‘Just do work that feels good’: Calling bullshit on bad agency advice

Agency founders love to give advice. The creative trades are awash in wisdom from successful CEOs and CDs who launched businesses, seemingly on a wing and prayer, and found success by “staying true to themselves” or “listening to their hearts.” A lot of of this advice is doled out to aspiring agency leaders as if launching an all-star career is roughly as hard as winning a participation trophy at a middle school science fair.

The truth is, building an agency is hard work. You need to believe in the work you’re doing, but you also need to know exactly how that work is going to put money in your pocket and a roof over your team’s heads.

I combed the trades for a few examples of this kind of advice and found a lot of smart people, giving out some pretty soft wisdom. I’m going to give you my unvarnished opinion of how they could do better.

The Advice

“Do the kind of work that feels good and right and fulfilling to you. Chasing extrinsic validation will only lead to random outbursts of profanity directed at the press, award-show judges and commenters on YouTube.”Paul Venables, founder & chairman, Venables Bell & Partners

George Swisher: VB & P had a huge year, and Paul obviously knows the business inside and out, but this sounds like bullshit to me. Advertising is an emotional business and creatives are emotional people, but that doesn’t mean you focus all of your energy on making yourself feel good. Agencies are businesses that need to constantly adapt to new client needs and new opportunities. It’s good to feel good about your work but it’s also good to know that your invoices are getting paid.

Creativity is king, but if we let ourselves get caught up in those lofty ideals we’re going to be in big trouble when it’s time to pay the rent. Strike a balance between making good work and building good client partnerships. Do work that you’re proud of but keep the focus on happy clients and remember that awards can have an impact on your bottom line.

“As an agency grows, it is easy to meet the short-term needs by hiring people to fill an empty seat. But taking a strategic approach to hiring and growth is where your agency can find success. Deciding what you want the outcome of various roles within the organization to be long-term helps to develop your business and maximize your team’s effectiveness.” – Angela Lawrence Managing Director of AcrobatAnt

GS: Strategic planning is critical, especially when it comes to staffing. Angela isn’t wrong about that. But when you’re launching an agency you can’t let yourself get hung up on exactly what everyone’s role should be. People often surprise you with what they’re able to take on and the kind of skills they’ll absorb when needed. That’s why I encourage every creative to develop their business skills along with their creative chops.

If you lock everyone into a role that’s part of your five year plan then you’re limiting their growth, and your own. Instead of trying to anticipate and hire every skill-set on the board, consider hiring people who show a range of talents and making sure that people have the opportunity to learn and develop across disciplines and departments. You may find that the your best client relationship asset is an art director who never would have hand a chance to show that talent if you have her locked into a creative role.

“I miss having the resources of a company. I am now my own HR, IT, Maintenance, Bookeeping and Customer Service departments. So, besides creative work, I am busy with all the paperwork needed to build a company.” – Shmuli Rosenberg, CEO, FWD Marketing

GS: It can be overwhelming to take on everything from client services and creative to P&L, but it’s also a huge opportunity. Absorbing all the skills needed to run a successful agency at any size is going to be a huge asset as you scale. The smartest creative leaders know how to keep one eye on the books and the other eye on the quality of the work.

As your team grows you’ll need to rely on them to handle the day to day aspects of the business. You won’t need to be handling IT or answering customer service calls. But your team is going to rely on you to understand all of those things so that you can make smart decisions for them. My advice? Take this time when you’re operating lean and learn everything you can. Someday you’ll be able to take your hands off the wheel, but you’ll also know when to change the oil.

“Just go for it. I think a lot of times entrepreneurs think thy need to know how to get form point A to point B. All you need is point A.” – Susan Peterson, CEO, Freshly Picked

GS: I like the spirit of this advice, but I think it misses the mark. You should always reach for your goals and sometimes you can’t know exactly what it’ll take to get there, but that doesn’t mean anyone should be flying blind. Even if you don’t know the exact route from Point A to Point B, business-wise, you should have a pretty good roadmap, especially if you’re bringing people along with you. Every journey is different but they also have a lot in common.

Learn as much as you can about the business before you embark. Have a vision of what success would look like, not just creatively but financially. Figure out how much you need  to bill in order to get there. Figure your expenses, yours targets, and billing structure. If you know all of that at Point A then Point B starts looking a lot less fuzzy.

The Bottom Line?

Agency founders, in my experience, have a ton of wisdom to offer. The problem is, this is an emotional business so when people look back on the early days of building an agency, their vision gets a little cloudy. They start thinking a lot more about how they felt, or wanted to to feel, than about what they actually did. Ambition, excitement, and creative swagger are all important when you’re trying to launch any business, but they’re not the whole deal.

Temper that vision and verve with business smarts. Knowing what your client needs is going to be a lot more important than knowing what’s in your own heart. You won’t see your creative team’s eyes light up at the prospect of creating something beautiful if you can’t pay to keep the literal lights on in your office space. Smart creative leaders know how to balance artistic vision with clients needs and how to balance the books at the end of every quarter.


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