Ever considered launching your own agency?

(Top: Richard Morris, Helen Calcraft, Jason Foo, Middle: Jim Paterson, Nick Fox, Mike Cullis, Bottom: Neil Hughston, Neil Simpson, Matty Tong)

(Top: Richard Morris, Helen Calcraft, Jason Foo, Middle: Jim Paterson, Nick Fox, Mike Cullis, Bottom: Neil Hughston, Neil Simpson, Matty Tong)

Following hundreds of conversations over the past decade with industry folk about their career aspirations, one theme seems to come up time and again – ‘one day, I would love to run my own ad agency’.

Aside from finding a suitable loft-style office, filling the fridge with beer and hanging your new logo on the wall, what does it really take to launch and run a creative marketing business? Not only do you have to find the clients – you also have to persuade them to part with their cash – which is how you will ultimately fund your new venture – and eventually, if you are really lucky, you might make some money. Simples. How hard can it really be? (FYI the general consensus was “very ******* hard”).

Emma and David Love, Founders and Directors of The Great and The Good decided it was time to find out. They talked candidly to agency leaders including:

Jim Paterson – Aesop

Nick Fox – Atomic London

Jason Foo – BBD Perfect Storm

Neil Hughston – Johnny Fearless

Helen Calcraft  – Lucky Generals

Neil Simpson – The Corner

Mike Cullis – Soul

Matty Tong & Richard Morris –Whistlejacket

Why Launch a Start-up?

If you have always dreamed of going it alone, you’re in great company. All our start-up owners harboured a burning desire to be their own boss. The freedom and challenge that comes with going it alone can be an exhilarating prospect – but it’s not enough just to want to do it. The timing needs to be right professionally and personally.

Simpson: “I always wanted to have my own agency. Almost since the very first job I had.”

Morris: “It’s one of the things we’ve always wanted to do, but you have to be in the right place in your personal life as well as professionally ready.”

Hughston:“I had always hankered after a start-up. [As a Global Account Lead] I had stopped being close to the creative product and wanted to get back to what I loved most.”

Cullis: “For us, we all shared a long held ambition to start something up, but our drive to actually do it came from shared beliefs about why we do what we do”

All the leaders we spoke to had reached senior positions within other agencies before they felt it was the right time to launch their own shops. Far from being Zuckerburg-esque entrepreneurs by the time they were 25, the CEO’s we spoke to were able to show off hard-earned business stripes and success from larger agencies – and in some cases, brands -before they broke away and set up by themselves.

Foo: “Bide your time until you’re wise enough. You’ll need every corner of your experience when you go it alone. You have to be all in to launch an agency – 100% or nothing.”

Get the Band (back) Together

It would seem, that most agencies launch with two or three people at the top. None of the agencies we spoke to opened their doors with just one person at the helm. The overwhelming majority launched with the ‘classic’ triumvirate of Planner, Creative and Client Service head.

Fox: “To do this alone would be unimaginable. These relationships must be deep and robust. You have to have great chemistry, have experienced success together and share the same point of view. You’re not always going to agree and there may even be some stand-up rows but the important thing is that you are able to kiss and make-up, forget about it and move on.”

Most founding partners had worked together previously. Whilst they had usually met under professional circumstances, most tend to be friends outside work and enjoy a shared outlook.

Morris: “Make sure you like the person you are going into business with. It seems simple enough but you  are going to be spending a lot of time together – more time than with anyone else probably.”

Calcraft: “The three of us share a very rare, special chemistry and we missed working with each other. We simply felt there was unfinished business and needed to create great work together again. We are happiest and at our most effective when we are working together.”

Simpson: “You need to know each other and have been in the trenches together. We have a blend of complimentary skills and styles that works for us. We’re on the same page.”

Funding (probably your own)

Of the eight agencies we spoke to, half were completely self-funded. The amount of investment you can stump up yourself will obviously impact the amount of autonomy you have. Obviously, 100% investment means 100% independence.

Simpson: “We were offered funding but you don’t give up the independence you have fought so hard for. The autonomy to make decisions for partners, people and clients.”

Calcraft: “If you’re self-funding your venture, you’d better make sure that you love what you do.”

Cullis: “We explored funding and self-funding, and whilst funding might have made things a little more comfortable to start with, it meant giving a lot away before we even started. We went for self-funding; aside from independence, it really focuses the mind too!” 

Our CEO’s – irrespective of how much of their own money they had personally invested – were pretty much in agreement that excellent financial advice is vital.

