10 Agency Years – 10 Rules for Life

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10 years ago when I was in my late 20’s, living a rather fun and carefree life, I had a wild, crazy idea to start a marketing agency.

Looking back it’s hilarious how it all came about, as I had absolutely no idea what running an agency entailed, but I had this brilliant blind optimism and excitement that it would all be fun, straightforward and successful. 

So after lots of discussions, solicitors meetings, accountant meetings and business plans, Maze Media became a reality in August 2009.

10 years later, less carefree, slightly weathered with a few grey hairs and wrinkles, I decided it was time to reflect on the decade in business and think about what I would say to my younger self all those years ago. 

Running this business has at times been an absolute blast and at times it has made me cry. There has been so much laughter, but there have also been many sleepless nights. I have felt great pride and I have felt utterly frustrated. I’ve wanted to quit and then I’ve wanted to take over the world. I’ve loved days and I’ve hated days, so it’s fair to say it’s been a crazy but brilliant ride!

So other than the moments of pure unadulterated joy mixed with the many “shit what the fuck am I doing” moments, the past 10 years of running an agency has taught me to….. 

1. Be Brave 

When you’re brave you encourage others around you to be brave too 

I think this is such an important lesson I’ve learnt. 

Being brave is different for different people as it’s such a personal thing, but what it means is stepping out of your comfort zone and doing something that is scary, new or a little fearful to you. It’s very easy to be complacent, especially as you get older, and do the things you are familiar and comfortable with. But this doesn’t help you grow, or learn or push forward and challenge yourself. 

One thing that always terrified me was public speaking (and I bloody love talking!) but I had just got it into my head that I would be rubbish, have nothing interesting to say and would bore people. That made me build up anxiety around it. I knew I had to conquer this fear so I made it my mission last year to attend more speaking events rather than just say no whenever I was asked. And having now spoken at quite a few events I now love it – though it still terrifies me! Not only have I enjoyed it but I have been able to share knowledge with people, become proud of myself and it’s given me confidence in other areas of my life. It has taught me to get on and do things and reap the rewards after conquering something that is out of your comfort zone. 

I think it’s important to make a list of things you want to do that you are a little frightened of or anxious about so you can be brave and challenge yourself to get over your fears.  It’s such a positive thing to do for your own development and fulfillment, whether personally or for your career 

2. Be a Failure

There is no such thing as failure only learning experiences 

Some of the best things that have happened and I have learnt most from are my failures. It is healthy to mess up and learn from it and it’s something everyone needs to do. 

And boy, I have failed at loads of things (hiring people, business ideas, client projects, relationships, meeting some of my own personal goals) but everything has given me such valuable insight and helped to develop and shape me as a person as well as grow the business. 

To tie in with the idea of being brave I have learnt that if you are not brave enough to risk failure you are not going to grow and accomplish your goals/dreams.

3. Be patient 

When things don’t happen right away just remember it takes 6 months to build a Rolls-Royce and 13 hours to build a Toyota 

I am impatient by nature so this is something I am still working on, but it is a really important value to remember. 

We live in a world where everyone wants everything now! But to build a solid foundation for a business or a career it takes time and patience. 

I remember when the agency began I thought “yes this is it, it’s going to be the best agency in the world and we are going to get loads of cool clients and do amazing projects and make lots of money!”

But the reality soon hit home that all this was possible but it would take time, energy and patience, which I realised after a tough first year. One of our clients went into administration in that year, we discovered pitching and winning business was hard and recruiting the right people took a big time investment. We made a grand total of £81 profit in that first year! 

The reality and challenges of running an agency soon set in but we knew we wanted to build a good team, create amazing work, not seek investment and have no debt, so we took our time to build the foundations of something we were proud of and would work long term, reinvesting in the team and business each year.

It was rewarding that during the first few years we grew organically through recommendations and every year when we met our accountant he would say we were doing well and growing a good business. And yes we have done things slower than others, and we have certainly not been perfect, but at our 10 year point through the time and patience that has been invested we are in a strong position for the next 10 years – plus we are making a bit more than £81!

4. Be Different 

Don’t be afraid of being different, be afraid of being the same as everyone else 

It’s easy to look at others whether as a business or an individual and want to be like them, especially in the current world of social media. 

I was sitting in the communal area of our office and I overheard a guy chatting to someone who was soon to be going in front of investors with his new product. 

The guy said focus on Slide 15 – make this the wow factor, the point of difference. Everyone will have said the same things and investors will be bored of hearing the same things. Tell them something they haven’t heard before, that is different, that they haven’t thought of. Don’t be the same as everyone else. 

Sometimes being different doesn’t suit a client or a business but with so many people doing the same things in the same way, having the same skills, using the same tools and having similar experiences, it can be advantageous to embrace something different. Even if it’s just a different way to look at something or the way it’s presented. 

Another example of someone who was brave and different is the MD of our influencer agency Fluential, Harry Seaton. He really wanted a job with our group but he didn’t have any experience at the time in marketing as he was 17 and just out of school. 

He knew we were recruiting and understood that we were a creative group so decided to apply, not via the usual methods, but via a song (he is also a singer/songwriter) as his application. It really stood out and made everyone take note as it was brilliant and funny, different and creative – and he got the job! 

He didn’t have the same experience as others but we saw something in his bravery to be different and in his creativity to produce and edit the film so we knew he could become a big asset to the business. Today he is MD of our influencer agency so that was a good decision! Had he sent in a CV and it had been in the pile with all the others and looked the same as the others I’m not sure he would have got the job.

