The only way to keep your agency growing is to get comfortable with discomfort
When you think back on those first few years of owning an agency, somehow the tough parts get muted. You remember the late-night pizza strategy sessions and the euphoria of signing that first big deal. You even remember stressing over payroll problems or going without paychecks (sometimes for months) just to keep the doors open.
But it’s easier to forget about the fear of saying "yes" to a prospect and wondering how you were going to deliver. It’s even easier to forget about how you were often one mistake or choice away from having to call it quits. OK, maybe we don’t need to rehash all those moments, but the general atmosphere of that time is important to remember.
It was uncomfortable.
That period of discomfort — though some of it was genuinely painful — helped you transform a mere idea into a real, living thing that served real, living people. Yes, you made mistakes in those early days, but you also took creative leaps into the dark, solved problems every day, and instilled happiness in others. In doing so, you changed the world just a little bit.
You took those leaps of faith because you had everything to lose if you played it safe. The risk seemed like the least risky choice of all.
What happens when you get comfortable
After a period of rapid growth and constant change, an agency gradually becomes more stable. As the years pass, processes, tools and team members stay pretty static and you feel like you’ve built a solid foundation. This feels good initially. Stability implies security: consistent team members and loyal clients.
But as this state continues, owners can begin to feel dormant. Success plateaus, and you may ask yourself: "If my agency isn’t growing, what am I doing? What if the biggest risks I’ve taken professionally occurred 20 years ago?" From all this doubt, the question arises: "Have I become too comfortable?"
The uncomfortable period was such a fertile time. It involved constant invention and reinvention and required continuous problem-solving. The agency was growing stronger by the day, even as it skated on thin ice.
Thankfully, you don’t have to start a whole new agency to rediscover the joy of discomfort. In fact, discomfort could benefit your mature agency in many ways. According to Andy Molinsky, a professor of organizational behavior at the Brandeis International Business School, discomfort is a psychological must for success. "Without the skill and courage to take the leap, we can miss out on important opportunities for advancement," said Molinsky.
Furthermore, we live in the age of discomfort. Despite our modern luxuries, freedoms and conveniences, our way of life is highly disruptive. We’re constantly bombarded with new information and our employees are always on the lookout for better opportunities. Stasis is a relic of the past; possessing a certain level of comfort with discomfort is the only way for your agency to grow.
Getting comfy in a not-so-cozy space
So if we know the marketplace demands that agencies keep growing and evolving, is it possible to get comfortable being uncomfortable? Follow these strategies to promote healthy discomfort and increase your agency’s chances for success:
Jump into the "tomorrow" of the market
Experience and stability can be harmful to evolution. The longer your agency exists, the less likely you will be to take creative risks that lead to growth. You’re used to listening to the market (and responding to the requests and habits of your current clients), but to keep evolving, go a step further. Try to anticipate where the market is going next and what people will want and need tomorrow.
This doesn’t mean you have to be a time lord. You just have to experiment and play with confidence. Know your audience members well enough (and be confident in your engagement with them) so you can offer something new and they’ll respond enthusiastically.
Consider this: Did consumers really know they wanted an in-home digital guide until they had one? Amazon was able to invent a whole new product category by taking trends consumers naturally gravitated toward and giving them something new to play with. Now, most consumers can’t imagine their lives without Alexa.
Disrupt your tool stack
Take calculated steps outside your comfort zone by anticipating the "tomorrow" of your clients; stay nimble with the tools you use.
Technology is the tissue layer of your business. It touches every process, department, and role, strengthening the bond between agency and audience. So what better way to invite positive change into your organization than to confidently integrate the latest relevant technology?
That could mean taking on new internal communication tools, developing a presence on a new social media platform, or exploring an artificial intelligence element. Evolving the digital technology portfolio of your agency has been cited as a vital feature of "digital marketing 4.0," a proven marketing framework for the future. Agencies able to rework their tools will situate themselves alongside the pacemakers of their network.
Help your clients get out of their own zones
If you’re feeling stagnant as an agency owner, your clients are probably experiencing that, too. They’re on their own journeys to growth.
Many of them are enterprise clients. They’re driving massive ships packed with resources; they’re sailing straight and steady, but they’ve stopped feeling the water beneath them. They need your help. As your agency grows, help your clients do the same and hold their hands along the way.
Part of an agency’s role is instilling reassurance. Many owners lose sight of this. You can give clients the confidence to explore new avenues, break out of their own comfort zones and reach new levels of success. But you can only do this if you’re leading by example.
Show clients how to be brave by stepping out of your comfort zone publicly. Invite clients to join you in your experiments. Try a new tool together, for example. When Brian Patterson, a partner at Virginia-based digital marketing agency Go Fish Digital, introduced a client to Slack, the client went on to roll out the tool for its entire portfolio of companies.
You’ve created an agency that stands on its own two feet, and for that, you deserve to take a breath. But if you’re the kind of person I think you are, you’ll eventually grow restless. Get the buzz of growth back into your agency and start practicing discomfort. You never know where that new lease on life could take you.
is the CEO of Agency Management Institute
, serving 250-plus agencies to help the owners build profitable agencies that evolve and scale.