The digital marketing world is always changing. New digital agencies pop up and shut down just as quickly and it may be tempting to think that you can ride out uncertainty alone as an agency founder.
Having a support system, a set of values or philosophy that inspires you to be part of a wider community is the way forward. Building a digital agency community is one of Daniel De La Cruz’ favourite things to do and his personal philosophy is something I can get on board with.
It was a pleasure to chat to Dan about his digital agency experience, the joys of falling into a philosophical rabbit hole, the discipline of boxing and more.
Thanks for chatting Dan. For those who’re unfamiliar with your work at Polymensa it’d be great for you to share what you do and how you help digital agencies.
The starting point was I used to run an agency myself and I understand the challenges agencies go through. I didn’t end up succeeding with that business and had to go through the tricky process of closing it down.
After that, I met a group of people who had set up a community for agency founders and it had a peer support element. I thought to myself “let me take it off your hands” as the community was a side project for them.
I grew the community from 50 members to 500 and built a sustainable business at the same time. The core point of it was to help agency founders with their challenges and I grew a network. The problem with the end of that journey is that I didn’t have the equity conversation at the beginning. I’d gone from failing in one business to building a business for someone else.
I tried to buy them out but it was too late at that point. Then I moved on and set up Polymensa. It’s a non-legal board of advisors for your agency. The main thing behind it was that I wanted to take all of the best bits of what exists out there in terms of agency advice and I’m a big believer in having multiple perspectives.
I think of it as going to a nutritionist and taking that one single diet that doesn’t work for your body. What you really want to do is talk to 10 different nutritionists and pick and choose what works for you and your body.
Polymensa works with agency founders and their leadership teams on different topics and bring in different perspectives. I love waking up every day and doing what I do.
I was listening to your podcast interview with Agency Dealmasters and you’ve said you realised that you needed little in life except for bread, water and a roof over your head. That’s a great philosophical way of looking at things and strikes me as Stoic.
Have any kinds of philosophical schools influenced your thinking and approach to life?
I probably have but I wouldn’t be able to label them. I haven’t gone into a meticulous study of philosophy but I do go through life picking and choosing ideas that work for me.
Maybe that leans towards a particular philosophy and I think the best way is to have a fluid way of thinking.
On the subject of philosophy, I saw that Polymensa is built around the Ubuntu philosophy, especially with the peer group elements you have.
What is the Ubuntu philosophy and how do you apply it to your business?
There was a documentary I watched a couple of years ago about famous coaches who were being interviewed and Ubuntu was spoken about and how it could be used in a team. I thought it was a brilliant way to look at what I’m doing, which was building a troop that would never be bigger than 30 agencies.
For that to work it had to be a mentality of one can only be as strong as the other person. We all had to build each other up to be as successful as we could be.
I also do work with a charity called Gloves Not Gunz and I once did a fundraiser where we walked the South Downs Way for four days. It was basically four marathons in a row. I said to the boys who were there that we should use the Ubuntu philosophy to work through it.
At every point of the trail when things got tough, we shouted Ubuntu together and it was brilliant. It gave us a lot of energy.
Great story. I know boxing has had a personal impact on your life for the better and would be interested to hear more about that.
I fell into it. I was in a situation with a girl and we were having some issues and I was trying to fix those issues. One of them was trying to use sports as a way to help her mental health. One of her mates who had a drinking problem used to be a boxer at a particular gym and I said let’s train together.
I went to the training and they didn’t show up, but I fell in love with boxing in that moment. I kept going and at the beginning it was just a fitness thing. But then it’s my nature to ask what the next level is and it led to two amateur fights.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned from boxing is discipline. You need to be disciplined to do any kind of combat sport because the reality is you get hurt. If you’re not fit enough, if you’re not technically strong enough in comparison to the person you’re fighting against, you’re going to get hurt.
The other thing is that boxing humbles you. I think you go through processes in life where you think you’re really good at something. Then you step into the battle arena and you realise that you’ve got a long way to go. It exposes you properly.
