How Digital Agencies & Consultants Can Spur Growth Through Partnerships

SUSO 12 March 2021

An Interview With Callum Laing author of Progressive Partnerships and Will Bagnall - CEO of Suso Digital

As a proverb states, if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

Companies of all sizes across all verticals regularly seek business partners with complementary competencies in order to discover new markets and operate more efficiently. 

Today, we’d like to discuss this business strategy with an expert in the field of partnerships – Callum Laing.

Callum used partnerships to run a successful business networking company that grew to thirty-six networks in seven countries. He describes his journey in his book Progressive Partnerships: The Future of Business.

Will Bagnall, SUSO’s CEO who has built a 50 person company, also offers his own insights on how partnership strategies helped him grow our agency. You can learn more about Suso’s partnership model here.

In this interview, Callum and Will talk about the best way to build partnerships and grow a professional network in times of pandemic and uncertainty:

1. Why should digital agencies be thinking about partnerships as a means to grow?

Callum:

We’re all resource constrained, even the big boys (although it might not feel like it sometimes!).  Partnerships are about acknowledging that it is alright not to have all the pieces of the puzzle.  Partnerships can help you grow at a pace that is nearly impossible to imagine by trying to do it organically.  For smaller agencies it gives them the flexibility to pull together fantastic proposals & solutions without having to have all the resources in house. 

Will:

In the past two years I’ve seen companies shifting away from a desire to work with full stack marketing agencies, in favour of outsourcing work to specialists in each individual field, whether that be to consultants or specialist agencies. This makes sense; given the increased sophistication of SEO, PPC, Social etc specialisation keeps your agency focused on delivering a higher standard of service. We choose to partner with other agencies in areas outside of SEO, so that our clients get a deeper level of expert strategies across all their channels. It’s a win, win, win situation; our partners receive new business from us, we receive new SEO business from them and the clients gain access to this great network of specialist suppliers.

2. Why in your book do you describe building partnerships as “strategic thinking” rather than “busy thinking”?

Callum:

I talked to the Global Head of Partnerships for Google many many years ago and she told me that even before Google finishes designing, let alone building a product, they talk to her about who would be the best partners to support the launch and success of the new line.  If a company with all the resources of Google looks externally first, why is it that most small companies default to trying to do everything themselves?  Busy might feel productive but it’s an illusion without results.

Will:

The key terms are “leverage” and “efficiency”. Businesses can’t do it all by themselves when they’re deep into their growth journey. You’ll always have those core competencies that you’re great at, and there will be other parts of your business that are weak spots. Strategic thinking allows you to assess those weak spots and fix them by building partnerships that leverage the skills of other companies to improve your own business. This creates a much more efficient model for growth.

3. What do you look for in a company when deciding to approach them as a partner?

Callum:

It very much depends on where I am on the partnership journey, but basically I am looking for a company that I can deliver more value to than they can offer me.  That sounds counter intuitive, but it is at the heart of the Progressive Partnerships model.

Will:

A clear “common goal” is the most essential component for me. With SUSO’s partnership programme for instance we’re only working with consultants and agencies that share the common goal to help challenger brands succeed in all areas of their digital marketing. If a partner has a different common goal, this can cause friction, and ultimately lead to a failed partnership. One of the best things about working with a common goal is you get to work with great companies with a similar ethos and determination. This can be very powerful.

4. What is the difference between a “good partnership” and a “progressive partnership”?

Callum:

Most people go out looking for good partnerships and are constantly underwhelmed or let down by their experience.  This has the danger of putting people off partnerships for good.  With Progressive Partnerships, you are looking to leverage off each partnership you do regardless of whether the partnership goes as you hope.  Therefore ‘any’ partnership is a ‘good’ partnership to start with.  In fact, it doesn’t matter how lopsided the deal is, you are just looking for that first partner to say yes.  You then use the social proof of the first partnership to get the second partnership and build from there.

Will:

A good partnership may not provide the initial opportunities you had expected but it may indirectly lead to them. As your network of partners grow, you’ll find that some good partnerships provide the catalyst for more progressive partnership opportunities arising later on. It’s important to persevere with a partnership, even if the value isn’t obvious straight away.

5. What should a company be doing to attract high value partnerships?

Callum:

Provide more value than you are asking for.  The only way you can do that is to focus on how you can help that partner achieve their goals.  Most people approach partnerships exclusively focused on what they can get out of it and that is destined to fail.  Your goal is for you to be able to offer so much value for your target that they will be knocking on your door, not the other way round.  But remember, you can use partnerships to build that value first…

Will:

Case studies are really important for showcasing how you’ve helped your partners achieve value. Once you have those first one or two partners it’s then much easier to demonstrate value to new potential partners with these examples. You have to give away a lot to build these early partnerships but it’s worth it in the long-term.

