Small Agency Conference and Awards

If I knew then what I know now, all 95 of us would be working from my living room

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We set some ambitious goals for Proof when we launched in 2010, and we've had some real victories pursuing them. We took some risks that paid off early. Our culture is solid. Our work has been recognized each year. We have had several small agency awards come our way. And our topline revenue has more than doubled in size over the past seven years.

Bryan Christian, President, Proof Advertising
Bryan Christian, President, Proof Advertising Credit: Bryan Christian

That said, I wish my future self would have warned my past self to make different choices when it comes to fixed costs — mainly, our office space.

We have pretty cool offices right smack in the middle of downtown Austin. We have a huge deck we use for quick meetings, happy hours and agency gatherings, and can walk to a seemingly endless amount of bars, restaurants and food trucks. But we pay out the ass for that proximity, and always found ways to justify the expense.

We even expanded when we could still add another 15% to our headcount in our existing space! (What were we thinking?)

When we added the additional floor four years ago to facilitate future growth, we spared no expense. The build out was great. The conference room setup allows us to hold agency-wide meetings inside vs. offsite. And the building uses our floor to show off the potential of the space to future tenants. For the next several years after this expansion, we were in a topline revenue growth spurt and the decision to add this entire floor before we needed that much room kind of just came out in the wash.

But then you come upon those times when clients are cutting budgets (times we all experience as small agencies) and you start having to deal with the ramifications of corresponding revenue decreases. And whenever that happens, the hefty lease cost on the agency income statement is the one line item that just keeps staring me in the face. It would slap me if it could. And there I sit struggling to figure out crafty ways to cut costs without cutting my most valuable asset, my people.

Clients will always cut budgets. Clients will always move on. Sometimes you can even help them get too successful and they get acquired and rolled into some holding company's agency system. (The whole "help 'em get successful and suffer the consequences" is another learning altogether.)

But if I had the chance to do it all over, I would probably have found space outside of the downtown core in the first place. Sure we would have had to work a little harder to seek out interesting lunch spots...we might even have had to get in a car! I would also have rearranged the our existing footprint before jumping into an expansion as there's simply no easy undo button once you take that on (no matter how many times my kids suggest I make it an Airbnb).

All coulda shoulda's aside, we'll always have our downs, and then we'll come back with a client win or two that push the margins back up to a level that disguises our perhaps frivolous decision to build shop in a historic building, right in the center of downtown Austin in the first place. But that's my old self talking.

Bryan Christian is President of Proof Advertising in Austin, Texas.

Want to hear more about how to get around small agency growing pains? Sign up for our Small Agency Conference and Awards, to be held July 17 and 18 in Marina del Rey, California. Tickets and more information are available here.

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