The problem with growth is that it’s a vicious circle

“I have a problem with growth.” Yes, lots of agency founders have said this before, but I don’t mean the problem you think.

Is your agency a victim of its own success? asks Max Tatton-Brown
Is your agency a victim of its own success? asks Max Tatton-Brown

When you ask about founders’ favourite time in the history of their agency, so many describe a point where they had a smaller team and remit.

And yet there’s a common feeling of ultimatum in this industry: grow or risk losing the key assets that got you there, particularly the team who hunger for promotion, pay rises, greater responsibility.

Growth feeds these needs but, unfortunately, it feeds the appetite too.

A business built this way becomes trapped in a circle and perhaps it’s no surprise they appeal to holding companies which exist to seek, own and add pressure to this infinite pursuit.

I’ve long believed there must be another way for agency founders. When the “easy” way out is so hard, it pays to think about an alternative.

Running in circles

Around 4th century BC, philosopher Epicurus observed how people in modern society seemed to run in circles – all the while unaware of the source of their unhappiness.

OK, you’re way ahead of me.

Yes, I’m saying this describes too much traditional agency work; a million account execs at a million ‘typewriters’, working on PDF reports, dumb dashboards and AVE nonsense for clients who may never even see them.

I think so many end up sick of agency life because they are run in circles like this, for growth that disproportionately rewards conglomerates, as if it’s the only way.

I think it’s time for an alternative take on the lifecycle of a successful agency; the real growth is depth.

Going deeper

One thing I learned working in restaurants is that a great business runs on captured processes that almost any idiot can do (as indeed, I did).

If too much time is spent going round in circles on repetitive tasks, we need to offload that repetition to better systems and software.

Furthermore, this should unlock value; more skilled opportunities, leading to more profitable work, less need for more mouths to feed and fewer – but fatter – brains, from more intentional practice on the kind of work that actually stretches you.

The longer you work on these systems, the better they become, the more time you save, the more they become a proprietary differentiator in measurement, efficiency and agency communication.

Even if you insist on writing press releases and pitching journalists, you must acknowledge that smarter tools now exist for these.

And everyone can improve areas like project management (check out Asana), documentation (Notion), communication (Sla— wait no, let’s stop with another endless IM that adds more cognitive load than email ever did).

Businesses are fragile, but one that gets stuck on building growth on a mountain of human bodies repeating the same futile gestures is more like a workhouse than what I know agencies can be - and that is genuinely one of the most exciting, intellectually challenging and valuable professions out there today.

Max Tatton-Brown is founder and managing director of Augur

Thumbnail image: ©GettyImages

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