What Makes a Successful Creative Agency? 30 Quips and Tips from 30 Years in Business

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.

Carol Neiger and Team NeigerDesign

This year marks 30 years of NeigerDesign. With 30 years as owner of NeigerDesign and 40 years as a design professional, I have learned a lot and I am still learning every day.

There’s something cathartic about trying to summarize my experiences—especially if you can find some smiles and humor along the way.

So if you're wondering what it takes to be a successful creative agency, here are my top tips.

Inspire yourself and those around you.

"Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life." - Steve Jobs

1. Most of us are hybrids. We are not one defined person with one defined role. Starting Studio//Shift was my motivation to integrate my design practice with my fine arts practice. Both require creativity. Both include working alone and with groups for collaboration and critique. Once I decided to let go of categories and stop separating the two, my work got better on both fronts.

"Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken." - Oscar Wilde

2. The thing I regret most when I look back on my life and career is that it took me so long to honor my dreams and merge my passions. 

Tip: Write the story you want to live in.

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Live a life that’s true to YOU. Dream big, and don’t settle for less than you’re capable of.

"The only way to do great work is to love what you do." - Steve Jobs

3. Read every day. The greatest way to get the greatest ideas is to read. There’s this great quote that goes like this:

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies... The man who never reads lives only one.” – George R.R. Martin

I like that one a lot. The more you read, the more ideas you get. Read something every day to expand your mind. Even if it’s just for 20 minutes.

4. Go for walks.

A quick morning walk has been one of the best creativity-enhancing habits I’ve adopted. I am happiest during the times I have maintained the habit of going on a 15-20 minute walk outside every day.

In one Stanford University study, researchers found that walking boosts creative output by 60 percent. In the study, 176 adults, mainly college students, were given a variety of tasks commonly used to measure “divergent thinking,” a key element in truly creative cognition.

I just walk and that’s it. I try to have a blank mind and that is when some of my best ideas or epiphanies emerge. There’s something about being outside in nature without any specific intentions other than enjoying a nice walk and observing nature that re-energizes me and gets my ideas flowing.

Be bold.

"If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat! Just get on." - Sheryl Sandberg

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"You get in life what you have the courage to ask for." - Oprah Winfrey

5. Let yourself be passionate and show passion. Try to discover and know yourself. What makes you passionate? Then write a game plan to achieve it. Step by step and row by row—that’s what makes a garden grow!

"You can get what you want or you can just get old." - Billy Joel

When I was ten, I visited a famous carver who made a pair of working pliers out of a piece of plywood. He was very old. World master carver Ernest "Mooney" Warther, sat in a chair and carved—making a few slices in the wood here and there. Then he said to his captivated audience of adults and children, “Now, whoever wants this must grab it.” 

I did.

I still have it.

It is a physical lesson of if you want something, you must grab the opportunity because no one is going to grab it for you!

"If it scares you, it might be a good thing to try." - Seth Godin

Collaborate.

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"The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team." - Phil Jackson

"When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute." - Simon Sinek

6. Happiness comes from solving problems. It’s not the suffering of the problems that leads to happiness. It’s the solving of the suffering that leads to happiness.

Solving problems is so much more effective when the perspective is shared. We all come from different backgrounds, have different interests and different personalities. It is just amazing to gain the perspective of a team of individuals.

Continuously learn. 

"Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." - Benjamin Franklin

7. Develop a growth mindset. The essence of this life lesson—developing a growth mindset—for me means this: Hard work trumps talent every day of the week.

People who constantly complain, blame, and refuse to take responsibility for their lives do not have a growth mindset. Growth-oriented people don’t allow their failures to define their identity; they learn from them and come back stronger as a result.

If you want to develop a growth mindset, focus first on what you can do, then work on the outside “not yet” circles. With enough practice—you will do it!

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"Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do." - John Wooden

8. All of us are used to thinking “we are good at this,” “we are bad at this,” and we all do have certain strengths and weaknesses. But there are things I thought I could not do and, by trying, found I could, yet I accept that others do it better.

Now I focus on what I do best but don’t let my weaknesses become impossible obstacles. There are always ways to jump over them. Even if it means climbing on the shoulders of others.

Create daily habits to follow. 

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"Either you run the day, or the day runs you. " - Jim Rohn

9. Develop selected disciplines into habits. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business makes a key point: The key to exercising regularly, losing weight, being more productive, and achieving success is understanding how habits work.

I loved this book and the lessons it imparts. By harnessing this science, we can transform our businesses, our communities, and our lives. 

According to research, it takes, on average, 66 days to develop a discipline into a habit. Once you turn discipline into a habit, you become better at it and it becomes natural.

"The only difference between a good day and a bad day is your attitude!"

10. My team has heard me say it many times: If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at will change.

This has been true for me in big ways and small ones. I started observing successful people as soon as I entered the workforce. These people shared a common trait—they had a positive attitude, greeted people every day, said thank you and goodbye at the end of the day.

Better done than perfect. Don't get stuck. 

"But one of the big lessons I have learned from my journey is you can’t please everyone, so don’t try." - Chris Colfer

11. Attention to detail is good. Getting something done is better. Write it, then refine it. Develop lots of ideas—not just a precious few, then refine. Don’t get stuck!

Be creative. 

30 Quips and Tips from 30 Years in Business Be Creative

"If you hear a voice within you say “you cannot paint,” then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced." - Vincent Van Gogh

Listen actively. Communicate clearly.