Fox: “When you’re creating a creative business, don’t forget the business”

Tong: “Find a good accountant. Go for a respected and recommended name”

There was general agreement from our agency owners that – initially at least – they earned less than they had previously. Cash flow issues aside during set-up months, much of the reduced earning levels were down to choice – partners reported preferring to re-invest profits back into their agency, building the coffers for future security. When it came down to expansion, some of our founders said they (happily) paid their first employees more than they paid themselves.

Fail to Plan and You Plan to Fail

Most of the agencies launched with a minimum five-year business plan – which started with the agency’s core proposition. All our start-up founders spent a few months in planning before going live.  Happily, the majority of agencies reported being on track –  or ahead of their plan. However, their advice was:

Paterson: “You must have a clear point of difference that you believe in. Your agency will live by its core proposition, so it’s got to be something that makes sense to you.”

Morris: “Don’t spend all your time on the theory. At some point, you need to actually do something rather than just talking about it.”

Cullis:   “It took us a year from our first tentative conversations over a pint to actually making it happen. Almost two years on, the original business plan is still at the heart of our long-term future.” 

Don’t be afraid to ask people in the industry what they think about your new venture and your agency’s proposition. Every single owner we spoke to commented on how tremendously generous people had been with their time. This included agency leaders, intermediaries, industry bodies and previous clients.

Tong: “Talk to entrepreneurs from inside and outside the industry. Don’t underestimate how generous and open they will be with their learning.”

You Don’t Need a Client from Day 1 (but you’ll need to find one fast)

Most of the agencies we spoke to opened their doors without a founding client and undoubtedly invested a huge amount of time into new business – attracting the right clients and the right kind of work.

Tong: “Who would you like to talk to and what would you like to work on? There’s no secret. Don’t give up. It will happen.”

Calcraft: “I would advise any future founder of a start-up to get exposure to a new business role within another agency first.  And remember, your early work when you start-up will set the tone of the type of the work your agency does for the future. So, you must learn to say no.”

Fox: “You need a great network and to work the traditional PR channels. Remember that your website is your shop window, so it is mission critical that this is up to scratch.”

Simpson: ”Learn to say no and only ride one big pitch horse at once. Pitching is an expensive business and you’re more likely to win if you focus.”

Paterson: “You need to invest, prioritise and focus. Qualify opportunities. Don’t go after everything.”

Foo: “We have turned down quite a few opportunities so that we can focus our efforts in the right places and build a sustainable business that grows in the right areas. Our mantra is pitch twice as big, half as often.”

Hughston: “New business can be brutal but you must be tenacious: it will pay off.  Treat intermediaries with the respect they deserve and remember when you pitch – win or learn.”

Enjoy building your own team

Working within a start-up can be a very different experience and it’s not for everyone – it’s demanding, it’s hard work; it’s everyone in it together. Employees who ‘get in early’ with an agency that’s going places could see their career grow as quickly as the agency does.

Foo: “It’s fantastic to be able to handpick everyone in your team- we place as much emphasis on cultural fit as we do on capability and experience. It’s refreshing to spend time individually developing our people.”

Simpson: “It’s important for agency partners not to dominate and give everyone a chance to pitch ideas. We believe that none of us are as smart as all of us.”

Paterson: “Hire people based on their cultural fit with your agency as much as their skills and experience.”

It’s an adventure, not a journey

All of the CEO’s reported they absolutely love leading their start-up but made no bones about the hard work involved and the rewards you can enjoy.

Calcraft: “I had forgotten the intensity. It’s exhausting and always exhilarating. It’s like having kids – you forget the pain and remember the joy.”

Hughston: “It’s fucking hard and amazing in equal measure.  It’s a mix of being six on Christmas Day and losing sleep, regularly!”

Paterson: “When it’s your business it’s all consuming. Because you are that much closer, the highs are dramatically high and the tough times can really hurt.”

Cullis: “Running an agency is liberating, rewarding, tiring, frustrating. Sometimes it keeps me awake at night but, most of the time; I sleep really soundly … because I’m completely knackered.”

Having spoken to all these agency leaders, it’s clear that setting up your own shop is not a decision to be taken lightly and certainly needs to be considered with a healthy dose of realism.  That said, it was abundantly clear that nobody who we talked to regretted their decision and they all felt that the positives far outweighed the negatives. So, if you’re thinking about going it alone – the very best of luck, you’re in great company.

Original article published 27 October 2014 in Brand Republic