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What I’ve Learnt: Charlie Hartley, Founder and CEO, Impression

Charlie Hartley

Charlie Hartley founded Harrogate-based creative agency Impression Studio as a 24-year-old in 2009.

In 2022, he launched sister agency Next Chapter, which specialises in digital marketing.

The growing company also acquired digital agency FLOCC for an undisclosed sum earlier this year.

Here, Hartley shares all the lessons he’s learnt across his life and career…

Which single daily habit or practice could you not do without?

Every morning I wake up an hour before my three kids, usually at around 6am, which allows me time to relax, exercise, or do some life admin, before the morning chaos begins. This has really helped to instill a sense of calm, and I feel organised and energised for the day ahead.

What’s been your luckiest break?

My wife would say that I’m a pretty jammy person, but I’d say I’ve made my own luck throughout my career by taking a chance on myself quite early on. Most notably, back in 2009 when I started Impression, and we’re now a thriving creative and digital products agency.

I’ve worked hard, made sacrifices when needed, and made great connections, all of which have helped me get where I am today.

What’s your best failure?

Starting and failing at business at the age of 24 was probably a big one as the business failed after four months and I separated from my business partner at the time. I had to refocus, learn from the mistakes and start again, which I did at 24 when I started Impression.

Whilst this was a tough and humbling experience, it forced me to learn how to actually run a business rather than just delivering a project or services like I had done as an employee. I had to wear many hats, spin many plates – and I’m always still learning, 14 years on! I failed two first years at uni due to having too much fun at Northumbria Uni – that lead me on a path to where I am today.

What is the best investment you’ve ever made, either financial or time?

My investment in a proper senior leadership team, then empowering them and trusting them to excel in their roles, has been instrumental to our success. This move freed me up to focus on running the business and looking ahead at what’s next for us, and it’s great to work alongside these talented, experienced people.

I also invested a lot of time in my agency mentor. To have someone outside of the business rip up what we’d done to date, ask the hard questions, review our accounts, question the agency proposition and create a strategy and roadmap to achieve our goals was priceless. We smashed those targets in the first three years.

Which podcast or book would you recommend others to read and why?

Myself and the team swear by the amazing book, Agencynomics. It’s jam-packed full of practical advice and guides on how to run a successful agency. I try not to think about how much time I might’ve saved if I’d read this when I started out because it would have been substantial!

What one piece of advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

Find a mentor whose work and opinions you respect, then listen to them. Oh, and read Agencynomics ASAP!

I’d also say that networking more and investing time and resource into growing my own network and profile would have been energy well spent.

Who or what has had the single biggest influence on your working life?

My dad, who sadly passed away aged 56 when I was just starting Impression at the age of 24. He was a successful lawyer with his own firm who worked hard and had fun while doing it, and those are two key things I constantly strive for in the running of my own business.

His tragic, untimely death had a profound impact on me and taught me that life is short and time is precious, so I try to remember that in every aspect of life.

Tell us something about you that would surprise people.

When I was 15 I had an offer on the table to model for Calvin Klein at New York Fashion Week. My parents turned it down.

An even more surprising fact is that – despite running Impression for as many years as I have – I’m actually colour-blind! I have a creative design team at the agency so they lead on all things design, creative workshops and art direction and I mainly focus on brand and digital strategy for clients so it doesn’t affect me in my day-to-day.

However, if I’m ever asked my opinion on a colour option, I’ll always give my opinion but make the other person aware that I’m colour-blind in case what I say is a bit odd. At school, I drew a purple sea and a brown Christmas tree, so you never know what might come out!

 If there was one thing you could change about your career, what would it be and why?

Gain more experience and a wider breath of experience before going into agency ownership, which probably would have saved some of the headaches and mistakes along the way. Having said that, if you wait too long there’s more to lose with mortgages and kids so being young had its advantages and I’ve lived to tell the tale with a successful business to show for it today.

Or to have been born in a different era without multiple recessions and a global pandemic to navigate!

What does success look like to you?

To be financially successful but to have enjoyed the ride with some great people along the way. I take a lot of enjoyment from seeing the younger team members learn and grow in their roles, so to see their successes is really rewarding and is what Impression is all about.

For the agency, I want us to be seen as the best in the North of England for branding, immersive, digital products and marketing. I’m a Libra and apparently one of our traits is to always be striving for the next best thing. To be the best is something I talk about a lot.

I look to hire the best, produce the best and be the best. It’s something we’ll always be striving to achieve, aiming to always go for better. Thankfully, I work with a lot of perfectionists who think in the same way!

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