12 years into 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.

Accept & Proceed

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.

AS: We won’t go into the wonderful quirk that is a living and breathing coffee shop inside your studio! Let’s focus on the core business. How are things right now?

DJ: 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: My biggest learning was about 8 years ago when 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 when everything ultimately comes through you, how do you actually make that possible?!

DJ: I think 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.

Accept & Proceed

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. So whilst 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 have to look at external sources to continue my learning. We have a chairman which I think is really important from a business perspective. We meet once per month. At Accept & Proceed we’re all about inspiring concepts and quality work, but 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 quite rightly that we needed to invest in lead generation to feed the business as much as possible.

AS: New business wins have indeed seen the team putting in some long hours over recent months. How do you stay connected to everyone when the shoulders are all to the grindstone?

DJ: We take definite moments to take breaths. As and when we have big wins or we’ve worked really intensively and hard for a period then we do things like last month we went white water rafting as a team, and then for dinner afterwards. Those kinds of things seem to be the most important. You get out of the office, you realise you really love the people you work with, you realise there are 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. It’s very easy to just maintain your business, cash flow, projects… 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 forward. 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 it was quite a turning point because of the cumulative effect of many small incremental actions.

AS: That’s perfect! We should all be doing that! 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 to be on and can think about who is going to help you achieve that.

And also, importantly, do we want to grow? For us knowing when to grow has been 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. So knowing when to grow is really important.

AS: So true. Thank you so much. There are so many tips here that are applicable to any agency with their sights set on growth.

AS: Any last 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’d 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! But you have to remember that the horizon is elusive. When you reach the top of the mountain you realise that there is a load of other mountains. I think taking time to reflect on how far you’ve come is a really important key to success.

AS: Amen to that.