This week, we celebrate the agency’s 5th birthday. Since 2015, we’ve grown in every way: our team, the nature and scope of projects, and scale of our impact. We’ve launched campaigns in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, and worked with some of the most innovative and exciting leaders in social impact. But it hasn’t been all plain sailing.
To mark our 5th anniversary and in acknowledgement of the great adapting we all have to do to overcome the impact of COVID-19, we’re celebrating a little differently. Over the next 5 days, we’ll be touching on the 5 biggest mistakes we’ve made as a business, and how in spite of these, we’ve found a way to adapt and continue to grow.
It’s never been more important for agencies like us to exist right now – in the midst of a global crisis and inward shifting perspectives, telling the stories and narratives to keep people engaged in social impact is crucial. Embracing failure, not shying away from it, is one of the main reasons we’re still here to do just that. So let’s get started:
1) Never compromise on creativity
2) Representation is a problem, stop denying it, we have
With the latest Campaign report indicating representation is actually decreasing in the creative industries, this is a problem not only we face as an agency. For all the rhetoric about doing more to make agency life have a greater appeal, clearly something is not working. We’ll be the first to own that we didn’t do enough in the early years to engage a wider representation of today’s society in our recruitment process. If we want our work to be inclusive and wide reaching, so too does our team.
We’ve made big strides forward, but there’s still a long way to go. That’s why we’ve made Representation a core objective of our new strategy, addressing everything from how we recruit, to the way we talk about our team, as well as building greater links with schools and civil society in our home borough of Southwark in London.
3) You can’t just do social impact
One of the motivations for starting Shape History in the first place was that we were tired of seeing agencies do social impact, but not actually live by those values. It’s a bit like sticking a rainbow on something and calling it social impact – check out this bus company rebranding their pride bus! – it means nothing unless you actually live and breathe the values your work champions.
So how have we failed on this front? We’ve realised that to be true to our social impact mission, absolutely everyone has to live and breathe it, no exceptions. That hasn’t always been the case. We’ve worked with some incredible freelancers and consultants over the years with awe inspiring portfolios, but when they didn’t share our hunger and passion for social impact, it almost always didn’t work out.
The debate goes on about hiring skills or culture first. Ideally go for both, but if push comes to shove, make sure that your people – all your people – embody your mission and that you don’t just talk the talk but walk the walk.
4) Don’t forget culture!
Certainly for the first couple of years, the focus was so much on making sure the company was surviving and making a profit. This meant constant late nights, team members burning out and eventually leaving, a general feeling of anxiousness pretty much all the time – we’re all big enough to admit that this was probably our biggest mistake.
This realisation combined with years of hard work paying off has enabled us now to completely rethink our approach to running the agency. We’re placing our team at the forefront of every decision we make because ultimately, we will only grow as quickly as we grow our people. There’s so much more to say about the new culture we’re nurturing here, but more of that later.
5) The client-agency relationship is fundamentally flawed
Like many agencies, for the first few years, we held up that client/agency barrier which we found caused more harm than good. It meant the team felt as though they had to follow a precise rule book with our clients which was forced and constrictive.
With the impact of our work being our ultimate goal, we now treat each project we take on with our clients as a collaboration. With their expertise in different social impact issues and our expertise in communications, it’s a winning combination. For this reason, we call all of our clients, partners. We make this clear at the start of each project so that we’re as open, honest and empathetic as possible throughout the process.