Our special guest for episode 397 of the award-winning EDGE of the Web podcast was Craig Campbell, an SEO consultant and trainer based in Glasgow, Scotland. Host Erin Sparks spoke with Craig about leaving the digital agency life in favor of becoming an SEO consultant. Here’s what we learned:
Craig Campbell: His Background and Experience
Craig Campbell is a well-known SEO expert from Glasgow, UK (Scotland). He has 18 years of experience in SEO Consulting and Digital Marketing. He is also a regular SEMrush webinar host, SEO trainer, and speaker. Craig has been helping more than a hundred businesses, and he decided to start flipping websites for profit. He’s also an agency trainer who provides great information to agencies to step up their SEO. Craig’s unique path in the industry. He started out as an in-house, on-page SEO, then did three years of freelancing, then ran an agency for nine years, and now has been on his own as a consultant going on seven years.
As a very regular speaker at SEO conferences all over the world, Craig is sorely missing being able to travel. And while many of those conferences went virtual, it’s just not the same as the in-person events.
Breaking Away from Agency-Based SEO Work
What prompted Craig to strike out on his own as a consultancy was the grind, the slog of running an agency for nine years. He’s the first to admit he didn’t do it the right way. He was too involved in the actual work, which meant he was working in the business instead of working on the business, which tends to keep you unsustainably busy and prevents you from properly managing your staff.
Craig sees this pattern happen to a lot of agency owners because they just start out flying by the seat of their pants and before they know it they’ve hired other people and suddenly they’re running a business without really having a clue about how to run a business! It’s a scary place to be due to all the responsibilities around the mechanics and knowledge required to properly oversee a business. And no one who finds themselves in this predicament likes to admit they’re doing it all wrong and have no clue how to do it right.
Learning all those lessons the hard way, however, really paved the way for Craig to become a great consultant and agency trainer. He’s also noticed that a lot of SEOs get hired into an agency and what they end up doing is sucking up all the knowledge they can and then quit and start their own agency, which is why there are always so many new agencies popping up all the time. A lot of agency owners see employees quit, start their own agency, and then become a direct competitor, which can be very frustrating. And so often the staff you have to hire simply aren’t as motivated to succeed as you are and the stress and frustration continue to grow over time.
The Writing on the Wall: Knowing When Enough is Enough
Eventually, Craig simply had to say enough is enough and shut the agency down. What were the signs that finally indicated to him it was time to throw in the proverbial towel? Craig noted the following three major indicators he experienced:
- Inappropriate Interactions with Clients: When you’re running an agency, there are always those clients who are especially difficult to work with, but if you find yourself responding to them in ways that match their rudeness and you don’t care how rude you yourself are being, that can be a strong sign you’ve reached a breaking point.
- Debilitating Levels of Stress: Running an agency is inherently stressful, but when the stress and anxiety get to the point that you need to see a doctor about and get medications to help with it, that’s another strong sign. Not feeling like you can ever switch off, not being able to sleep because you keep thinking of all the things you didn’t get to, always chasing the money, and so on. When the stress becomes personally unsustainable and starts negatively impacting your health, it’s time to rethink what you’re doing.
- Losing the Love of SEO: If running the agency and dealing with clients begins to make you lose your original love of SEO, that’s another sign it may be time to give up your agency or find a radically different (better) way to run it. If you can no longer do the parts of the work you’re actually passionate about, what are you even doing?
It’s important for agency owners to have these conversations not just to commiserate, but to learn from each other how to do it better or to recognize when it’s time to forge a different path in the industry. One thing that won’t go away is the constant “wild west” feeling of the industry because of how rapidly everything changes on a continual basis. It’s a constant churn on top of which you have to layer in staff turnover and the management aspects of trying to make a business run as smoothly as possible. It’s a lot!
What it Takes to Walk Away from Agency Life
What should the agency owner who wants to break away from agency life do to prepare themselves for that break and what comes next?
Craig noted that at least in his experience, it’s not an instant pivot. You can’t just shut down an agency overnight, and it takes time to build your own personal brand as a consultant. Doing that means taking on a ton of speaking gigs (whether conferences or podcasts and so on), most of which are unpaid, in order to put yourself out there and show what you bring to the table. Then you have to get into deep networking to start gaining clients.
It’s all about establishing trust and authority for your personal brand. You have to be able to clearly articulate and show how you’re different from the thousands of other SEO consultants out there all vying for a limited number of clients. And when you’re doing all those free speaking gigs, you have to convey real knowledge with real value and not just talk a lot of SEO garbage the way so many do. The only way you can get sustainable bookings as a consultant is by showing how you consistently deliver actionable insights and advice that gets results.
Craig especially wants people to understand that walking away from crappy agency work and becoming a successful consultant is not easy. It’s very hard. The kind of brand building you have to do to make a go of it takes a massive investment of time, effort, and money. But if you’re good at SEO (and can keep up with constant changes in the industry) and make the investment, it can be totally worth it.