DrupalCon 2023

Insights from a Panel Discussion: Management Lessons for SME Agencies from a Fast-Growing, Billion-Dollar Business

 A round-up of our learning and conversation shared at DrupalCon Lille.

At the recent DrupalCon Europe in Lille, I had the pleasure of chairing a panel made up of some of the SystemSeed management team. The topic? The challenges and strategies of managing small and medium-sized agencies, using lessons from a fast-growing, billion-dollar business. 

SystemSeed is a small-mid sized agency, and we’ve been fortunate to have Julie Sheward, join us as COO. Julie has previously helped a much larger business to grow to a billion-dollar scale. Since Julie’s been with us, we’ve been reviewing how we operate, and putting her previous experience into use to help us on that same growth path.

The essence of the session

The crux of the session revolved around the complexities of running a small-to-mid-sized agency. Often, the CEO and their team juggle multiple roles, from strategy and recruitment to sales and operations. The session aimed to provide insights into how smaller organizations can learn from industry giants by replicating their successful practices.

The panelists

The panel was made up of a trio of agency professionals from SystmeSeed:

  • Julie Sheward, the COO (Chief Operating Officer) of SystemSeed, who shared her experiences from leading business operations teams at a global IT services consultancy.
  • Anthony Fox-Davies, the CEO of SystemSeed, who discussed the challenges and rewards of implementing big business ideas in a smaller setting.
  • Elise West, our Chief Product Officer (CPO) who provided a unique perspective on the differences between agencies and consultancies.

Julie Sheward, SystemSeed COO

Key takeaways

The difference between an agency and a consultancy

Anthony highlighted that agencies often focus on deliverable features, whereas consultancies delve deep into problem-solving. Elise emphasized the journey they take with their clients, ensuring they understand their needs. Julie added that consultancies, being larger, might have more rigid practices, but agencies offer flexibility.

Impact of SME agencies vs. larger consultancies

Julie believes that the size of a business doesn't dictate its impact. It's about the engagement model with clients. Elise pointed out that SMEs often have a user-first mindset, ensuring they build the right solutions. Anthony stressed the efficiency of staying small and agile.

Competing with big names in business

Anthony shared an intriguing story about the UK government's procurement process, emphasizing the advantages of staying small and efficient. Julie spoke about diversifying client portfolios and understanding decision-makers' mindsets. Elise highlighted the importance of an agencies portfolio, showcasing your credibility with big-name clients.

Anthony Fox-Davies, SystemSeed CEO

Strategies for a successful SME

Anthony loves the fewer lines of communication in SMEs, ensuring everyone is in the loop. Julie emphasized the importance of predictability and clarity in roles and responsibilities. Elise believes that the right balance of processes drives efficiency.

Applying big consultancy growth strategies to SMEs

Anthony feels that brand building and efficient client delivery are crucial. Elise mentioned the challenges of wearing multiple hats in an SME. Julie stressed the importance of having a clear vision and strategy.

Tech agnostic Vs. one-tech agencies

Elise believes that being tech-agnostic is beneficial as long as the best technology is chosen for the client. The advantage of one-tech agencies is the deep knowledge they gain over time.

The biggest growth industries

While the panelists shared various insights throughout the session, they all agreed on the importance of adaptability, understanding client needs, and the value of continuous learning.


The panel discussion was an enlightening experience, offering a deep dive into the world of SME agencies. The insights shared by the panelists provided valuable lessons for anyone in the industry, emphasizing the importance of adaptability, client engagement, and continuous learning.


  • What's the main difference between an agency and a consultancy? 

    An agency often focuses on deliverable features, while a consultancy is more into problem-solving and strategy. 

  • Can SME agencies have as much impact as big consultancies? 

    Absolutely. It's about the engagement model with clients and understanding their needs. 

  • How can SME agencies compete with big names? 

    By diversifying client portfolios, understanding decision-makers' mindsets, and showcasing credibility with big-name clients. 

  • What are the strategies for a successful SME? 

    Fewer lines of communication, predictability, clarity in roles, and the right balance of processes. 

  • Should agencies be tech-agnostic or focus on one technology? 

    Both have their advantages. Being tech-agnostic ensures the best technology is chosen for the client, while one-tech agencies gain deep knowledge over time.

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