What I Learned When I Tried to Do It All, and Failed
It can be hard to admit you need help, especially when you've built your career by taking risks and seeing where the chips fall.
But there I was, in one of those "record-scratch, you're probably wondering how I wound up here" moments, realizing for the first time that if I wanted to take my agency forward, I couldn't continue to play every role in the business.
I was in an Edinburgh restaurant with a client, celebrating the successful launch of our biggest rebrand to date. The evening had been going well when suddenly the issue of payment reminders for invoices was raised, leading to a tirade of verbal abuse that ultimately resulted in my leaving early, pretty shaken up.
To this day, it's one of the most deflating moments of my entire career. But it was an eye-opener too. As I relived the experience, trying to understand what had gone wrong, how I'd been so caught off guard, it became clear that while I started my business based on the belief that I could do anything and everything, that didn't mean I had to continue doing it all as the company grew.
The truth is, being a passionate creative, I was the last person who should have been taking and responding to client feedback, let alone chasing late payments. Especially as we scaled up and began taking on bigger clients.
Not only did trying to handle clients myself not play to my strengths as a creative and leader, it set up the kind of situation that led to that incident in Edinburgh. It wasn't that I couldn't handle clients, it's that when I did, certain boundaries dissolved. Clients couldn't differentiate me from the business. When I was acting out every role, I was perceived so fully as the face of the company that I stopped being a peer to my clients and started being a representation of our contract—cue that celebratory meal spiralling into a payment dispute.
Too many hats
The thing is, I have a habit of getting stuck into different roles when I'm not necessarily the best person for the job. This has got me to where I am today. I've succeeded and grown because I've never been afraid of having a go, creating opportunities to jump on—regardless of whether I'm "qualified" to do so.
It's served me well. Mostly. My journey to founding Robot Food in 2009 was an unconventional one. Before I started the agency, I hadn't even set foot in a creative studio and I have no formal design training. This idea of tackling something totally new and out of your comfort zone is what we now describe to clients as "category naiveté," and can be advantageous. You get to see everything with fresh eyes, which allows you to question the old tropes and drive positive change through relevance. I knew that was our opportunity as an agency, and from the start I questioned every norm of the established old guard.
One thing I was convinced we could do differently was to not employ account handlers. So, at Robot Food you would deal with the creatives directly, nothing would be lost in translation, and clients would feel special for it. And that was brilliant in theory. I had a great team of designers, but I was playing the part of creative director, client director and finance director. Now, I'm very headstrong, but that's just too many hats.
Making the magic happen
In hindsight, the signs that I needed a client-facing team had been there all along, but I ignored them until I reached breaking point. As a founder and creative director, I needed to focus on making the magic happen—that's the reason clients choose Robot Food in the first place. Yet I was sure I could handle the client side, too. After all, I enjoyed speaking to clients and telling them about our work, and I'd had plenty of success with unorthodox ways of working in the past.
But it turns out that while it's great to push the envelope, it's also great to identify which people and structures can really help you. Without an account management team, the dynamic we had as an agency and with our clients was all wrong. Like most creatives, I was, and still am, very protective of my ideas and can get too emotionally charged to stay impartial. We needed that objective, impartial voice. And I realized the importance of defining clear roles and healthy boundaries and how they can lead to closer, more collaborative partnerships.
Do what you're good at
Today we have an amazing client team at Robot Food. They are not only the empathic voice willing to fight for the client and keep the team in perspective, but they fight for the agency and the best creative outcome, too. I've learned that clients love my involvement when it's specific. I'm now introduced by my team as the guy who's going to challenge you, but in a good way.
You can't do it all alone. When you find good people, embrace them and their specialisms. Don't try to mold anyone, but encourage them to own what makes them unique and special, and you'll be amazed what you can achieve as a team.
Luckily, now I'm not judged by clients as the be all and end all of Robot Food. I have equal pride in the way we handle honest and close client relationships as I do in our creative. I just had to take the hard route to get there.