Like getting out of a warm bath on a freezing cold night, quitting
the cocoon of a big agency for the harsh exposure of a small-scale
start-up can seem like a rash move that is best put off until later.
But for some of life’s more entrepreneurial characters, it is not enough
to keep topping up the hot water. They leap out, dry off and hope the
sun will shine tomorrow.
Over the last couple of years, agencies like Mother, Unity, Fallon
McElligott, Windmill, Spirit, Circus and Renegade have been started by
senior people willing to forgo their cosy, benefit-laden jobs in favour
of a working day that can start with screwing together furniture and
finish with negotiations about faxes and photocopiers. Work is
interrupted by queueing for stamps at the Post Office and answering the
phones rather than lunching at the Ivy.
And at the end of the day, there is more likely to be an exhausted
commute home via the local take-away than a chauffeur-driven trip to the
W1 pied-a-terre via an A-list evening do. Most of them, though, would
never go back to big office politics. They like having control over
their own destinies even if it does mean, initially, a lack of resources
and less people to talk football with.
’I enjoy it. It is satisfying being closer to the coal face,’ says Chris
Rendel at Windmill, who used to be head honcho at FCB. Grafting rather
than schmoozing for a living inevitably leads to a certain loss of
status within the industry, however. ’You certainly find out who your
friends are,’ Rendel adds.
At Renegade, Sue Aitken has no worries about a loss of prestige compared
with her former role as new business director at FCB. She says: ’ I get
more respect because I’ve gone out and done it, while they whinge on
about being stitched up by so-and-so.
Would you rather be a minion in a large multinational or someone shaping
their own destiny? Some people in big agencies can’t believe I’d leave
the glamour and glitz for this. But they can’t claim the glamour for
themselves - there are a lot of unhappy people in shiny buildings.’
Rendel has been pleasantly surprised by the goodwill he has received
from his peers: ’In their hearts, lots of advertising people are
entrepreneurial and they have been very supportive. You see the
benevolent side of the business - people take an interest in us as human
Relationships with former colleagues and acquaintances are bound to
change when your daily working lives have become so far removed from one
But as for working relationships with clients, it is business as
Richard Hammond, a former executive vice-president of Bozell Worldwide,
thinks his understanding of clients has improved since he started up
Spirit a year ago. ’I was always aware of the numbers and the bottom
line, but now I live and breathe it on a weekly basis,’ he says. ’I have
a more balanced view of the business and I am more aware of clients’
issues. Clients don’t think about advertising 100 per cent of the time
and nor do I any more.’
The process of hunting down new clients also follows a different set of
rules when there is no time-honoured structure in place. For some of
these agencies, an interview with Campaign is immediately seized on as
an opportunity to plug their ’individual’ ways of working and ’unique’
offering to clients.
Life in a small agency means looking after the cash as well as the
’I used to be one of those people who pooh-poohed the finance director
for asking me to call a client about an invoice. I’d say ’I’m too busy
making money,’’ Aitken says.
Rendel has also woken up to a new way of looking at money. ’People I
work with now would probably say I’m penny-pinching,’ he admits. ’I
understand the value of money more and I know I want a return from
Suddenly, though, thinking about money doesn’t seem like such a
Derek Morris, who left BMP Optimum to set up the strategic media shop,
Unity, in August 1997, says blatantly: ’I enjoy it. It’s a pleasure to
send an invoice out and it’s a great thrill to get your first cheque. I
like the short line between doing the work and getting paid for it.’
Hammond also delights in the change of perspective and can’t help
himself from smiling broadly when he takes his fifth Tube journey on a
single one-day travel card. On the other hand, Morris laments: ’It is
painful to sign a cheque and send it to the tax man. And expenses are
not the thrill they used to be.’
The perks are bound to be scaled down in proportion to the size of the
agency, but it seems that client entertaining and agency bonding
sessions still go on - and sometimes they are better for being less
As Rendel observes: ’Sitting in the Ivy competing and showing off
doesn’t necessarily bring out the best in everyone.’ And the conspicuous
consumption of boxes at the opera or the races are often a waste of time
and money - so many senior people are too busy and end up bowing out the
day before, leaving the hospitality budget to be soaked up by people it
was not intended for.
’It’s easy to sneer at people on the other side of the fence,’ Rendel
says in defence of his former lifestyle, ’but it’s a different way of
working. The rules of the game are different for big agencies - there is
an entry price for doing business in those circles.’
But it all depends where you came from. Hammond’s first thought when
asked what he missed about a large agency was ’my driver’. He says: ’The
first time I went on a business trip under my own steam, I was standing
outside waiting for my driver to turn up. When you’ve been driven to the
airport three times a week for five years, taking the Tube doesn’t
naturally occur to you.’
