From humble beginnings working in a small dusty room on the 3rd floor in Covent Garden with a couple of cheap Toshiba’s and one founding ...

10 Lessons learned over 10 years running my own agency

From humble beginnings working in a small dusty room on the 3rd floor in Covent Garden with a couple of cheap Toshiba’s and one founding client who you’re unlikely to have heard of. To a lovely studio on the South Bank, with a talented team of 30 producing award winning work for some amazing brands including Hyundai, Glenfiddich, Allianz, Hendricks and Miracle Gro.
Sounds sweet, however it’s been one hell of a roller coaster ride and as we pass a significant milestone I felt the need to share some lessons I learned along the way. Sometimes we got it right and other times we did it the hard way.
Gravity Thinking has actually lived in two very different phases. The first 5 years working with investors and the next 5 years as an independent agency.  Which leads me nicely into the lessons learned in the early years.
1. D.I.Y.
Wiser people told us this from the outset however we didn’t have the experience or perhaps confidence to go it completely alone. Although having investors can be a foot up it also means that from the outset you are potentially compromising your vision to deliver against someone else’s. This means that you run the business differently and don’t take the risks you should. Generally, this means a focus on net profit over an investment in talent.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing however if I had my time again I would probably wait until I had the experience to go it alone rather than take on investors. You could look to choose those investors more wisely than we did ensuring an aligned vision and plan however there will always be a compromise.
2. Have you really got what it takes?
Starting, growing and managing an agency is way tougher than working within one and tougher than you could imagine. The learning curve is incredibly steep, the pressure intense and the effort needs to be unwavering. The compromises and sacrifices you make for your family, friends and yourself are significant. Long hours, canceling holidays, working whilst on holiday, letting friends down at the last minute, weight gain etc… You need to think very carefully before making the decision as it doesn’t impact just yourself.
I was incredibly lucky. My family have been extremely supportive and my friends incredibly understanding. They all appreciated why I was doing it and that I needed to do so. The main reason for this is that I talked to them about it and kept them informed as to my progress. This connected them in part to my journey in the early days and made them more understanding of the compromises they also had to make.
3. From A to B via C, J, X…
You start the business with a water tight business plan and commercials that you have meticulously planned for months. Pouring over the information and data late at night and early in the morning. And you repeat this each year. However, rarely does this plan turn into a reality and you need to be able to bend and flex considerably in order to take advantage of the opportunities and overcome the challenges that you face.
At times our focus would change almost daily which is tough when you’re an organized suit who likes to plan ahead, however it’s important to have a flexible mind set and approach. Most importantly you need to remain relevant and differentiated in a crowded market and over the years, I am extremely proud to say, that our proposition as evolved ahead of the curve to achieve exactly that. From traditional digital formats and early adoption of social platforms to culturally connected innovative work that’s never been done before.
4. Your priorities are not your priorities
We often focus on what’s immediately in front of us and get confused about the most urgent tasks being our priority. Rarely is this the case. The day to day often gets in the way of the real priority which is forward thinking and tasks that will make a difference in 6 to 12 months’ time.
The classic example is new business where you’re too busy delivering a campaign for an existing client that you neglect picking up the phone and speaking to potential clients. Another is focusing on the tasks that you enjoy rather than those that are important. Did we spend too much time thinking about what we’d call ourselves and not enough time on the new business plan detail? For sure. Did I use to spend a lot of time making loads of money on a spreadsheet rather than getting out there and meeting people? Absolutely. Take time to think about and focus on what’s really important and plan the time to do it.
5. Get a good night’s sleep
In my career, I’ve met way too many charlatans. Those people who talk a good game but really don’t get it. They’ll sell you whatever they can to make a few quid or simply do as their told when they know that if it were their money that’s not what they’d do at all.
Work and live life with integrity as it’ll pay back in the long term. People who liked you, respected you and trusted you will turn up again in your life and have a positive impact. We’ve turned down client briefs that we didn’t think were right. We’ve stopped working with clients where the value exchange was poor. We always try to have honest conversations no matter how much it hurts at the time. Be honest, be open and be yourself. This way client and other relationships will flourish.
