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What we Learned in 2019

12 more months. 10 more lessons. Note to self – learn faster next year.

1. Culture is a seed

On day 1, our culture was defined by the 5 people that started the business. It wasn’t catalogued or codified, nor was it until we started recruiting in earnest.

And once we’d hired the first, few intrepid folks that have since become our longest-tenured team members, we overcompensated for what we perceived to be a lack of culture. We organised regular dinners and drinks and events as a group to ensure people didn’t feel neglected (we’re believers in the inclusive nature of food & drink) and to close the gap between employer & employee.

Then, one day, outnumbered, we woke up to a new, rewarding reality: Our team had organised a lunch with each other and without us. Drinks, dinners and events followed. We had – as all successful consultants will no doubt have foreseen – made ourselves redundant.

Now, we organise a few events per year (look out for our second annual Eurotrip in 2020), order lunch for the team each week and invite whoever we can when our clients have an event.

Culture, of course, is far more than an occasional gesture or a sponsored night out. But 2019 provided us with the realisation that it could germinate and grow without our intervention.

2. Strategy is a direction

Starting up: ‘How the hell do we do this?’

Scaling up: ‘How did we figure it out last time?’

The challenges are no-less steep, but you’ve been scaling them for a while now.

So, it’s tempting to think that you have your shit together and can store your best-laid plans in a neat, chrome carry case, ready to break out when you need them (with a stylish sense of elan).

However, the terrifying reality is just-about-every-business is in a constant state of flux, particularly those in an agency model. New clients, new sectors, new recruits, new legislation, new…you know where this is going.

We’ve tried to embrace this since our inception and build the business around uncertainty (what other options were there in 2019?), constantly interrogating briefs and processes from project-to-project.

And while we feed the flame of necessary efficiency with numerous spreadsheets, reports, charts, tactical plans and supportive software, we’re guided by the data and diligence they provide today, not defined by them for our shared tomorrows.

3. Space is irregular

We’re onto our third studio. Like many agencies, and just about everybody in Shoreditch, we work in an open-plan environment.

Our team are united by sightlines, Spotify playlists and tea runs. But they’re divided by the stage of work they’re invested in: Some starting, researching and finding references, excitable and speculative. Others, locked behind the heavy gate of deep thinking, blinking angrily at anybody that dare interrupt their synthesis.

This, of course, is a fluid, kinetic affair, with teams working through tasks and challenges, colliding as they do.

We’ve learned to reorganise, to embrace change and to look for signs of impending rotation.

No, it hasn’t been easy.

4. Progress is a staircase

In our naïve, vain imaginations, the seductive whisper of new-business-won or a new-team-member-hired is a panacea; a cure-all for any and all ailments.

In reality, solutions come with additional challenges: Larger jobs require more resource. New team members require training and support. Even if actuality could keep up with the fantasies conjured by our dreamy minds, it would still never be a straight line from A-to-B.

Our business is defined by legacy commitments; the jobs we’re working on and the processes we’ve instituted. And you cannot reap the full benefits of the new tasks, new team members and new systems – the next step – until the entire business are working to the new standard. By which time – you guessed it – your other foot is now trailing awkwardly over the step behind.

5. Value creation is the job

We have some agency friends that we catch up with and (try to) buy lunch for (come on guys) in exchange for nuggets of information (let us pay next time huh?) gleaned from many more years on the job than we’ve had (seriously).

It’s helped. A lot.

And one of their earliest instructions was to get away from the day job ASAP. That our value was tied in leading the business and guiding others rather than the granularities of the daily task.

Such advice can be easy to misinterpret. A logical-but-flawed step may result in being too distant, too few and too far, or the suffocating alternative.

As a group, we’ve edged towards both extremes during 2019. But we’ve learned to take stock and ask a stark question of ourselves whenever our sense of direction inevitably fails: What can I do create the most value?

It’s a conflicting ask. One of the prime motivations to flee employment and financial security in favour of starting from scratch is the notion of agency and corresponding fulfilment. ‘I started this business to do what I want to do’ screams an indulgent synapse whenever confronted.

