Digital start-ups are rare birds. Their relative absence is a factor of the dotcom collapse, which led to a lack of hiring and training for three years from 2000, and the concomitant wedding of senior management to a relatively small number of digital shops via lucrative options deals.
So when three names as well known and well respected as Andy Sandoz, Paddy Griffith and Martin Brooks announce that they're leaving the conspicuously successful Agency Republic, and that their collective ambitions are not to be the new Dare or glue, the industry will inevitably turn an ear to listen.
The three founding partners have christened the venture Work Club. Coupled with an innovative if idealistic approach (the agency's hours are from 10.00am to 4.00pm), the name opens the venture up to the criticism that it's more about lifestyle than serious business. It's a charge that all three are adamant is unwarranted: Work Club might have the after-school name, and an irreverent blog-styled website, but the company is utterly steadfast about what it wants to achieve.
"It's a serious business," Brooks, the managing partner, declares. "Despite being innovative in a number of ways, this industry is quite backward in the way it promotes, develops and trains staff. It's still rather hierarchical and traditional. We believe we need to create a set of processes and benefits that make it different to work for."
Work Club says it will treat its staff like the adults they are. The reduced working hours recognise the fact that staff might come up with their best ideas in the evening, or at weekends. "Good people will deliver off their own backs, and if you can give them space to do that, it creates a really good balance. Anyone who abuses that is not the kind of person you'd want to be working with anyway," Sandoz, the creative partner, says.
Structurally, Work Club will differ from other digital shops. In its FAQ-answering factsheet, it explains that, yes, it's a digital agency in the sense that it has been founded by digital people, who find digital thinking to be a good way to solve clients' business problems. The caveat, though, is that none of Work Club's founders think "digital" is a particularly meaningful description for an agency any more. "We'll operate in spaces that neither ad agencies nor digital agencies are able to, because we're starting in a different place," Griffith, the planning partner, says.
That starting point is strategic and conceptual, and Work Club won't be built around a large production department. The shop will have a small, internal production unit, and will then outsource when demand necessitates. "We'll get best of breed in-house, keep it tight, keep it creative and talented and small, as well as R&D-focused. We'll cherry-pick the best projects for those guys and then work with external partners and specialists outside of that wherever possible," Sandoz says.
But will this set-up work? The system has its critics in the digital industry. The Profero chief executive for Europe, Wayne Arnold, argues strategy and implementation and execution are linked far more in digital than in any other medium. Separating the processes might make financial sense for a start-up, he reckons, because production requires a large investment, "but I don't think it makes sense from a client's point of view".
Griffith disagrees, arguing that many clients either have their own capability to deliver assets, or expect agencies to source lower-cost solutions, such as those on offer in Eastern Europe.
There are other differences: Work Club will not be based on traditional teams, but will pair a planner with a creative. And it will, Sandoz says, build bespoke teams as and when client need dictates.
"The joy of pressing the reset button is that we're fleet of foot. We can look at how we work with partners or bring in new talent. Whether the talent is a production company, a creative, a neuroscientist or a speedboat designer, you can put together a team that has the right knowledge to solve the problem."
Just how hard was it to press that "reset button"? Sandoz and Griffith enjoyed success at Agency Republic, helping the Omnicom-backed shop to its current status as Campaign's Digital Agency of the Year. In the two years Brooks sat as the chief executive of the Zulu digital and direct network, his focus seems to have been more on the digital side of the business. He oversaw the purchase of the interactive TV production company Weapon 7 and the abortive launch of the interactive marketing service Ipsh in Europe.
Brooks cites the lure of self-employment as the deciding factor behind his departure. "Omnicom was thoroughly supportive, which was why Zulu was such an interesting proposition, but my skills are in growing and energising things."
"We felt it was the right time to start in a new space and not repeat the mistakes of other digital agencies, or not force the digital agency into where an ad agency is, which has inherent baggage," Griffith adds. "If clients see us as the new Dare or glue or Agency Republic, we're doing something wrong."