The insiders view of an agency in administration
2 months after Base One went into administration (& finally insolvency)… and a few more grey hairs later I’ve had time to reflect on what went wrong from soley my point of view and what could have been done along the way to avert it.
I remember talking to Paul from Earnest at the DMA awards a while back: “How’s business?” he asked. “Yep – good good – busy busy - lots of prospects.” I said.
Back then we were at the start of some interesting talks about planning our futures.
8 months down the line, I was the last and final person out of the office with a ream of A4 paper under one arm and our old B2B agency of the year award under the other, turning off the lights, with my nose, for the final time.
I know why I took the paper; for the kids, but I wasn’t sure why I was taking the old award; maybe just a memory to stick in the garden office to remind me that at some point I’d done alright. And we had back in the day – but we’d made some pretty bad moves that had led us to this point.
There were some fundamental ones:
We’d given up on awards. We’d stopped submitting wholeheartedly – it was job that we gave to the jnrs or fitted in between jobs. We justified this because we were head down working like crazy to recover from a cash-flow situation that dated back a few years where we’d been left with a 200k+ of bad debt at the same time as a large client moved on.
Note to self: Never stop submitting. Treat every submission with the same energy of a pitch.
We’d dropped the ball on internal culture. In our usual fashion, after the issues above, we’d made a bigger fuss about the people who’d left under that wave of redundancies than we had about the people that were left behind. Our culture was slipping, and slipping… and slipping – we knew we weren’t what we were… but weren’t too sure what we wanted to become. Back in the day we were a more of a family than anything else – we used to have a sharing table of friendship that would be continually full of anything from food to favours. In the last year it was just covered in work.
Note to self: Be like Bowie – if culture changes then re-create rather than leave just memories. A purpose shared by all, from reception to the MD is paramount.
We didn’t ditch the bad apples, both internally and externally. As far as bad apples internally we’d had very few but in our typical soft nature we found it tricky to make the hard decisions. When you’re expecting everyone else to pull their bit and there are some who aren’t it’s hugely demotivating and dispiriting for the rest. Externally we’d have the odd client who it seemed their sole objective was to make one of us cry. We’d support those upset of course but we never sacked the client. The company stomached the pain for the sake of the profit and everyone suffered.
Note to self: For nice people I will do literally anything. For the very few and far between nasties it’s a polite no: life is too short not to work for and with people you love.
And so it went on.
As things went on month by month in the last year we had a mix of optimism and dread. Some thing just weren’t going our way: As our biggest client came up for review we found we’d grown it so big that it’s procurement rules meant it had taken up too large a % of our turnover so we had to be excluded from the review, despite having received the best satisfaction rating of an agency ever. We kept everyone up to date with news in now less enjoyable agency meetings.
Agency meetings are for good news too. Looking back, in the last years they were only ever called to disseminate bad news. I dreaded them and so did everyone else – both those talking and those listening. From back in the day when we had regular meets for knowledge sharing and pitch win celebrations to the final year they’d become more like a wake. Even the biscuits had disappeared.
Note to self: Make time to celebrate everything& don’t just have pitch wash-ups when it’s gone wrong!
There’s 2 common truths I’m quite fond of;
1 – the one about the difference between a slow boiled frog and one dropped in hot water. The one dropped in jumps out, the other is gradually dying but not feeing it.
2 – the one about 2nd world war soliders taking refuge in newly made craters as the bombs never fell in the same place twice.
And both of them are relevant to me now:
1 – never get comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. Sounds daft but I know but a lot of us do it and maybe we should be brave enough to jump sooner.
2 – I’ve learnt the hard way about quite a lot of things and though it’s gone off in my face this time, I know for sure the mistakes that I should be aware of and not make again. That of course doesn’t mean I won’t make a myriad of other mistakes – and I hope I do, as the best lessons seem to be learnt in the hardest times.
Anyhow, I’ve had enough of this kind of learning for the moment, but I thought, in the spirit of community and support that I’ve been shown since all this happened, I’d return the favour with a few hard learned lessons that I hope can benefit the rest of you.
All the best and sleep tight.
(all views are my own)