10 Things You Learn Running a Creative Agency
We’ve spent the past year talking to the founders of different creative agencies as part of our Agency Founders Series — exploring the backgrounds, interests, and motivations of some of the smartest and most successful creative directors working today. We’ve also discussed the business side of things, highlighted the work each agency produces, and asked them to hypothesize what they think the future holds for their industry.
Below are 10 lessons (nuggets of wisdom really) that we’ve gathered across the course of our interviews.
While no two founders share the exact same origin story or experiences, they all face the same challenges running an agency and are uniformly passionate about producing great work. Whether you’re at an established agency already or are thinking about starting one of your own, these insights from people who are in the trenches every day should provide some valuable takeaways and get your creative juices flowing.
1. Expect growing pains
Running an agency is hard work, especially when it’s still in its infancy. There’s overhead to worry about (office space, insurance, etc.), employees to keep motivated, and clients to win over. The latter can be especially difficult for new agencies without an established reputation to rely on.
Many of the founders we interviewed came from successful studios and were used to landing big projects with major brands, only to see those same brands hesitant to work with them once they’d ventured out on their own. “There is definitely a slight weirdness when you’re used to having a 100+ person agency behind you, and then suddenly it’s just you,” said Damon and Adam of Melbourne-based Today. We tried to communicate to the market that, despite our size, we were experienced leaders and a safe pair of hands.”
Moreover, the amount of responsibility it takes to run an agency can often feel overwhelming, even to the most seasoned leaders. Many founders said it was difficult to predict how quickly they would grow, how to best utilize their time without burning out, and how to keep things afloat in the early going while still taking on projects that they felt passionate about.
“Cash flow, trust, and delivery were three areas that really hammered home the reality of being totally responsible for something. We gave up our social lives and almost everything we owned financially. Looking back on things, we believe that if we didn’t have that drive and attitude, we wouldn’t have made it.” — Will + Ben. Stepladder.
2. Mentors matter
There’s a certain nobility in going it alone. We root for people who pull themselves up from the muck and make something out of nothing. That doesn’t mean you should turn down help when it’s offered, or that you should ignore the advice of people who are already successful.
Most of the founders we spoke with had a small group of experienced people giving them advice at the beginning of their agency journeys. Others failed to recognize the benefits of receiving outside opinions and ideas and came to regret it later on. “When I first got started, I didn’t know anyone in the industry, and I never considered finding a business or a creative mentor who was working outside of design,” said Andrew Hoyne of branding and property specialists Hoyne. “In hindsight, that was a big mistake. Mentors should be mandatory for all start-ups and young people in business.”
Mentors can serve a number of important functions for people just starting out or for those with established careers already. They might provide hiring advice, financial tips, project references, or even offer you new business themselves. Most importantly, perhaps, is that they will be another person in your life who is willing to listen to what you have to say.
“I have been blessed to have had countless incredibly accomplished and generous mentors throughout my life. They have encouraged me or taken a chance by giving me a project or reference, and I still regularly seek advice from many of them. I’ll never forget the generosity shown to me by my mentors and I hope to pay it back by mentoring the next generation coming through.” — Genevieve Brannigan. Communications Collective.
3. Trial and error is inevitable
Nobody should expect perfection in every aspect of their work, and those that do are ultimately destined for disappointment. One of the things that has stuck out over the course of our interviews is the volume of trial and error that goes into making an agency a success. “The greatest challenge was figuring out how to communicate between ourselves,” noted Luc, Damien, Audrey, and David of the Bordeaux-based Muxu.Muxu. “We had plenty of experience communicating with clients and managing their projects, but we had never run our own company, and we didn’t anticipate the impact that doing so would have on individual egos and roles.”
It’s a cliché, sure, but sometimes allowing yourself the time to figure things out, and then learning from your mistakes, can be really beneficial to your business. Many founders were quick to point out that they are not natural businesspeople by trade, and bringing themselves up to speed in some of those areas while also finding time to work on their passion projects was a challenge.
“It took us a while to get used to the roller coaster ride of taking on many projects at once while also finding enough time to work on our internal projects. One of the biggest challenges was figuring out a way to utilize the down time between projects to experiment and research. We tried to put a focus on R&D in the beginning, but it was tough to adjust our mindsets from working on commissioned projects to internal ones.” — Francesco + David + Daniele + Neri. MONOGRID.
