Look forward to 2018 only when you’ve looked back at 2017

It’s that time of year again – when everyone is publishing their predictions for the new calendar year, a really valid exercise with loads of PR and social media exposure as we are all keen to get some sort of handle on what we can expect in 2018. However, I would like to take a slightly different approach and look back for 12 months as opposed to trying to look forward. Why? Well quite simply because I strongly believe there’s as much (if not more) value in looking back and considering where we’ve been and what we’ve learnt as there is looking forward and working out where we want to be – arguably you shouldn’t do the latter until you have done the former anyway!

So, here goes re my 5 learnings from 2017:

1. First and foremost it has to be the benefits of reflection – it is often said that the creative and digital agency world moves at the speed of technology, so what’s new today will be old tomorrow, this makes the pressure to stay in touch all consuming, therefore we are always looking at what’s gong to happen tomorrow and not at what happened yesterday. But, as mentioned in the paragraph above, we have so much to learn from what we have and haven’t done, and if we don’t gives ourselves time to reflect on what has gone by we will never learn from it.

I wish I could find the article I read (still trying to dig it out) that talked about the CEO who spent the last 15 minutes of every day looking back on his/her day both in the context of their goals for that day but also so that they could reflect on how the day has gone and what they have learnt.

2. The toughest challenge of 2017 – commercialisation. The most common thread or theme of conversations I’ve had this year with agency owners has been about making money. Somewhat ironically, most are really good at generating business from existing clients and some new business as well, but when it comes to delivering the work in a way that makes a profit then all bets are off. I used the word ‘ironically’ as it should be the case that new business and business development are the really hard bits, being efficient should be much easier – quite simply because agency owners are in control of operations, processes and the team responsible for delivering. But this appears not to be the case.

Now I’m not for one second underestimating how difficult the creative, production and development processes are, I’ve been involved in a couple of projects that have seriously over-run, particularly in development terms. The challenge is that doing work profitably requires discipline across people, processes and time – and discipline is not a word a lot of agency owners like as they see it as being counter to their culture(!).

So let’s turn it round and call it responsibility – everybody in a business has to take responsibility for the work they do, the quality of that work and the time taken to do it. If there is an issue then they just need to raise it promptly and then the business finds away of fixing it (more time, more budget etc). The agency owners have a responsibility to make sure that enough time is allowed to do the work, and the cost estimate is reflective of that time AND the value of the project to the client so that the agency makes a profit doing it. How hard can that be? 😉

3. And then people, and primarily Gen Y and Z. As more and more millennials start their working lives the realisation that they have very different attitudes towards work has become ever starker. They are much more concerned with feeling valued and appreciated, as well as doing varied and interesting work, than they are in money, and then it’s about the contribution they make and having a real sense of achievement. And let’s not forget that fact that many will have projects of there own that they will want to work on – admittedly in their own time but nevertheless they will have other ‘commercial’ interests.

If we then add in the fact that competition for young talent in the creative and digital sectors is unbelievably high – and not just from agencies but clients of all shapes and sizes as well as they take ownership of their digital development and transformation by building their own digital capabilities. All this means that agencies need to think very differently about how they recruit, as well as on what terms, if they are to successfully attract, engage, recruit and retain millennials.

4. Getting out of the reeds and focusing on the bigger picture – remembering your passion, mission and goals, everything needs pulling back to those things. As mentioned earlier, running an agency business is far from easy, and the day to day pressures of clients, projects and people can be all consuming, meaning that days, weeks and even months can pass without looking at business performance from both strategic and commercial perspectives. It is not uncommon to hear agency owners say ‘the last financial year just disappeared, work kept coming in about just needed doing, they took a couple more people to help cope with it all, but when the year end accounts came in they’d made less money that they did last!’

Making sure time is taken away from the day to day to review performance is absolutely critical – and this review works back to why you do what you do (your passion) and the mission and goals you’ve set for the business. Depending on the type, size, age and growth stage of the business this can be as frequently as fortnightly, more commonly monthly, but never less frequently than that.

5. And finally, the benefit of external support and input (of course I would say that wouldn’t I!!). There have been 2 watershed moments for me over the last 12 months, one where the owners of one of my agency clients told me that both the stretch target we set at the start of the year, and the fact that the business has hit the target without taking on another member of staff, has been down to the strategic and commercial discipline I have instilled in them and then them in the wider business.

The other was hearing an agency owner speak at an event I was attending where he said he could not have got his agency to the place it was without his Non Exec Director who has been a voice of calm, reason, direction and above all experience as his business has grown.

So only now I can look at what all this means for agencies in 2018, I would sum it up by 5 things – reflection, commercialisation, people, passion and external support, oh then plenty more reflection of course.

Have a great 2018.


This article was first published on LinkedIn