In my many years in this industry, I’ve encountered countless freelancers who spend at least 30% of their careers between jobs, searching for that next big project or client. I’ve come to notice that many of them have fallen into the habit of saying they run their own consultancies. However, upon further inspection, many of these so-called consultancies are simply passable agency-esque websites showcasing a string of random projects. There is no real strategy, direction, or basis for sustainable growth to really build a viable, full-fledged business, and as a result, these “consultancies” stay side projects, tucked into back pockets for those just-in-case moments between jobs.
If you have any true intention of building a successful consultancy, it goes without saying that there is a good amount of work required to even just get started.
Out of the many so-called consultancies that are just really side gigs and freelancers, there are some solid consultancies that have phenomenal results, unique and valuable expertise. The founders of these firms are hard working, driven and passionate about their work.
They put careful thought into developing their business, even bringing it to the point of hiring a small staff and cultivating a specific direction and specialty.
Being much, much smaller than the prolific top consultancies out there, the amount of work required to build a small to mid-sized agency and keep it relevant is demanding to say the least. One gentleman we worked with a short while ago came to us burnt out from the near-constant hustle of trying to keep his boutique consultancy afloat.
Aaron (names have been changed to protect the client’s privacy) spent 9 years working tirelessly to set his 8-person agency apart from the competition, and for a while, it worked. They nabbed a few big clients, made some strides towards growth, and even developed a unique methodology. They won awards and were featured in industry publications like Fast Company and Wired. They seemed to be doing quite well...but after that short-lived period of success, business began to go south.
Despite not changing their strategy, it seemed like something wasn’t working as it used to. Communication suddenly became a challenge; clients stopped hearing them and gradually became less and less responsive. Projects suddenly became few and far between, and from 2015- to 2018 their annual revenue dropped drastically from their steady average of $1.5 million average annual revenue to just $322,000.
Company morale was at an all-time low. The team was idling at a standstill, ready to jump at any new initiative, and looking to Aaron for guidance that he couldn’t give. While he was scrambling to figure out what wasn’t working, Aaron could feel the pressure of all this labor ready but untapped. His payroll budget was getting consumed and he had nothing of substance for them to work on. His team waited on the sidelines – and they could sense something was off.
When he first came to us, Aaron shared that in the midst of trying to understand the market and trying to rally the troops, he was secretly doubting his vision and the agency’s viability. He found himself giving his team more and more busy work to hide the struggle, wishing desperately that he’d locked in that last client pitch from months ago or that he’d taken that last project that wasn’t quite right if only to have a new project to work on. While all this was going on, Aaron was so painfully aware of his revenue resources drying up. Panic was setting in. By this point, Aaron had tried working with business consultants and advisors, but no one could help figure out how to turn his agency around. He would attend design conferences, inspirational conferences, and even attended Tony Robbin’s Business Mastery program. Nothing he tried moved the needle. He told us that his lowest point was at the end of the day when the team would leave. He would sit in the dark at his desk, not ready to go home, racking his brains for some kind of solution that he may have overlooked.
Aaron’s confusion was not unfounded. After working with him closely, we became familiar with his background. Though he stepped into design by accident, he spent years following his passions and building his skills towards developing his own agency. He loved talking about those great projects that brought so much success for past clients that they still showcase those projects in their marketing. Over the years, he’d cultivated a small but mighty agency with a close-knit, highly skilled team that produced fantastic work when given the opportunity – so why couldn’t he open more doors and win more of these accounts? It seemed no one was listening to him or buying into the new services he’d hoped to expand into.
He couldn’t tell anyone about his situation. At the conferences and trade shows he was busy spinning his pitch. At every client call or meeting, he was touting off their methodology. Back at the office, he was rallying the troops. He tried to explain what was going on to a few industry friends and in return, he received sympathy and random bits of well-intentioned but ultimately futile advice. At that point, Aaron realized it was the blind leading the blind. He had done all he could and after months of being in the dark, he finally decided to invest in the guidance of a professional.
Since Yeh IDeology’s conception in 2006, we’ve worked with hundreds of agency owners. We’ve helped full-time professionals analyze whether going contractual and opening an agency was right for them; helped part-time consultants build full-on agencies; helped agency owners reevaluate their value proposition to reinvent their agency to corner a new market; helped agency owners go back to being full-time and move up to VP roles; and helped agency owners sell their agencies and figure out what to do next.
Apart from drawing from our years of ethnographic research and industry know-how to advise those we work with, we also pull from our personal experience of growing and pivotingYeh IDeology itself.We understand the metrics of running your own agency because we’ve been there and have grown from it. While making a steady income is essential, you must also figure out your niche market and strategy. When it comes to growing a business, salary is only second to clarity.
In my 20+ years in the creative industry, I’ve encountered enumerable unsung heroes in design who never reach their career goals because they’re looking at the problem the wrong way. I recognized that this needs to change which is why I’ve made it my goal to empower millions of creatives just like you to make that shift.
The intricacies of running a successful design consultancy in this day and age are immeasurable. One recent trend we’ve noticed is that major business-savvy consulting agencies are snapping up smaller design firms in order to marry their corporate strategies and business models with the exquisitely-designed customer journeys and product interfaces of smaller, design-oriented agencies. What was once seen as an aesthetic luxury has now taken a front seat and is not only preferred by customers – it’s expected. Consumers are simply no longer convinced by traditional marketing tactics; in fact, we’re seeing more and more overlap between design and business. This might explain why consulting giants like McKinsey, Capgemini, Google, and Accenture, to name just a few, are buying smaller design and advertising agencies. In the past five years, there have been a total of 14 major acquisitions of design firms by leading consulting agencies in the United States alone.
Simply put, the premium put on design right now is at an all-time high. However, if you’re not approaching things in the correct way, you could potentially miss out on some major opportunities. There are too many ways to mismanage building a profitable creative agency and it all stems from not having an adequate understanding of yourself. You owe it to yourself to invest in the right resources to catapult your consultancy to new heights, instead of allowing these big corporate agencies to continue to monopolize the market and run you out of business without delivering the same passion or quality of service that you can. Book a strategy call to take that first step towards understanding the optics you need to succeed.