Sprinting the Marathon: thoughts on running an agency

By Matthew

· 9 min

To run an agency takes blood, sweat, tears…and perspective.

Ten years ago, I was preparing to run a major agency.

And not just any agency – but Carat. A mighty, multi-discipline behemoth. The agency against which my alma mater had always defined itself. A genuine, ten-tonne-gorilla of media planning and buying.

What had I let myself in for?

The longest sprint

It would turn out to be one of the most extraordinary periods of my life. It was in equal parts euphorically fun, brutally pressurised, relentlessly frustrating.

It was a period of highs, lows, and infinite to-do lists. It felt like sometimes felt like trying to surf with one arm tied behind my back. It was hard.

Running an agency feels like sprinting a marathon.

We had some spectacular success. We brought in a monstrous amount of new business. For a couple of years, we kept everything we had, too. We won a tonne of awards, got on lots of agency of the year awards, and best places to work lists, and managed to keep most of our best people, in pretty adverse circumstances. We did a big restructure, and mainly managed not to mess it up. And the people were (and are) wonderful. There was some challenging stuff too, but there was no time to dwell on it.

And then it was over. 

It tested me and stretched me in unexpected ways. I was only thirty-three going into it, and I felt fifty by the time I moved on (to a new set of rather more intractable problems).

It’s so far from life at Hook Strategy that it’s difficult to put myself back in those shoes. 

As Bob Dylan says: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

Fresh perspectives

I’ve recently been helping quite a few agencies with their growth strategies, propositions and development plans. 

This is a great opportunity, and I’ve loved it. It’s so interesting to see a problem that at the time I only considered from one perspective, from so many other perspectives.

From the perspective of clients, saturated with unreliable options. From the perspective of talented people, choosing where to make their careers. From the perspective of partners, working out where to spend their time. From the perspective of practitioners in creative, media, data, performance, design, consultancy.

I can see now, looking back, that there were all kinds of assumptions that I’d inherited from my context and my predecessors that simply didn’t stack up. We did ok, I think, with what we had. But we could certainly have done better.

The single biggest thing I see, looking back, is the extent to which my thinking ran in a linear channel. I ran fast, and hard, but never looking up, or looking around. Every day, for three years, I was sprinting a marathon.

Maybe the option of stopping to take a look around wasn’t really there. But based on everything I’ve learnt from the last few years, these are the things I think I would focus on, if I could run my race again.

So…how would I do things differently in the future? What can you do differently?

1. Keep your Story Straight

To very broadly paraphrase Sapiens, a company isn’t really as solid an entity as it appears to be – it’s a story, and its success relies on the belief that people have inside and outside the business in the integrity of that story.

How much more true is this of an agency? Its core ingredients – people, process, product, location – are likely to share the vast majority of their DNA with all of their competitors. The difference is in your ability to mobilise and motivate similar resources in a different way, or to apply them in different contexts.

A good agency is underpinned by a great thread of a story. It doesn’t have to be a story that no-one has every heard before, but it needs to be tight, clear, distinctive, and true.

If you are in the C-Team of an agency, developing and guarding this story is one of your most important jobs. And a crucial part of that job is to keep it as clean as possible. Every organisational story accumulates layer on layer of history, of scaffolding, of initiatives. This messy confection of language is then carried by your people into every pitch, every meeting.

You have to continually revisit your story, and keep it clean, and straight. So that your people can understand it, and believe in it, and deliver it, and sell it.

2. Contract, Commit and Convert

In my career I can think of four or five times where I remember senior agency leaders actively turning down good pitch opportunities, on the basis that their agencies weren’t in a good place to win them.

Literally, four or five.

I have, of course, sat in hundreds of meetings where senior teams have in theory aligned on the idea of being more selective about pitches to ensure they put their efforts in the right place…

It is one of the hardest decisions to make, particularly if you enjoy the thrill of the chase and you have some massive numbers breathing down the back of your neck.

But, never, ever forget, that the second-best place to come in a new business pitch is not, in fact, second (and boy, do a lot of people seem to come ‘second’) but never to have entered.

As an agency leader, it is one of your key responsibilities to choose new business opportunities wisely based on criteria that are ambitious but pragmatic; to commit to a winning strategy and accept the fall of the cards if it doesn’t work; and then to commit to a totally unreasonable extent to maximise your chances of winning it.

But always remember, the most important number is never the new business target, but the degree to which you convert effort into wins, and the degree to which you turn wins into profit. 

Commit, and then convert.

3. Strengthen your Core

Agency people are relentless, creative and imaginative. They tend to have short spans of attention, and to be magpies for new concepts and ideas. This is a part of what makes working in an agency so much more fun that it might look from the outside.

The downside is that very few agencies want to be what they really are. They want to be transformation companies, not service-companies. Media agencies don’t really want to talk about planning or buying media. Creative agencies don’t really want to talk about making ads. Design businesses don’t want to make packaging. Digital businesses don’t want to make websites.

And invention is much, much more fun that going over old territory.

Now, it’s important, essential, to have a vision for your business that is elevated above your category, elevated above your BAU. But the danger inherent in this is obvious: that you put only a relatively small amount of time and attention into the thing that represent 90% of your output, and that therefore it doesn’t get better, and it doesn’t work properly.

Unless you are pretty much starting from scratch, your new journey starts from the baseline of your current core. One of the best things you can do is to make it better, to innovate to make it more efficient, to work out how to explain it and celebrate it.

A stronger core gives you much greater mobility to seek or respond to change.

4. Keep the Skies Clear

The final priority is your unique privilege as an agency leader – you get to take responsibility for a group of people of extraordinary people with masses of talent and motivation.

Your job is not to swoop in and do things for people, and it’s absolutely not to take your share of glory. It is to give them the space, and the encouragement, and the sense of direction, to enable them to do all the things they are capable of.

That means fending off a lot of things coming down from above: capricious clients, unrealistic budget pressures, undue media pressure.

Just as important, it also means providing an environment in which people feel safe to fly. In which people expect support more than criticism, in which respect can be expected, in which failure is examined as a source of learning, not a source of shame.

It’s not your job to try and protect people from the outside world, and there is probably nothing you can do that is as unhelpful as trying to do everything for everyone.

But creating freedom, and space, and keeping the skies clear, is one of the best things you can do for the people around you, and for the business.

If there is one thing that tempts me from the path of joy that Hook Strategy has been so far, it is the idea of having another chance at running an agency.

It’s a fascinating job, and a privileged responsibility. I loved the people who I had a chance to lead for a while, and I am still close to many of them.

It’s a hard job, and with every year, it seems to be getting harder. But on the good days, it’s a joy.

I’ve found the right path for me – helping the person in the hot seat, rather than sitting there myself. But, If you are trying to get a fresh perspective, I’m always ready to help. 

On your marks, get set…

Hook Strategy helps organisations to move forwards with shared strategic clarity. If you are an organisation seeking unified thinking, get in touch at or by calling +44 (0)7780 481717.

Let's Talk

Get in touch


By submitting you agree that Hook Strategy Limited can securely hold your data in accordance with UK GDPR regulation and our Privacy notice.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.