What to do when it stops

The following blog is made up of the best bits of editorial, articles and blogs that I’ve come across in my 38 years of working life, 30 of which I spent as my own boss at a very successful Creative Agency.

I thank all those that have inspired me to make (and write!) my own observations on these subjects. I now want to switch my focus to helping the next generation find the success that I did, and hopefully avoid a few of the pitfalls I didn’t!

Marketing and Creative Agencies are fairly easy to categorise. Whether you’re in digital, design or marketing, the chances are that you will recognise yourself here.

STAGE ONE: 0-3 people

55% of agencies

Easy stuff this. You’re a good designer and/or marketer and have a few contacts, so you decide to start your own agency and hey presto, you’re off! Overheads are low, confidence is high, you love doing what you do and you can work where and when you like. The trouble is, since this seems like a perfect place to settle, you may well be here forever. It’s a stage with pitfalls too, as you’ll find that holidays are difficult to take and new business is hard to secure.

STAGE TWO: 4-8 people

25% of agencies

Clearly, you’re good at what you do. You’ve found your niche and people want to use you. New business comes along too, but you often have a tendency to focus your work solely on these new clients and forget to look for further new business. This effectively stops you from growing.

STAGE THREE: 9-12 people

15% of agencies

You’ve found a client that you’re growing with. They keep giving you more and more work, which seems brilliant - though you start to realise that they’re dominating your workload. Since you’re working well with them, and you’re still growing, you end up focusing all your energy on advancing their interests.
This means new clients are very reluctant to come to you, because you’re overwhelmingly under the thumb of this dominant client. New opportunities pass you by, never really getting the attention that they merit.

STAGE FOUR: 12-30 people

5% of agencies

You’re an agency of some size now - a big player. You’ve crossed the threshold of being just a collection of people, now logically organised into teams, with clients that have stayed with you for some time. You’re not overwhelmed by one dominant client, instead working with a handful of large clients, many medium-sized clients and an abundance of smaller ones. You’ve settled on the processes, disciplines and specialisms with which you want to work, all of which allow you with some accuracy to predict where your revenue will sit, your possible profit margin and an idea of where you can grow.
However, the pitfalls remain. You’re struggling with talent recruitment issues, not to mention that all the local competition want to knock you off your spot, meaning you need to constantly pitch for new business, whilst still maintaining client confidence and satisfaction. Because of the resulting need for more business structure, overheads become higher, and management and financial structures become necessary too.

STAGE FIVE: 30+ people

< 1% of agencies

99.5% of all agencies will never get here. It’s rare, particularly if you’re away from a big city. But the economies of scale kick in and profitability may well come back.
To maintain this position you need to have a USP, otherwise agencies in all of the above categories will sneak onto your blindside and take you on. Key staff may leave and form their own micro agencies and take your clients and / or staff, irrespective of what it says in their contracts. It can be a real minefield at this stage.

STAGE SIX: Get me out of here

< 0.1% of agencies

This is hardly ever achieved, with a financial exit usually on the cards.

I’m very confident that most, if not all of you, will be able to identify with at least one of these six stages. Being the boss or owner of an agency is hard - very hard, especially when clients and staff become increasingly demanding. Approached in the right way, however, and it can prove a very rewarding experience. With the right guidance and the right resilient mindset, anything is possible.

Just get out there and do it!

GrowthJonathan Leafe