Why every design agency should seek impact over growth

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Every creative person has the courage to be a small giant, by Mandy Barker 

My story has been a little unconventional: working from 16, a mortgage at 21, travelling at 23 and university at 24. By the time I was 27 I was an in-house designer then a designer in agency before going freelance at nearly 30. It was then things went even more awry…

I left employment in 2016 with a shoestring budget. This may be reckless to some but I love the adrenaline of risk; a true entrepreneurial trait I’ve been told! Two weeks after going self-employed I had a personal crisis. I had to move in with my family. Not a particularly glamorous moment, but one that I am always happy to share because it got me to where I am today.  

After all of this upheaval, I felt I needed to be around a team instead of working in isolation. I applied to design agency jobs in Leeds and Newcastle. As most creatives, I was quite picky about the design agencies I aspired to work for. I only wanted to be employed by an agency where I could work on projects I was passionate about.

I was still freelancing whilst applying for roles, travelling to a handful of interviews and getting nowhere. Faced with unemployment or an alternative career path, I knew that if I wanted to keep my dreams of working in a creative, socially focussed (there aren’t many) design agency alive, I would have to continue what I had set out to do; create my own opportunities.

Starting to Sail

So, off I went again. With no stability, no income and a lack of job security around me, I thought ‘it’s now or never’. I continued to push forward with Sail Creative.

I decided that Sail Creative would bring together a collective of talented, passionate freelancers who may have been in the same position as me. These people are unafraid of risk, have a relentless work ethic – because you have to when you are self employed – and are committed to working on projects that challenge the status quo, push creative boundaries and make a positive social impact.

In the first year of business, Sail worked on 44 projects, made 130 new connections with collaborators, clients and industry leaders, made the IPSE Freelancer of the Year finals (now a twice in two years!) and landed 2 design journal features in Creative Review and Design Week. Now almost two years on, the momentum keeps growing and I continue to learn and develop each and every day.

Creating your own opportunities

A few months ago we announced that Sail Creative had become a member of the Design Business Association. I particularly resonated with their ethos to champion effective design that positively affects people’s lives, something that I am deeply committed to through my work.

At the time we joined, Adam Fennelow, Head of Services of the DBA described how they sought out “creative businesses that work to a set of values that benefit them and their clients.” I would like to consider myself one of those creative businesses so I felt confident that joining the DBA would be a positive experience.

Adam recently approached me to take part in an interview that will be featured in the DBA on being a ‘small giant’. After I provided the article, he invited me to take part in a panel discussion at an upcoming event in Leeds. The purpose was to analyse issues raised by Bo Burlington in his book, “Small Giants: Companies That Choose To Be Great Instead Of Big”.

I was intrigued by the topic and I made up my mind to represent my views when I realised that I would be speaking alongside Nigel Morris, Head of Visual Communications from Arup, Ian Thompson, Founder and Creative Director of Thompson Brand Partners and Jonathan Sands of Vexillifer, Elmwood.

Two out of these three speakers came from agencies that I applied to work with in 2016. Since then I have gone on to stretch my creativity and work autonomously on projects that perfectly align with my purpose and values.

What is the impact of a design agency?

Bo Burlingham, author of Small Giants, argues that small giants don’t seek growth, they seek impact. In the world of the design agency, businesses are now choosing to focus on being great at what they do, creating a great place to work, giving clients a great service, having a great relationship with suppliers, making great contributions to the communities you live and work in, and finding great ways to live your lives. Sustainability is important of course, but the numbers grow organically as you focus on being a Small Giant.

The size of your influence is not proportional to the size of your business. A small agency can make a big difference through their work if they create concepts that capture the imaginations of their target audience and beyond. This is something that Sail have experienced first hand as we have worked with clients who have gone on to win national awards from the work Sail Creative have done for them.

I was struck by the words of Ian Thompson from Thompson Brand Partners, who said:

“Studios need to be prepared to make themselves vulnerable and throw themselves into projects. Take risk, build friendships with clients. Relationships allow braver work”.

We have to be prepared to create braver work.

I was proud to be at the event to represent micro-businesses and freelancers out there that are rebelling against convention, keeping things lean, taking actual risks to do work they love and making a real impact at community and national level.

Where we’ve been and where we want to be

Being the youngest business in the room and amongst some of the most experienced agencies in the industry, conversation naturally turned towards what I felt I had learned running my own company.

First and foremost, each client Sail Creative works with has to feel right. Building relationships based on trust, respect, passion and mutual values is at the core of everything Sail Creative does. This working style fosters an environment where we are able to create our most inspired and impactful work.

I am passionate about my ability to be reactive, which is something I feel Sail Creative’s smaller size and independent model allows. Working as part of our client’s team to build relationships and understanding has been producing great results.

I am also passionate about personal and professional development. Some of my key takeaways from the past two years are:

  • Learn where you can, read, watch and listen to grow
  • Stay curious and find collaborators, build partnerships with clients, not sales
  • Surround yourself with positive, like minded people
  • Don’t feel limited by your situation, take risk and create opportunities
  • Your last piece of work should always be your best
  • Strive for excellence and impact.

Know your value, be proud of your purpose

It was an honor to be asked to speak at the event. Although I was initially nervous, the experience solidified yet again why it’s important not to be intimidated. Know your worth and the value that you can bring to any situation. Take the risk and put yourself out there because micro-businesses can make a real impact at a community level.

Be resilient and push your limits because you don’t grow if you don’t learn. In doing so you’ll inspire other people, as well as yourself! By involving myself in the conversation in a room full of industry representatives, I ensured that my perspective was listened to and I realised my opinion counted.

I came away with invitations to coffee and phone catch ups, possible mentorship opportunities and the confirmation that the industry and other creatives are open to sharing knowledge and even discussing collaborations. Every creative person, however ‘big or small’, has the potential to do great things if they have the passion to try.

If you’ve not had the chance to check it out, I would recommend Bo Burlingham’s book, “Small Giants.”

My interview with the Design Business Association is coming soon, so watch this space!

I’d love to know whether you’ve had a similar experience. Has taking a risk paid off? Has pushing yourself out of your comfort zone afforded you great results?

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