Why so many agencies fall into the stop-start growth trap – and what you can do to avoid it

9th May 2023 – by Paul Muggeridge-Breene, Thrive CEO

All good agencies have a growth plan. As an agency leader, you know it’s critical to have a carefully structured roadmap to win new business and achieve specific targets. These plans often have one thing in common: a forecast of more or less continuous growth – a straight line on the graph heading ever upwards and to the right.

The reality is that, for most agencies, their experience of growth is much less smooth and far less predictable. Instead of that gloriously consistent line to ever-greater expansion, they only grow a bit, and then they stop growing – often for quite some time. Then they might grow a bit more. Then they stop again. And on it goes. This is the all-too-familiar stop-start growth trap.

Why is this such a common situation for agencies to find themselves in? All leaders know how important growth is for their organisation, and often it becomes the one goal that eclipses all others. What’s often missed is the fact that growth, while desirable in so many ways, creates organisational and management challenges for agency leaders. The more growth you achieve, the more challenges there are. And, before long, you can find yourself sidetracked, dedicating most of your time and energy to firefighting these secondary problems rather than maintaining a laser-like focus on growth.

Growth grief

Take an agency’s established workflows. They may be perfectly structured for the size of agency you start out with. But rapid growth can mean those workflows can no longer cope with demand. Work gets lost, deadlines get missed and, soon, clients start noticing. If this isn’t resolved quickly your best-case scenario is that you’ve burnt through some hard-earned client trust. At worst, your client walks away.

These problems can also eat away at an agency’s culture. If you suddenly find you no longer have enough staff to handle the new workload, existing employees can easily become unhappy and overwhelmed, and the quality of work starts to decline. Experienced team members might start to look elsewhere. It’s not hard to see how rapid growth can quickly flatline or even go into reverse. 

As an agency leader, you’ll have no option but to focus on solving these problems, and this inevitably means that momentum towards winning new business stalls. You won’t be able to focus on that until the issues are fixed.

And the risk is, having navigated all these challenges and regained that all important growth, the cycle soon starts all over again.

Mind the trap

The good news is that the stop-start growth trap can be avoided. To sidestep it, you don’t just need a growth plan, you need a growth management plan to sit alongside it. 

A growth management plan covers all of the organisational and management challenges that will inevitably emerge as you achieve your growth targets. It will also cover what you’ll do to manage or avoid those challenges. The vast majority of these problems can be predicted ahead of time, and so – with the right planning – they can be dealt with well before they become an issue that absorbs all of your attention.

The kinds of challenges you’ll face will depend on which stage of growth your agency is at, and where it’s headed. Some examples include:

• Agency structure: Will the way you’re organised still be suitable if you’re larger? Who will manage additional employees?

• Workflows and processes: How will work flow through the agency when there’s more of it? How will you ensure work doesn’t get missed?

• Recruitment or freelance requirements: How much work would you need to win to require new people? Are you measuring team capacity properly?

• Hourly rates: Are you charging enough for your work to be able to afford additional employees or contractor bills?

• Team morale: Is everyone on board for the growth journey? Growth and change can lead to all sorts of unconscious behaviours which can scupper the best-laid plans. How will you ensure this doesn’t happen?

There are many other areas to consider and prioritising which are the most important for a particular agency is a key task for its leadership. But, by pulling them all together into a comprehensive growth management plan, you’ll be able to avoid the stop-start growth trap and ensure you’re able to consistently dedicate your energy where it is needed most: achieving those all-important growth targets.

Paul Muggeridge-Breene is CEO of Thrive, a former agency MD, former international journalist and a member of the British Psychological Society. Please get in touch if you’d like to discuss how Thrive can help you.