Sustaining a creative agency over the long run requires a unique blend of strategic planning, effective leadership, a dedicated team, and a willingness to change with the times on a dime. I’m going to share a few insights on what it takes to keep an agency going, focusing on key factors such as employee management and acquisition, leadership in and out of your business, business planning, and client longevity.
1. Invest in Your Team
The first thing you need to know about yourself and your small business, is knowing whether you need to grow or not in the first place. If you are humming along nicely, don’t feel the urge to change. If the money is coming in and you’re still able to hit all the work…keep it that way. It’s always our desire to grow, but why? As you grow, more people cost more and cause more. Before the jump, invest in yourself and get better at management, taking care of yourself, and refining your craft. This should relieve all that overloaded talk.
BUT, If you’ve done that and you’re feeling the pressure…then let’s move onto employees. You have to know that your employees are the heart of your agency. Which means it should be pumping all the time, flowing well, and keeping things alive! Your job isn’t to be the heart, your job is to be the mind. Nurture a positive work environment where creativity and collaboration thrive. Encourage continuous learning, offer opportunities for professional development and training, and recognize and reward everyones effort when they put in the hard work. A motivated and engaged team is more likely to stay loyal and contribute meaningfully to the agency’s growth. Now, that doesn’t just mean you buy them coffee once and a while and pat them on the back. Love on them like they are an extension of your family, because they are. You’ll spend almost as much time with them as you do your family. So make it count.
2. Effective Leadership & Vision
Strong leadership is essential for guiding your agency through challenges and opportunities. You are the captain of this ship, you know the good days and the bad days and most likely see them up ahead. Clearly communicate your vision and mission to your team, ensuring everyone understands and aligns with the agency’s goals and most importantly…be honest. Sometimes people don’t want to hear future plans, it will overwhelm them. But, at least you did, and gave them a glimpse into the future. A future where they see themselves or not. Your vision is important to share, as the employees are hopefully an extension of you.
Lead by example, demonstrating passion, resilience, and a commitment to excellence. Excellence is more than doing a great job, it’s important you know technology or software before your team does, know what’s happening in marketing and product development before they do. It’s not a race of course, and you can’t know everything, but stay ahead of the game in order to not only speak the language, but teach it.
Be excellent in leadership and vision, and you’ll be better than 50% of the agencies out there.
3. Strategic Planning
Develop a business plan (and write it down) that outlines your agency’s goals, target market, services, and growth strategies. As creatives we tend to forget what we set out to do, or what we’re even good at. We see opportunities and jump at them because we have an idea, instead of a plan. Regularly revisit and revise your plan to adapt to changing market demands and industry trends. A well-thought-out plan serves as a roadmap, guiding your agency toward long-term success and sustainability.
Additionally, watch the market and see if trends are changing the times. You need to be spearheading the agencies direction and staying on top of trends. So even though you have a business plan, you may need to revise it every few years. Follow the five year plan below when it comes to your strategies and plans for your agency.
Todd’s 5-Year Plan:
YEAR ONE -You can’t change the world in one year, start working and stick to what you’re good at and see what happens.
YEAR TWO – By now you’ve just started to build a client base, you’re getting to know good contractors, and desire bigger jobs.
YEAR THREE – This should be your first profitable year, try to maintain this structure as long as possible, and save some money.
YEAR FOUR – Keep the model of year three going, but build up the Business Development side of things. Employees may help, as long as you can stick to what you do best.
YEAR FIVE – It’s time to dig in for another five and stay the course, or change the plan and grow. Don’t be afraid of change, it’s part of the plan.
4. Financial Management
Maintain a sound financial strategy that includes budgeting, cash flow management, and contingency planning.
Once again, the creatives all just skipped that part and started working…never to look back again. It’s important in year two or three to monitor your agency’s finances closely, ensuring that you have a buffer for unexpected expenses or lean periods. Nothing kills a creative like money does, so get those things in order first before they take you over. Most of the small to medium agencies out there suffer from bad finances, no cashflow management, etc.
Effective financial management provides stability and allows your agency to weather economic fluctuations.
I used this bucket system below for years…
Bucket one was my personal investment. When you start you usually put in your own money because banks never like the creative all that much. When I started, It was the best decision I ever made, because I didn’t have major debts off the top. My own money was also easier to lose, at least I invested in myself instead of an institution that wasn’t friendly.
