7 things I’ve learned in 7 years of running Smoking Gun

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By Rick Guttridge
This year Smoking Gun PR hits seven. Founded back in 2010 on the principles of accountability, transparent measurement, and general ingeniousness, in less than a decade we’ve gone from fledgling start up to one of the UK’s most respected PR agencies, via three offices and an exponential increase in the number of heads and desks at our Manchester HQ.

It’s safe to say in this time I’ve learnt plenty, from how to create an office roof terrace overlooking one of the country’s most rapidly changing skylines, to what makes a great team Christmas party. Revelations in terms of running a successful business have also come in thick and fast, and every day I pick up new expertise- whether that relates to people management, new industry practices, or the best use of boundary pushing technologies.
There will always be core fundamentals, though, and these apply to any firm, large or small, in any sector. Key ideas and vital understandings, without which companies are destined never to reach their real potential, here are seven that I believe are the most important to take onboard; one for every calendar we’ve had up on the wall so far.
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Think bigger, push harder, be braver

It’s easy to feel restricted, particularly when first starting out in the business world. You might think there’s a lack of hands to share the work, your reputation still needs to be established compared with the big guns, or there’s a lack of specialist skill sets in the team. I say this is folly- where there’s a will, as they say.
Don’t allow larger firms to cast a shadow over yours. Remember that challenger brands of all kinds are often those responsible for making the biggest waves, and a young company can always shift gear more effectively and efficiently than those with bigger staff numbers and ingrained modus operandi. Pitch for the jobs you want, and the jobs that excite, rather than pure bread and butter, and approach everything with passion and a desire to really make people stand up and take notice. You’ll be amazed at the results that can be achieved.
 

Vanilla gets you nowhere, so don’t be afraid to upset people

Running a business is tough, everyone knows that, but it’s far tougher if you try to walk on eggshells. I’ve had to make some hard decisions since setting up Smoking Gun in the name of cementing our status as go-to experts, and forming the best possible team to keep our clients happy.
By becoming successful and winning new business there will always be competitors that find themselves losing out. Meanwhile, whilst the brands we work with all know their own industries, we know ours too, and this means having the responsibility to speak out, direct, and signpost partners on what they should be doing better, where they are going wrong, and why you understand the finer details of your role more than anyone else. After all, that’s why they hired you.
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Follow your gut instinct

In many ways this is the most important on my list, simply because it feeds into every aspect of business management. You need to decide carefully and based on experience and feelings who you will work with, and what to avoid. Sometimes the biggest contracts are the least rewarding- both financially and motivationally- and may not be the best fit for the business you have grown.
This also applies to individual projects, candidates for vacancies, and investments that may or may not need to be made. If you believe a decision is the wrong one there’s a very good chance it will prove to be just that. You have managed to get to this point through shrewd acumen, so have enough faith in yourself to trust what both heart and mind are saying to take things forward.
 

Trust others

This is, in many ways, much harder, and the ability to have trust in others is reliant on surrounding yourself with the best people possible. I’m lucky to have brought in some incredibly talented and dedicated professionals, but even then delegating can be tough because you want to ensure quality.
But if you don’t delegate effectively you’re on a collision course with serious problems- from missed deadlines to poor staff retention, stress, and ill health. The issue of trust goes much further than this, too, extending to partners, affiliates, contractors and clients- finding those you can rely on isn’t easy, nevertheless without placing trust in others productivity, creative thinking, and capacity will never be fully realised.
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Let go

Perhaps this is a similar point to trusting others, but it also covers far more than delegation. Before setting up Smoking Gun PR I’d worked in the industry for over ten years, rising from newbie to Managing Director at another well known independent agency. By this point we can all get tunnel vision- we have made it so far, become successful, and therefore assume to know what’s best.
By definition this attitude is counter-intuitive. Our piece on UNILAD and LAD Bible provides a case in point- these days offices are drafting in teenagers to ensure fresh ideas and out of the box approaches. If you don’t let go of your desire to have full control and be the absolute decision maker you limit where you can go. In a world where different thinking is the best way to draw attention getting stuck in habits and routine for too long can be commercial suicide.
 

Don’t be afraid to admit when you got it wrong

Everyone would prefer to be perfect, but the reality is nobody can honestly say they are. From your first year at work to your last, chances are mistakes will be made. Some will be avoidable, others born out of circumstance, but all must be acknowledged in order to progress.
Few of us relish in the thought of holding hands up when we commit an error, and yet this is actually a fantastic quality to have. Not only does this feed into our agency obsession with being open and honest, making others trust what you say more because they know you’re not pulling wool over any eyes, when we admit getting something wrong it gives us a chance to evaluate how that happened, take on something from the decision, and most importantly avoid allowing history to repeat itself.
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Swallow that frog

What frog, I hear you ask? This is the simplest point, but one most people still struggle. Swallowing the frog refers to tackling your least favourite task, and I’m a firm believer in doing this at the earliest possible moment- a little like hitting the greens before the roast beef when Sunday dinner is served.
It’s so easy to put off the jobs we don’t enjoy and focus instead on those we do, but this will only ever lead to the jobs we don’t enjoy taking far longer to complete than is necessary. By approaching these first we can tackle them with a fresh mind, rather than through a veil of late-afternoon lethargy, get them done efficiently and effectively, and then move on to something more inspiring, which won’t feel anywhere near as challenging compared with less favourable tasks.