Grey matters

Surviving a business crisis: a story for small agency owners.

This article provides mental health advice for small agency owners going through a tough economic period.

A little over seven years ago, an enormous crisis confronted me. At the time, it felt like I was going to be wiped from the face of the planet. The mere fact that it has taken this long to write about the experience is testament to the dark energy it created. I imagine it could be a common experience for many creative agency and small business owners. By sharing my own story, I hope to help others in coping with what can feel like an unbearable breakdown and loss of mojo. Also to provide mental health advice; to assure that there is light on the other side of the tunnel.

My story begins in the dawn of 2015. The first couple of months of any prior calendar year had proven to be a very lean time for the agency. A combination of the Christmas seasonal slowdown and the slow unfolding of the new business year. This year was no exception and proved to be the big one that took us out.

On running a small creative agency

What is notable about running a branding agency is that your income comes in fits and starts. The upside is that we can make a large amount of income with sizable projects running concurrently. The downside is that the income is often project led and thus irregular. Often, forecasting is a laughable affair of guesswork and “wait and sees”.

Conversely, in polarity to the variable income, comes some very fixed costs. Premises, technology, staffing, legal and accounting services … even the colour printer lease; are all signed on medium to long term deals. There is no flexibility in your cost – not if you adopt the typical old agency model. I am not waxing lyrical about how to design the agency of the future – I would rather express how the experience had its effects on my psyche as a human and what hard lessons I came to learn. And finally, the actions that helped me deal with the pain.

To clarify, the agency experienced a very high overhead and a three-month period of barren project income. The healthy cash base dwindled and within three months the business was on its knees. From there, it was a case of enacting mass redundancies and difficult conversations with the landlord.

What becomes quite evident is that piloting a diving business becomes a hellish experience for the owners. And what is more, for a creative agency where the business is intricately tied to the ego, the nature of talent and the associated self-worth. It takes an unbearable toll on your mental wellbeing and it genuinely seems like a spiral that only has one outcome. When I spoke to another peer in the industry shortly after the episode: He explained that he had literally got in his car, drove for the south of France and spent three weeks hidden underground in a friend’s converted mountain cave – a very Allan Poe vision of deep unease!

The pain of learning

I learnt a lot from the experience. And have taken this forward in life to build better resilience and fortitude. It may make for somewhat of a less “exciting” existence, but it brings greater inner peace and reduces considerable stress. Stress is a killer and whilst the charm of creative competition is compelling – It just isn’t worth it if you want to stick around in the game.

The following guidance is a summary of the steps I found helped and may offer you some insights should you be going through a similar experience. Hence I have called it “mental health advice for small agency owners”. I have broken the advice down into three distinct sections to tackle different aspects of the crisis:

The Mind

Your mind becomes a highly active self-defeating machine during this type of predicament. Being at the helm of a small business focuses an unfair amount of attention back onto your identity and associated ego. These steps could help to tap back on the revs a bit.

  • Immediately reach out to industry peers and express your challenging situation. You’d be surprised how many owners are staying brave and silent. At an industry event, I mentioned just in passing that I was up the proverbial creek and immediately attracted the interest of two agency owners in the same boat. These relationships have now developed into friendships.
  • So, given the above, go to small intimate industry events, speak openly, and find others going through the same challenges. Engage and then organise a lunch now and again to catch up.
  • Meet up with others that you recall who have had a “failed” business. I connected to a peer who helped talk to me about the “life after”. This was vital to get a positive post crisis picture.
  • Separate your role from your identity. The ego loves adopting roles and possessions. Observe your mind when it thinks “My agency”, or I am an “Agency boss” – You are so much more. Embrace the additional aspects of your identity “I am a sailor, I am a karate kid, I am a father etc”

Be open and honest with yourself…

  • Talk openly and express yourself to your friends and peers. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. You are not defined by your situation. Seek out mental health advice for small agency owners in the same predicament.
  • Try and take up meditation. My experience started with the Headspace app – a great subscription based mobile app curated by mindfulness expert, Andy Puddicome. Fortunate to have an open seat on the HS1 train into King’s Cross from Kent, I would religiously switch off the news and grab a twenty minute meditation. Then, I went on a Transcendental meditation course, which is similar but far more intense. It advocates 20 minutes of mantra-based meditation twice a day. The results are incredible. You don’t need to transform into some lifelong lentil eating hippy – Just use it as a tool for now.
  • Don’t be afraid to find a councillor. Set up a schedule where you are seeing them twice a week. It helps to get your current issues out in the open. Study your situation, observe your mood, then talk about the challenges openly. It is cathartic and offers a great deal of support. Make it easy by finding someone close to your workplace.

