How to Grow and Scale Your Creative Agency: From Barely Surviving to Successful and Thriving!

I was recently chatting with an acquaintance, the owner of a creative agency, about how things were going since his agency won some new business and he was able to expand his team. He was trying to explain, as an agency owner, how he felt about this change.

“People think we’re successful,” he said. “I mean, we are successful. I’m doing well, we keep winning new business, we’re able to hire great people and keep them employed. But I don’t know. It’s just…”

He didn’t need to finish his sentence for me to know exactly where he was going. I hear similar experiences from creative agency owners all the time. 

They’re often running businesses that many people would consider successful. But when you look beneath the surface, you often find something different.

“Just because an agency is successful doesn’t mean it’s thriving,” I said.

“You’re so right,” he said. “It feels like we’re just surviving.” 
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a common experience among agency owners. They’re frustrated, burnt out, uninspired, or checked out. Even if they experience some success, they feel disconnected from why they started the creative agency in the first place.

Signs You’re In Survival Mode

Sometimes it takes a second to recognize that you’re operating your agency in survival mode – especially because, as the agency owner above expressed, being in survival mode doesn’t always mean that your business is unsuccessful.

What it does usually mean, is that you’re probably not operating your agency sustainably. It’s worth recognizing the signs before you grow your creative agency any further. The more you grow, the harder it is to lift everything up and put a solid foundation in place.

Here are some of the tell-tale signs that your agency is just getting by:

  • You’re Wasting Time Looking For Stuff

You spend a significant amount of time every day or week trying to get information out of multiple platforms or your people. If you’re spending time looking for information, it means you’re not acting on that information.

  • Balls Are Dropping

If big errors are starting to happen in relation to client deliverables, billing or elsewhere, it’s a sign that something is up. 

I see this happen a lot with contract processes when a new client is signed. Your salesperson might know when a project needs to kick off, but your client services team doesn’t have the information they need. Once they do have that information, you’re already behind schedule. Then your finance team realizes that even though the job was sold weeks ago, a deposit hasn’t been paid. These communication breakdowns happening at multiple levels are usually a sign of a broken process.

  • You’re Constantly Reinventing the Wheel

If onboarding a new client or starting a new project feels cumbersome or like you’re starting from scratch every time, your team is wasting valuable time and energy. 

  • Burnout

This might sound overly simple but look at your team. Do they look tired? Do they look stressed? Overwhelmed? Exhausted? What is their body language telling you? When there’s so much that goes into keeping a business running, it can be easy to miss early signs that your team is heading toward burnout.

So What Makes a Thriving Agency?

In my experience with creative agencies (both directly as a producer and working with hundreds of agency clients through Function Point) the three elements all thriving agencies prioritize are: process, people and innovation.

Agencies that have these components working in lockstep can easily pivot with the changing market and attract new talent, experience healthy growth, and are more likely to be profitable.

While each element is important in and of itself, they are all interconnected. Changes in one area – positive or negative – have ripple effects across all three.

How Process, People and Innovation Intersect

“My people are miserable,” I’ll hear from an agency owner. 

When I dig into what’s causing their team’s unhappiness, I almost always find a lack of process is at the heart of the issues. When you don’t have processes in place, work can feel chaotic and frustrating for your people. 

Not having clear expectations is stressful, and a lack of ownership of processes leads to missed deliverables and deadlines. 

Without process, it’s nearly impossible to measure or track the amount of work your team is doing, and this often leads to over-servicing clients. 

Over-servicing clients cost you time and money, of course. But perhaps most concerning is the impact it has on your people. If a client is being over-serviced, your people pay the price. They end up stressed, overwhelmed, and overworked.

And a team approaching burnout isn’t capable of creative thinking. In survival mode, there is no space for innovation.

Resistance to Process

I work with a lot of creatives who immediately tense up when I start talking about operations and processes. There’s this idea that processes will stifle creativity. 

But what I’ve seen in reality is actually the opposite. When an agency prioritizes processes and people, innovation flows naturally. 

If you’re a growing creative agency owner who’s been resisting processes, it’s worth asking yourself,  “How innovative am I?” and “Is my team able to be innovative when we’re stuck in survival mode?” 

Effective process development isn’t just about documenting a process and forgetting it. Prioritizing innovation means regularly asking when it might be time to level up or level sideways and continually evaluating processes based on their ability to create space for creativity.

Setting up processes makes space for innovation by alleviating the stress of not knowing who should do what, when or where to find information or how to go about starting a specific project. 

How Do You Go From Surviving to Thriving?

If your agency is struggling to grow, there are a few things you can do to move out of survival mode and get back to doing the work you set out to do when you started the agency.

  • Look in the mirror.

It’s time to practice some radical honesty and look at the role you might be playing in your agency’s challenges. 

When I see agencies fail, there are usually two types of leaders at the helm. This first is the absentee owner. This is an owner who takes off without a solid foundation or the right people in place and expects the agency to run and grow itself. These agencies usually fail. If they haven’t failed yet, they’re bleeding money and working there isn’t enjoyable for anyone.

The second type of owner I see at the head of struggling agencies is the helicopter parent. They’re usually a more creative or entrepreneurial type who tries to manage the operational side of the agency, despite not being very good at it at all. The agency is their baby, and they don’t trust anyone to take care of it. Because they’re spending time trying to run the business, they can’t spend time on creative work. Neither side of the business thrives, and these agencies often end up failing.

Being brutally honest with yourself will help you see where you need to make changes and might need to enlist help.

  • Un-silo your work.

Un-silo is not a word, but I’m running with it here. If your teams are all working in silos, you need to un-silo them and create baseline standard operating procedures that connect the work of everyone involved. 

If your agency project management system, time tracking system and accounting software don’t work together, you may want to look into upgrading to something streamlined. Remember that if you’re not process-minded, a technology upgrade won’t be a silver bullet. Having the right person or team in place to help implement any technology you invest in is key.

Here’s the thing. I know that running a business wasn’t really what many creative agency owners actually dreamed of. If you’re like many, you started your agency because you had a unique vision for the work you wanted to put out into the world. 

So it’s not surprising if the minutia and monotony of running and growing an agency don’t light your fire. Assessing where your agency can start prioritizing its processes, people, and innovation will help you move from survival mode so you can build a thriving agency.

Function Point’s all-in-one agency management software helps creative agencies streamline operations and make better business decisions for thriving teams, happy clients & agency growth. If you’re interested in how Function Point could work for your agency and help it grow, let’s set up a time to speak

Victoria Fouke is the Director, Strategic Partnerships & Customer Advocacy at Function Point.

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