18 Feet deal underlines the new reality for start-ups
A view from Claire Beale

18 Feet deal underlines the new reality for start-ups

When Jonathan Trimble first told me he was talking to Creston about selling off a chunk of 18 Feet & Rising, it seemed the dice roll of a troubled business.

Five-and-a-half years old and with some of its promise still unfulfilled, 18 Feet & Rising was surely admitting some sort of defeat by selling off a limb or two. Why launch your own company, sweat the intense pain and pleasure, only to end up taking a cushy handout from an investor? But if Trimble’s right about Creston’s commitment to remain merely an investor, not an interferer, then the deal begins to look like a much smarter move than my initial cynicism would allow.

Creston’s £1 million investment for a quarter of 18 Feet & Rising is not exactly bonanza time for the agency; it allows some tidying up of equity holdings, will fund some nice new hires and provide a small war chest for investment. But £1 million is soon spent.

In truth, the deal’s not all about the money, it’s about the partnership. It’s sobering to read Trimble’s quote on page 15 about the opportunities for start-ups now: "Independent agencies used to be able to do it all themselves, but we don’t live in that world any more… that’s the disappointing thing about this decade… it’s a much more blurry picture and indies need help."

Why launch your own company, sweat the intense pain and pleasure, only to end up taking a cushy handout?

It’s a pretty realistic view of the prospects for young companies in our industry, and a more humble perspective than you’ll get from some of the other recent start-ups that still aspire to be the next Adam & Eve, even though James Murphy himself went on record a few months ago with the following reality check: "It’s a harder proposition to launch an advertising agency now than when we launched Adam & Eve… I’m not sure that, if we were starting out now, we would have the resource to provide all the firepower required under one roof."

So 18 Feet & Rising is planting a foot under the Creston roof, aligning itself with the 27 brands already hunkered there. Creston is an untidy collection, with far too many companies and very little sense so far of the potential for any sort of integrated offer. But its new-ish chief, Barrie Brien, is starting to bring some cohesion and focus and, in backing 18 Feet & Rising, he’s proved himself an interesting, if modest, risk-taker; Trimble will find some rewarding new partners within his group.

If there’s any learning in this for other young, independent agencies, it’s about the stark necessity for collaboration as marketers pursue greater integration. But it also underlines the potential for different financial models that allow entrepreneurs to balance collaboration and control. No company parent wants to sell off a limb or two of their baby, but perhaps that’s a new reality for ambitious entrepreneurs now.