If you had told me five years ago that I would have been attending networking events to share ideas with the directors of other creative agencies, I’d have been surprised.
Sharing business solutions with other senior managers, who could potentially be rivals, sounds counter-intuitive at first. But groups that bring together leaders of similar businesses have started popping up everywhere – and actually I’m a big convert. In the Cambridge area, Mob Happy was set up by Kelly Molson, who runs Hertfordshire design agency Rubber Cheese. Its Mastermind Sessions bring together agency owners to share their experiences, with a view to increasing the number of women who own agencies. Currently, only 23 per cent of agency owners are women, which is shocking when you think how many women there are in the creative industry. And Mob Happy is seeking to change that.
There is also a Mob Happy Freelance Meetup, where those just starting out – men as well as women – can listen to a panel of experts talk about how to grow a small company, and other issues that start-ups are likely to face.
Not everybody is a competitor
Sometimes as a leader of a business you can feel quite isolated and it is worth trying to find people in like businesses and like industries with whom you can be completely open and honest, share issues, find opportunities and learn from each other. Not everybody’s a competitor and it’s about recognising what you can gain and being open with your own story. We all share the same pain points and there is no need to talk about confidential or commercially sensitive information in order to bring some useful experience to the party.
I was asked to join the panel at September’s Mob Happy Meetup. Kelly asked the panel questions about growing an agency and about some of the difficulties of leadership. Leadership can be quite lonely at times. You have to be very resilient. And you want your staff to think of you as a friend, but sometimes you have to make difficult decisions for the benefit of all those friends – but it may not look like that to them at the time.
Deciding when to hire
It can be a challenge to recognise the right time to hire people. The point I made is that you don’t want to wait until you’re over-burdened before you do it. If you want to grow the business, you want to hire first so you have capacity in the business, but that can feel quite frightening. You need to make decisions about what level of capacity you need and how much risk you are willing to take. But you don’t grow without taking risks.
Another question was whether I hire for expertise or for particular qualities. At a more senior level we would hire for expertise at KISS – there is a lot of added value in that. But at a more junior level, you hire for curiosity and passion, and a desire to be in the industry. Junior staff members will build their expertise and they will identify what they want to be expert at. Cultural fit matters too, whatever level you’re hiring at. That’s down to gut feel and we like to make sure that a job candidate meets several people from the agency, not just senior managers.
Location vs affordability
Another issue the panel was asked about was identifying the right time to get an office or move offices. Rent is probably the second biggest overhead in any business, after salaries. Location vs affordability is a decision that some businesses have to make and those sort of choices depend on the kind of business you want to be. We definitely want to be a Cambridge business, so for KISS our city location was crucial. Being in a barn out in one of the villages was something we considered at one time, but it just felt really sleepy. Of course, other businesses might suit rural locations really nicely.
At KISS we are very transparent about our financials with our staff. Every quarter we present the figures and talk through what this means to the company. Some people will engage with the numbers more than others, but it helps everyone to see how their day-to-day work contributes to the bigger picture.
I have also met other agency owners for a drink or for lunch – these sorts of get togethers don’t have to revolve around formal gatherings. It has been great to have the opportunity to share ideas and experience with other people in a similar situation to me. If you feel isolated as a leader, whatever industry you’re in, then finding like-minded people and sharing insight can be affirming and educational. We all have the same pains, so why not share those pains? It’s more about collaboration. And usually you’re going to get further by collaborating than you are by grandstanding.
No business leader is an island, but it can feel like it when you’re pouring over management accounts with a furrowed brow while your employees head off to the pub. If this sounds like you, then talking to other leaders who are in a similar situation could help give you a fresh perspective. You may find meetups similar to Mob Happy in your area – a problem shared is a problem halved, after all.