5. Be Balanced

Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life – Dolly Parton

I wrote an article a few months back about this after my wife and I had a baby. This really made me take stock of my work-life balance.

In this article I talked about how something my wife Sarah said to me while I was off to help look after our new baby. It hit me really really hard and made me think about my life and whether I had a good grip on my work/life balance.

She said: “It’s been so nice to have you back” which made me think about all the hours I spend at my screen, distracted or away for meetings. 

She has never resented this. She knows how passionate I am about what I do and how much I love throwing myself into work. But it did make me realise I needed to figure out how to get a more balanced life. I still love my work and the challenges it brings but I am not lost in it all of the time and enjoy time with my family so I don’t miss our son, Caspian, grow up. 

Time is what is most valuable to us, it is our currency. So we have to spend our time wisely doing the things that matter. 

I also believe the workplace has to play a part in helping with the work/life balance. We are structured so everyone has alternative Fridays off to enable people to have long weekends and recharge or spend valuable time with their friends/family, along with offering flexible working and Wednesdays working at home. 

Sadly there are increasing working hours and stress in the world of work today, so the goal to be healthy and make a happy, meaningful life should be on the top of everyone’s agenda

 

6. Be Honest 

Being honest may not get you many friends but it will always get you the right ones – John Lennon

During the 10 years we have Interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people and worked with a lot of clients and although it may sound like a silly thing to say, honesty really is something we instill in our agencies and teams. 

In my 18 years in marketing I’ve seen agencies wanting to please the client at all costs, creating a blame culture in the business, or outright lying to win business. None of these sit comfortably with me and they are things I have always vowed to never allow to happen in our businesses.

I do believe that if you want longevity with clients and respect from colleagues, honesty has to be a key value. 

7. Be Curious

When you are curious you find lots of interesting things to do – Walt Disney 

I am so curious about everything and I’m at my happiest when I’m learning something new, meeting new people, traveling or exploring new places. 

Curious people and curious businesses who take the time to really understand the client or industry, delve into it and care about it, make the most successful people/agencies. If you are genuinely interested, you ask questions and you want to understand something new then you gain more knowledge, build new and better relationships, generate more ideas, make better campaigns and develop careers. 

Curiosity will open up opportunities and help with learning and confidence. 

8. Be Buzzword Free

Purpose of language is communication

Don’t ever say the word synergy to me! EVER. Yuck. Shitty marketing buzzwords make my skin crawl.

Why are people trying to convey complex ideas with buzzwords? 

Some of the annoying words that often appear in emails or calls I receive from people: 

Synergy

Touch Point

Blue Sky Thinking

North Star

Radical Transparency

360 degree solution

 

Go away. 

9. Be positive

Being positive won’t guarantee you will succeed but being negative will guarantee you won’t. 

After moaning about annoying buzzwords I will ironically talk about positivity! 

In an agency you face hurdles all the time and it would be easy to sink into a deep depression or cry when something bad happens but there is always a solution to a problem or an issue. We try to not look at the negative and get stressed about it or moan about it but to look at how it could be resolved, or how we can find a solution, or spot where a new opportunity lies. 

Positivity is a mindset. I love this quote by Lao Tzu:

“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

I recall a few years ago being told to wake up every morning, drink a large pint of water and smile. You can trick your mind into being more positive through smiling. A smile is so easy to do and this simple act, even if you don’t necessarily have anything to smile about, can instantly change the way you feel internally.

So I always try to smile throughout my day and smile at people when I’m out and about. It’s amazing how your mind reacts to a smile. Smiling each day at colleagues, or strangers is a simple easy thing everyone can do to help shift to a positive mindset. 

10. Be Yourself 

Be yourself, everyone else is already taken – Oscar Wild

Something I have definitely learnt is to avoid trying to be someone else or modelling myself on someone else

In this era of social media it’s essential to block out the noise. We don’t need other people to validate us. 

I recall in my 20’s being so worried about how I was perceived, thinking everyone was better and more successful than me, I wasted so much time worrying about it or trying to live up to a certain ideal. 

And it’s all bullshit. Modern society is set up to compare ourselves to other people. But people project a lifestyle or an idea of what our lives should be. It’s fake. 

The less I’ve cared about other people or what they think of me the more confident in myself I have become.

We had a big pitch at a TV company a few years back and one of our designers asked me if he should wear a suit and cover his tattoos (he never did this). I said dress how you normally dress and don’t worry about trying to impress others with what you think they want to see or being someone you are not as you will feel uncomfortable and unnatural. Be you, If they don’t like us for being us then they are not people we want to work with. 

The more comfortable you are with being you and the more true to yourself you are, the more you will blossom and be respected for who you are. 

So these are the ten key values I would talk to my twenty-something year-old self about. Maybe if I knew some of these then I would have a few less grey hairs and a few less wrinkles! 

Life is short so enjoy it. Be brave and accept you will make mistakes but they will be amazing learning experiences. Don’t wish for everything today, take your time to grow and develop as a person and in your career. 

Have a curious mind to discover all the wonderful things this world has to offer.

You are unique so differentiate yourself in this crowded world.

Make a life that’s worth living not a life that is only dominated by your career at the expense of your family, friends, health and happiness. 

Be honest, smile and surround yourself with positive people. 

And most importantly be you. You are the only you in the world so enjoy that privilege!