Unleashing your agency’s agency

By Matthew

· 6 min

Agency on a knife edge

Agency life can be wonderful. It’s a space where you can move at speed, with autonomy, in lockstep with wonderfully diverse and interesting people.

It’s provided me with some of the most enriching and fun experiences of my professional life, with a lot of learning, a lot of confidence, and with a lot of very good, real friends.

But agency life can also be awful. It’s a place that can be sluggish, restrictive, riven with political tension and dominated by the same kind of voices.

At its worst, I’ve seen people (sometimes including myself) finding agency life genuinely depressing.

In 2023, a lot of businesses across a lot of categories are dancing on this same kind of knife edge of engagement. But for agencies right now, this is the central tension of their existence.

An agency’s success depends on its people’s sense of agency.

People power

The idea that ‘agency’s greatest asset is its people’ is one of those phrases that instinctively makes me clench inside – because it’s a horrible cliché, but also because it is so obviously true, but often not followed up.

Successful agencies absolutely are driven by people power.

By personal initiative. By creative instincts. By the desire not just to ‘collaborate’, but to thrash things out, to laugh together, to bond. 

But the question is hovering in the background – is that agency energy dying? Is the industry killing it?

For sure, it’s threatened. Tasks are getting more complex. Workloads are going up. Collaboration is a mess. Cultural bonds are weakening. Commercial pressure is growing. 

And where the pressure is highest, and freedom of movement is most limited, a lot of agencies are struggling to roll with the punches. The hallmarks of going backwards are pretty evident:

  • Inflated visions, unfulfilled
  • Dissonance between cultural claims and experiences
  • A lot of ‘growth activity’ without a lot of growth
  • Expanding complexity, invisible workload
  • Retrenchment and insularity

All of these undermine the sense of people’s agency within your agency – and it’s a slippery slope.

If you are in this cycle, it can feel difficult to break. If you feel you are in a better place, it can feel constantly precarious. But heading into 2024, there are things that any agency leader can do to try and win the fight.

5 things you can do to build agency

If I ran an agency right now, here are 5 things I would focus on…

Define a clear destination 

Agencies tend to fragmentation, but they are full of people who want to pull together. You’ve got to give them a destination to move towards. Then they will help you work out how to get there.

Your vision of the destination doesn’t have to be era-defining, or based on a totally unique understanding of the world. 

It does have to be hopeful, and grounded in what is changing, and what is staying the same: for people, clients and your employees.

Above all, it can’t be described today-forwards – it needs to be described future-back.

And it has to be repeated endlessly, until people take ownership for themselves.

Get a reality check

In response to a changing world, agencies have launched new cultural programmes, initiatives, working policies, and it’s easy to think that these add up to a sense of empowerment.

The fact is that if you dig in deeper, people will often report back feelings of a workplace that is becoming less inclusive, less flexible, less inspiring.

This can lead to quite a lot of railing against the ungrateful employee, but these feelings are out there, whether you like them or not! To make progress, people need to feel that they have agency to make things better.

The best cultures often aren’t those with the boldest claims, or even the most progressive outlooks, but those that demonstrate the least dissonance between claims and reality, and create space for challenge.

If you want that to be your business, you have to start by understanding what is really going on – by getting close to your data, and making your people feel heard.

Build space for character

For years, the agency world has yearned for a market where there is less pitching, and more agency retention.

That’s the world that seems to be emerging. And it has caught a lot of veterans by surprise. There is, generally, less to pitch for, and what you pitch for is smaller.

That means that converting is more important than ever, and that growing existing clients is more important than ever, and the final 10-20% in both those situations that makes the biggest difference is emotional.

It is about your agency’s character – how you behave, how you tell stories, how you interact. 

It needs to be distinctive, and it needs to be real.

And for that, you need to give people both a coherent space to operate in – and the agency to truly express themselves.

Attack the fog of complexity 

Every hour someone has to put into climbing on top of a ragged tower of admin, or trying to work out how things work, is not only an hour of productive time wasted, but an hour spent actively building frustration and reducing their sense of agency.

Many agencies have become a muddle of different platforms, tools and structures.

It’s a huge amount for people to hold in their heads, and complexity is a vicious killer of time and motivation.

Where the complexity is conceptual, it’s the job of management to take away through clear and simple decision-making.

Where it’s operational, there are always opportunities to simplify and declutter. AI might be a big part of the solution.

These are the unglamorous hard yards of agency operation. But the dividend of fixing is real – because people will feel like they can get things done.

Encourage external contribution

It’s easy to be drawn into internal problem-solving, and some of the things I’ve listed above will take you deeper into the weeds.

But the ecosystem agencies move in has untold capability for collaboration, mutual support and progress-making.

Your agency is surrounded by communities: advocacy groups, freelancers, industry bodies, charities, measurement initiatives, professional development initiatives.

You can’t give everything to everything – but finding the right way to put value back into the ecosystem at a time when your instincts shout for retrenchment and insularity will pay dividends.

And if you actively support your people to do that, to get involved in making things better, their sense of agency will grow and grow – and that’s good for them, the industry, and for you.

It can be a tough context out there. But for agencies, it’s the people power in your business that will make the difference. To thrive as an agency, you need to give agency.

If you’d like help with any of the challenges above – in particular setting direction, building your story or raising the capability of your teams, get in touch via

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.

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