We all resort to our dark, well-trodden comforts when strife strikes; the jobs that we can do with our eyes closed and our vision slammed firmly shut. To train yourself to do the hard job, the ‘I don’t know how to do this’ job or the ‘I need to stand up in front of people and probably look like a fucking idiot’ job are not why people start companies. But it’s definitely what keeps you in business.

6. An introduction is worth 1,000 words

Brand building might be a declining construct in creative lands, but it’s what we preach to our clients over the often shouty, stunt-y stuff.

Us humans – no segmentation in this post – want to feel the organic thrill of discovery. We renege on a contract delivered by the loud-but-unproven and associate trust with the consistent-and-clear. We need to see and hear and touch and feel something over and over and over to believe in its life-changing authority.

But that’s not to say it cannot be bypassed. A warm introduction from a trusted party can catapult your proposition to first choice. But we knew that last year.

In 2019 we learned that, just because a few more people know you, you cannot forget to introduce yourselves, what you do and why it matters.

We’re in year 3. We know the drill. We can recite the words intelligibly and precisely. This past year taught us the value of doing so.

Steps into the unknown rely on a high degree of trust.

7. The relationship is what matters

We’re hired to undertake an invasive task that prompts upheaval. It can change how teams work and what they work towards. It could result in an echoing series of steps backwards before the sound of the first advancing step is heard.

Steps into the unknown rely on a high degree of trust. And trust is built on reliability, communication, transparency and shared values; they coalesce into a relationship that, accompanied by great work, provides a platform for change.

In an agency model, it’s rare that you’ll work on a single project or with a single client ongoing, day after day. Timelines are fractured by feedback and rotating resource. Weeks may pass and the project – the invasive task with the upheaval that’s prompting all this terrifying change – may not have resulted in tangible evolution.

So, what do you have? The relationship. It’s the 365-day-a-year job you signed up for when you said ‘you can trust us.’

Simply, we are, like everyone else, in the relationship business.

8. A brief is a compass

We work on transformational projects (see above). They take time. There are a number of projects in the studio right now that have been in motion for over a year.

What keeps us connected to the challenge and the goal? A couple of typed pages that precede every new job: A brief.

All the workshops, research docs and brand guidelines build on the brief. All the big ideas, haphazard ‘what ifs?’ and strategic insights build on the brief. All the team members that touch the task build on the brief.

It took us a while, but in 2019, we learned to build the brief.

Change is reactionary more-often-than-not, propelled by the unembellished truths that stare back at us in life’s glaring mirror.

9. Business is not always on your own terms

For all the best-laid plans, enterprises large and small are fragile. Because people are fragile.

We err and waiver and strike new paths. And our individual vacillations and hesitations and oscillations reverberate through the collectives we’ve become assigned to. As we change, so does the fabric of our business.

New team members take time to adapt to new surroundings. They’re likely to keep their personal lives to themselves and, as a result, can seem delightfully two-dimensional and compliant in their early tenure.

Once settled, of course, their personalities peek out from behind their trained veneers. They get comfortable. They share. And their personal lives no longer take a back seat to your commercial goals.

Change is reactionary more-often-than-not, propelled by the unembellished truths that stare back at us in life’s glaring mirror. It drives people to uproot and collapse their lives in dramatic fashion. It can be exhausting in effort and time and friendship.

Whatever the genesis of your business, and whatever the unspoken pact you signed up for with your fellow founders, the things that people hold the dearest – the things they work for in their personal lives – will dictate the path as much as any preconceived plan.

10. Business is an investment in other people

Founding, running and driving a business are hard tasks. They take a real toll on your life.

5 of us founded this business, so that’s 4 other people to rely on and be thankful for sharing the load. It’s also 4 people to think about, care for and help.

We’re ‘client-in’ rather than top-down, but we’re team-first. Nothing has been more important to our success thus far, and we’ve learnt that nothing ever will be.

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Forty Eight Point One - A photoshoot in a vineyard