25th Aug 2020 by Andrew Barr

15 years of running an agency, mostly badly. TLDR: The mistakes I made along the way

I always read these kind of “we hit X business milestone” blog posts and end up thinking, “bit of a vanity piece that”… yet here I am, doing one myself. We have just hit the fifteen year milestone and instead of just doing one of those “this is all the great stuff”, I thought I would focus on some of the issues we have faced, always down to the fact I don’t know what I am doing when it comes to running an agency.

The aim, as ever, is to try and help whoever is reading this to run their own business/agency/life far better than I have! I have tried to give real examples of the issues below, so it is not just theory theory theory.

1. Back yourself!

We should have backed ourselves more.

A little back story to explain why I feel we (business partner Jilly and I) didn’t back ourselves. We were both from an in-house background, me in Public Relations, her in design, SEO etc. We had historically both been told, indirectly, that what we were trying to do, by starting an agency, was hard for in-house people with no agency experience. We, foolishy, believed that advice and were very very cautious!

This meant that we were overly wary at the beginning; by this, I mean that we didn’t take office space for a year (if we had, we would have saved money on meeting room hire costs and I think it would have also given us that psychological “we are a real grown up business” feel). We also didn’t recruit staff quickly enough so we basically drowned in work and it cost us early clients. If we had hired quicker, I now see that we would have grown quicker.

Looking back now, I firmly believe that we would have hit our year five revenue figures in year one, had we hired faster and acted more like a grown up business.

2. Recognise your weaknesses fast and adapt accordingly.

My number one weakness, and this is one that everyone thinks they are good at, is that I am a terrible judge of character. About 6 or 7 years into making mistake after mistake at hiring people (apart from Shannon, she is next level), I finally realised I was the issue and I have now taken myself out of the hiring process completely.

In the more recent times that I have got drawn back into the hiring process I have once again shown horrifically bad judgement (one went on to do at least one drug deal in our carpark, the other was calling in sick within two weeks of joining!) so I need to keep myself away from hiring completely. I am the weakest link.

3. Business advice books can get lost.

Now, I know that most of us love a business advice book and I know they work for some of you, but hear me out. They are, by and large, full of rubbish and half truths. I have two exceptions… Jim Collins who writes brilliant business books (thanks to biz legend Nick Swan for the recommendation) and also E by Matt Beaumont which is a fictional book about agency life, but is very very relatable and true-to-life!

Back to the rubbish though… for example, if you think that books by the likes of Richard Branson, Terry Leahy or Michael Dell are going to share the actual truth of what they have done and share the warts and all side of how they grew their companies to where they are, then you are far too optimistic. These are sanitised versions of how they got their business so big. They are vanity pieces and they should not be taken as anything other than that.

I have had the pleasure of working with at least 10 former clients or “personalities” that have written business books on their success and only two of them have ever resembled anywhere near the truth.

4. Keep your focus.

In the early days of the business I was always jumping on the latest fad in public relations or looking at spin-off, none core, ways of growing our company. People like Nick Swan and Alan Moore (mentor, legend and accountant) really drummed into me the need to keep a focus on the core of what we are trying to achieve. Ignore the distractions, there will be plenty.

This is such a core value of mine now that I think I must annoy everyone with it. I’m not saying I was not the full ticket in the early days but I actually had a list called “People who’s car bonnets I would like to shit on” and these were people who had maybe annoyed me, slighted the agency, slighted a member of the team etc etc. I now just ignore it and sometimes, especially in very recent times, this is despite very severe provocation. In my defence, it drove me on “everyone hates us and I don’t care”. Turns out I did care and it was not that healthy at all. I tend to let it go now, he said whilst stroking his white fluffy cat.

5. Make the tough decisions fast.

I am terrible at this. I am good at spotting the issues, not so good at dealing with it.

So, so terrible at it actually, especially when it comes to staff. Being a small company, I feel like I know all of our staff really well. They are friends, they have families, they have their own responsibilities, so no matter how many issues an individual will cause me, I try and see the best. Sometimes that is not healthy for the business.

A staff member once, famously, called me a “fat balding c**t”. I since have lost weight, I choose to have my hair this short (no really, I am a scouser by heritage and I have VERY curly hair, so I shave my head), but I can’t really argue with their last point. I should have nipped that situation in the bud when it originally emerged but I let it drag on. This distracted me from the core goals we were working towards and caused a toxic environment for our wider team.

We now have a management team that address and deal with issues like this, so I don’t lead us down the same path… although I still do, occasionally.

6. Keep a tight eye on cashflow.

A really obvious one, but one that I still to this day struggle with! On paper we have a strong pipeline, a strong mix of projects and retainers and a healthy back story. The reality is always far removed from this due to cashflow. Bad debts have always been our problem. Again, I have been a soft touch. When people spin me a tale of why they can’t pay, I believe them. In short, they lie.

Also be wary of any company that wants longer than 30 day payment terms. Ideally we look for 14 days with a mix of payment up front or half way through a project, or a monthly retainer. When a big company asks for longer than 14 days (it is always the big companies) and they cite their size as an issue, I try to subtly drop in that we did a project with Apple and they said from day one that they try and pay every supplier within 7 days (and they did); and also AXA, when they were the 5th largest company in the world, said they tried to pay invoices within 5 working days (and they did).

