Letting the Ambulance Pass: Tom's musings on growing an agency.

By Tom Fugleberg, Co-Founder/Creative Lead, Friends & Neighbors

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Thank you, Margaret Mead. We love that quote. So much so that we had it tattooed on our wall.

As you might expect, when the statement first washes over people, they tend to lock in on the “change the world” part of the passage. Rightly so. That is the point at which our credo reaches the highest point of its crescendo. And, as a group of passionate professionals who leverage belief to grow our clients’ businesses, it is the ultimate outcome of belief. A passionate cadre that shares a common value system, mindset and mission can take any hill. Upset any apple cart.

However, there are two other words in Ms. Mead’s musing that, while not nearly as sexy, are particularly important to us at Friends & Neighbors. Especially as it relates to the way we approach growing our own business.

“Doubt.” And “small.”

No, strike that. I was momentarily concussed.

“Thoughtful.” And “committed.”

Yeah, there you go.

That is such a difficult proposition for any agency – big or small. To be thoughtful and committed when it comes to growing its own business.

There’s the very real fact that all agencies have bottom lines to feed, lights to keep on, and for some, motherships to report to. (I can almost feel the earnings angina setting in now.) All very important, ever-present reminders that there will always be a need for a robust pipeline of prospective new clients. Therein lies the danger. An agency’s own expectations of how it achieves its revenue goals and makes its margins often become the enemies of “thoughtful” and “committed.” At its worst, it becomes an ambulance chase. We see those flashing lights and suddenly every ambulance represents a bright, shiny new opportunity.

Now, let’s also add the various reasons requiring us to reintroduce ourselves to current clients into the growth discussion. There’s tenure: The Wall Street Journal recently reported the average stay of a CMO continues to decline (now just 42 months – down six months in the past two years). There’s transition: with every new day comes the likelihood of a brand director’s move into a new division, a surefire blow to momentum. There’s tragedy. Speaking for ourselves, two years ago we suddenly lost a beloved friend who just happened to be a client. Both his team, and ours, are still reeling.

With the needs of the bottom line and ever-present client changes, we need to just keep reeling ‘em in, right? Gotta keep fueling that growth.

But that’s where growth and evolution get confused. Growth is planned. Things grow into what they are meant to become. Evolution, from a scientific standpoint, is random. Sometimes it works and sometimes something else works. It’s also metamorphic. Things evolve into something else, sometimes for the better and sometimes not.

So defining how we grow, where we grow and who we grow with, for me, anyway, is a whole ‘nother bucket of entrepreneurial oats.

I will tell you from very personal experience that there is, in fact, such a thing as outgrowing the reason you started growing. The beliefs that define you as a company. The beliefs your co-workers, clients and best prospects connect with. And chose you for. I totally get it. Trajectory is an exhilarating, intoxicating thing. But, as I’ve come to learn over the years, there’s nothing more rewarding than growing closer to what you hold to be true as you grow into what you hope to become.

What has that lesson ultimately meant for us?

It’s okay to bow out of pitches. It’s okay to pass on RFPs. It’s okay to say no. In fact, this thoughtfulness is absolutely necessary to growth, again defined as thoughtful expansion.

It’s wise to pull the car over and let the ambulance pass before you think about chasing it. Because not every opportunity is the right opportunity for what you are ultimately working so hard to build.

It’s also right to be clear upfront with prospective clients about who you are and what you stand for. And in doing so, offer an out: “if this is not what you believe, no worries. We don’t expect to be the perfect fit for everyone.”

Will we be the turtle in the race? Maybe. Will we ever be the fastest rising anything again? Not likely, not with my bad back. But will we be able to establish tighter connections with our clients from the outset, and have the opportunity to forge fewer relationships, in a deeper, more impactful way that changes the world for the people we work with? Will we be able to partner with those who entrust us with their brands and their businesses, and be there on all levels for them, like good friends and neighbors?

You bet your bottom line, we will.

Because we’re thoughtful.

Because we’re committed.

Because we believe that’s the only way to truly grow.