Manage your environment…

  • On the flipside, be aware of the level of support offered by business / life coaches. They may lack understanding of your turmoil and may try coach you into working harder instead of providing the mental health advice you need. This isn’t helpful at the key moment when you are completely at a loss and out of control. Besides, a lot of these coaches lack the real-life experience of what you are going through.
  • Stop following other agencies showreels and high moments. Disconnect from all your competitor’s social media accounts such as Instagram, Twitter etc. (Keep the art / pure inspiration one’s going of course!) Stop comparing yourself with the outside commercial world. Take a break from any trend based social media.
  • Take it even further: Uninstall all your news apps and ditch the morning BBC news routine. Modern media is obsessed with fear. Accept that there is so much out of your control and actively disconnect from it.
  • Give yourself some time away from the crisis. That means leave your desk and just walk at lunch. I recall taking a stroll to Haggerston park from our studio in Hoxton Square. I would just sit on a bench and watch the world go by. I’d do something simple like watch a couple of birds bobbing about for food. It may be difficult to connect with your natural environment but persist.
  • Don’t be afraid to take up a course of antidepressants. Again, it doesn’t have to be a long-term commitment. There are also other options beyond pure SSRI’s.  I recall going on a course for only three months at some point. The doctor had prescribed me a version which made you sleepy and it was only taken at night. It was an antihistamine that was taken out of circulation because it sent people to sleep!
  • If possible, leave London to live remotely in a rural area. Even if you make a deal with yourself that “it is only temporary”, London and major urban areas contain vast amounts of external stimuli that unknowingly add a heap of stress to an existing situation. There’s nothing quite settling for the spirit like waking to a couple of sheep softly bleating on a Saturday morning.

The Body

The body is directly related to the wellbeing of the mind. Use it to assist your mind and reduce the increased stress you are experiencing. There is a lot of data out there, but here is what I found helped immensely.

  • Drastically ramp up physical exercise. Any type will do, whether its gym, cycling or running. However, focus part of your routine on intensive cardio to genuinely feel the effects of being worn out and yet alive. Somehow this conversely helps you feel better activated whilst also calming the mind. When exercising, actively concentrate and connect with your heartbeat. Really try to feel it in your chest. Practice mindfulness in exercise – feel the muscles, body, sweat and your elements all coming together.
  • Supplement the cardio with some chilled-out exercise. Yoga is incredibly good for your overall system. Stretching will also help you feel physically better. You don’t have to go to a class – There are some awesome free online resources such as Yoga with Adrienne.
  • Improve your diet with the aim of removing toxins. Start with a cleanse if you can. A positive health stance will create the awareness that you are conquering an aspect of your current condition – even if it feels like something small.
  • Kick dependency on alcohol – It’s just terrible for a crisis. It messes up your sleep and moods. If you feel like you absolutely need to take the edge off, move to cannabis for more calming effects. Preferably via oils or vapes. If you absolutely want to get high, make it special occasions only. Lose all commitments to nights out with staff / clients during the week!
  • As I mentioned above; break up the day, escape the situation, do something non-task orientated for an afternoon. Do a local walk in a park for lunch, watch the world go by unattached to your thoughts. The idea is to focus on being and not doing.
  • Do things which help connect you back to your force. That’s the good stuff outside the mind. Dumb things, gloriously low on cognition. Dance, have sex, run wild. Get a little animalistic.

The Functional

These actions are less personal and centered around mental health advice. They are more business process orientated. As soon as you have a few warning signs of an impending spiral, take the following steps to ease the financial pressure on the business.

  • Take the fixed cost staff overhead in the agency and transform it into a “liquid” non-permanent resource overhead. This is especially wise if the agency is project focused vs retainer – Such as a branding agency. I did have this very romantic notion of running a shop floor of gainfully employed creative talent, but when the crisis hits it becomes even more unfair on people, given how quickly you have to suddenly lay everyone off. It does not make sense at all to have variable income and fixed outgoings. It is nonsensical and a very old agency model.
  • Start ditching all the clients you are not 100% ethically committed to. Either by who they are, their values or by the associated expertise they are buying from you (and that you don’t really enjoy producing). Go over your project work and ensure your favourite work is evident – because you love it and not because it fulfils a popular ranking metric. Prospective clients ride on your interest / passion. It is increasingly hard to convince folk of your fake interest. What is more, you’re going to need to stay passionate about the kinds of work you truly care about.
  • As kind as you can, remove the staff and people around you who are static and disinterested. Use any opportunities to make redundancies. You need a team that is dynamic and delivers.
  • Downscale the business premises. Covid 19 has shown how well staff can work remotely. Perhaps keep a core management team in touch but allow all freelance staff to work remotely.
  • In really challenging circumstances, plan to pay resource according to deliverable rather than per hour – And then, if the schedule allows – let them have a bit more time to deliver.
  • Develop highly creative hobbyist activities on the side of your main work – It’s all about trying to get creative flow to connect again with what made you love art / creativity and experimentation.
  • Try and grow in any way you can. Look at new things to do with your existing tools. Learn something new. Try a new technique.

In Summary

Overall, my crisis period lasted probably about six months. The actual outcomes had far less of an effect than all the daymares I had conjured in my mind.

The British establishment, whether it be the tax man or the landlord, is reassuringly understanding and forgiving. While, you feel like the entire world is against you, this is simply a skewed perception borne out of your critical self-obsessed thinking.

Suffering builds deeper understanding of yourself and whilst its bloody painful at the time – you will come out of it far wiser, more compassionate, and altogether a better human being. And yes, you will find your mojo again.

If this story has resonated with you because you’re experiencing something similar: I understand and empathise with what you may be going through. I hope I have helped a little and I wish you a speedy recovery from this period. As the Irish like to say: “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back and may the sunshine warm upon you face …”

Drop me an email if you’d like to reach out.

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