What is the real meaning of ‘success’?

What is the real meaning of ‘success’?

Is success all it’s cracked up to be for business owners?


The holy grail of an agency is to grow, right? Isn’t that what we mean by success?

If you think about people who command our respect and attention – like David Ogilvy, Martha Lane Fox, Elon Musk etc. – they all grew big businesses, which all feeds into that narrative that bigger is best.


This makes it really strange to keep coming across loads of immensely clever, successful, happy people who run pretty small agencies and have no interest in growing. In fact, some of them are shrinking them even.

It’s a topic which came to the fore in a recent discussion group – hosted by Media Lounge’s co-founder Adam King. He brought along special guest Jason Swenk (jasonswenk.com), the U.S. agency owner, podcaster and mentor who challenged the group to think about what was right – for them at least. How do you know or decide what’s best?

Unsurprisingly, having a plan is important. As Mike Tyson famously said: ‘everyone has a plan until they’re hit in the face’, and it’s easy to lose sight of the plan when you’re trading successfully. If business is going well, there’s seldom time to keep on top of things and it’s easy to let events dictate you, not the other way around. But if you’re not on top of running your business who is?

Having a clear vision of where you want to be in 5 years’ time is invaluable. Not just for the company but for you too. The business needs to reflect what you want to get from it. Staying small, being a ‘lifestyle’ business is totally fine – if that’s what you want from it. Maybe you want to work a 4-day week, maybe you need to finish at 3pm for your children. The important thing is to be clear what the parameters are, and decide how big you want to scale from there.


Just as important, though, is to make sure everyone you work with knows what the plan is. It’s no good to say we want to climb high, you have to tell everyone which mountain you’re climbing. It’s odd, but people can get really ‘British’ about this sometimes – what people are prepared to share with their team and what they think should be kept secret. The more you share, the more people can get behind your goals.

If you don’t think you can trust people with the right information, they may not be the right people to work for you. Having a strong team is something the leaders keep coming back to. Jason’s aim is to employ a team of people cleverer than him. Then you can empower them to develop the business you way you want it, to the scale you’re happy with, and achieve the life you want to live, for yourself.

So what might that life look like? Why don’t more people strive to be bigger? Jamie Sergeant from Crowd suggests that the optimum size for any agency is 15 people. It’s the perfect ratio of skills, communication and manageability, any more, and the logistics become much more complex. Rather than grow beyond 15, Crowd’s philosophy is to open a new office and employ 15 more people somewhere else. So far they have 10 offices in seven countries.

Leaders like Martin Walker, in the Walker Agency, are focusing on what works best for them and has scaled back to make sure this happens. If you really want to design, or code or write, running a larger agency just takes you away from the thing you love. Far better to keep operations manageable and achieve more job satisfaction. If you want to grow further – there’s always the option of hiring a Managing Director to run the business, while you head up a department – and take the role of Chair or CEO.


Another consideration is about keeping your sanity. One MD, who employed 52 people, said that for 51 weeks of the year everyone was happy but, invariably, every staff member had at least one bad week. That means despite a generally happy office, someone is moaning at you every day of the year. If you only employ 26 people, that’s half a year of whinge-free bliss!

If you still find your business is too busy to keep the plan in place, there could be a simple answer – charge more! Higher revenues don’t necessarily result in higher profits. If you charge a bit more, lose a client or two, and perhaps shed one or two employees, you’ll usually find that profits are higher, even with a lower income. Make sure you are concentrating on the right number – profit invariably trumps revenue!


In our minds, we might strive to become the next Elon Musk or Oprah Winfrey – but, goodness, it’s hard work. Do we really have the determination? If 20% of large company CEOs are psychopathic, and you believe you’re a nice person – that’s slimmed down the odds of big company success already. Perhaps it’s best to be honest about who you really and what you really want, then you can control the narrative and define success in your own terms.

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