"They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care."

12. Actually hearing and understanding what's being said is absolutely the skill I am continuously working on. When I focus on listening I can process the information, ask the right questions and use what I have learned as the foundation for effective communication of ideas and problem-solving.

Set big picture goals.

13. Write it down, make it happen. We are used to writing a list of tasks every day. I try to get in the habit of writing my goals every day. It has been a difficult shift for me. Although I have always been a big picture thinker, I tend to fall into the bad habit of task lists.

kermit the frog writing

Instead of reading my email, my first task should be “make some results happen for a client today.” Write down your goals every day. Just take out your journal, and write down what you want. Two big reasons this is helpful:

  • Awareness—it keeps your mind aware of what you want
  • Self-motivation—writing down your goals every day helps you hold yourself accountable for making them happen.

Reinvent yourself and your business.

"In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility." - Eleanor Roosevelt

14. Reinvent yourself and your business every few years.

Is there a defined schedule for reinvention? No. However, you will know when it is time.

You will feel stuck in some way. Frustrated. It is easy to find or point blame at someone but the answer always is reinvention in some way or another. A great tool for this is Unstuck: a tool for yourself, your team, and your world by Keith Yamashita (Author), this book offers insights and techniques that help you break out of a whole host of "stuckness" to change direction, develop a clearer picture of where one is headed, or to move forward.

"The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot." - Michael Altshuler

15. Every so often it is important to actually diagram the barriers or ways we are stuck. It is only then that you can get out of your bad patterns (or patterns that may have become obsolete) in order to see a new way.

"The road to success is always under construction."

Take risks.

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"Life begins at the end of your comfort zone." - Neale Donald Walsch

16. You absolutely cannot run a studio if you are risk-averse. Decision-making is part intuition, part experience, and part risk.

"When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be." - Lao Tzu, Philosopher

Play and pay it forward.

30 Quips and Tips from 30 Years in Business Play

17. Play and playfulness are important ingredients in a joyful life. Play also stimulates creative ideas. We all have to remember to take a look at children and see how unrestricted they are in their creativity. That is because play allows ideas to flow—and it helps us to love the process as well.

18. Give back and help as many people as possible. As designers, we create solutions to communication challenges by integrating purpose, functionality, and emotion. Design is problem-solving. As individuals, being passionate about finding solutions to complex problems that society faces is absolutely the most rewarding thing we can do. Giving is solving problems. Choose a passion close to your heart and use your time and talent to make a difference.

Don't fear failure.

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19. Admit when you’re wrong. When I’m wrong about something, I’ve learned to admit it quickly and emphatically. Anytime I’ve tried to do it differently has led to (a) looking like a jerk, (b) not learning anything, or (c) both.

20. Be grateful. Try this: if you ever feel stressed about something, find 3 things you’re grateful for. You’ll feel better almost immediately. It works.

"A person who never made a mistake, never tried anything new." - Albert Einstein

"Fall seven times and stand up eight." - Japanese Proverb

21. Embrace your failures. Our failures help us redirect our way to success. The most successful people in the world fail frequently. Why? Because every failure is a lesson in what not to do. So don’t fear failure, embrace it. 

22. Give yourself permission to fear and do it anyway. There’s no such thing as being fearless. 

Everyone’s afraid of something. I've been surprised to have conversations with friends who I thought were fearless—only to discover that they also struggled. Don't even mention the idea of standing on a cliff to me—a deep fear of heights will always be with me. 

Ironically, the stress and anxiety that comes about when we think about doing what we fear is worse than doing what we fear and getting it over with.

23. Action is not just the effect of motivation, but also the cause of motivation. The key to dealing with the fear of failure is knowing that you’re already ready. When you’re stuck on a problem, don’t just sit there, do something. It’s OK if you’re afraid (we’re all afraid).

Manage your time well.

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24. Do not multi-task—focus. Focus on one thing at a time. Then move on to the next thing. Ideally, before beginning your work in the morning, take 10 minutes to review the ONE most important thing you need to do today. Then get started on it. I used to be proud of my ability to multi-task. Now I've learned it's just another word for "distraction." Your focus and effectiveness will be far higher when you approach your day this way.

25. Managing energy—not time—is the key to real productivity. Know when your high productive time is. Know yourself and what you need to be healthy. Is it sleep, structure, socializing, exercise?

26. Exercise—or at least finding a way to move every day—is one of the habits that helps my overall health and happiness. Physical health enhances professional health.

27. Take care of your family. Being a business owner is a busy occupation. Spend time with your family and experience the joy of being together. And, don't be afraid to let other people help you. My own children are now grown, successful adults, and I did not raise them myself—a great partner, supportive family, devoted friends, and amazing caregivers all helped... It takes a lot to raise a child. And, I now learn frommy children every day. 

Be grateful.

30 Quips and Tips from 30 Years in Business Grateful

"A great attitude becomes a great day which becomes a great month which becomes a great year which becomes a great life." - Mandy Hale

28. Live like you care. Choose to be happy. Choose to notice other people. 

29. Be present in the moment. I’d rather be fully present with my husband, children or friends for five minutes than be partially present for fifty minutes. Full presence means focusing on what others are saying or doing. Not looking at my phone. Not thinking about what I’m going to say when they are done talking. It is one of my biggest ongoing challenges—but one of the most rewarding outcomes.

30: Thank people every day. Let them know what a difference they make. People need to hear it and you need to share that people make a difference in your life.

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