How to Keep Your Small Agency Values Even as You Grow

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Sara Steever
Sara Steever



small-agency-growthWhen I started as an artist at Paulsen, I worked alongside 10 other people. We worked our tails off, and it was not unusual for us to have stretches of time where we put in evenings, weekends, and holidays cranking out work for our clients. We were a pretty tight team, and didn’t let each other down.

Today (23 short years later), we are a group of 36 people, and guess what? Sometimes we work evenings and weekends (not quite as many holidays) cranking out work for our clients. Are we still a pretty tight team? Good question.

What Growth Can Do

Agencies are either growing or shrinking. Eventually, you will lose every one of your clients. If you don’t have a new business program prepared to replace them, then you are faced with the great unpleasantness of shrinking. If your new business efforts are successful, then you will have periods of growth — sometimes very dramatic ones.

While there are many great arguments for staying small, growth might come anyway. You may find growth has negative side effects: agility becomes elusive, financial risk grows, and leadership is forced to focus solely on the business of business. You personally lose what you thought made you valuable, and your staff may believe that your “small” agency feel is gone – but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Why Is Small so Cool?

In my experience, these are the things team members value that are tied to agency size:

  • Voice – I’ve got the ear of leadership.
  • Worth – The work I do makes a big contribution.
  • Context – I understand why and therefore make better choices.
  • Variety – I wear a lot of hats.
  • Autonomy – I am trusted to make decisions.
  • Team – I’m seen as a person, and people depend on me.

This personality profile is a great fit for a small agency – which is why growth, or the prospect of growing, is so disruptive to team members at small agencies. Growth means that every one of these values is at risk.

But this doesn't have to be the case. Every one of those six values can grow as you add to the team. You need an intentional approach. Here's how:

Pining for the Past

This may sound silly, but get rid of that attitude that things were perfect back in the day. They weren’t, and you aren’t leading your people into a bright future when you are staring nostalgically into the rearview mirror. Your only obligation to the past is to learn from mistakes, and build on successes.

Controlled Growth

Your new business process should be targeting prospects that are the right size and have the right needs to fit a small increase in staff. If you move from 10 to 15 members overnight, that 50% growth will be very disruptive, even if you have a sound onboarding process.

Controlling growth is difficult. Our agency did the unthinkable a few years back when we walked away from an account that would have required us to add 40% more people almost overnight. Don’t think we took that decision lightly. Ultimately we helped launch a separate agency to take over that account. We knew our other clients and staff would have suffered while we expanded, so we opted out. Today we are close to that size anyway, but it was much better for all parties involved to grow more slowly over a multi-year period.

Controlling growth makes scaling small agency values feasible.

Leadership Should Be First to Change

As an agency grows, the responsibilities of leadership change. The values listed above may have existed in your small agency because, frankly, leadership did not have time to pay attention to staff. Here’s how leadership for growth treats those values – and preserves the best of the small agency:

  • Voice – Make time to listen to staff formally and informally. Formally meet at least once a month, and informally get out of your office, and find opportunities to listen. This cannot be accomplished passively. When you grow beyond the ability to do this alone, train leaders that can assist, then listen to them. This means relinquishing control, but the satisfaction of seeing your new leaders succeed is your new role.
  • Worth – As staff is added, team members have to learn to share the spotlight, or may not have as much access to the plum work. Communicating the value of all of the work becomes more important and needs to happen intentionally. This is one area that can benefit from a systematic approach. As the agency grows, leadership can be siloed away from some client work. Be methodical in understanding and celebrating all work.
  • Context – This also requires a system to augment what happened naturally in the past. Learn how to provide context early on when it has the most benefit. Well-written creative briefs or large team kick-off meetings become a substitute for first-hand knowledge or informal conversations.
  • Variety – This is a tough one to control if you’ve acquired a few large clients instead of several small clients. Clients don’t like paying for new team members to get up to speed on their account, so moving team members around is tough. Some team members will embrace growing their skill set as a way to keep things interesting, but leadership needs to foster those opportunities.
  • Autonomy – Empower people as much as possible, and instill that in the next level of leadership, through systems that provide the checks and balances you need to feel comfortable. Micromanaging thinkers who’ve already passed the 10,000 hour mark isn’t the best use of your time, and it is soul-crushing for them.
  • Team – As people are added, teams will form naturally or of necessity in order to get the work done. If you can mix teams up to work on different clients, your culture will be less siloed. If that’s not possible, then pull individuals together to work on projects for the agency like internal event planning or plan the flow of traffic in the building for more informal interaction.

Hire Right and Onboard Well

Growth puts tremendous pressure on making the right hires. Talent and skills are obviously important, and can even be quantified. However, a cultural fit can mean as much to teammates as capabilities. Involving affected staff in part of the interview process can take the pressure off leadership, and the buy-in will ensure a better outcome.

As new members join your team, the onboarding process will set the stage for their success. When a new team member starts at our agency, her first day or so is spent in 15-30 minute increments getting to know everyone on the staff. Sometimes this happens in groups, and sometimes it is just meeting with individuals. Everyone shares their role at the agency and a little about their personal life.

New members are then assigned a Paulsen Guide who will meet with them weekly for six weeks and take them to lunch a couple of times (on the agency). The guide is a veteran employee with a different role that can share the culture and answer questions about navigating the office.

Our agency’s culture never shines as much as when we are there to support a team member during a tough time. We genuinely hope our staff never has to experience us at our best! Those stories need to be shared by the individual who’s had that experience, not by leadership.

Formalizing to Preserve Informality

The common thread through all of this may seem counterintuitive, but as the agency grows, management must become more intentional. Moving from informal processes to formalized systems brings profitability and efficiency to the agency as it grows, and it gives an opportunity to bake in aspects that preserve small agency values.

Are we still a pretty tight team? We have our moments, but we consistently do amazing work, we respect each other, and we have each other’s backs. And that’s the agency I’ve always known.

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