BMP never offered this kind of treatment for Morris to miss. He says:
’BMP isn’t a luxurious agency. It’s quite egalitarian.’ But, like others
in his situation, Morris has rediscovered public transport. ’It’s good
to go on the Tube. It forces you to look at your target audience. When
you are senior you can become too isolated.’
This liberation from the constraints of big agency life seems to be a
major and enduring motivator for those who take the plunge. ’At Ogilvy &
Mather, I was a real company man,’ Rendel says. ’The more they provide,
the more the hooks go in. I always felt uneasy about it - in a business
sense, I grew up in the Thatcher years so I find it attractive to feel
my own person.’
For Aitken, the liberation means ’you don’t have to spend your time
proving to colleagues that you are doing your job. You can just get on
and do it.’ Rendel feels the same: ’There are no politics, no
backbiting, no memos, no e-mails and no carbon copies on the bottom of
everything. It’s all done face to face - I’m astonished at how much time
The end result, it seems, is that people spend a similar amount of time
at work. ’I work about as long, but in a different way. It feels
better,’ says Morris. ’In a large agency you can end up sitting in your
office waiting for problems to knock at the door. I’ve had to relearn
how to do my job and I work more on work rather than on managing.’
At Fallon, Andy McLeod, a creative partner, also enjoys the edginess of
a small agency. ’Part of the attraction is being scared again,’ he says.
’There is always a new stage to look forward to and little changes have
a big effect.’ At the end of the day, though, he says: ’I still get to
work every day and try to write ads. It feels like the same job.’
DEREK MORRIS UNITY
Life after a big agency is scary, exhilarating, empowered, confused,
fun, lonely, rewarding, frustrating, poorer, more balanced, worthwhile,
offering unlimited potential. Each day is a different combination of all
these, sometimes it is bad but most days are good.
What I miss most Lots of people to talk about the football, the weather,
the gossip. A revolving door and a spiral staircase. The tea lady who
was always the exact measure of the health of the agency. The unsung
support staff that just made stuff happen. Intricate finger-food lunches
that appeared from nowhere. Great ads. The nearly-always ticket to
Good coffee. Long-standing colleagues. The confidence of a 25-year-old
brand proposition. Being scared by Chris Powell.
What I don’t miss Having my day controlled by other people’s
Formulaic solutions. Pitching because you are required to. People
resigning on a Friday night just in time for the weekend. Arriving home
with no energy left for myself. Mobile phones. The waste-of-time
meetings needed to keep everybody ’involved’.
Territorial arguments about desk space and filing cabinets. Trying to
think of where to go for lunch in Paddington. Hundreds of all-staff
e-mails. Being scared by Chris Powell.
CHRIS RENDEL THE WINDMILL PARTNERSHIP
Big agencies are corporations, and life revolves around them. Meetings,
faxes, e-mail, memos. Not that you’ve the time to deal with them. You’re
in Club en route to New York. In fact, there’s less and less time to do
anything, especially think. Think about things like who really runs your
company, why is it so hard to change anything, and what are your
clients’ real priorities?
Smaller businesses are different. There isn’t the comfort of support
systems. But then again, there are no ’all-staff’ memos, and your
meetings actually decide something. Farewell ’away-days’, training
courses, marquees at Henley, or lunches at the Ivy. Enter reality.
Consumers buy things in PC World. So do we. We can work with people we
want to work with. We can give our clients truly impartial advice and
invest time and effort in their businesses, rather than looking for a 20
per cent return on it.
It’s very different but you’re closer to the real world. A world where
you discover that Campaign is available at newsagents for a mere pounds
2.10. How many big agency people know that?
TIM O’KENNEDY CIRCUS
Work The composition of my day doesn’t feel all that different - it’s
the effectiveness of what I do that has changed. There’s so much less
repetition because you don’t have to sell your ideas to multiple layers
What do I miss? I don’t miss anything about being in a big agency. I’ve
always worked for little places and then baled out when they got big.
But then I joined Lowe Howard-Spink, which confirmed my suspicions.
New business When you pitch on behalf of someone else, you’re a
mouthpiece for their culture and values.
In a business you start yourself, you are speaking from your heart and
New skills I’m known as the IT fairy.
I knew I was good with computers but I didn’t realise it was going to
become a secondary vocation. I love it when people look at me and say
thanks for helping out in a deeply practical way.
Jollies I don’t miss client entertainment. I can’t be buggered with
I’ve done enough of it in my life and in a small agency less is expected
Relationships with peers People who felt superior before because they
were running bigger agencies than me don’t feel like that any more. UK
advertising is full of closet entrepreneurs and they like to experience
Tim O’Kennedy is a partner at Circus and former chief operating officer
at the Lowe Group.