Another few real-life examples of this (and us). A high street fashion brand that launched their own athleisurewear (not Superdry, they were ace!) came to us and paid the first three invoices fine. They then didn’t pay the next 6 invoices at all. They kind of built up good karma with us by paying the early invoices and being cagey about the debt building up. They never paid, despite all the threats of legal letters and legal action, they had no money left. They used the rest of our budget by taking a punt on hiring a global influencer for a stupid amount of money to do a few Insta stories and posts for them. This was against our advice, it didn’t work, and we lost a serious amount of money. They never said sorry.

7. Embrace the crazy!

I think this is more relevant to creative businesses than the more mainstream businesses. Creatives are hot headed, crazy, yet beautiful, people! I accept the fact there will be a staff blow up every now and again. At first I just thought we were an agency full of wrong-uns (lols, sorry) but the more courage I had to ask other agency owners about this, the more I realised, this passion actually helped and actually brought the team closer. I’m not going to give actual examples here ‘cos that would be harsh!

8. Don’t keep giving stuff away.

I still do this. It comes back to my personality type being that awful “must please people” sort. I love helping people. If anyone comes to me with a sob story or a situation where I can see how I can help them, I will do.

This is a good thing in some circumstances, but mostly it takes the agency away from fee-paying work and this is bad. COVID has been one of the best examples of this. I have been approached by SO>MANY>PEOPLE with a sob story or something they want to get out to the media that would save their business, that we have ended up giving away tens of thousands of pounds worth of free work, or at best, vastly reduced fee work.

9. Don’t ignore SEO’ing you own agency business.

If you knew just how much effort the team, and I personally, have invested in the SEO of our own site, you would be truly staggered. HOWEVER, it pays off. This point typifies the ‘keeping your focus’ point from earlier. Where in the past a story would reach me of so and so saying this about me or the agency and I would spend an hour plotting their demise, I now force myself to spend an hour working on how I can improve our rankings. Kind of like the brilliant IFTTT, but in real life!

Most people give up trying to rank for a target key word after three months, six months or a year. I don’t. I work hard with great guy Nick Swan to do whatever it takes to get us ranking 1-5, page one, for that term, and the results ALWAYS pay off. When a target keyword drops into the top five, page one, the phones ring and the new business emails come flooding in.

I guess this is giving away a bit of an agency secret that has worked for us but I know that very few people out there have the patience and drive that I do, in order to make our site rank. I really get the benefits. If you want to follow some other people who I know lead the way far better than I ever could do in this area, follow James Crawford at PR Agency One. He gets it!

10. Get yourself a sparkle crew.

Running a business can be a soul destroying, but also fantastic, way of life. Having a group of people around you who you can go to when times are tough, or even when times are brilliant, is really important.

I now have six people in my sparkle crew. They know who they are. The seventh was Zak Edwards who recently, and very very sadly, passed away. I have lost count of the times Zak and I spoke when either of us were in a situation where we felt the other could help, or just to generally chew the fat. I first met Zak at an affiliate event around 14 years ago. He was a great friend and I will miss him.

11. Don’t believe your own hype. In fact don’t believe any of the hype.

One of my favourite sayings is “this too shall pass.” I don’t just think this when times are tough, I also think it when times are brilliant. Yes, recognise your successes, but also, don’t take them for granted. Our agency has achieved so many amazing things that I never thought would be possible but I don’t dwell on them and when people say “do you remember doing XYZ”, most of the time it had slipped my mind. I am constantly pushing forward to the next big thing.

Some say this is not healthy and for some it may not be, but for me it works. There are many in the business world who give it the billy big bollocks, when really, in relative terms, they have achieved very little and I am from a background where this is just not the done thing.

Stay humble and never believe the hype. One of the very best (of many) tips that Alan (mentor) gave me was that you should be pushing your own marketing and sales funnel even harder when times are good and not just panicking and doing it when times are tough.

12.Never write an industry article that mocks a terror group. (Seems obvious when I type that header!)

Oh, Cameron Clarke from The Drum… I hold you fully responsible for this. Around 7 years ago I wrote a semi-regular column about the world of serious PR, from someone who had been there, done that and could take a cheeky look from outside. One week I wrote about a very clever UK government campaign that had successfully targeted a global terror network.

Little did I know that the terror network in question had “offices” around the globe and they were quite the organised bunch. They started sending me letters and propaganda, TO MY HOME ADDRESS. Suffice to say, conversations were had with people in the know, and it was decided that I should never write about things like that again. Note, all the names and details about this, apart from Cameron’s, have been removed!

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There we have it. Not all of this will work for you, nor will it work for everyone. I never ran a business before 10 Yetis and I have made so many mistakes that I could write a book on how not to run a business: Good luck to you all and thank to everyone who has played a part in the first 15 years!

PS, here is a video of Shannon and I, talking through the good the bad and the ugly of the last fifteen years...

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