When their doors opened in 2016, Brad Russell hoped that his agency Digital Hitmen would one day be recognized as the leading SEO agency in Perth, Western Australia. As a team of two serving a single client, Brad's goal appeared as a distant dream, but he knew that it was within reach–with the right team in place.
Fast forward to 2023, and their growing team of 21 supports 85 client accounts. However, like any journey, Brad’s path has had its fair share of challenges. One key challenge was talent acquisition and retention.
Every agency leader knows the struggle of finding the right people to keep the agency running smoothly. And for Digital Hitmen, it was no different.
In the early days of the agency, initial hires lacked the comprehensive skills required to tackle projects head-on and often required extensive training to be client-ready, hampering growth and driving down productivity.
Brad turned to a recruitment agency and built an internal training program to fast-track his agency’s growth–all while gaining local recognition from his community. Learn about the steps this agency leader took to fast-track his agency’s growth.
21 Employees, 85 clients, Est. 2016
Perth, Western Australia
Stepping Stones to Agency Ownership
It all started 12 years ago. With a background in commerce, IT, and marketing, Brad Russell began his entrepreneurial journey when he launched a successful eBay store.
He then landed a job at Australia’s largest kitchenware retailer, Kitchen Warehouse, as the eCommerce and SEO manager. Joining the company when they were just getting started gave Brad plenty of experience, including growing their online presence to eventually become “Australia’s #1 in Kitchenware” in the SERPs.
After 5 years spent with Kitchen Warehouse, learning the ins and outs of successful SEO strategies and how to grow a business’s online presence, Brad decided he was ready to start an agency.
“I really wanted to start my own business, take my skills in SEO, and translate that into a digital marketing company,” he shares.
He officially launched Digital Hitmen in 2016 when he landed his first large client–an eco-accommodation provider in Perth. The owner approached Brad to help them promote their chalet rentals online.
The two had initially met during a networking event and discussed the opportunity for local SEO services.
“He came to me and said, ‘I know you have experience, and I need your help.’ So that was really our starting point moment,” Brad shares.
The opportunity led Brad to decide on some immediate operational changes.
“I realized that I could take on more clients, but I really had to start a proper agency from an office. I couldn't just continue working from home anymore,” he says.
After working with the accommodation client for two years, Digital Hitmen continued to scale quickly. They hit a pivotal point in their growth trajectory when Brad’s former business partner tapped into their social network and formed a connection with a local influencer. This strategic move helped put their agency on the map and brought quick success.
“She just knew everyone in Perth,” Brad laughs. “She knew hundreds of really successful business owners. From there, our growth steamrolled, and we got multiple client referrals from her.”
Many of the new clients Digital Hitmen started working with happened to be within the healthcare industry. As the agency worked to keep up with the mounting demand, their reputation continued to grow.
“I had people ringing me up saying, ‘I've seen your results, I’ve seen your case studies,’ and they would see what the influencer was posting on social media,” says Brad.
The agency was working with dental practices, physiotherapists, and podiatrists, and would see excellent results with the SEO strategies they were implementing.
“This was a big point of momentum for the company because Perth is reasonably large, and we could take on multiple health clients and target different parts of Perth,” he explains.
Even though they saw success within the healthcare industry, Brad decided not to specialize in a particular industry niche.
“We have a number of core services like web design, social media management, and paid search, but what we really specialize in is SEO; that's our bread and butter,” he says.
Scaling the Agency Team
Business continued to boom as Brad and his agency honed in on their core services. As the agency scaled, clients kept rolling in, eventually surpassing the capacity of their current team. The increase in clients was a major roadblock for Brad because he didn’t have enough staff to keep up with the workload.
“It was stressful because we're looking to grow,” Brad admits. “We need people now, and we're growing fast.”
While it was a positive problem to have, it was still a problem. The challenge of balancing the number of employees with the amount of work coming in meant that the team was being stretched to its limits. Brad was worried about losing clients if they didn’t have enough highly qualified team members working on their contracts.
“Me and my business partner at the time were putting in long hours and noticed that some of our clients’ results started to drop off slightly because we just couldn't service those clients to the capacity that we needed to,” he shares.
Digital Hitmen put out job ads in search of experienced talent. Unfortunately, most of the applicants they attracted were juniors who were just getting started in the industry and would require more time to train. Frustrated but still determined, Brad knew he had to come up with a solution, and fast.
“We hired a recruitment agency, who helped us find and hire four full-time staff members who are still with us today,” Brad says. “The agency has proven to be a very valuable resource to us, and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Brad admits the service comes at a premium, but he sees it as a valuable investment that he continues to utilize to this day. He suggests other agency owners facing hiring challenges explore hiring agencies as well.
