HaveYouHeard celebrates 10 years in the industry this year. Co-founder Jason Stewart tells you what he and partner Ryan McFayden didn’t get quite right over the past decade.
Copying not leading
A couple of years ago, when the pace of our growth picked up, we tried to learn from other successful agencies – their way of organising the business, their billing structures, their internal processes like traffic and account management, their way of thinking and generating ideas.
We failed and, the harder we tried to make it work, the weaker we became. Eventually, we realised that the catalyst for our growth had been clients’ recognition and respect for the fact that we were different. We thought different, we worked different and we created different, all in ways unique to us and ways that really worked.
So, we doubled down and stayed true to who we are, encouraged out distinction and diversity. Our clients and our staff love us more for it.
Not promoting the agency
We have been living with a self-imposed ‘media black-out’ for about five years, focusing rather on growing our internal capabilities and doing great work. We haven’t created hype about us and HaveYouHeard has become The Most Exciting Agency No One Has Ever Heard Of.
This has held us back in terms of getting new leads in and closing the deal. Going up against an established name brand agency is harder when no one has heard of you (and, yes, we are aware of the irony in our name).
Not managing the margins
We were never very good at managing our finances. When we were small, it didn’t matter too much. But now we’re bigger, taking on bigger clients and bigger jobs, and managing the margins matters, a lot.
Bringing this home was a project on which a 4% over-spend on hard costs and a 7% over-service/under-charge to client time collectively saw us lose out millions in Rands. Oh, and that R2-million event we did for a R30 000 fee, but spent 800 hours on it – I still get shivers thinking about that! Since learning these lessons, we have made fewer mistakes and our teams respect the impact of an overspend.
Putting profits before people
For one brief instant at one stage, we put profits before our people and almost immediately felt the repercussions in lost trust, motivation and effort. While we did an immediate about-face, it took us a long time to regain the trust.
The lesson we learnt was one of the most important and has shaped our agency. We are very open, honest and transparent with our team, and invest 10% of our salary bill in training and 15% of time into development.
We treat our teams maturely and believe that, if we provide them with the freedom to self-manage, they will self-lead with the responsibility needed. We are not sensitive and very good at admitting our mistakes, and we’re happy to try something new.
Not saying goodbye to bad fits
We grew very quickly over a short period of time and recruited very quickly, without paying enough attention to who we were hiring and their fit with the agency and its staff. Before long, my HR director and I were both spending 20 hours a week trying to coach people who were causing friction within the team to rather be productive, positive members.
This left very little time to focus on our high performers and wasted valuable time. Almost overnight, we decided we couldn’t accommodate negative attitudes and invited those who weren’t playing ball to shape up or ship out. This actually boosted the team’s morale and allowed us to invest time in those people who were positive impacts, amplifying their influence through the agency.
Being too sentimental
Businesses – agencies – constantly change and evolve. This means that, sometimes, you need to close down departments, or change skills sets based on changing market needs and services.
We’ve been guilty of holding on to unproductive and unprofitable people and departments for too long, which has negatively impacted the agency.
It doesn’t always mean we have to say goodbye, instead we pivot, retrain, reskill or redeploy.
Not hiring a Creative Director
We took 10 years before we hired our first full-time creative director and we never knew just how much we really needed it. We were always exceptionally good at the start (insight) and the end (execution) but the middle was where we were sometimes weak (the idea).
We have since been able to produce simplified and powerful ideas that are linked into our thinking process
Saying yes to the wrong client
We used to say yes to everything and anyone as we were so hungry to grow. In this current economic climate, it would be foolish for anyone to say that they actively turn away business, but we have realised that the short-term gain of picking up the wrong client can very often create long-term pain.
So we try to ensure that we are aligned with the clients we work with to ensure we are able to tick three key boxes. The first is that they allow us to do great, innovative and powerful work. Secondly, there is positive chemistry and dynamic – we are going to be spending lots of time together so we need to make sure we like each other.
And lastly, that we are able to make a return on the work we do and that it does not financially jeopardise us.
Not always investing in the relationship of the founders and business partners
We have found that the strength and success of our business are directly linked to the quality of the relationship between Ryan and myself as business partners. If we are not aligned, there is confusion in the team. If we do not quickly and positively resolve any disagreements, tension ripples through the teams.
They say that the only thing more terrifying than a monster, is a two-headed monster and we have certainly been that but thankfully not for many years now. We have invested a lot of time, energy and respect into our relationship, ensuring we are aligned and working positively together as we know that if we are in a good place, the rest follows.