Agency Growth Tips 1/21: Create Value. Not things.

Published 06.03.2019

Welcome to 21 days of of agency growth tips…. based on my own successes and failures. There have been many of both.

This experience was gained working for some of the largest agencies in the business. Founding my own agency. Maintaining an 80% pitch win rate. Breaking into the top ten. Launching shops in the Middle East and US. Joining an independent global network. And then joining the board. Suffering burnout. Growth through M&A. The challenges of merging teams. And heading up the UK’s 12th largest independent agency group, turning over £60m, wearing both Managing Director and Chief Creative Officer hats before exit.

Since that exit in 2016, I’ve been consulting and investing. It’s been fascinating. But I cannot leave agency alone. I troubleshoot. Advise on growth and positioning. And still produce a lot of creative and brand consultancy direct with brands.

This is not a sales pitch. I do not want an email address. Please don’t sign-up on my website just for this. No need.

I am simply sharing some of my knowledge. Why? Well, I would do so for free to anyone that bought me a coffee – but why do it one person at a time.

When I started my agency, I was super curious, reading every book and advertising, comms, consumer behaviour, running an agency, the history of advertising, running projects, managing people the lot. Friday was my favourite day, when Campaign would drop through the box. And I would read JB immediately and ponder his wickedly intelligent advice. Super wicked at times.

I started my agency in sunny Bournemouth. At the time, not a particularly dynamic place for this industry. Sorry, to those that read this and feel offended, I I hit a few raw nerves with my thinking that’s good – it means I’m right, but the place was lightyears behind London. Not so today – is an amazing eclectic melting put of agencies and amazing work – one of the shining lights in the UK in fact.

When I started out I had no mentors. I had no one sharing ideas or approaches. I was not in Kansas anymore. Today it isn’t the same. People share. Support and encourage. There’s still more talkers than doers. And more poets than killers. But it’s so much better. People like Spencer Gallagher and the would have been a dream come true to me in those days. For many, they still are. And that’s great.

I wish someone had shared some of the things I am going to write about with me. I had to learn things the hard way. But learn I did. I mostly stayed true to my values (product over profit and people first) the whole time… but you get tested in the agency game – continuously.

Most of us that start-up are not commercially driven. This is something we are expected to learn. It’s hard. Fucking hard. Creativity and commerce are not great bedfellows. And we are mostly emotional animals seeking approval in this game. Even those bully bastards that are just horrible to work with. Even they just want a cuddle. They just hide behind that facade. Trust me.

Now, I have a style that won’t suit everyone. I talk straight and I try to avoid jargon. But I can be as much of an advertising / creative wanker as the next guy – and it does happen. Oh, and I am a little bit sweary.

I have ADHD, which means I like short sentences. But again, I slip. I am dyslexic. So, if you spot a spelling mistake – who cares. Enjoy it. Some of them are funny. The laughs are for free. As is the advice.

Last point. I am a creative and a strategist. If all you care about is profit, you and me won’t get each other on every topic. But look for the similarities, not the differences. As they say in another group that I am very fond of. If you know, you have my lifelong love and respect.

So, lets’s get to it. There will be no long intros as we meander through the next 21 days of hints and tips. A few paragraphs for some. An article for others. Some things you won’t agree with. Cool. But these are the basics for running and growing an agency today – above and beyond doing good work. That bit’s obvious.

My overriding advice to you as an agency founder, someone new to the business or someone trying to drive their career is this. Do the basics well. Spend quality time with your family not just your screen and your deadlines. And, please, take care of yourself. I didn’t at times, and it wasn’t just me that took the hit.

In fifty years no one will give a care in the world about your late nights (or my spelling mistakes)… but they will remember you spending time with them. Keep a sense of perspective on what you do.

There is life after deadlines.

Right, let’s do this.

Create value. Not things.

Kjell Nordstrom (I quote this all the time) talked about the surplus society. A world where similar people are making similar things at similar prices (google it). Sound familiar?

There are too many agencies. They do nice things. Pretty things. Oooooh. How fancy. Film and web have changed the game – it’s easy to build pretty websites and make nice films. Easy. No problem at all.

It’s still hard to do great work. That drives exponential brand growth. Creates real buzz. Drives sales. It’s seriously hard to create value. I’m not talking about a 5% increase in sales. Or 1000% increase in followers… from only 2. Real value. A return on investment that is material. Obvious on your clients P&L and trading results.

If you’re in the business of building websites, producing content, creating ads, managing communities, building apps, buying media… you’re in the wrong business. You’re in a business where the next guy who comes along wearing cooler clothes, thicker black rimmed glasses and costs 5% less or has membership to Whatever House is going to eat your lunch. Eventually, you’ll lose your clients. Marketing Directors last how long – two years tops. Marketing Managers the same at best. CEOs maybe five years, unless they’re founders.

When you pass from one client contact to the next, you have to be delivering demonstrable value, making you irreplaceable.

Otherwise, sorry folks, you’re a commodity.

Yes, make beautiful things. But meaningfully. With a focus on outcomes. Measure those outcomes. Talk about those outcomes. Benchmark your outcomes. Do not get hooked on how your work looks. Get hooked on what it delivers. Learn. Push. Drive to deliver more value.

It’s the oldest saying in the industry… the client doesn’t want the drill. They want the hole in the wall. Results.

And if you deliver tangible results, then you’re in the value creation business. And you matter. The opposite – you don’t matter. You’re a commodity. Trading on relationships, not delivery. And, sadly, but rightly, you’ll be replaced.

And if you don’t matter, good luck in your next rate review, next pitch, re-pitch, introduction to the new marketing direct etc. The points at which and the reasons why you may lose your client grow exponentially if you’re just creating things.

It’s out job to demonstrate results BEYOND what would have happened anyway.

There’s far too much me-too today. Weak agencies, and untrained, uninspired and untalented creatives and strategist getting away with it. If that stings… I am talking about you. Sorry. Do something positive with the pain.

Through the medium of beautiful things, create measurable value.

Your relationships will be longer. Margins stronger. Robustness greater. Sleep deeper. Homelife better. And you’ll be hard to live without.

And that’s the best place to be by far.