.

Side note: Honestly, I’m finding this aspect of working remotely particularly challenging. How do you get inside client flows? Getting invited to a client’s slack doesn’t give you the same ambient awareness of how the client works and what’s going on as being in the office… I’ve written about this challenge before and I’m all ears for creative solutions! What’s working for you?

Marketing - Actual Thought Leadership

You can’t sell expensive work to junior clients. So you need to create a lead generation and marketing machine that attracts and engages senior leaders. If you’re not getting to the SVP / C-suite layer then you’re not going to be able to sell in a project that includes strategy from first principles.

McKinsey is famous for this - they’re the OG content marketers. They’ve been making successful viral business memes (aka frameworks) since the 1960s! Check out their enduring frameworks for a flavor, but you will recognize them already.

Agency thinking leads you down the path of getting famous for how you solve problems, while consulting thinking leads you down the path of getting famous for how you think about problems. You need to show potential clients that you can tame complexity and create clarity.

And it’s not called “consultative sales” for nothing - it’s how consultancies sell, they treat the client engagement as beginning before the actual work starts to ensure there’s understanding of what the client needs, how the engagement will be structured and more.

Conclusion

Hopefully it’s obvious that becoming the McKinsey of SEO would require a serious investment - investing in developing talent, spending large amounts of time on each client project and investing in actual thought leadership that attracts SVP/C-suite clients.

That’s only sustainable if you can charge more for your work AND retain clients over a long period of time. There’s a reason McKinsey is obsessed with “enduring client relationships”. From an internal McKinsey document “the art of being an engagement manager”:

Become a friend. This is the true apex of building an enduring client relationship. We are here to make our clients succeed as companies and, generally by extension, as people too. Building enduring relationships is not only based on delivering from a business aspect but also delivering from a personal aspect. Ask about the client’s family or interests outside of work. Tell them about your life, your hobbies, or your worries. Be accessible to your client to talk about everything from their career goals to difficulties with their team members. Some clients draw the line at different places, so don’t push…let it happen naturally. Once you feel the client trusts you as he does a friend, you have built a relationship that will likely be a lasting one. After the friendship is formed, like any relationship, it is crucial to follow up regularly and maintain through phone calls, e-mails, and visits.

I think many agencies rather flippantly attempt to be “the McKinsey of SEO” as a shorthand for “being able to charge more” - but many agencies are not ready for the mindset shift, let alone the significant investment.

The question then becomes (as always!) not “how to become the McKinsey of SEO” but “should you become the McKinsey of SEO”?

And to be clear, the management consultant path is only on path. There are other ways to scale an agency - through positioning, efficiencies of scale and so on that I’ll talk about in future issues.

If you’re building an agency with a management consulting model, let’s talk!

Reminder: early next week I’ll be sending out a signup link for the “executive presence for SEOs'' course beta. This beta program will be a live 4-week program with a small cohort of folks to test and refine the course material. Stay tuned.