Whenever we ask leaders of creative businesses about their future plans, they almost always talk about growth. Whether it’s about their revenue, number of offices, headcount or profitability - it doesn’t really matter, because while growth is easy to talk about – it is rarely achieved. Managing creative businesses is complicated in itself – but consistently achieving growth is a very different challenge altogether.
It’s easy to get stuck
Just take a look around at competitors in your own sector and you’ll see a number of businesses that are stuck at one of the key growth points. They’ve been at the same level for a year or more. They’re worried, but hoping that if they keep at it things will come good and they'll be able to replicate the growth they achieved in the past. But this is unlikely to happen. These businesses may be very good at what they do – and have a lot to be proud of – but they haven’t committed to what it really takes to deliver the growth they aspire to. And, in our experience, they won’t move forward until they are able to do so.
There’s also the businesses that are creeping along, just about managing to grow from year to year. They can feel that they are doing a great job but in reality they just haven’t set their sights high enough and have a lot of unfulfilled potential.
In the beginning it’s easier (although you may not feel that if you’ve just started out). While getting a new business up and running is no mean feat, there are lots of things helping to support the initial growth phase. A new business is normally carefully focused around strong, proven capabilities. It offers clients something fresh, an interesting alternative to the established players. And the team are bright and work instinctively, often able to overcome challenges purely with their enthusiasm and determination. But after the initial success, with the business having grown to a different level, these supporting factors don’t work so well and the next stages of growth are much harder to achieve. Then a different game plan is needed. But what should it be?
An approach that works
Of course, there are no magic solutions to achieving and maintaining growth. But whatever stage you are at, there are a few things that will work – and many that won’t. At the heart of our work in this area with clients is a concept we call ‘Unified Growth’. This is because growth isn’t just an add-on or a nice to have when appropriate. It won’t be achieved just by ramping up the new business drive or by appointing people with fancy titles like Chief Growth Officer. Delivering sustainable growth requires a joined up approach that brings together the existing activities and the new ones, puts as much emphasis on planning as on action, and engages both hearts and minds on the journey. It’s not about making things complicated, in fact it’s about making things easy to decide, to explain and to achieve.
When faced with growth opportunities, if left to their own devices, the managers of creative businesses tend either to continue to be completely pre-occupied with their existing work or focus on the new possibilities to the detriment of the existing business. Managers must learn to focus their attention as much on where they are heading as on where they are today. But frequently the problem is that the future direction is not that clear, it hasn’t been thought through properly and there is little that can sensibly be committed to.
This is why really good growth planning is so important. As businesses get larger they have many more options, more implications to consider and hence more difficult decisions to take. And, of course, the potential for getting things wrong is much greater.
Three areas for action
The first consideration is identifying the best opportunities for increasing revenue. There are always many different options and its not easy to plot a clear path – more of the same type of work or new products/services, existing or new clients and sectors, home markets or international etc., etc.? Then it’s about being really serious about how to win that business – what needs to be done in positioning and marketing as well as in selling, who needs to be hired, what other resources are required, what role acquisitions might play? And how long will it all take, what will it cost – and at the end of the day will it be profitable?
Creative businesses can get very focused on chasing revenue – but they often don’t assess the operational implications properly, or act on them. What will the effect be on the existing business? What commitment will be required from the senior management team, and how much of a distraction will it be for them? And most importantly, if the revenue generating efforts are successful – how will the additional work be managed and delivered? What will it mean for skills, structures, ways of working, environments, managing clients and their procurement teams, cash flow and margins? All pretty straightforward things to sort out – but only if you take the time and are fully committed.
And lastly let’s not forget the emotions that are tied up in the process. Growth may be a logical development from a commercial perspective, but it won’t automatically sit well with the talented people that have helped get to your current stage. Growth can change cultures, attitudes and commitment – positively or negatively. Yet another range of things to take care of.
Grow when you are ready
Growth should not be top the priority for all creative businesses. Some are simply not ready for the rigour, challenges and culture required. For them, growth should take a back seat to building a solid foundation of excellence, competitive strength and sustainable cash flow. But for many, growth is there for the taking. It can be very exciting and create new, unique experiences. And if managed properly it can be very rewarding on both personal and financial levels.
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