6. What’s a minimal viable partnership?

Callum:

It really depends on the circumstances, but basically it is anyone that says yes.  If I want Lewis Hamilton to wear my fashion label, I don’t go to Hamilton directly, I wouldn’t stand a chance.  I go to a local cart track and offer them some freebies in return for a small logo on their website.  I know the logo brings me no value, but I leverage that deal to have a conversation with another cart track and so on until I have so many cart tracks (and other industry companies) talking about my brand that Hamilton’s team suggests this is something he should be looking at.  He now risks missing out if he doesn’t find a way to get involved.  That is very different from me joining the queue of thousands, lining up to offer him deals now.

Will:

A minimal viable partnership is basically an early-stage progressive partnership. The benefit might be minimal or even skewed more towards one partner but if the relationship has the potential to lead to bigger opportunities it’s a minimal viable partnership. For instance, SUSO works with many universities in the UK providing lectures and workshops to post & undergraduate students. Our initial relationship could be considered as a minimal viable partnership as the benefit we were receiving was relatively minimal in terms of providing us with growth opportunities. However, as the partnership progressed, opportunities began opening up to us. We started to recruit top talent from the universities off the back of the talks and even picked up new business.

7. In your book, you describe the practice of trading on other people’s reputations. What do you mean by this?

Callum:

Personal brand is hugely powerful for building trust and saving you time in business.  But when you are starting out, or entering a new field, your brand carries no weight.  Since you can’t use your own brand, you need to partner with someone who already has a trusted brand name.  One way I suggest start ups do this is by adding a ‘Board of Advisors’ that are well known, or work for well known companies. I might know nothing about the Pharmaceutical industry, but if I have someone from Pfizer or GSK on my Board of Advisors that carries a huge amount of credibility.  Even if they are a low level product manager with very little advice to give!

Will:

Again it’s about leverage and building an efficient growth strategy. It’s hard and time consuming to build authority status in an industry that you’re new to, however it is essential for getting traction. If you can partner with a brand or individual that has already established themselves, this cuts out a lot of the time and resources that building brand authority involves. These kinds of partnerships require you to give away a lot, as those with established reputations will require a lot of value to make it work for them. Eventually you need to build your own industry reputation but as an early-stage growth strategy, it’s very efficient.

8. Is it better to have ten small partnerships or one big one?

Callum:

Most people assume less (and it is a lot easier to manage!), but if that one partnership goes wrong you’re in trouble.  I prefer 10 small ones.  Most won’t deliver much in the way of value but 1 or 2 likely will.  And in fact the lower your expectations, and the less pressure you subsequently put on your partnerships, the more likely they are to be absolutely fantastic.

Will:

You spread your dependency by having multiple partnerships. A company may start off with 1 key partnership which is fine. It’s risky, but when you’re starting out, business is full of risks and time is scarce for building a whole network of partners. However, it’s important that as the company becomes more stable, more partnerships are established and less reliance placed on those early-stage key partners.

9. How do you maintain your professional network if it grows fast?

Callum:

Ironically, the strategy at the end is the inverse of the strategy at the beginning.  To start with you have to be hyper accessible.  The bigger your network becomes, the less accessible you will become and you will start to have trusted lieutenants around you that filter the opportunities.  However, you can’t disappear altogether, you need to find ways to stay relevant, on the radar and ideally delivering value to your network.  Social Networks like Linkedin help.  A newsletter is great, but ultimately it will often be media coverage that keeps people aware of why they want you in their network.

Will:

It’s hard but it requires good time management and organisation. You’ll need to bring support in too to help manage communication with partners once your network grows to a certain size. We actually have a dedicated person at SUSO responsible for managing communication with our partners. If you embed the ethos of Progressive Partnerships into your company, your team will become heavily invested in helping you to grow and manage that network of relationships.

10. Any tips on how to build your network and new partnerships during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Callum:

Don’t cough, it makes people very nervous 😉

The nice (if that’s the right word!) thing about Covid is that we are all going through it in some way. I have found even more than before that it has never been easier to reach out and connect to industry specific groups and communities. And the door is always open to someone who is willing to over deliver on a partnership opportunity.  Just focus on how you can create value for others.

Will:

Even pre-Covid, a lot of SUSO’s relationships with international partners were established over the web rather than in-person. In some ways building relationships this way is easier than the traditional way of event networking or boozy lunches because you get to demonstrate your value in a much more succinct and professional way, through slide-decks, content and screen-sharing over video-call. So Covid shouldn’t really impact a company’s ability to build new partnerships. If anything Covid has made progressive partnerships even more essential.


We’d like to thank Callum and Will for generously sharing their time and expertise on the subject. We recommend Callum’s books to everyone who wants to learn how to grow businesses through partnerships:

Progressive Partnerships: The Future of Business

Entrepreneurial Investing: Connecting Sophisticated Capital with Talented Small Business

Agglomerate: from idea to IPO in 12 months

You can also check SUSO’s flexible partnership terms and learn how you can benefit from becoming our partner today!

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