Internationally recognised designer Chris Doyle received this little piece of advice when opening his own agency – never call yourself small.
Now, nearly five years on, Christopher Doyle & Co. work with brands like Spotify and Red Balloon. The founder is quite glad that he flipped that advice and capitalised on the benefits of being small while performing big.
Chris pulled up a chair at Adobe MAKE IT this month to share career advice with fellow creatives. Eagerness, active listening, and diplomacy emerged as the three main imperatives needed to prosper in an industry that evolves every six months.
As a SMB owner himself, Chris has a lot to say for fellow small agencies embarking on a similar journey.
Starting from scratch
Chris founded his agency after 12 years in the industry and the birth of his second child. He’d risen to senior roles in top Sydney agencies but craved a more measured life, time with his family and creative control, a balance he’s found, albeit in a different form.
“What I thought naively was that I was going back to more design work, which I did, but the business side of things is much more hands on,” he says.
Chris had built an industry-wide name for himself, but it still took a few years before he felt “in the swing of things” as his own boss. “Designers usually have a portfolio they show employers who hire you based on that. I was really keen once I’d left my last agency not to show what I’d done there.”
Chris challenged himself to create an original body of work, separate from what he’d done with agencies in the past; a rite of passage he believes every designer should go through.
“It’s kind of dodgy to walk into meetings and say ‘this is what we do’ when it’s not actually what we do, it’s what I’ve done with agencies in the past.”
Building a team
Chris has a simple rule when it comes to managing staff – avoid big agency problems.
One of these was not introducing designers to the ‘big meetings’ fast enough, something essential when managing a small team. Today, Chris’s designers are openly part of the decision-making process and heavily involved with the intricacies of client strategy.
“When we find ourselves in any client situation, I can talk about it openly because they’re aware of it and not in their design bubble, and that’s a problem that can happen in bigger agencies.”
Chris has built an environment that empowers designers far quicker than big agencies on both the creative and management side, keeping them excited and invested in the work.
Dealing with clients
The quality of service can make or break a client relationship. “Clients want to sit with the creatives, they want to talk to the person creating the work. There are no walls and no buffers. The head of marketing is on the phone with the designer and briefing the work in. They could go to a ginormous ad agency, but they love that relationship.”
The designers under Chris’s label are not just creatives but account managers who are required to have contact with the humans that briefed in the work. These account management skills build resilience and strategy in his designers, two qualities crucial to all employees of a small business.
A creative tools subscription and a business card are all designers need these days to open their own dream agency, creating an extremely competitive landscape of similarly skilled designers. In this type of environment, Chris understands that only original ideas work and the best agencies build a culture that ‘strives for newness’, regardless of how small that change in messaging, style or tone may be.
“Designer’s that say ‘everything has been done’ are talking nonsense. Not everything has been done or said. At least part of what you produce needs to be new.”
The realisation of creativity will always come from the people involved on both client and agency sides, regardless of the work. Managing this day-to-day human contact is the most crucial part of any client-agency relationship.
As the leader of a small business, Chris understands the importance of meeting clients in the flesh, especially in an increasingly digital world.
“I make sure I have a lot of face-to-face time with clients, because the only truly unique thing that you can offer is yourself.”