5 unexpected lessons from growing an agency to £5 million income

27th May 2023 – by Paul Muggeridge-Breene, Thrive CEO

I always knew that rapidly growing an agency would involve a steep learning curve. But, I remember reassuring myself, I’d led major transformations before so, the curve wouldn’t be that steep, surely? I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The journey to £5 million income, across eight years, was an extraordinarily humbling learning experience. I see now that many of the biggest challenges were the ones I was least prepared for.

These are my top five unexpected lessons:

1. Agency growth brings far, far more challenges than you think it will

Actually winning new business was hard enough, but then managing the growth within the agency was difficult on a whole other level. In the beginning, all too often this led to stop-start growth, as attention was focused on the organisational and management challenges thrown up by the last round of growth, rather than on achieving yet more new business.

2. The challenges inherent in a growing agency can largely be anticipated and managed ahead of time

Through a combination of experience, reading, great advice and intuition, I started seeing patterns in the issues we were facing and was able to predict some of the next ones. Speaking to other agency leaders, it became clear that the major challenges are similar in all agencies, and generally occur at the same point in the growth journey. By calmly preparing for them before they arrived, the problems were minimised or even eliminated.

3. Agency growth is one long change management process

I’d been involved in change management in previous roles, but it had always been something organisations did when there were major one-off transformation projects. But ongoing growth means an agency is constantly changing. What works one week may need to be completely overhauled the next week, because the level of work has increased or the type of work a new client wants is entirely novel. Carefully managing this constant change was critical, and understanding the principles of change management was essential to successfully navigating it.

4. The vast majority of the challenges of agency growth involve people

Agencies are people businesses – ultimately, they sell people’s time and skill. And people are amazing, but they are also complicated. So, understanding what makes people tick – both on a general level and an individual level – is fundamentally important. Lots of the things people do are partially or largely unconscious, and these behaviours can sometimes be damaging or destructive. Being aware of this, and helping to make other people aware of it, is a key leadership skill for a rapidly growing agency. This can be challenging, time-intensive work at times, but is an incredibly worthwhile investment in your people and your business. 

5. You already know that planning ahead is important – but it’s much, much more important than you realise

Everyone knows planning in the workplace is a good thing. As a former TV journalist, planning ahead was burnt into my DNA. What do we run if the lead story isn’t ready? What’s our plan B if the satellite link goes down? So I thought I had this one covered. But I soon learned that agency growth required planning on steroids. There are just so many things to consider, and so many things that can trip you up. A question I used to ask frequently was “how would we do this if we were twice as big?” This often helped us get to a long-term solution, rather than a sticking plaster that would only  deal with the immediate challenge.

Needless to say, there were far more than five unexpected lessons on the journey to a £5 million agency! But these five were some of the most challenging, which ultimately gave me many of the most valuable insights into managing sustainable growth.

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.