12 years in to their growth journey, The Future Factory interviews David Johnston, founder of Accept & Proceed – the strategy, branding and design agency based on the edge of Hackney Downs. David shares his learnings of making the transition from graphic designer and agency founder to business leader, and the value of turning to people outside of the business to stimulate and progress his own development.
Alex Sibille: Let’s focus on the core business. How are things right now?
David Johnston: We’re having a real stand-out year. It feels like a windfall year, but I think it’s not, it’s us reaping the rewards of our investments in understanding who we are, and starting conversations with the right businesses, and all the good work we’ve done around new business & PR.
AS: That’s amazing to hear. Can you break down some of the steps that got you there?
DJ: About 8 years ago I realised I needed to work on my business rather than in my business. Designers aren’t the best people to run a design studio! As a trained graphic designer I thought I should be doing great graphic design. After a while I realised that’s not what I should be doing because there were arguably better people at it out there than me, but also if I was going to be running a business then really it was my job to be guiding that, setting the vision for the business and making sure we’re pointing in the right direction.
AS: I’ve heard that before but how do you actually make that possible?!
DJ: Removing yourself from the business as much as possible, ironically, is the right way to lead the business. Not getting caught up in the moment by moment details of projects is important.
AS: How have you found that transition from graphic designer to business leader?
DJ: My biggest learnings have come from people far removed from this business.
Taking ownership of your own self development is crucial. Otherwise your value to the business stops the moment you start the business.While there are better people out there at running businesses than me, I’m highly competitive, and I want to be the very best at what I do, so I look at external sources to continue my learning. We have a chairman which is really important from a business perspective. We meet once per month. He’s entirely focused on the business, which is quite refreshing actually. He’s almost amused by our passion for creativity. He was the one who advised us that we needed to invest in lead generation to feed the business as much as possible.
AS: How do you stay connected to everyone when the shoulders are all to the grindstone?
DJ: We take definite moments to take breaths. Last month we went white water rafting as a team and then for dinner afterwards. You get out of the office, you realise you really love the people you work with, you realise there’s whole new areas of their personalities that you really like.
AS: Are there any things you do regularly that contribute to the success of the agency that others could steal?
DJ: We have weekly momentum meetings. They’re one hour long, before anyone else gets into the studio and the phones start ringing. As directors of the business we use that time to think about what we’re doing over and above the day to day maintenance of the business. We talk about actually creating momentum for the business and moving it forwards. We cover new business, PR, but also loads of self initiated work, lots of thinking about our own brand, our culture, the way that we work. When we started that a couple of years ago it was quite a turning point because of the cumulative effect of many small incremental actions.
AS: Do you have a clear plan for the agency or is it lots of little random actions adding up?
DJ: We regularly ask ourselves the really important questions around what we want the business to be, or where we want it to take us. Those are questions that often founders and partners in agencies just never ask themselves. Once you’ve answered those questions, you have a clear path and can think about who is going to help you achieve that.
For us knowing when to grow has been really important. If we were experiencing the kind of growth we’ve got right now, we couldn’t have handled that probably even just 2 years ago. The type of work we’re doing now we wouldn’t have been ready to undertake just a few years ago.
AS: There are so many tips here that are applicable to any agency with their sights set on growth. Any wise words to share?
DJ: I don’t want to play the humble card too much, but I think we don’t take enough time to really be thankful for where we are in life. Looking back down the mountain I see my 29 year old self in my Brighton basement flat, trying to blag it. Now it’s real, I should feel very proud of that. But I’m not, because I have all these other plans I want to achieve! You have to remember that the horizon is elusive. When you reach the top of the mountain you realise that there are a load of other mountains. I think taking time to reflect on how far you’ve come is a really important key to success.
Alex Sibille, founder, The Future Factory