Getting the balance right: How to lead a successful design agency


Many design agencies are run by talented creatives who believe they have unique insight. 

They live and breathe the rarefied atmosphere of the creative process that aims to produce the Single Grand Idea and captivate the consumer.

After years of working with many owner-managed design consultancies, I've identified three key types:

  • The Creative Star (Think Ronaldo) – They focus on the creative process itself and are results focused. The aim is to generate great work that their peers can only aspire to. They are dynamic, fast paced and flamboyant risk takers. The clients love their work because it is unconventional, maverick and novel. They win awards for the big ideas
  • The Creative Supporter (Think Scholes) – They focus on the satisfaction of client, not peers. They are considerate, steady, constant and stable. Clients love them because they are capable of working to the stated needs rather than the creative output
  • The Commercial Manger (think Karren Brady) - They focus on the commercial reality of running a business. They are often driven, single minded, tough but fair. They know how to make the vision and mission a reality. They build and deliver strategic and tactical business plans, make tough decisions and understand the realities of balancing client expectations with commercial reality.

The best agencies recognise their limitations and work within them. They work with clients who accept them for what they are and what they offer, building their reputation on the style of their creativity led by the process or the client.

It is true that this theoretical view is tempered with a heavy dose of reality. I recognise that design agencies offer an amalgam of services and support that falls somewhere between these two styles, the inevitable result of chasing the elusive dollar.  But in the main, they remain true to their vision.

Many design consultancies fail not because of their preferred creativity style but because they have little understanding of commercial reality.

The most successful agencies recognise the need to balance their creativity by employing good business practices and great leaders to enhance the creative process.

All agencies have potential. Accepting that no single style is perfect or that there is always room for improvement is the key to greater growth and the generation of respect from your staff.

Review yourselves, your styles and your team dynamics. Work out what and how to evolve, plan it and then follow it through and you will be amazed at the results.

Karren Brady quadrupled Birmingham City attendance and went on to float her club for £25 million.

What could you do if you got the balance right?

Photo credit (cc) Hanna Irßlinger Fotografie