Bucket two was company investment. When you start making money as a self starter or small agency, you end up making calls like new computers, new office, more employees before you put money aside. Always put money aside, especially in year one and two. New shiny things are great, but they cost more than you think. You may not be able to save all the money for the future, but at least you have a start and you only need to borrow some.
Bucket three was fun money. Right? We all need a little fun sometimes. This bucket was very important to me. As you grow your company you’ll be making lots of money, but spending it fast too. Find a way to hold back “fun money” for things like dinners out with employees, client parties, internal projects, give-aways, travel and more.
Our company was where people wanted to work, where people still want to work! It’s because of the work we put out, but it was mostly because we had a blast doing it. It’s hard to have a blast when you’re worried about the all mighty dollar.
5. Client Relationship Management
Building strong, lasting relationships with clients is fundamental to sustaining your agency. The common three points are to provide exceptional service, consistently meet deadlines, and exceed client expectations. Yes, wonderful…but how about also changing their business. Our old tagline was “Don’t make us drag you to success.” which is a bit cocky, but true. We were good at what we did, but we were always pushing. Pushing our clients like their business was our business. Which really means we were very honest with our clients, hurt when they hurt and celebrated when they won.
It’s not just about numbers on a spread sheet either, it’s about adopting your clients into your family. If you’re any good, they want to be part of your thing as much as you want to be a part of theirs. Effective communication and a deep understanding of your clients’ needs are important. Happy clients are more likely to become repeat customers/friends that will keep you and your business running for years.
6. Adaptability and Innovation
The creative industry is dynamic, with trends and technologies constantly evolving. Stay ahead of the curve by encouraging innovation within your team. Like I mentioned before, stay on top of trends, new tech and tools that your employees and contractors can use. Embrace these new tools, techniques, and creative approaches to better your team, company and client’s work. Adaptability and a willingness to experiment with fresh ideas keep your agency relevant and attractive to clients seeking cutting-edge solutions.
Also, when it comes to Innovation (a word over-used by creative agencies around the world), look into it’s true meaning. It doesn’t mean you’re good with the tools, processes or ideas that already exist. It means you’re poking holes in what exists, and making it better, and sometimes doing it first.
7. Effective Marketing and Networking
I can’t stand either of these titles, honestly. So here’s how I’ll rephrase it. Instagram and LinkedIn aren’t Marketing and Networking. Marketing is putting yourself out there and getting noticed. Showing people what you can do in a market that is oversaturated, stale and square. If you want to be great, get off instagram and then try to market. You’ll find ways around it that will change the game. As for networking, call some people! Maybe even hop on a flight and meet them face to face. The days of “nice to e-meet you” are over. If you want an agency that gets better daily, go against the flow in marketing and shake a few hands.
8. Quality Over Quantity
This is another thing we say, yet never stick to. More clients always sounds better, because that means more money right? Wrong. My strategy for years was five top clients, the type of relationship where they call you if there is a problem. Where they pay on time and always feel like they pay you too little. Keep those clients happy and always do the absolute best for them. Show them what you’re thinking instead of waiting for them to ask, give them ideas you’ve built out already instead of pitching via email. Never let them pay for meals….ever. The rest of your clients could slowly make it into that top five, but you’ll have to retire a few in order for them to fit. You can’t do amazing, groundbreaking work for everyone. You just can’t.
9. Continuous Improvement
It sounds easy, but it’s not. Once you get humming as an agency, you’re more likely to get less aggressive, more complacent and over the top distracted. My method these days is to carve out the time for myself. Give your leaders the same type of time. You can’t asses the damage, pinpoint issues, grow creatively…without the time to see it.
I didn’t do this all the time, and it showed. Now-a-days, I take the time to think…and it’s been the best thing I’ve ever done. More client interaction, great work, more money, less stress.
10. Resilience and Persistence
The journey of sustaining a creative agency is filled with challenges and setbacks. Money issues being the main one, but also clients that don’t like you, employees that tear things apart, or economic draughts. Stay resilient and persistent in the face of adversity. Even though the employees are the heart, there’s not much excitement without the mind. So if you aren’t exciting to keep going, no one is. Stay the course, whether walking or running…but stay the course with determination.
A brand new demo reel or your 100th case study won’t keep your agency alive. It truly is up to you and you alone. Stay close to good people, inside the agency and outside the agency.
If you have anymore questions on this, I’m always willing to help. Call us, I’d love to chat!