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The Seven-Year Itch | Leading a Creative Agency

I should kick things off by letting you know what you’re getting yourself into by reading this post. There won’t be many practical tips or links to useful resources for leading a creative agency – and it’s not designed to fit our carefully thought-out content/SEO strategy. Sorry.

I guess it’s going to read more like a story, something to either inspire you or deter you from starting your own business. It’s a raw and candid portrayal of how solid foundations can crumble around you in quick succession, and how they can be built back up again to be even stronger. I’ve thrown in a few lessons for good measure and I’ll try to keep the cliches to a minimum, but there will be quotes, and I’m not sorry about that.

I thought I’d seen it all…

Last year I shared 6 big lessons I’d learnt during my exciting tenure as MD and founder of Chaptr. Looking back at these now, it seems almost fraudulent of me to have placed such emphasis on them. Sure, I guess they played an important part in shaping me and the way I go about leading a creative agency, but based on the events which have unravelled in the year since then, it makes me smile to think how meager those challenges were in comparison.

If only you’d known”, he thinks, pondering the beauty of hindsight.

Sounds serious, what happened?

People Resigned

Well, let’s start with the fact that three employees resigned. Now I know three doesn’t sound like a lot on the surface, but for us, that is like half our team leaving in the space of 12 months. Plus – recruiting great people is really hard! It takes time, money and a degree of risk which you never really get used to. It’s also sad to wave goodbye to people you’ve grown fond of, and even harder to watch any loved trailblazers gracefully bow out to find a new challenge (I’m talking about you, Charlie!).

“Being Challenged In Life Is Inevitable, Being Defeated Is Optional.” – Roger Crawford

THE LESSON: For the first time ever I decided to use a recruitment consultant to help us fill a position, this turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made as MD. Ripple Recruitment (plug) helped us fill the role with a talented candidate who has turned out to be one of our best and most productive employees to-date (fondly known as Matt G). Given the current uncertainty in the air, we also adopted a leaner business model whereby we draw on the skills of our trusted contractors as and when we need them, reducing the admin and energy of onboarding new full-time employees, adding more value to our clients by using specialists, and increasing our profitability as an agency. 4 months in and I’m pleasantly surprised by how effective this has been and I’m feeling optimistic about the future. Plus, when people leave it’s an opportunity for others to step up and show you what they’re made of (yes you, Stu!).

I Took Ownership of Chaptr

This has probably been the toughest challenge in my time at Chaptr. My business partner, who also happens to be one of my best friends, decided that after 7 years of giving his all (literally), he’d done his time as a director. This news was completely and utterly crushing. No words will accurately convey how I felt at the time; I even considered jacking it all in because I didn’t want to run the company without him. However, with a clear mind, I remembered the amazing people that make up our team and I owed it to them to display strong leadership and find a way to battle through.

“What I’ve learned from running is that the time to push hard is when you’re hurting like crazy and you want to give up. Success is often just around the corner.” – James Dyson

THE LESSON: There is always a way to turn adversity into opportunity. I decided to reshuffle things at the board level to bring more value to Chaptr and more support for me, appointing exceptional people to help in leading a creative agency, whom I trust – and who love and care about Chaptr as much as I do (Kirsty, you were born for this!). My former business partner and I also found a way for him to remain an integral part of the team – but in a way that suited him and his lifestyle better; his support with the transition has been flawless. So far, so very good. Everyone seems happy.

CV-19 Happened

Did you hear about this? Well, within the space of a week the whole team was working from home and clients were emailing us apologising for pausing contracts, cancelling projects and asking for refunds. All this seemed insignificant given the global suffering as a result of the pandemic, but in my little bubble; it was a big deal. Things suddenly felt very real and very much out of my control. To furlough the team seemed to be the obvious and commonplace thing to do and the moral and economic arguments for and against doing it felt overwhelming to me.

“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” – Jimmy Dean

THE LESSON: I leaned on those that I trust for support, quickly formulating a robust Business Continuity Plan to ensure a resilient response to the unpredictable and damming economic impact upon us all. We’re still here and we’re still fighting. We haven’t furloughed any of our team (actually, we’ve taken two more on!); I’m so proud that we managed this ruthlessly challenging situation with courtesy and integrity.


Well, those 1000 words seemed to erupt out of me. Fortunately, I have a good editor.

It feels cathartic to have written this down, to reflect upon what we’ve overcome in the last 12 months. What’s crazy though, is that things actually feel better now for Chaptr than ever. Our operations are smooth and seamless (thanks to our newly promoted Operations Director, Kirsty!), the team morale remains steady, attitudes are tenacious and productivity is at an all-time high. We’ve taken the time to reconnect with our purpose as a business and as people.

Sure, what lay ahead on the horizon is unknown but when the going gets tough, we’ll do what we always do and pull together, puff our chests, show courage and push on (thanks for that one, Dad!).

Some days I still have that feeling, is leading a creative agency worth it? Then I look at the picture below which I keep on my desktop, of our first office back in 2012, and I remember just how far we’ve come; Kirsty, Jon, Matt, Connor, Matt G, Stu, Michal, and Jasmine – thank you!


Leading a creative agency: humble beginnings

Yes. It’s all worth it.