Five lessons for start-up agencies

Starting your own agency isn't for everyone but, if you're one of the round pegs about to take the plunge, Laurence Green has five pointers to making a go of it.

Laurence Green: founding partner at 101
Laurence Green: founding partner at 101

"Like working in advertising, only more so." Five years into a second start-up, that’s still my best stab at summarising what it’s like out here in the advertising badlands, the place where the crazy ones roam. 

We start-ups are in the same business, after all, with the same ups, downs and sideways. (Well, maybe less of the sideways.) But here at the start-up, even the five year-old version, things are different also. Wins taste much sweeter and losses much sourer than at BigCo. Our dreams are less negotiable, our plans less flippant, our ideas and advice less disposable, our promises more binding. Here on planet start-up, the air is thinner. Acclaim is thrilling. Criticism, however well-intentioned, cuts deep. It’s all dangerously, addictively, exhaustingly, wonderfully personal. Like working in advertising, only more so. 

The prevailing wisdom, of course, is that the advertising start-up is dead or, at least, imperilled. Then again, the whole point of the start-up is to defy the conventional wisdom. And for all the eminently plausible theorising about how it’s tougher than ever to start an agency nowadays, and why that may be so, the time-honoured counterarguments endure. Clients love partners with skin in the game. Culture flowers more readily (and culture eats strategy for breakfast). 

Entrepreneurial spirit is its own unreasonable force, whether powered by hope, by dreams, by greed, by sheer terror or by just plain vanity.

A start-up isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course. We should note that some people who start them wish they hadn’t. (Jonathan Trimble and Matthew Bull both warned against doing so in these pages last year.) But – to paraphrase a famous advertiser – if you’re an adland misfit, a rebel, a troublemaker, a round peg in a square hole, there’s really no better home and no nobler calling.

In this respect, then, I’m proudly contrarian. A recruiting sergeant for the advertising start-up, whatever shape and size today’s – or tomorrow’s – market affords and rewards. The start-up, after all, is how our industry reinvents itself, whether left to prosper independently or gobbled up to dent a host organisation. 

Start-ups don’t get everything right, of course. They’re normally too busy for that. So in the same breath as encouraging a dive into icy water, I humbly submit five nuggets of advice for those who do take the plunge, from a serial entrepreneur who doesn’t recognise that description and a business five years down the track. It’s not rocket science: you’re not launching one.

1. Play the long game

"Built to flip" is over. Find colleagues and clients who are here for the ride. Treat pitches lost as friends won or lessons learnt. Keep looking ahead, not just around. Preserve your values and your culture. Don’t get knocked off course by one bad year. 

2. Be a good business

Proudly so: it’s the company oxygen mask. Know the sanity of profit from the vanity of revenues. (Agencies are not very good at this.) Demand the right to make money. Don’t be blindsided by "the creative opportunity" or by those who would take advantage of your need to post some early runs.

3. Build your brand

Because you are playing the long game. Because brands make choices easier and, boy, our industry needs to get easier to shop. Because it’s what we (are supposed to) do for a living. Be different or at least distinctive. Be choiceful. Make sacrifices. Say no. 

4. Do good work

Make sure some of it is great. It turns the commercial flywheel and builds the brand. It evidences your proposition. It’s your doorstep pitch in a crowded market. But, most of all, because it feels good. Do good work and watch your people walk taller. 

5. Work hard

Harder than others. The more you practise, the luckier you get. Because it’s the thing that everyone underestimates about Adam & Eve/DDB. Because you have no option.

It’s not easy out here. But then, it doesn’t look easy at BigCo either and at least here we live or die by our efforts alone, without help or hindrance from others. There’s a dignity in that, perhaps even something heroic, masochistic as it sometimes feels.

So, as 101’s fifth birthday passes, we take quiet pride in playing the long game and in our focus – in our case, on client brand-building, the forgotten responsibility of too many ad-makers. In our blue-chip client list and our reputation among intermediaries as a discriminating bunch. In five years of double-digit growth and, above all, in award-winning work written on the broadest creative canvas, because what a brand does is as important as what it says.

Self-promotion, on the other hand, can sometimes elude us. But there is a fire burning brightly here, just as it does at Lucky Generals and Creature, The Corner and at Joint. Come, warm your hands. It’s like working in advertising, only more so.

Laurence Green is a founding partner at 101

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