4. It’s okay to say “no”
Something strange happens to us on our way from toddlerhood to adulthood (and I’m not just talking about those awkward teen years) — we forget how to say no to people. Maybe it’s out of guilt, cowardice, or a desire to be liked by everyone and love everything. Regardless, all of the founders we interviewed agree that those two syllables need to become a regular part of your vocabulary again. “Learn to say no as early as possible,” advised Alex and Jesús of Berlin-based okay bueno. “Saying no seems easy, but sometimes it is much harder than you may think, especially when project budgets are teasing you!”
There‘s nothing satisfying about producing mediocre work simply to make a quick buck. Turning down projects that aren’t a good fit may be painful at first, but it will benefit your business in the long run. One of the key takeaways from our interviews (and a big reason why all of these agencies are still going strong), is that they were able to hone in on what they do well, and they keep doing it over and over again.
“Because people didn’t necessarily know what we stood for when we first set up, we sometimes got called in to pitch for some crazy briefs that weren’t a good fit, and that reminded us why we set up our own shop in the first place. Learning to focus on our strengths took us quite a long time. It’s not easy to say no to work, but we have never regretted it after the fact.” — Ken + Simon. Mohawk.
5. Communicating with clients is key
Creative agencies are incubators where thoughts and ideas should flow freely. Unfortunately, that easygoing exchange of ideas is often juxtaposed with high-stakes pitch meetings, unrealistic deadlines, and executives with eyes only for the bottom line. It’s not surprising then that many agencies tend to keep their clients at arm's length.
The founders we interviewed are doing their part to change that. “We believe in constant communication throughout the company, and we pay painstaking attention to every element of the business,” said Will and Ben of London-based branding agency Stepladder. “A realistic budget, respect for the creative process, and the confidence to challenge our suggestions is much appreciated! It also helps if clients are equally open to being challenged themselves.”
While keeping the lines of communication open with clients is an important rule to live by, it’s a wasted endeavor if you’re just going to tell them what they want to hear. If something isn’t working, tell your client. If you need more of something (time, resources, space, etc.,) tell your client! It’s not always easy to be honest, and sometimes your clients won’t be happy with you, but they will respect your openness and your work will be better as a result.
“Clients have become smarter. There used to be an air of arrogance from ad agencies over naive clients, but (thankfully) that’s gone, and clients have taken back orchestrating their brands. Telling the truth is no longer just a happy mantra our moms told us so we’d get into heaven — it’s increasingly the only way to achieve enduring commercial viability.” — Ronnie + Mel + Gav + Mike + Martin. Meerkats.
6. Invest in your people
The ubiquitous business mantra “The customer is always right” would be a whole lot more accurate if it was changed to “The people are always right”. After all, the most valuable commodity a business has is people — both its customers and its employees. Investing in your workforce and nurturing their careers can often be the difference between success and failure according to our interviews. “Collaboration is the key to any good creative process, so that means coming together as a team to share ideas and produce the best work possible. It also creates a really fun atmosphere that we all feed off of. Each of our studios has a barista coffee machine, along with several beer and wine fridges (a drink or two at the end of the day never hurt anybody),” noted Andrew Hoyne of Hoyne.
Quality people have options when it comes to where they work, and the best agencies know that. Whether that means offering higher salaries, more benefits, or greater workplace flexibility to attract a higher level of talent, it’s worth it in the long run, as cutting corners in the human resources arena can doom your business before it even gets off the ground.
“We are an old fashioned agency, and we believe great work comes from having a diverse bunch of really talented people who understand and trust each other deeply.” — Damon + Adam. Today.
7. Great clients and work go hand in hand
While investing in the right people is a smart way to ensure your agency stands out in a crowd, the quality of their work is often dependent on the quality of your clients. Most agencies are willing to jump through hoops to win a project, but performing your own due diligence on a company before you agree to work with them is a great idea as well. In fact, it may prevent you from taking on work that hurts morale and damages your reputation.
Building a foundation of trust is an important part of the agency-client relationship. “In my experience, it works best when everybody just acts like themselves. No roleplaying or bravado, just a bunch of people enjoying working on interesting things. What I love about great clients is a willingness to let us in and feel like part of the team, to take on their challenges as our own, and to be able to laugh and tell stories over a beer,” said Dave King of Australian-based agency The Royals.
