It’s something we usually don’t do, but this week we agreed to carry out speculative design work

Then we agreed to a potential three-week turnaround, all to secure one of Britain’s top comedians as a client. It goes against all the rules we’ve been preaching for so long. But now and again it’s okay to be flexible and bend or even completely break your own rules.

Creating basic rules

As a web agency, we started like many other organisations does, with just two freelancers. We accepted every project that came our way and ended up trying to achieve far more than was sensible. It soon made sense to grow our team, and gradually we were able to do so. We learned the hard way many times throughout those early days that we needed to set up some ground rules to protect us and keep us sane.

Mass Impressions decided it was unwise to carry out design work for pitches, which can so often end up a waste of time. We agreed to: charge for the exploratory meetings, charge what we’re worth, manage scope creep, keep deadlines realistic, and seek longer-term client relationships. Mass Impressions are determined to make sure we got paid on time, and keen to be completely up-front about ongoing fees.

We realised that over promising wasn’t doing anyone any favours and that it’s well worth choosing who you work with rather than accepting all comers. Mass Impressions figured out that taking on the right projects, managing boundaries and roughly equating the time and energy to the money you get paid for matters. We tried to do all this without drifting into the bland agency-style chatter of every also-ran agency. And by doing all this, we came to realise that great client relationships are about much more than rules.

We’ve been pretty outspoken about how important our rules are to us. We never pitch, Mass Impressions only work with people that we like, and we don’t tend to do one-off projects. For the main part, our rules serve our clients and us very well. But sometimes – and only sometimes – we feel compelled to break them.

When rule-breaking makes sense

Recently we were presented with the opportunity to pitch and win a new, high-profile celebrity client, a job that came complete with a very ambitious turnaround time. This kind of project makes brilliant portfolio fodder, working to reinforce an agency’s credibility. We felt the risk was wholly worthwhile, and for the first time in a long time, we broke our own rules. So when else might it be wise to think again about the restrictions you place on doing business.

When you’re passionate about the opportunity

As an agency, we spend a lot of time weighing up opportunities and making certain that we select the right ones. Sometimes though, you have to go with the flow of whatever gets you up in the morning. If it doesn’t make you excited then the money doesn’t matter. It makes sense to stick to commercially advantageous projects most of the time. However, for pure satisfaction, if nothing else, don’t forget to listen to your gut and also take on enough work that you enjoy and are genuinely passionate to work on together.

When you’re beginning to sound like everyone else

Economics has a word for it: ‘me too’ products. The agency world is quite homogenised enough without us adding to it. There’s no bigger turn off that listening to yet another account manager tell you the same old story. There comes the point where we have to remember we’re all people and bear in mind that engaging, honest, active and productive conversations between people make for great relationships.

Rules are there for a reason, but at the same time, it’s okay to break out of rules mode and talk like the unique human being you are, not the usual agency robot. You’ll find the companies that are brave enough to be themselves are the most fun to work with, as well as the least in need of new business.

When the rules no longer fit your business model

In our experience, it makes a lot of sense to question your practices regularly. They were set up for a reason, but are they still fit for purpose?  Do they support your current business model or hinder it? Query your assumptions. Tear up the hymn sheet. Invent new rules when the old ones are starting to feel old unnecessary.

When rule breaking protects your team

Richard Branson once said, “look after your staff, not your clients”. There’s a lot say about that. You may have a lot of work to do. You might feel you have to be glued to you desk all day while it’s sunny outside. But occasionally breaking the rules and letting people head to the pub at 4 pm is good for morale. You’ll ultimately get more done than if you’d cracked the whip mercilessly and stuck to your rules to the bitter end. There are enough rule-bound days to merit occasionally escaping the office. Happy teams do much better work, after all.

When the rules get in the way of common sense

Sometimes the rules just don’t make sense. If you can recognise this and flex them to suit the circumstances, you’re onto a winner. Longer-term relationships are more important than the small, hollow, rule-bound victories you might secure by remaining inflexible, and win-win is far better than win-lose.

When the intention is kind

We set great store by our professional integrity. We would never break our own rules if it meant doing less for a client. Often, we end up doing more, and while it might not be sustainable in the long run if the intention is kind – to a customer, to a team member or, most of all, to yourself – then at least you’re breaking the rules for the right reasons. It’s real, lovely up here on the moral high ground!

When you can afford to

Money is a big one. When you’ve just started out and grown, you end up taking on more work than you should. Any lead is a lead, however horrible. However, soul destroying. As the business matures, you’re better able to pick and choose who you work with long-term. You build a stable of sustainable, retainer-based clients and ultimately your cash flow improves. The rules you set up have facilitated the process.

It’s much easier to run an established agency. You have a team of people who understand and appreciate the way everyone works. To begin with, you are a small and potentially disruptive band of freelancers. But, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by projects that you’ve contracted unwisely and struggle to deliver. Bearing that in mind, it becomes much simpler to pick and choose who you apply which rules too. You can genuinely afford to agree a crazy turnaround time and carry out some speculative pitch work.

Having said all that, while it feels great being in a position to flex a little, it still makes a lot of sense to keep checking to make sure you can pay yourself and your team at the end of the month!

When rules are the rules…

There’s one important exception to all this rule-bending and breaking. Transparent and fair contracting is the sturdy bedrock on which every good relationship can flourish. No matter what the nature of the job is, good contracting sits at the heart of every successful web design and development project. After all, you can’t manage expectations that you haven’t set in the first place.