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My Take On: Business growth – how and why to avoid it

Rob Dobson

I once joined a Slack group about ‘growing your agency’. A member started a conversation where he wanted some advice: he was thinking about joining a golf course – not because he liked golf, he didn’t – but because he’d heard that a lot of deals get done on the golf course. People replied seriously.

I left that Slack group soon after.

And that was just one of his suggested approaches. That was after he’d done the rest of it. The networking meetings three times a week, the coffee catch-ups twice a week, the speaking engagements, connecting with 50 people a week. Adding clients to their Facebook friends list. Friday night drinks with clients. Laughing loudly at their jokes whilst getting the bill. Doing favours for people every day – not out of the goodness of their heart, but so they think of them when they have some money to spend. You know the drill. The Tried and Tested Formula For Agency Growth.

I appreciate that all this probably works, if that’s what’s important to you. But I do wonder about how healthy this ‘growth at all costs’ approach is, and its related horseman, the ‘look at how busy and optimised I am’ story – there’s a lot of ‘see whose is biggest’ going on at the LinkedIn urinal. Is this endless growth what you want to be doing? When is it just ok? When you can sit back and enjoy where you are?

It can become a vicious circle. If you’ve a large team of people, you need to hit a large target each month just to keep going. Cashflow needs to flow, fast. You can only do that by getting through each project as quickly as possible. Once the job is live; next job. Then the next. Cut that corner. Get the coder to do some design. Get the designer to work out the UX. The PM will write the copy. Compromises multiply and compound. That’s not a recipe for good work.

Culture suffers. You’re asking each employee to mark down each hour they’re spending and to hurry, hurry, hurry because you’ve the next job to do. To do ‘good enough’ rather than spend that extra day thinking and playing and creating. That’s not why they got into the creative industry. That’s not why you got into the creative industry. Free beers on Friday doesn’t make up for it.

And you suffer. You’re spending your days thinking about more. Of quantity. Of optimising. Of work, and clients, and what the next agency is doing, the jobs they got and why didn’t you get that job? Comparing yours with theirs. Maybe you should get up earlier and meditate in a cold shower before journaling about your 120 hour work week?

You put stuff out you’re not proud of because you have to. You work with clients and jobs you don’t believe in, because you’ve set yourself a bottom line you have to meet. Your happiness gets tied to an arbitrary goal, which we won’t make us happy when we get there.

Clearly not every agency is like that, and I don’t mean to disparage those of us who are up at 5am, asleep by 1am, and work to grow. They’ll overtake me in many ways, and that’s fine. But for the rest of us – why not optimise your agency for happiness, quality of life, quality of work – rather than optimise for growth, and then inevitably, for money?

How you spend your days is how you spend your life. So why not spend your days, and therefore your life, in a more meaningful pursuit?

And who knows. Maybe your agency will grow anyway.

Rob Dobson is the founder of Stockport creative agency Northern Comfort. 

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