Taking on the right clients and projects enables your team to focus on delivering the best work they possibly can, without any outside pressure or distractions bogging them down. Ultimately, doing great work for companies, products, and causes that people love and believe in is what helps keep the most successful agencies at the top of the food chain.
“Seeing the complete awe and amazement on clients’ faces when we show them the initial prototypes and designs is always incredibly rewarding. We are the privileged ones that get to bring their ideas to life and make them a tangible reality.” — Martin Sandhu. Roller.
8. Embrace technology
History is littered with cautionary tales of companies who made big bets on a particular technology or product, only to see it blow up spectacularly in their faces (Sony’s Betamax and Microsoft’s Zune player come to mind, but the list is practically endless). An equally perilous index can be compiled with companies and industries so resistant to change that they were simply replaced by newer and better ideas (Ask AOL or Blockbuster how the status quo worked for them in the early part of this century). The key for agencies is finding a middle ground where technology helps enhance their message without overpowering it, and to remain adaptive and open to new ideas.
In addition to connecting with consumers in new ways, the founders we spoke with are also using technology to help them improve their internal operations. “One exciting technology change is with the tools that we are using for design. We’ve already seen a big shift with the rise of Sketch, but we’re also experimenting with Webflow, which is helping us design and output usable code without relying as heavily on front-end development. This has translated into greater control for our designers and a lower cost for some of our clients,” noted Justin and Zak of Vancouver-based Turtle.
Whether it’s using new applications to help improve workflow, or delivering campaigns that engage and excite customers in unexpected ways, technology will continue to integrate itself into the foundation of agencies. The key for them will be figuring out how to use new technologies to improve both the quality and impact of their work.
“We love to explore the possibilities — both technical and conceptual — that technology provides. As VR starts to become more popular, it’s going to open up a whole new layer of technology and storytelling that wasn’t there before.” — Francesco + David + Daniele + Neri. MONOGRID.
9. Success is relative
Running a creative agency is not all that different from running any type of business — you start with a plan, hire the right people, and do good work. Ultimately, though, your business will not be sustainable if you don’t bring in more money than you send out. All of the founders we interviewed mentioned that basic tenet, but they also offered a myriad of other factors that affect how they measure the health and progress of their agencies.
For some, it’s a priority to keep their clients happy, and landing new business via word of mouth is one of the highest levels of success possible. Others are focused on expanding to new markets, and they see establishing a foothold across the globe as a worthy goal. Anton and Irene of Brooklyn-based Anton & Irene see running an agency as a learning experience that is best shared with like minded people. “We have been incredibly lucky in our career in that we have been able to learn something new from every project we have ever taken on. It’s important to us that we share that knowledge with young creatives to either inspire them or help them on their way.”
Creative agencies cannot (and should not) be judged as successes or failures based only on their bottom lines. According to our interviews, it’s far more important to produce great work, treat people well, and enjoy doing what you do. Those are the ultimate measures of success.
“Success follows happiness, so don’t neglect your team or yourself while running on the agency treadmill. Feeling fulfilled and happy at work is important to your employees, and it should be for you too!” — Jonathan Smith. Catch.
10. Never stop learning
At the end of each of our Agency Founders interviews we ask our interviewee what advice they would give to a person thinking about starting their own agency. This is an opportunity for them to provide practical, experience-based guidance on what worked for them (and what didn’t) when they were just starting out. What became clear over the course of our interviews was that these founders are all fueled by an insatiable thirst for knowledge.
Whether it’s figuring out how to bring in more business, finding new ways to motivate their team, or applying innovative ideas to their projects, the wheels never stop spinning. As Roller’s founder Martin Sandhu put it, “Be humble learning machines and really understand your market and industry — in addition to continuing to learn about yourself. Knowing your strengths and their value will ultimately be what sets you apart from others in the long run.”
What’s remarkable about this desire to keep learning is that many of the people we interviewed have already made it. They are living their dreams as creative directors and founders, they’re respected by their clients and peers, and they are rich in ideas and (in some cases) material wealth. Still, they yearn to know more, to do more, and to be more.
It would be wise for the rest of us to follow their lead.
“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” — Anton + Irene. Anton & Irene.
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