Behind the job: what does a Managing Director do?

Gemma Ballinger

Every design company needs one, but what do they do? And how do you become one? Let’s look behind the scenes at the vital role of the Managing Director.

For some people, running a company is a lifelong ambition. For others, it’s the logical outcome of rising through the ranks. But what’s the career path to this role, and what does the job entail?

The blend of skills a Managing Director needs can come from different parts of the business and a wealth of life experience. Let’s look at some learnings from my journey, alongside the most exciting and challenging parts of the role.

There’s plenty of support out there for designers to progress their career. But a design studio is a business like any other. To achieve its aims and stay financially stable, it needs to be well run. In broad terms, that’s the job of the Managing Director, or MD.

The MD oversees the whole organisation and drives it forward: from the company vision, business growth and finances, to client relationships, production and the wellbeing of the team. The typical day is a mixture of calls to plan upcoming projects, internal meetings to check in on everyone, input into proposals and new business meetings.

Paint the big picture

As MD at Output, I’m responsible for setting the vision for the studio. Working closely with Johanna (Partner and Creative Director) and with input from the team, I think about what sort of studio we want to be, what we want to achieve over the next few years and how to get there.

This means defining the type of clients we want to work with, the team we need to do it and what ‘success’ looks like for us. After establishing this headline vision, I work closely with the leadership team, representing finance, production and marketing, to break it down into measurable goals.

Plan, measure and review

At Output, our year runs from April to March, in line with the UK’s tax period. The annual cycle involves planning sessions from January, to review the current year’s progress and forecast what we need to achieve financially for the upcoming one. For a business to remain healthy, it needs to achieve the right balance between incoming and outgoings, while making sure everyone feels motivated and not overworked.

These topline targets break down into the amount of new business we need to achieve, the scale of clients we want to win and how we’ll market the business to build our profile. Alongside that are targets for developing existing clients and the efficiency rates we’re aiming for to keep the right balance. With the leadership team, we can then work out how to grow the headcount to achieve those targets.

I think about what sort of studio we want to be, what we want to achieve over the next few years and how to get there.”

This might sound a long way from creative, but it’s one part of running the business. On the other side, Johanna looks at how we can improve our creative output and keep pushing ourselves to improve. Together, it’s the right mix of business and creativity we need to run a design business.

We have a monthly meeting with the leadership team to review the financial performance and progress against our individual goals. Together we review the previous month, talk through any blockers and set actions for the month ahead.

Stay on top of things

Breaking this down further, those company goals generate monthly task lists, with weekly check-ins on progress. I’ll review the pipeline of work with the client director and finance director, to see how the finances are looking, what we need to bring in for the months ahead and whether the projects are on track.

I work closely with one of the founders to catch up on marketing. Here we discuss what new work and messages we’re getting out there, which sectors we’re researching, who we’re speaking to and what content we’re planning.

Macro and micro

The scale of an agency will dictate how involved the MD gets in each area of the business. As a smaller, independent studio, I pursue new business opportunities, build relationships with potential clients and stay in touch with companies we’ve worked with before and would love to partner with in the future.

I’m responsible for the ‘people’ side of the business, which means building a studio people really want to work out. That covers everything from planning benefits and flexible working arrangements, reviewing team happiness through regular 1-1s and surveys, organising training and development opportunities and making sure line managers are helping everyone to reach their objectives.

As a smaller, independent studio, I pursue new business opportunities, build relationships with potential clients and stay in touch with companies we’ve worked with before and would love to partner with in the future.”

We’ve recently launched a new HR system. That’s involved updating our policies and making sure we have a really good handbook for the team. We’re (slowly) working towards B-Corp status and so I’m reviewing and developing our systems in key areas.

The team is my overall responsibility, and I kick off our weekly meetings with updates on the work that’s coming in, opportunities we’re discussing and what’s going on in the studio. Every quarter, we share this progress with the full team. By being transparent with how we’re doing, we keep everyone involved and they keep us accountable for what we were aiming for at the start of the year.

It’s all part of the journey

I’ve worked my way up from business development, producer, account director, client services director and then managing director. I’m also a partner in the business now. This can be quite a common path to get into the role, as you’re used to building relationships with clients and the team and have a good handle on the finances.

I love overseeing all areas of the business, without getting stuck in the detail. We get so busy with client work that it can be hard sometimes to see if we’re making progress against our bigger goals. The beauty of reflecting back monthly, quarterly and yearly is we can see we’re slowly getting there, even with plenty of ups and downs along the way!

So, being a Managing Director isn’t a role for the faint-hearted.

The industry is incredibly competitive and we have to stay on top of our game, constantly improving the quality of our work. Things get tough when the pipeline isn’t looking good, the economy is sluggish and breaking into a dream sector feels a long way off.

The real excitement comes when we win clients we’ve wanted to work with for years and when we know the team is happy and fulfilled. This has definitely been the most rewarding (and stressful!) job of my career so far, and I’m excited to see how it progresses in the future.

Gemma Ballinger

From a junior role to running the place, Gemma (she/her) joined Output as a Business Development Executive and worked her way up to Managing Director and Partner. The journey has given her a wealth of stories to share, from solving business challenges through design, to creating a positive work environment and being a woman in a leadership role.