“Don't just do the usual job placement ads,” he explains. “These employment agencies do the hard work for you, filter through the lower-level candidates, and only present the high-level ones to you.”
Image: Brad Russell (center) with the Digital Hitmen team.
Upskilling Talent for Continued Growth
Once Brad had the right employees in place at Digital Hitmen, his next challenge was creating a training program that would align the team. They had the skills and expertise in the digital marketing industry, but he wanted every team member to execute client services consistently across the board.
The first iterations of Digital Hitmen’s internal training program relied on sharing makeshift Google documents that he created for his small team. However, as the agency expanded, they needed an approach that would grow and evolve with them.
The strategy began by formalizing the leadership team to enable each department to concentrate on specific challenges. Brad introduced specific department leads like the Head of SEO, Head of Branding & Social, and Head of Web Design.
Image: Some of the Digital Hitmen team undergoing one of their training sessions.
"The team was very flat level before," Brad shares.
Making these changes to their leadership team gave them a clear hierarchy. This helped their team members recognize who to turn to for guidance or decision making.
“As part of the job role for head of SEO, a key element was to provide training and continual feedback on a specialist's level of performance,” Brad explains. “And not only providing training that we thought was beneficial to them but also identifying gaps in their knowledge.”
By delegating training processes to the department heads, Brad could focus on growing the agency and less on the day-to-day operations.
"It's important for me to empower my staff," he says. “This was the foundation for creating a successful training program that I wouldn’t have to lead myself.”
Now, new hires are quickly enveloped in a culture based on trust and career growth, receiving training from the head of their respective department. This training helps new employees get up to speed on effectively handling client strategies.
Training doesn’t stop after an employee’s probationary period though. Ongoing education is an essential part of how Brad runs his agency. He prioritizes regular training because the digital marketing industry is always on the move. “There are always new ways to improve content, algorithm updates, and new techniques to try,” Brad adds. The Head of SEO regularly travels to Perth to lead in-person training sessions in addition to regular online meetings.
"Everyone on the SEO team has regular training sessions over Google Meets, and we provide access to a general drive of training materials to reference 24/7,” he says.
3 Key Benefits of Formalizing Your Internal Training
Digital Hitmen’s consistent training strategy helps the team stay updated with industry trends and best practices. According to Brad, there are three key advantages to investing in employee training at your agency:
1. Boost Employee Engagement
Training programs keep leaders informed about the employee's interests. They also help to maintain a high level of engagement by focusing on each employee’s growth at the agency.
“The digital marketing industry is always changing, so you have to keep your employees interested in those changes.”
2. Create Additional Service Offerings
Staying up-to-date on industry trends and new ideas opens the door for your agency to offer fresh opportunities or services to clients.
“Even within SEO itself, there will always be new areas or a new feature on Google that you want to target. You can grow your business from additional services to your clients.”
3. Measure Employee Success
Training allows agency leaders to check in with employees directly, fully assess their skillset, and address any gaps.
“I've only ever had one employee leave Digital Hitmen. So that's a testament to our workplace and culture we’ve built over the past seven years.”
Brad measures the success of his internal training program by the results his team is getting for clients.
“We measure customer satisfaction or the length of the contract. Whether an employee provides really high-quality service, great results, or extends the average lifetime of the client, or if an employee is specifically mentioned, for example.”
This emphasis on an internal training and recognition program sharpens the team's skills while also directly contributing to the quality of service clients receive, often resulting in extended partnerships and a strong, loyal client base.
Industry Recognition for Agency Talent
Brad has evolved significantly as an agency leader since his initial days working in the SEO field. From acquiring his first major client to making strategic hires, his focus now is on maximizing his team's potential.
He plans to continue revamping the training program across all departments at Digital Hitmen in 2024, but for now, they’re focusing on the local recognition they’ve been receiving.
“One of our employees was recently shortlisted for the Semrush AU Search Awards," Brad smiles. “By implementing this training, he's got outstanding results across a number of different niches, and we’re very happy for him.”
Digital Hitmen has garnered multiple awards in areas such as customer service and search results, all while keeping eyes on their goal to be the leading SEO agency in Perth. It’s the culmination of years spent committed to enhancing their expertise, and consistently setting benchmarks for top results within the local community.
Image: Digital Hitmen received an award for excellent customer service from the Australian Achiever Awards in October 2023.
Thanks to a focus on hiring and developing a talented team of experts, his goal of being recognized as one of the leading SEO agencies in Perth, Western Australia is coming to fruition.