Going independent was the greatest single step change on the agencies performance over 10 years. We saw a 50%+ growth in revenue in the first year and have been growing steadily since crica. 30% year on year. Why was this? A few reasons actually…
Our timing was impeccable and we had a bit of luck. As we bought ourselves out of our final investment relationship we managed to grow one of our clients significantly – a client we continue to work with today.                                                       
The empowerment to make decision and take calculated risks paid off in spades. We stopped focusing and worrying about monthly net profits and started to run the business on a quarterly basis based on growing revenues and in turn investing in talent.
The personal motivation to make it work (the safety blanket was gone) created a new injection of energy and focus within us and the wider agency. We were the keepers of our own destiny and that felt amazing. Another reason to do it yourself from the outset.
6. Liberate yourself – as above.
7. Your people are what matters most
A lot of agencies I’ve worked in and observe get this wrong and we’ve certainly made mistakes along the way. Our people are the most important thing within our business because it’s them who create the magic and make it happen. If you can focus time and effort on the team then it will pay back – great people equals great work which in turn equals clients being happy and wanting to work with you.
Over the last few years we’ve invested in a talented Senior Management Team who are able to focus time and effort nurturing and supporting their teams. We have a Personal Development Plan process that ensures everyone is clear and focused on their own development. We have been told that we have one of the most attractive benefits packages in London. We’re still on the journey and don’t get it right every time however with our focus on talent we’re making real progress.
8. Take the knocks but remember to celebrate success
When you invest so much of yourself in something it’s impossible not to take things personally. Someone who doesn’t appreciate your work, a candidate who doesn’t accept the job, a client who doesn’t want to work with you… when you believe so much in something and others don’t it can be hard to take. You need to be resilient and move on quickly as wasting emotional energy and dwelling gets you nowhere.
On the other hand, you need to celebrate all the successes and milestones along the way. For me I have an ambition and when I achieve it I will celebrate, everything along the way is a stepping stone to that moment. So, I need to be careful to understand that my stepping stones are other people’s achievements and ensure that I appreciate and celebrate those moments with them.
9. What goes in dictates what comes out
I have always believed in this philosophy. I was never the smartest or most talented person in the industry however I moved through the ranks quickly because I was willing to go the extra mile and work harder than more talented and smarter peers. That effort resulted in a higher standard of performance across the board.
When you run your own agency, this philosophy is even more pertinent and as your own boss you need to be disciplined with yourself. It’s certainly not about mindlessly working into the early hours and weekends. However, it certainly is about working long, hard and focused hours on what is going to make the biggest impact within your business. You also need to remember that your whole team, all 30 of them, are looking at your behavior and taking guidance from it. Therefore, the need to lead by example and expect of others what you expect of yourself is crucial.
10. You don’t know it all and never will
One of the most empowering things about running your own agency is that you’re the boss now. No one to manage you, tell you what to do, you can do it your way. However, with that comes a pit fall of thinking that you’re right all the time and know it all. I can guarantee that you never will.
Surrounding yourself with trusted advisors and taking the time to listen is crucial. We have implemented a Senior Management Team who have a strong voice and platform to use it. Since going independent we have had a Non-Exec on the board to provide guidance and mentoring. We have had paid for consultants and experts assist us with specific tasks such as systems and process. We have also spent a lot of time talking to friends and colleagues in the business having honest conversations and getting invaluable advice. Connect, listen and learn as much as possible.

I hope you have found my lessons both interesting and useful and that some of the lessons I have learned can accelerate your own ambition should it be running your own business. For me it has been a cathartic experience and one that has enabled me to understand that we have learned and achieved more than we credit ourselves with.  
There are a lot of people to thank however Claire, Andrew, Michaela, Ben and Martyn spring to mind specifically. Each of you have had a significant impact both professionally and personally. Thanks for your support and / or bringing your talent and energy to table.
Here’s looking forward to the next 10 years.
If you’d like to add lessons and your pov then I welcome comments below #alwayslearning

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