The 4 critical hurdles agencies face on the way to £5 million income – and how to clear them

20th June 2023 – by Paul Muggeridge-Breene, Thrive CEO

For an ambitious agency, winning new business is invariably a cause for celebration. But agency growth is also always accompanied by a range of challenges – some small and easily fixed, some large with the potential to knock even the best-laid plans off course.

There are certain times in the growth journey when the challenges thrown up coalesce into critical hurdles, which have to be cleared for further growth to be possible. They involve complex issues around people, structures and processes, and it’s all too easy to get tripped up by them – leaving you flat on your face and your objectives in tatters.

But if you get a clear view of the hurdles ahead of time, you can prepare for them and be ready to make clean jumps right across – leaving you and your agency in rude health and free to continue achieving your growth targets.

Jumping ahead 

Thankfully, these hurdles occur at broadly similar points for most agencies, making it entirely possible to build them into your growth management plan.

The journey to £5 million of fee income – a figure that represents a key goal for any agency with its sights set on growth – involves four of these hurdles. And, although the exact timing of each hurdle will differ slightly by agency, they roughly coincide with the achievement of each additional million pounds of income.

Hurdle 1: Letting go (~£1m fee income / 10-20 people)

Key challenge: The founders can no longer manage everything on their own. Even if additional managers have been recruited, properly delegating work and letting go enough to make creating those roles worthwhile is a challenge and can be hit and miss.

To clear this hurdle, founders need to work hard on letting go. This sounds easy but actually accepting that letting go is required can be complex and difficult work. Once that’s been achieved, the founders need to be clear with themselves and the wider team about the work they will and won’t be doing, recruit the right people, trust them to do what they’ve been hired to do, and learn how to delegate properly.

Hurdle 2: Building structure (~£2m fee income / 20-30 people)

Key challenge: The agency’s organisational structure and workflows are no longer fit for purpose. There’s too much work for the existing systems, and employees are confused by the structure. Work gets lost, deadlines are missed and clients and employees become unhappy.

To clear this hurdle, the agency needs to determine and implement the optimum structure and workflows. This should be a significant piece of work. To help ensure solutions are for the long term rather than just sticking plasters, leaders should imagine the agency twice as large as it is currently. The agency also needs to be really clear on which person or team will handle each task, etc.

Hurdle 3: Managing people (~£3m fee income / 30-40 people)

Key challenge: The agency’s approach to people management is no longer sufficient. People issues get louder and more frequent, and start to dominate time and attention across the business – particularly for managers. Company culture is damaged, productivity and quality suffer, and staff turnover increases.

To clear this hurdle, the agency needs to implement clear line management expectations and people processes. Managers need to be given enough time for this important work, and employees need to have time and budget for development. The agency should consider recruiting an HR manager if it doesn’t have one already.

Hurdle 4: Growing up (~£4m of fee income / 40-50 people)

Key challenge: Gaps in the agency’s business foundations – eg policies and processes – are no longer acceptable. Employees and clients both have much higher expectations of this size of agency, and are far less forgiving of any problems. Recruitment and winning new business suffers as a result.

To clear this hurdle, a senior member of the team needs to be given clear ownership of creating solid business foundations. Key questions they should ask: Does the business have all the policies it needs? Is the staff handbook comprehensive and up to date? Do employees think there are any gaps? Surveys can be used to ask them.

You can read more detail about each hurdle by clicking the headings above. Overall, the key is to incorporate them into your agency’s growth management plan as early as possible, so you can prepare for each one ahead of time and smoothly navigate the leap across it.

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.