Agency Growth Tips 16/21: Plan? What plan?

Published 06.03.2019

The days are ticking down – and I’ve got 7 topics to squeeze in six articles in to my 21 days of FREE Agency Growth Tips. None of it is my IP. It’s the basics… as I see it from my experience.

Want to know more about me? Please take a look at the preamble of 1/21 Creative value. Not things.

Today, I am talking about writing a plan. For your agency. Not a business plan as such… your target audience is you and your senior management team. Not the bank.

Aside: Before I start, I am dyslexic. Best of luck with my spelling.

Back to it… Many will argue they don’t need a plan. That they know their business best.

Rubbish. Absolute bollocks.

If that’s you, it’s only true, or acceptable, if you are working on your own. If you employ you have a team you are responsible for, not just yourself.

I created budgets and forecasts every year. I updated many forecasts when anything of materiality changed in our numbers (materiality – for me – is any change >10%, up or down). And I wrote four plans of significance in my time as an agency entrepreneur.

Three I delivered. The forth I didn’t. We eventually sold the group via trade sale and MBO. But each mattered.

The most significant one, was a few years into the business.

I wrote it following me and my business partner attending the memorial for an ex-client who had passed away. The MIGHTY Jim Cronin of Dorset’s Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre and TV’s Monkey Business / Monkey Life TV show.

Together with his wife Allison, he built an incredible legacy – not just an attraction but a really important global animal welfare eco-system.

I remember being so inspired by his story, my partner (both in life and work) and I got back to the office, and said, fuck it… let’s go for it. He knew no obstacle that he couldn’t smash through. His beliefs were his North Star. And he just went for it. It was powerful. We were already doing well – but this was a powerful moment.

That moment, that plan, our hard work, values, belief, team work and determination are what drove us for years. We nailed that plan. Locked it down. And delivered it to the letter and decimal point.

And now I recommend a plan for anyone going on any start-up journey, not the one you want your investors to see – but one you cannot hide from. One that guides you. And importantly. One that drives you.

Let’s get to it.

Agency Growth Tips 16/21: Plan? What plan?

I have to be honest. When I started my first agency, I didn’t have much of a plan.

I did write one, for a meeting with an industry entrepreneur who was considering investing in my agency start-up. The plan was a bit crap – honestly, who knows what clients you’ll have and when, at what GP, what costs base etc. when you haven’t even found a name, let alone not having a start-up client.

But I did have a promise and a vision.

Luckily for me, that first meeting didn’t go very well. And, I’ve never admitted this before, but I was told in that initial meeting that he didn’t think I had it in me.

Let’s find out, I said. And I eventually found the money to start.

My partner at the time invested in me – she eventually joined the agency after about 12 months as my 50:50 business partner. She took out a car loan. The plan was reduced a simple promise.

“I’ll make the payments, and if the money runs out, I’ll go get a proper job.”

Not much of a plan, you may argue – but… it was a great one. I worked like a dog to ensure the money never ran out. I also set-out my vision.

1. Do great work (that gets great results, for great clients, building great brands – putting product over profit, always)

2. Build a sustainable business (for the team, supply partners and clients)

3. Have fun 

That vision remained stayed with me throughout my experience as an agency founder, then Group MD and on. Things only ever really went wrong, when I didn’t act on all three. And they went really wrong if I ignored all three.

But largely, I stuck to the above. And it’s still my priority today – because ONLY GREAT WORKS.

By many, I’m known for the phrase ‘do great work’. And it was set large upon the walls at the agency in our final office before I left, some 12 years after I originally wrote it.

When I wasn’t sure about what to do… it was my default. And was (frustratingly – but rightly) replayed to me by my colleagues at times, when I needed to refocus, hold my nerve or simply put my money where my pen was.

I later wrote a business plan (ish), having been so inspired at the memorial of the late and great Jim Cronin. What a guy. Even if the cranky git used to phone me up and call me an arsehole when we did work together, I loved him to bits. He’ll never know this sadly, but I learnt a lot from him.

That plan was a HUGE moment for me and my business partner, my career and the future of the agency.

We did every single thing in that plan. And we delivered every single objective. With blood, sweat and tears. For too much of all three probably in hindsight. But we did it.

And on reflection, why wouldn’t we have a plan. It didn’t have to have all the detail. All the tactics. All the fluff. But ours had the actions, milestones, objectives and vision set out.

I still have that plan. It’s so naive in so many ways.

But, everything that needed to be there was there. Get the office. Employ more senior people. Hire X. Promo Y. New website. New comms. Move aged debt to within 45 days. Implement an ERP. Keep our reputation high so new business comes to us, rather than us aimlessly searching for it. Move fast. Be known. Creating new briefing templates and process. Work with better freelancers. Get clients of size X. Balance the split of our revenues out across a better mix of clients, in separate industries to make us recession proof. (Right before the recession hit – with lots of financial and banking clients, we felt it coming – how fortunate). Keep 6 moths working capital at all times. Invoice faster. Change bank. Stay cash positive. Learn about agency economics and KPIS and implement them. Develop the team. Engage with the universities. Reward talent over experience. The list goes on.

There were so many key milestones.

So many about investing to allow us to grow – it was a HUGE foundation building housekeeping and growth agenda.

And we worked through it. All of it. Every single one. And it worked.

There’s was room for anything other than the actions and outcomes in that document. No fluff. No puff. An internal document doesn’t need it.

Why and how did it work?

I meant it. Most people don’t mean what they say in there plans? So why read them back? If they’re tosh. What’s the point.

So, make it matter.

Put your targets. Plans. Visions. Objectives. Dreams. Red lines. Must dos. Won’t dos. And MOST importantly. Actions.

Bullets. Never sentences. What’s the point. If it’s for you, or your internal team – keep it simple. Honest. And loaded with actions.

There’s not one good client in the land that will let you work without a detailed plan and timings. Responsibilities. And budgets.

Why would you work any different?

Plans are there to keep us honest, focused, motivated. They’re for the bad days – not the good days. They’re designed to drive actions and behaviours. To challenge. They’re rarely easy – or what would be the point.

Ever heard the phrase – what gets measured gets done. Well, it’s true. But also – what you set as actions, not lofty destinations, gets done too.

Give yourself some KPIs to work to. The 55% rule. Every heard of it? Keeping your staff costs to your gross margins within 2-3% either side of 52% is one of the greatest controls you can implement in your agency. I never knew that. But I listened. Learnt. And live by these things.

There’s another phrase… how do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

So if you’re writing a plan – make it honest and meaningful. Fill it with actions. Learn your craft as a business owner. Look at your levers for growth or barriers to growth, and either press them or remove them.

Write it down. Buy into it – and get the buy-in of your team. Read it regularly. Hold yourself to it. Re-write it every 12, 18 or 24 months – whenever you need to.

People I have worked with over the years will know this comment well. There are two types of ‘DO’ list in business.

Your ‘To Do’ list – urgent. And your ‘Must Do’ list – important.

Every successful entrepreneur I know is acutely aware about the difference between what is urgent and what is important.

In an agency, you clients work is always urgent. It dominates your To Do list. But in most agencies that crash and burn, it’s what was IMPORTANT, the things that live on the Must Do list, that have been ignored.

There’s a BIG difference between running your workflow and running your business.

Neither can be ignored. They are of course utterly and inextricably linked. But success depends upon you taking your business as seriously as you take your workflow. And the same goes the other way.

This cliche sucks. But it is ENTIRELY true.

If you fail to plan. You plan to fail. 

Don’t be a cliche.