If I were to start up now ..

With the benefit of hindsight, what would the pioneers of today's successful agencies put in place if they were to create a new agency?


What sort of agency would I start now? The simple answer is: the same one Christine (Walker) and I started ten years ago.

Don't get me wrong, Walker Media is not perfect, and it isn't a proposition that floats the boat of many of today's marketing directors. But when I wake up and go to work, I do know what I believe in and what I care about. I don't tap-dance around all the so-called disciplines of many of today's media agencies.

You could define our proposition as much by what we don't do as what we claim to do.

We don't have a separate insight or research function. I figure that our frontline client troops ought to be finding the insights.

We don't have a communication planner in the building. I'm still not sure what they do that allows them to carry that title. I wouldn't call myself one after 25 years, so I am certainly not going to have two-year-olds believing they can advise across the "total mix" neutrally.

We don't have a standalone digital business. Walker is in existence to support Walker Media's clients.

We haven't set up a creative arm. Really good creatives wouldn't thrive in a media-led environment. I am happiest working alongside creative agency talent and inspiring or limiting their creative ambition.

We don't have black boxes. Need I explain why not? The drugs don't work!

We don't do agency deals. They restrict clients and are lacking transparency. They also do not properly reward the strongest media players.

So that's what we don't do and what I still wouldn't do if I were starting again.

Would I behave differently?

I would learn to be permanently positive, because people like to buy from positive people.

I would learn to be more gracious in defeat, because bitterness is a sin in our game.

I would remember to fast-track bright people faster than feels comfortable.

What would I change about our proposition?

This is tricky because without insight departments, creatives, black boxes, communication planners, econometrics and agency deals, you redefine your potential market and reduce it to a handful of confident clients who believe in experience over hope.

But I would if I started again try to find a way to get Walker Media on to the COI roster. We hold the dubious honour of being the only agency in the top ten to be excluded.

Oh, and finally, the agency would have names above the door and below it the following motto: "Tell the truth and you won't have to remember anything."


I suppose that if I was starting out today and projected what sort of presence our new fledgling agency would have in the marketplace in 30 years' time, I would get nowhere near, even in my wildest fantasies, of forecasting that we would create the biggest agency in the country, one that has been for nearly half its life. I guess David (Abbott), Adrian (Vickers) and I must have got something right in those early days. Based on AMV's success, those lessons we learned then are as appropriate today, so at the risk of being tedious, I will list what the three of us thought was important way back in 1977.

- Above all else, find yourself partners where trust, respect and more than a little affection is mandatory.

- Set out to have a very clear idea of what sort of company you want to build, embracing guiding principles and operating beliefs.

- Believe that if you look after your people and try consistently to do good work, then success and money might follow. Fame and fortune should always be a consequence of what you do as opposed to a principle.

- Try to find clients who believe in the power of what you do, with whom you have good, mutually respectful relationships. And, importantly, believe that you should be properly rewarded for your efforts.

- Resist the temptation to be different just for the sake of difference.

- Find yourself a finance director who isn't afraid of you and will tell you what you need to hear as opposed to what you want to hear.

- Give the people who work with you something to believe in. Don't spend any time at all on producing a mission statement. Spend a lot of time on the mission itself.

- Try to eradicate fear from your organisation. Don't tolerate psychological bullying in any form. Don't be afraid of your clients and believe you can make a difference to their business.

So those were pretty much the things that were in our head when we started. We never set out to be the biggest and nor should anybody who starts up today. The only sustainable ambition is to want to be the best, and as we said at the time when we got to be number one, it's amazing how big you can get if you are not worried about how big you can get.

Having applied the dinosaur filter to the above, there are some new things that you would do. You would look for the best digital person (native rather than immigrant) you could find and make sure that he or she was a full founding partner in your new agency. In a world where commoditisation is constantly rearing its ugly head, you would look for that elusive creative spark that can make all the difference. Oh, and above all, you would try to find an office where you could create a heated, ventilated and dry smoking terrace.


Hopefully, one might assume that as glue London is still such a young, sexy digital agency, what we are doing today is exactly what we would start doing if we were to set up now. However, as we are now well into our ninth year, there are likely to be a few areas that we would probably try to change if we were starting from scratch.

Choosing your business model and positioning is both the most important and the least important thing that you'll ever do.

For any start-up, I would imagine that much time is spent debating what titles to give the partners, the font for the logo type and a detailed description of the type of work that you will take on and what you won't touch with a barge pole. As we've seen with some recent start-ups, reality bites pretty quick as the partners fall back on what they know best to pay the bills rather than get too picky about that finely honed manifesto they may have started out with.

Fortunately, when we set up glue London, we were glad just to get any work we could get our hands on, and if I could only keep one thing, it would be that initial pragmatism.

The list of things that we would choose to do differently is long and winding, and you probably expect to hear about the big vision and positioning things that we would change, but it's the small stuff, the detail, that trips you up. We made so many mistakes with contracts and ratecard and delivery schedules early on that I'm amazed we made it through at all.

