Let's start with a big hairy disclaimer... I am not poo-pooing all creative agencies. There are MANY great agencies out there. They can be great for larger corporations with bigger annual marketing budgets, but most of the time (IMHO), not super great for most small businesses. For people like me (a self-employed creative) becoming an agency or studio is supposed to be "the dream." I've come to find that I am a minority in that I have no foreseeable ambition to grow to a traditional agency or studio and here's why...
Well-meaning folks have encouraged me to adapt processes and systems meant to scale to an agency/studio because they believed I could succeed in it... and truthfully, I think I could too. There are steps I could take right now that I know would set me down that path and allow me to scale up, hire, make more money, etc. But, none of those things align to my overly simple motivators…
If Sharpe Creative were to scale to a traditional agency/studio, number 1 on this list would be the first on the chopping block followed by number 2. I’d be more motivated by “keeping the lights on” and paying salaries than simply doing great work. It’s not hard to take on a huge list of crap projects and crap clients, slap together crap work and make a crap-ton of money. But, I really don’t want to fall into that crap-trap. I want ever-evolving craft to be at the core of what I produce. Making brands I work with compelling.
A lot of agencies live or die on billable hours. The more hours and minutes spent on a client’s account, the more money comes in. As an ex-agency creative, I used to swear that agencies wanted as many painful rounds of revisions and back and forth as they could get. And that is the core issue. It’s not about the solution, the impact, making something meaningful, memorable, etc. It is “how much can we get this client to spend with us” by milking the time.
This is a common scenario… The creative team spends time and effort researching and creating a solution(s) for a client. An Account Manager takes the work to the client to “present” it. They begin the presentation with things like “we have some options for you but keep in mind we can change/combine anything you like.” A couple of huge problems here…
In my past agency life, there were many days when I felt like I was in meetings through the entirety of the work day and then I had to find time for my productive work. If you have five people in a "client-related" meeting, gibber jabbering for an hour over something that could have been an email, you can 5X those billable hours. Now, I only book meetings if they are necessary to the project and the relationship of the client.
Another common example... an agency may have ten account managers per five producers of the product. Guess who is regularly out the door by 4:30pm and who is coming in early, staying until 7pm and then taking work home with them. Hint: There are reasons why agency creatives can be grumpy.
If a client comes to an agency and asks if they can do branding and a website then build a time machine and do their laundry for the next six months. As long as the money is there, the agency will absolutely take on the work. It doesn't matter if anyone on the team knows anything about time travel. This kind of "all under one roof" service obviously comes with a high cost, and some clients are willing to pay for that convenience. But, many agencies become spread too thin with their offering and are regularly chasing their tails and burning through staff.
The more time I exist as a business, the more services I shed or unaligned projects I turn down. I've come to realize that good fits and relationships are much more valuable than high budgets.
Because of the aforementioned points, agencies regularly get themselves in pickles and bite off more than they can chew... or more than they should chew for the sanity of their staff. This trickles down into the culture and day to day experience of the people working there. Employee turnover is super high in the creative agency world.
My biggest fear in scaling up and hiring people is to get in a situation where I feel like I need to push them and myself to make work our lives.
I know what my thresholds are. I know what my seasons of life are. I can take on more work when I feel frisky and pump the brakes when things are getting crazy. I have the reigns of the beast so it won't consume me or anyone else. I can keep the clients and the quality of the work top of mind and protect my time.
Another common scenario... someone works their way up to an art director/creative director status, and they then start their own agency. Thirty years later, its been 20+ years since they have been actively producing creative work and their tastes and sensibilities have stayed back in time. Their ideas and aesthetics safely nestled cozy and warm back in 1996. Instead of managing their agency high-level, from an organizational and visionary standpoint, they meddle in the weeds with the product. They could hire talented creative directors and creators who have kept their skills current and sharp and empower them, but they micromanage and keep the product dated and watered down and the creative staff demoralized.
Big corporations have big budgets and everyone wants the clout of doing creative work for household names. In my career, I've done creative work for larger companies that people know all the way down to favors for friends and family. Don't get me wrong, if Disney Lucasfilm reaches out and asks me to do design work for their Star Wars property, I will say yes at light speed. I don't mind occasionally doing small work for big brands. But, I would much rather do big work for small brands with passion and vision.
Large businesses have a lot of red tape, committees, and ladders of decision-makers. There can be a lot of office politics weaved into getting a brand, campaign or website accomplished. No thanks! I prefer working with small businesses that lean on my expertise and keep the drama to a minimum.
Small brands can't typically afford traditional full-service agencies and often don't need the full-service treatment. Maybe they need a brand identity, a website, and someone to do their social? With an agency, they would pay for those things and in some roundabout way the ten other services they are not using.
Ramblings of ex-agency creative PTSD aside, I like where I am and I am excited about where Sharpe Creative is heading. Not an agency, but a trusted creative partner/network focused on building powerful brands for small to medium businesses. My business evolves all the time, so who knows what the future may hold... But, if I ever do decide to scale, I will make sure I can do it in a way to avoid all these common agency pitfalls.