Many agency founders feel overwhelmed – here’s what to do about it

30th January 2024 – by Paul Muggeridge-Breene, Thrive CEO

Running an agency can often feel like a game of whack-a-mole. Just as one problem is solved, another three pop up, each calling for your time and attention. Then there are all the extra things you know you should be doing to ensure your agency is fit for the future. There’s no shortage of great guidance and advice out there, but sometimes it can feel like it’s all just adding ever more to your to-do list.

It’s hardly surprising that many agency founders feel overwhelmed.

This can be tiring at the best of times, as well as morale-sapping. It can easily feel as though you’re not doing a particularly good job on any front.

You might think it will get easier as your agency grows and you have more people around you to get things done. But, actually, the larger the agency, the more problems you’ll experience, and the more things you’ll feel that you really should be doing.

The real solution to overwhelm? Planning and accountability.

It may not be glamorous, but it’s incredibly effective. Setting goals and creating a plan to achieve them provides a clear focus and direction, and helps you to narrow down the endless list of potential things to do. Holding yourself accountable to the plan (and being held accountable) helps you stay on track and minimise the inevitable human tendency to avoid the difficult and, sometimes, slightly boring activities that are generally required to achieve objectives, alongside the more exciting tasks.

I find that agency founders often have a tendency towards eye-rolling when it comes to talking about goals and planning, and this is normally because they’ve had a bad experience (or two) in this area in the past. When I dig into this a bit, I often find that the system they used was too rigid or formulaic, and it just didn’t work for them.

It’s absolutely critical when setting goals and creating plans to make the approach work for you, rather than the other way around. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. The only thing that matters is that you achieve what you’re aiming to achieve.

If you’re looking to just get going, here are six steps you can take.

Step 1: Define your goal

This is always where you need to start. What’s your ultimate objective? Ideally, you’ll have a solid long-term goal – where you want to be in, say, five or even ten years from now. But if that feels like too much right now, just think about one or two years.

However far into the future you’re looking, now work backwards to the 12-month mark. Where do you want to be at this point? I often find it’s helpful to create a mental picture to capture this, and to just write it out as a narrative – the format doesn’t really matter at this stage. Be sure to include more than just revenue and profitability numbers. What else do you want your agency to be doing in a year’s time? And what about you, as the founder? You should include your personal situation here, too. For example, are there any changes you’d like to see in your own role and responsibilities? Or the number of hours you’re working? Capture it all.

Step 2: Create 12-month objectives

Now you can turn your picture into three or four overall objectives for the year. There are lots of different ways of doing this, but I find the OKR (objectives and key results) approach to be a good one. The objective should be a broad overview of what you want to achieve (eg “Agency has £1.5m of fee income with 20% margin”) and the key results are specific and measurable outcomes that will let you know the objective has been achieved (eg “£250k fee income from entirely new badges” and “No existing clients lost”).

Step 3: Create 90-day objectives

Once you’re happy with this, move on to your 90-day objectives. What do you want to have achieved in three months’ time? Generally, this should all flow quite naturally from the 12-month objectives – i.e. the 90-day objectives will reflect where you need to be so that you remain on track to achieve the 12-month ones.

Step 4: Create your plan of action

If you’re following the OKR approach, the key results for your 90-day objectives should immediately create the outline of your plan of action. They’re the critical things you and your agency need to be doing right now, and over the next days, weeks and months. Your priorities and focus should be crystal clear, and now all you need to do is add a bit more detail.

Step 5: Get it done

Now for the most important bit – finding a way to ensure it all gets done. Again, there are lots of options for this – everything from a simple Google doc or sheet, to calendar blocking, to project management tools. The only thing that matters is finding an approach that works for you (anyone else that needs to be involved – for example, your senior team, if some of the activities will be delegated.)

Step 6: Stay on track

Finally, you should embed a way of remaining accountable to the plan and objectives. A regular meeting where objectives are reviewed and discussed could work well, but having external accountability can also be really powerful – for example, an advisor or coach who will ask the sometimes difficult questions required.

It’s important to say that objectives and plans can always be changed as you go along. Nothing is set in stone. You may want to do this because of a significant event, like a big client win or loss. Or it may be because the economic environment has altered significantly. Or it may just be because the progress you’ve made against the objectives has highlighted that the current ones need adjusting or overhauling entirely. This is all fine. What matters is that you’re changing path consciously, and as part of the process.

Paul Muggeridge-Breene is an exited agency founder, 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.