GrowthEarlier this month, SHIFT celebrated its 12th Anniversary. Now that we’ve popped the champagne and cut the cake, it feels natural to consider not just HOW MUCH we’ve grown, but HOW we’ve grown – and more importantly, what does that suggest for mid-sized agencies in an increasingly competitive market?

The reality is, for those of us in the “mid-size” bracket, it’s tough to compete directly against the pockets of the large, public agencies when it comes to growth – whether we are talking about sheer footprint, new services or practice specialties. We win our fair share against the big guys, but there is a built-in perception of “size = reach” that we consistently combat.

We also recognize that to keep the edge that our clients want (and we pride ourselves on), we must continue to grow; to take chances; to expand. The Holmes Report provided some great insight on what’s at stake for the future of agencies, and while much of it comes down to disruptive thinking, it’s also heavily grounded in infrastructure and business models.

It’s no secret that large agencies have the luxury of launching programs as brand exercises, throwing money at a problem or trend — be it through M&A, new offices, or “cutting edge” practices. For smaller and mid-size agencies, the risks of the wrong investment can have both an immediate and long term negative impact on the bottom line.

So what does SHIFT do to avoid the pitfalls?

At SHIFT, we’ve taken our approach to data-driven PR and directly applied it to being a data-driven business. That may sound elementary; basic even – why wouldn’t you use data to make business decisions? However, time and again we’ve seen examples of agencies jumping in without working out all the details on things like time to market, run rates and talent contingencies that have led to closed offices, layoffs, and shuttered practices. The cultural impact of these failures can be dramatic, eroding internal and external confidence in the brand. It’s easy to rally the troops when things are new – what’s your plan on when you inevitably hit a roadblock? Do you have the vision, planning and foresight to create contingencies and reduce risk? It doesn’t mean you can totally avoid failure (we haven’t), but it makes it easier to protect the business and pay those lessons forward. A few cases in point:

  • Our presence in Austin for us began as an idea driven by passion and instinct, but with the discipline of data, we established a deliberate rollout with specific milestones and business metrics to determine success and go-forward strategies. Less than six months later, that discipline has paid off in terms of client profile, profitability, and talent; we are well positioned to continue our growth there. At the same time we have a solid, contemporary blueprint for opening additional offices should there be new opportunities we want to create down the road.
  • Similarly, our early commitment to disrupting the ways in which data could drive communications led us to invest heavily in our Marketing Technology Team. We didn’t just bolt a branded capability onto existing teams. Instead we made a deliberate decision to grow a team that would help our clients and the Agency challenge and redefine the role and impact of PR. The result? We are now a Google Analytics™ Certified Partner (GACP) and are raising the standards of what it means to be a communications practitioner, supported by a fully dedicated team with its own book of business.

Sure, I highlighted the wins here, and we’ve certainly had our fair share of misses. But as I wrote in a blog post last month, we’ve had to be open to taking chances and weighing the benefits and risks of doing so – we’re also willing to make mistakes and own them. This avoids the cultural pitfall I outlined earlier, and keeps our teams enthused about taking on the next challenge.

For our clients, this means that they can feel confident in the depth of analysis and thought behind the moves we make as an agency, and the commitment to grounding all our decisions in a long term plan. A commitment to thoughtful investment in growth also means that even when revenues are flat (and they will be at times) we are positioning the agency for the future; we are reading the market and making investments with an eye to how they will provide value to our clients, the industry and SHIFT down the road.

Can’t wait to see where our data will take us next!