A: Of all the many subjects I know nothing whatsoever about, how to start an agency comes close to the top.
Not many people know this, but some time in the early 70s, Stephen King and I treated ourselves to a cheap Italian lunch just off Oxford Street. He was the head of planning at what was then called J Walter Thompson and I was the head of the creative department. It was comfortably the biggest agency in London and over recent years had racked up some notable achievements: Agency of the Year, Campaign of the Year, lots of Lions, lots of IPA Effectiveness Awards and a string of enviable account wins. Stephen and I had already known each other for more than 30 years (he was 14 when we first met) and over the Frascati, for the very first time, we discussed the possibility of starting our own agency.
We did so without enthusiasm, almost dutifully. Quite a lot of our friends had started their own agencies, most of them successfully. Perhaps it had become obligatory? We agreed that it would be feeble of us not even to entertain the possibility. We also agreed that neither of us was a potential managing director (CEOs hadn't yet been invented); that neither of us knew enough about money; and that neither of us would be any good at account management. It was clear that we needed A Third Man. But who? We sat and thought for several minutes but couldn't think of one. Immensely relieved, we finished the Frascati, split the bill (£6.25 each: the agency had recently introduced decimal currency to the nation) and went happily back to 40 Berkeley Square, never to raise the subject again.
So those are my credentials for giving advice to potential start-ups. Undaunted, however, here goes.
1. Make sure you have The Third Man (see above). It could just as easily be a woman. Without such a person, you haven't a hope.
2. The days of silly names are long gone. Put your own names over the door. More than three suggests indecisiveness.
3. Don't pretend to have invented a new philosophy that makes all existing agencies history. You won't be believed: not a good start.
4. Have at least two proper bits of business properly signed up. "You can count on us, Bill," said three times in the pub, isn't worth the paper it's not written on.
5. Have access to twice as much money as you think you could possibly need.
Q: I'm a marketer with an advertising budget of £10 million. The entire account is handled by one advertising agency. Although I'm satisfied with the work my agency is producing, it has just lost three of its biggest accounts. I fear this will distract its team from my business, affect its confidence and, basically, I'm considering bailing out too. What do you think I should do?
A: You say you're satisfied with the work they're producing. What good fortune. Now's the time to have a word with their CEO. Below, I append two alternative short scripts for your consideration. Each is designed to ensure not only that your agency continues its good work on your behalf but actually ups its efforts.
A. "I want to be absolutely straight with you, Nigel. Many of my people are deeply disturbed by the news that you've just lost three of your biggest accounts. They think it's bound to affect your confidence and are strongly urging me to consider bailing out as well - but I've said, no, certainly not: give 'em a month. Thought it only fair to tell you."
B. "Morning, Nigel. A friend of mine is about to take over as the marketing director at Anglo-Galvanized and will be looking for an agency. I've told him how happy we are with your work and he'd like to meet you. Could you make lunch next Thursday?"
The choice is yours.
Q: I read with alarm in Campaign that one of our oldest clients is "talking to agencies". They have denied it to us, but I can't help but wonder whether they're telling the whole truth. What, if anything, can we do?
A: Tell your client, in the strictest confidence, that you've just been approached by his fiercest competitor. He'll either explode with rage or exude intense relief. If the latter, call your new-business director from the car.
- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4683.
Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via firstname.lastname@example.org or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.