On Habit and Self Reliance | March 10, 2015

I learnt to dive the PADI way, safe in the knowledge that my “buddy” would be there to help if I needed them. So if I was struggling to get my fins on they’d steady me, if I got caught in some fishing line they’d untangle me, and in the unlikely event that I ran out of air, we could breath from the same source. The “buddy system” provides a great comfort blanket and makes recreational diving that much safer.

Society often feels like part of a giant buddy system. If something goes wrong there’s usually somebody nearby to help you, whether it’s a parent, a teacher, a work colleague or a friend. However while support networks are a necessity, it’s all too easy to become dependant. This is most starkly reflected by the number of trivial calls placed to the emergency services.

I see this thinking a lot. People automatically looking for external solutions, rather than looking internally. Maybe they think it’s somebody else responsibility, maybe they don’t fully grasp their part in the problem, or maybe it’s just quicker and simpler to ask somebody else for help.

I recently undertook a cave diving course while on holiday in Mexico and was fascinated by the difference between recreational and technical diving. Sure, you still dove as part of a team, and would double check each others equipment, gas calculations and tie-offs (to ensure an uninterrupted line back to the surface). However each person had a specific role to play, whether that was setting the line or leading the team back to the exit.

Furthermore, there was a real focus on problem solving and self rescue. So if you got yourself into a tricky situation, like one of your tanks blew or you got tangled up in the line, you were encouraged to fix it yourself rather than immediately turning to your teammates for help.

As such a lot of the training involve being blindfolded (to simulate zero visibility) and trying to find your way out of a cave, while the instructor simulated various emergency situations like your regulator failing, one of your tanks suddenly emptying, getting your hoses caught on obstructions or losing contact with the line, all while trying to remain calm and fix the problem.

This may sound pretty challenging, and indeed it was. So there were times when I felt my instructor was being unnecessarily critical or harsh. However if you find yourself lost in a cave, 30 minutes from the surface with your air slowly running out and no sign of your team members, the habit you’ve formed by constantly being forced to solve your own problems, may just be the difference between life and death.

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The Death of the Agency Has Been Greatly Exaggerated | March 10, 2015

If I lived and worked in San Fransisco, the current “death of the agency” debate may have slightly more poignancy than it does in the UK. San Francisco and the wider Silicon Valley is undoubtedly living through a huge tech bubble, and has been for some time. The slew of new tech businesses quickly hoovered up the local talent, before starting to ship them in from around the country and the rest of the world. This includes dozens of Brits I know who have left these shores for a better life in California.

The tech giants have started to reach their local hiring event horizon, which is one of the reasons they’ve started setting up outposts in London - to gather up all the local designers and developers they couldn’t (or wouldn’t necessarily want to) relocate.

They’ve also started poaching local agency staff or even buying out whole agencies for their talent. So I know at least 4 agency founders who have been bought by the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google the last few years. It would seem like design staff are now valued at around $1-2m per head as part of an acquihire, similar to their developer counterparts.

Does this mean the end of the agency? Well if I was running an agency in San Fransisco, I may start to worry. It’s a hostile hiring environment and a difficult place to recruit. After all how do you compete with 6-figure salaries, free staff canteens, company climbing walls and a host of other perks?

However that presumes that everybody at an agency want’s to go in-house. Working for an agency has a number of perks, not least the ability to cycle through a whole range of different problems and challenges during the year, rather than focussing on one single product. So maybe you’d prefer to use your design skills to help a charity, rather than optimising ad placement for a wealthy-beyond-belief tech company. Or perhaps you’d like to help improve the digital services offered by your local council, rather than inventing a new way to poke people online?

Not every design or development role at a tech company will be rewarding, even if the salary and environment are. Several friends on mine have described the acquihire scenario as retirement. Getting off the difficult design or development treadmill and settling for a gentler pace of life.

This rings true when you consider that most of the recent agency sales have been companies who are 10-years older or more. Many of these agencies have seen co-founders leave to work with large tech-companies or follow their own entrepreneurial ideas. If this is the environment you’re working in, I can definitely understand some agency founders wanting to get off the merry-go-round and have a more stable existence.

While some of these sales have been a graceful exit for agencies struggling to find business, the majority have been agencies at the peak of their careers, with big order books and companies falling over each other to work with them. So I hardly think that’s a sign of difficulty. If anything I think it demonstrates the ability of agencies to hire great talent, build brand and create demand.

After all, not every company is able to hire a kick arse team, so need to turn to agencies for help instead. Outside the Silicon Valley tech bubble there are all kinds of organisations that need our help, from online retailers to household brands, from universities and charities to museums and public bodies.

Some of these organisations are waking up to the need to upscale and bring some of their digital capabilities in house. As such agencies like ours are as used to integrating with in-house teams as they are working on their own. In fact a lot of clients come to us to help them improve the skills of their digital staff and set a standard, patterns and working practices they can follow. So we augment, extend and provide external perspective, rather than simply offering outsourced delivery.

The skills and resources required by digital transformation are vast, and I believe it’s going to be impossible for every company that has a digital component to resource it completely internally and maintain quality. So while monocultures like Silicon Valley may turn into agency wastelands, large and diverse cities like London, New York and Tokyo will always need a healthy and robust agency culture to both supplement and extend their digital capabilities.

Now this doesn’t mean that agencies won’t struggle. With services like SquareSpace and Shopify eating into the lower end of the market, I think many smaller agencies or individuals will find it difficult to complete. As such I think it’s even more important for agencies to work their way up the value chain than ever before. Otherwise they may find their market slowly eaten up by self-service products and white-labled tools.

On the positive side, this means that agencies will inevitably be forced to get better at what they do, raising the quality for everybody. This can only be a good thing in my books. Sure, a few agencies will wobble along the way, while others will sell their studio and move on. But for every large agency that exists, I see dozens more waiting in the wings, and boy, are some of them good.

So is the agency culture dead? Far from it! If anything it’s the healthiest I’ve ever seen it.

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