What Five Years of Muddling Through Will Get You

When Amy and I started Matinee Creative in 2018, we didn’t have much of a plan. 

Scratch that. Amy had a plan, I think. But I have an adversarial relationship with planning. I’d like to tell you it’s rooted in some wise philosophical ideal. But the truth is I lack the patience and conscientiousness to plan properly.

So when Amy finally coaxed me into launching Matinee Creative in late 2017 (we had been kicking the idea around for at least 10 years), I wasn’t sure about our prospects. The old military maxim “Proper planning and preparation prevents piss poor performance” has always annoyed me, but it also rings sorta true. Yet here we were, not writing a proper business plan or conducting market research or doing even one SWOT analysis. Were we setting ourselves up to become a piss-poor creative firm?

Five years on, I’m relieved to say the answer is “no.” We just wrapped up our best year yet, and our most exciting work so far is currently in development. And we managed to get here without setting SMART goals or monitoring benchmarks or tracking a single KPI. 

Instead, we just sort of muddled through. 

I should pause for a moment to say that this isn’t necessarily an endorsement of our shambolic approach. But it has worked for us. Why? Some of it probably has to do with timing. Two years after launching Matinee, COVID emerged, disrupting everything. Then came historically high inflation. These challenges torpedoed most businesses’ plans for at least two years. Since we had no plans, we weren’t flustered. We just kept plugging away.

And maybe that has been our secret weapon over the past five years. If we know how to do one thing well, it’s plug away. We aren’t great planners. Our sales skills are sketchy. Our presentation skills are only slightly better. But we can crank out work like it’s our job. And, at the risk of sounding boastful, our cranking efforts yield pretty consistently great results. This evaluation isn’t based solely on my own subjective and obviously biased judgment. We regularly follow up with clients about the impact of our work, and we’ve heard all kinds of stories about how it has helped them market, recruit, fundraise, or sell more effectively. 

How do we do it, muddlers that we are?

I’m not entirely sure, but I would guess it has more to do with our flaws than our virtues. Both Amy and I wrestle with social anxiety, a condition whose primary symptom is worrying way too much about looking dumb in public. It’s a liability at parties, but it pushes us to produce high-quality work if for no other reason than to stave off feelings of humiliation and rejection.

The other thing we have going for us is that, well, we’re kind of old. We’ve spent years in ad agencies, and we know precisely how the sausage is made. We may not have a 50-person staff or a foosball table or a library of tiresome advertising books, but we do have an intuitive grasp of what it takes to produce excellent creative work in a timely manner that reflects the mission of the client, speaks to the needs of their audience, gets attention, and creates differentiation in the marketplace. It’s really no more complicated than that.

Am I saying that a mild form of neurosis combined with being properly middle-aged has been the secret to our success? I didn’t have that in mind when I sat down to write this. But now that the words are on the page, who am I to argue with them?

Since we’ve managed to stumble our way this far, the obvious question is, “What’s next?” People sometimes ask if we want to grow the business. I reply by saying that on the list of things the world doesn’t need, another mid-sized small-market ad agency is near the top.

Also, growth is a double-edged sword. It may bring in more revenue, but expenses will go up. We may get bigger clients, but we won’t be able to be quite so selective. Our business may grow in stature and reputation, but so what?

Let me be blunt: For us, Matinee is a means to an end, not an end in itself. We are not “on a mission” or “changing the world,” and our identities as human beings have precious little to do with whatever Matinee is, does, or becomes. 

That is not to say we don’t care about Matinee. We want it to be known for delivering thoughtful, joyful, detail-oriented, intentional, and occasionally subversive creative work. But Matinee is a business. Meanwhile, Matt and Amy are the humans who operate the business. And the concerns of the latter—our family, our physical and mental health, our spiritual needs, our refusal to get up earlier than 7:40 a.m. in the morning—will never be sacrificed for the former.  

So I suppose the answer to “What’s next?” is that we’ll keep on plugging away. Doing great work  for nice people who vibe with our whole thing. That may not include those who want a creative firm that spends a bunch of time Mapping the Customer Journey or Hacking Growth—and that’s OK! It really does take all kinds. There are plenty of agencies out there with Proprietary Frameworks and Full-Service Capabilities and Integrated Approaches and ROI-Generating Solutions if those kinds of things are your thing. 

Meanwhile, we’ll be over here sleeping 8 hours a night, making time for midday jogs and trying our best to meditate daily. And while that may not make us the most ambitious or dynamic or profitable boutique branding firm in the world, it’s plenty good enough for us.