We've always been an ad agency first, and a digital agency second. The reality when we got started was that the two fields were so disparate that it simply wasn't possible to work across both effectively. With today's opportunities, we would attack it with more gusto.

I'd temper that with the humility to realise that grabbing people from a discipline you are not involved in and assuming that you have it covered ain't going to cut it. Having a digital guy doesn't make you a digital agency, knowing how to plan a media schedule won't make you full-service and doing a bit of film won't allow you to easily conquer traditional.


The world has changed a lot in the eight years since Naked started. Genuine structural change in people's media behaviours has come about through the arrival of Freeview, social networking and the mainstream adoption of broadband to name but three obvious examples.

Add to those other emergent trends such as blogging, user-generated content and the mobile internet, and it's not surprising that the typical campaign today looks a whole lot different from the kinds of things we were doing when Naked first began.

So what would I do differently if I were starting out now? Nothing. I'd do the same again. I'd start an agency focused on solving the client's communications problems, not on selling a predetermined solution. I'd build a diverse team with a mix of skills from a range of disciplines. And I'd recognise that creativity should be part of the agency's culture, not the name of a department.

The profound changes in the ways people use and are influenced by communications simply confirm the logic of communications strategy being a distinct discipline, unbiased towards any particular discipline and unshackled by fixed investments in specific delivery mechanisms.

The accelerating pace of change means that any attempt to build an agency to deliver "the next big thing" is doomed to be superseded by the next next big thing, and so on. The willingness to embrace any and every channel without bias is the only guarantee that your agency will be as relevant to the communications landscape of 20 years' time as it is to today's. Objectivity is future-proof.

Having said all that, eight years at the coalface have thrown up a couple of practical things I would do differently.

I wouldn't enter into joint ventures with other agencies to extend our brand into new entities. These become a drain on management time that is way out of proportion to the revenues they create. The time you spend managing the relationship with your joint venture partner for a part-share of profits is time you could have sold at full price to your own clients.

It would have been smart to have taken out a commercial mortgage to buy our own office space. The office is the one asset you don't sell when you sell the company, so your new employers become your tenants and the building becomes your pension plan. The savvy founders of PHD did just this - I wish we had.


When we started CHI in 2001, we were lucky to start with a client. Apart from the obvious financial benefits, the real benefit to us was that we didn't have time to navel-gaze about "the future of advertising" or "reinventing the model". From day one, we had to work out what our client needed and how we could sell more of its products.

Because our client needed a big idea to drive its whole business, rather than just a few ads, we invented a process to find big ideas. As we anticipated, other clients were in need of, and wanted to find, big ideas for themselves.

As a principle, we decided that if we could do something well, we would do it, and if we couldn't, we'd find the very best people to work with who could. This meant that we grew organically, adding more partners as and when we (our clients) needed them.

So, from traditional above-the-line ad guys, we added media planners, direct and digital people, designers and, most recently, media buyers.

Having everyone under one roof, not sitting in departments, being galvanised around big ideas and having one bottom line has meant that we are able to offer integrated solutions for our clients.

I don't know how you could offer a full-service agency from day one. You would be unlikely to find the right people available at the same time, and certainly be unable to pay yourselves.

So if I was starting out today, I would be cautious about trying to predict the future and offering a broad talent base from day one. I would worry less about who we are, and worry more about what our clients need and where to find like-minded people.

And I would start an agency in the spring. When you are still without an office, sitting outside Bar Italia in the sunshine looking for business is just more pleasant.


Most agencies are founded with a particular type of product in mind - digital, award-winning advertising, integrated solutions, the nation's most popular ads ...

It might be more interesting to ignore the product for a while and start elsewhere, with the principles, values, working practices and methodologies that I would want. Only after defining these would I decide which "product" can successfully and profitably be produced this way.

I'd start with the things that matter to me. They are: working with people I like and find stimulating; continually discovering and learning; having fun; feeling pride in what I do and produce; and having that pride reinforced by being rewarded appropriately.

Which leads me to a set of working principles:

- Keep it small. I want to work with people I like, respect and find stimulating. Which means getting to know them well, and working closely and continuously with them. It should feel more like an intimate club than a company - based on a model where there's a defined limit on "staff". A club with 50 members and a waiting list. And here's a novelty - we won't grow to satisfy increasing demand. Instead we'll increase our prices to regulate the demand.

- Specialise. You can be a consistently brilliant agency, with pride in everything you produce, while being a generalist, but it's rare. Instead, I'd focus on a particular skillset or area, that will become the thing we are famous for, ever better at and ever more knowledgeable about. Creating a truly iteratively learning organisation.

- Demand reward that matches the pride you have in your product. Getting paid for the value of what you produce, not for how long it takes to produce, is widely talked about. It's achievable if you create a business with this in mind and only produce products that can show quantifiable added value.

- Now - and only now - for the product. It needs to be the result of the above.

So, my starter for ten this week is: a 50-person practice that specialises in - and only in - communications between new brands and their consumers. A worldwide brand from day one with 50 partners working across all five of the offices around the globe. We are paid a percentage of the new brands' profits, which, of course, could zero if we select the wrong projects or fail to do our jobs well.