agency business coach sian

I became the coach my agency needed

Marketing agency business coach, Sian Lenegan shares her story about how she went from agency owner to agency coach after years of industry experience. 

When I was invited to submit an article to WIA about the agency owner challenge and the role of business coaching, I quietly cheered to myself. Maybe it wasn’t so quietly. Maybe I even did a little dance. 

You see, there aren’t two other things I feel more qualified to write about, and certainly not together (well maybe dachshunds). I’ve experienced both of those things from both sides of the fence. 

I know those onions.

If you’re an agency owner, I know your pain. I also understand your scepticism and reluctance to trust anyone who calls themselves an agency business coach. And I know it’s going to take more than a few statistics to convince you of the value a coach can offer. So rather than write a well balanced, carefully researched piece, let me tell you my own story.

Back in the 2000s I owned a digital agency. 

We had a neat little studio, a team of designers, a list of happy clients. On the surface everything seemed to be going swimmingly. Underneath, I was headless chickening from pillar to post, giving up my weekends and losing a lot of sleep, but I seemed to be carrying it off.

Until suddenly I wasn’t.

marketing agency business coach

One month, the work, and the revenue, just dried up like a raisin in the Zimbabwean sun. There were no projects in the pipeline, and we didn’t even have enough cash in the bank to pay the team’s wages! If you’ve ever frantically refreshed the bank feed before running payroll, you’ll be familiar with the despair I felt. 

I sent everyone home and sat on the floor of my empty studio crying into a pizza box.

I was so ashamed, and I felt so stupid. How had I let things get to this stage? What had I missed? How could I have let this happen to my own business when I was supposed to be in the business of helping others (classic agency mind set!)?

That period was something of a turning point in my business, and in my life. I started to analyse where I went wrong, and I began working my ass off to learn what I needed to do to do things better. 

A key point to mention here is that, when this happened, I wasn’t a business newbie. I’d been in the corporate world, I’d started my agency from scratch, I was studying for an MBA. And yet failure still crept up unnoticed. The problem, I deduced, was that I’d been operating with no real plan. I’d trial-and-errored my way to where I was (sound familiar?). But I had massive blind spots. 

So as I was getting the digital agency back onto an even keel, I decided to hire a business coach. I needed an experienced ally to take a cold, unemotional view and help me see what I was missing. I also needed someone to set clear processes and goals, and hold me accountable when I strayed off course or just phoned it in. These, by the way, are all super reasons for getting a coach. 

Unfortunately, the coach I got was none of those things. He was a dick. The only thing he was really good at was selling himself. Which I found out too late. 

His favourite saying was, ‘You have to work ON your business, not IN it.” I would be like, ‘Ok, tell me what that means and I’ll do it.’ But he never could. Then one day he let slip that his franchise trained its coaches to keep their clients consciously incompetent… so they keep paying for coaching.

When I heard that, I flipped. I also flipped the boardroom table, literally (it was only a crappy Ikea thing, so not that difficult), and kicked his ass out of my business. This was turning point number two. It’d be some beautiful fairy-tale symmetry if I said this was the moment I decided to become a coach myself. Maybe it was, but all I could think at the time was, screw coaches. However, it was definitely the point I decided to go all in to learn absolutely everything I’d expected my coach to show me.

sian lenegan business coaching

Fast-forward a couple of years, and I had. I’d invested in myself and (somewhat fanatically) educated myself about business. I’d created, refined and implemented some critical processes that had got us off the feast-famine rollercoaster that so many agencies find themselves trapped on. I’d even figured out what working ON the business actually meant. For the first time in however long I didn’t feel as though I was on the back foot. I wasn’t constantly putting out dumpster fires, or being totally consumed by the needs of my business. I finally felt like I owned the business, not the other way around.

Actually, that’s probably the moment I really decided to become a coach. I figured, if I’d cracked the code for my business, I could do it for others. So, skipping to the last page of the book, that’s what I do now.

However, I don’t think the moral of my story is that you should learn to be your own coach. Truth be told, I think I’m more suited to being a coach than I ever was an agency owner. And I believe you should always play to your strengths and not expect to be great at everything. 

I think the real lesson here is, if you spend every day in the trenches of your business (like most agency owners do), you simply can’t see how different things could be. You know what you know, but not much else. And why should you? Being a great agency isn’t the same thing as being a great business. So you need an experienced ally to stand on the hill and guide you towards a better way. Of course, you need to choose your allies carefully. Unfortunately, some coaches (like some agency owners) are dicks. But not all of us are.

Sian Lenegan – marketing agency business coach

Marketer, recovering agency owner turned strategist and Forbes Business Coach 

Beth Hellowell
Founder of Women in Agencies and co-founder of Signify Digital. Mother, social media scroller and frequent pasta eater.