Gut Checks and Guardrails: 6 Ways to Stay Small When Your Agency Gets Big

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Staying small minded. Credit: iStock

I've always hated that expression, "Good problem to have." When heard by those less fortunate, it's hard to imagine a more pretentious statement. Get over yourself. But admittedly, the phrase has found its way to my lips more than once recently only to be choked back and replaced with something like, "Yeah man, things are good." Oh, the humanity.

No matter how many sneers it evokes, agency growth can still be a legitimate problem, and as the stakes rise, one that needs to be handled with the utmost care. As independent shops succeed and grow bigger, they are often in danger of losing touch with the intimate, unique culture that defines them. There's no script for handling these types of things as every business is different, but there must be gut checks and guard rails, no matter what the cost, to keep the good times rolling.

Here are a few strategies for staying small and true while everything around you is getting bigger:

Don't assume that everyone is jazzed
In a perfect world (or in this case a perfect agency) all team members from top to bottom do back flips when new business comes in or senior hires are made. Truth is that growth impacts everyone differently. For some of the folks in the trenches, success simply translates to more work. It sucks, but it's true. Others may feel that they joined a small agency for certain reasons and fear that growth will change things for the worse. Some simply may want to know "What does it mean for me?" Growing pains are real, so go out of your way to make everyone feel the love.

Be selective - You're only as good as the company you keep
Every agency has a client or two that isn't an ideal fit and that has widespread impact on agency morale. Why are we working our asses off for these clients that just plain suck? Maybe you had to before, but not anymore. Nothing positively impacts morale and shows the benefits of growth more than proactively trimming the fat by saying "No thank you." Even better, spend some time talking to your people to find out who their dream clients are and go after them.

Invest in gamechangers
If there are core pieces missing in your executive team puzzle, now may be the time to invest. I'm talking about next level hires -- PR-worthy power moves that set you up for continued growth, potentially diversified service offerings and new revenue streams. Growth may not last forever, but you have a better shot if you're investing in seasoned professionals that help you determine what's next and how to get there. CAUTION: Take your time, find the right fit. Hasty hires of magnitude can be damaging. Resumes and skill sets are easy but finding someone that you'd want to have a beer with may not be.

Take advice, keep growing
Others have done this before you. Lots of them. Swallow the pride, embrace knowledge, and learn from history. It's great to smell the roses once in a while, but always be looking forward.

Always be looking for talent
Hire them even if you don't have an immediate slot open. Not every company has this luxury but it beats the alternative of settling for a B+ later on out of necessity. Finding someone at any level with skills, hunger and aligned cultural beliefs is not easy, so scoop them up when you can. Figure out where to put them later.

Or tacos maybe? Cold pressed juice? Whatever suites your fancy. Every Friday afternoon at Crossmedia, we stop work and eat burgers together. It gives everyone from president to intern a chance to toast accomplishments, chit-chat about life and just slow down for a bit. Carving out time to celebrate the culture that defines you reinforces why folks continue to work and thrive. Whatever your secret sauce may be, it's vital to find ways to make your staff say, "I can't imagine working anywhere else." Not sure if it's working? Have a look at your retention rate overlaid with your growth trajectory. If it's sagging, you're doing it wrong.

Successfully growing business is in itself a tremendous feat. Doing it in style and with character is extraordinary. Hold on tight to the secret sauce, the swagger, the love, whatever it is that differentiates you in the vanilla sea of agencies. If you lose it, it's almost impossible to recover.

Ray Valcich is group director of business development at Crossmedia

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