I stopped growing, and I felt like I was stagnating.
Early in my career, I worked at a creative agency of more than 200 people.
I loved what I did and greatly enjoyed my coworkers. The work challenged me, I grew as a designer, and I felt like I was constantly learning from the people around me. So when I left, the problem wasn’t with the work or the people.
It was just that, after a few years, I’d hit a plateau.
I stopped growing, and I felt like I was stagnating. Meanwhile, the company continued to expand, which meant major shifts away from the ethos that had attracted me in the first place—not in a bad way, just not in line with what I wanted.
So, I made the decision to strike out on my own, and after a few years freelancing, I founded an independent creative agency—Clarke. My experience with Clarke over the last few years has made it clear that I prefer a small, independent environment over a large corporate one. And the benefits for me and my team have been irreplaceable.
Now, I would never shame one experience over the other, but, over the last three years, I’ve found a lot of joyous upsides in working with a small creative company.
You decide if you’re living to work or working to live.
When I was at larger agencies, it wasn’t uncommon to work through the weekend.
And it wasn’t only when a project demanded extra time, either. The culture dictated your work was your life—what else would you be doing on a weekend if you weren’t working? And of course you could say “no” when asked to come in on a Saturday, but you’d feel the pressure from your decision later.
After feeling that heat in the past, I now strongly encourage my team to draw healthy work-life boundaries.
In my experience, a better work-life balance leads to happier, healthier team members, which frees up resources to deliver strong products and solutions in the studio. And I think it’s important to note that sticking to a Monday through Friday schedule doesn’t mean we aren’t pushing ourselves. For a small shop, we go pretty hard—we’re ambitious and we want to help our clients succeed.
We’re just less focused on work being the only thing we do as humans.
You have the opportunity to showcase new skills while clients enjoy a full-service agency.
While talking with a client about why they chose Clarke, they told me, “We wanted a shop that could do it all.” A tight deadline and a need for seamless service meant they didn’t want to go to multiple sources for a number of related projects.
Specialized agencies are more common than not. This makes sense for clients “shopping” for design services and there can be a real benefit to working with agencies that are experts in a single discipline. The problem is that working between multiple agencies can be a real deadline killer or a budget buster. With a smaller, multi-disciplinary agency like ours, clients can get a greater variety of work completed under one roof quickly and efficiently.
Everyone on the team is more likely to have a varied skillset—less hands on deck means those same hands have to do more to keep projects sailing along. Responsibilities change frequently depending on projects and workload. Some weeks we may be working on identity development, other times we might be working on an interactive infographic or icon system. Our studio is very hands-on and we all do a little of everything.
We don’t have account directors or client managers. As a client, you interact directly with the people doing the work. Closer communication helps the client relationship blossom. They get most everything they need from one source, and your team works on a variety of projects, allowing them to flex different work muscles to solve new challenges.
You set your own limits at a smaller agency.
Sometimes you need to be able to tell a client no.
In a large design firm, the client is always right. It doesn’t matter how burned out you are at the end of a project—you have to give them what they’ve asked for. Independent agencies tend to be more forgiving about this. At Clarke, I’m firm on what it is we’re willing to do—and what it is we want to do.
For example, I recently had a disagreement with a client about what we were capable of producing on a certain timeline. At the end of the conversation, they asked, “Well, can’t you just do it anyway?”
I stopped, and thought to myself, “Well, I could hire out a team of contractors, drive my team to exhaustion and push to get it done.” So, yes, technically, we could “Just do it.”
But I decided I didn’t want to put my team through that. So we declined. And the client relationship survived.
Knowing your limits means you have the luxury of only taking work you’re passionate about. You and your team can focus on growing, both your work and skill set, instead of pushing to meet an unreasonable deadline. But this doesn’t mean you aren’t working hard—or even working overtime.
It simply means you’re doing what you set out to do in an independent agency in the first place: going against the norm.