LIFE AFTER A BIG AGENCY: No more lunches at the Ivy, no more chauffeur to work, no more big office politics. Emma Hall hears why agency folk turn entrepreneurs

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.

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

is saved.’

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.’


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.


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?


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

of people.

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

of you.

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

it vicariously.

Tim O’Kennedy is a partner at Circus and former chief operating officer

at the Lowe Group.


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