In comparison to a work environment, you could be in a company for ten years and coast and no one would find out because you’re always saying the right things at the right time. In boxing, you will be found out because you haven’t done the training. You have to expose yourself to your weaknesses.
I would recommend boxing to anyone. Not everyone might want to get hit in the face but it can be fun too!
That’s a good way to look at the sport. It reminds me of this great line about the obstacle being the way and reframing a challenge as the solution.
Touching on the theme of humility and pride you bring a no-ego approach to business with Polymensa. What are your thoughts on taking ego out of leadership and business?
Answering these kinds of questions is always hard for me because the spectrum is so wide. It all depends on the level of the conversation you’re having with someone and who that person is.
I think the classic thing is we look at our hards every single day but how often do we look at our fingerprint? You look at the fingerprint, you go into the detail and you realise that there are all these cracks and there are whole separate worlds.
So, to start by answering this question I think it’s important to define what ego is. How strict do you want to be about the term? If you speak to someone who is practising Hinduism or Buddhism you might assume they are striving to have no ego at all.
I think it’s impossible to not have an ego because there are always going to be situations where you prioritise yourself. But there are also moments where if you have certain values you can ask yourself should you be doing a specific thing?
An example of this is at Polymensa we do a group buy-in deal where all agencies pool their money together and we bought a sales trainer. This is someone who would usually cost you £2000 a month and we split it down to £200 a month together.
I think at that price point with the agencies I’m working with they wouldn’t notice if I took £400 rather than £200 because there are fluctuations in the deal and some of the agencies might leave the deal.
They wouldn’t know unless I was open and honest about the situation and I’ve been in a situation where I could’ve changed a price. But I didn’t do that because I have a value set of being caring and transparent.
That flows nicely into my next question about mimetic desire. We’ve both read Luke Burgiss’ book about the topic and I find it fascinating. What are your thoughts on it?
The book blew my mind and I do buy into that philosophy that a lot of what we do is driven by other people. I also think you have to make decisions in life.
Are you going to be a Buddhist monk and live a pure life in a temple? Or are you going to live by the rules of our life and the economy?
I think you have to make a decision about these things and how extreme you’re going to be on something. Mimetic desire is reality and we can’t detach ourselves from it and it’s good to be aware of it.
It’s possibly harmful to completely detach ourselves from mimetic desire because it’s how we survive. As humans, we copy mistakes that others have done and then we don’t want to make that mistake again. Certain types of mimicry are key to survival.
Going back to marketing, what is your view of creativity when viewed through a marketing lens?
One thing that works well is humour. Happiness is a fundamental human emotion and when we laugh we associate it with feelings of happiness. So, humour is a great way to market products and services because it’s light-hearted.
Looking at LinkedIn, you see people using hyperbole or mocking whatever is going on in a humorous way and that stands out to me more than anything else. That’s creativity at its best because you’re blending two unrelated subjects and making a connection that makes people laugh.
Given your experience, what’s your best advice for anyone who wants to set up a sustainable digital agency?
I have a couple of recommendations. First, if you can do it with a suitable co-founder then that’s always a better option. If you have someone who knows more about the operational side and you have more of the sales and visionary side then that’s a great combination.
This is a good combination because the cycle of agencies is selling, delivering work, getting paid, repeat. Having these fundamentals sorted early on is important.
Of course, there’s the trade-off of having more decision making processes with co-founders and a wider equity split that causes challenges further down the line.
Secondly, if you can turn the agency into a form of reoccurring revenue that’s my recommendation over project-based agencies. For example, the SEO and social media agencies of the last few years are at a bigger level compared to branding agencies.
Branding agencies tend to be project-based where you have a big branding project and then you have to go back to getting new business again. It’s better to get paid every single month for your services on a recurring basis.
Finally, pick a niche. While you are taking on more risk by focusing on a specific sector you can also reap the rewards if it goes well. Whether you want to sell your agency or grow it to a certain point and you’re in a niche, you can command conversations with clients.
This interview with Dan reminded me of our tendency to keep running on the hedonic treadmill. It may be more beneficial to trade in for the eudaimonic treadmill and you can read more about the concept here.