Agency Culture Marketing

It was our shittiest year, it was our most successful year


By Michael Boychuk, Co-founder

January 22, 2024 | 7 min read

Many ‘end of year’ pieces from smaller agencies failed to detail how hard 2023 really was. Little Hands of Stone’s Michael Boychuk shares his guide on how these agencies can persevere.


Our PR team warns me that I’m getting this in on the ass-end of the agency’s “year-end recaps” relevance [editor’s note: agreed].

There’s been a lot of win-touting from agency leaders but little honesty about the fact it was an objectively brutal year for most small agencies. Multiple seasoned ad people have confirmed (at least privately) that 2023 was unlike anything they’ve ever experienced. It was simultaneously reassuring and terrifying that ‘When will the work come back?’ was THE talk of the AdAge Small Agency Conference this year.

The merry-go-round of business cycles never stops turning. 2023 started slow for my team, which isn’t an atypical Q1 for a smaller agency, but the dark tunnel of Q1 stretched into Q3. It was all tunnel, no light. So when I told my partner a few weeks ago that I considered 2023 one of our most successful years, he looked at me like I needed some sleep and/or serious medical help.

It was the year of redefining “success.”

The brutal downturn forced us to sharpen our focus, double down on our vision, and develop new skills we didn’t bother developing when opportunities were easier to come by. So what do 12 months of near financial ruin give you the opportunity to do?

You can’t teach yourself piano

It’s a little bit counterintuitive to bring in more outside help as you are busy cutting everything else to lower expenses. But have you ever tried to teach yourself piano? No, you didn’t. This means that if you’re not an expert in new business, you don’t have time to fumble through it yourself. Bring in strategy, new business, and PR experts to sharpen your focus and help lighten the way forward. We had to manage their time carefully, but the insights we got from them put us years ahead of where we would be without their help.

Leave the dead horse alone

When work from our biggest client suddenly went dark, we wasted too much time hoping it would change back. It was a big step forward when we finally accepted that work wasn’t coming from that direction any more.

Things improve when you stop wasting time focusing on the one direction that you know work will NOT be coming from and instead pivot to think about future growth. This forces you to dial in your story and create a clean thread for communications. We challenged ourselves: could we articulate who we were in a loud room full of half-drunk CMOs who’ve never heard of us?

Get out of the house

It turns out that hitting refresh on your inbox doesn’t make the good emails magically appear. Go out and get face-to-face connection time with human people. When your cold LinkedIn messaging has a .000 batting average, you have to shift your approach.

Comb through your connections to set up conversations with anyone who could give you insights beyond what you already know. CMOs, accountants, business people, strategists, and agency leaders from shops in huge networks and small independents. Personally, every single conversation gave us something valuable that helped us find connections and our way forward. (You know who you are. THANKS.)

Keep the smokestack spewing

When things are really dead, keep the creative assembly line moving with both pro-bono and “low-bono” projects for people working on issues you believe in. It keeps the team sharp, and you keep doing what you love. Creatively, it also pushes you to do more impactful work that you could show off to new client prospects. Also, you will invest in it; the work has to be great. Even in a downturn, it’s critical to keep your new work pipeline pumping, even by creating your own opportunities.

Caving is death

Getting dragged away from your vision in dark times can be tempting. When revenue is gangbusters, it’s easy to reject that digital display retail campaign with 18,000 versions and zero margins. When things get tight, that project starts to look like a Super Bowl: 60. Don’t fucking do it.

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The short-term lifeline will only take you further away from who you aim to be. Fewer, more precious opportunities meant that we had to make each one count, and we had more time to focus on craft and the last 2% of executing that takes work from “decent” to “great.”

It’s tempting to look back on last year as the year we’d rather forget, but I’d rather we kept it top of mind. It gave us a lot. I’d love to hear from other folks about what they learned from the nonstop kick in the teeth that was 2023.

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