Start me up: advice from the other side

Many adlanders harbour ambitions to run their own agency, but the path to success is tough and littered with the ghosts of failed start-ups. Campaign asks some of the industry's success stories what lessons they learned from their experience.

Start me up: advice from the other side

When news broke a fortnight ago that the Grey London leaders Nils Leonard, Lucy Jameson and Natalie Graeme had resigned en masse, the industry was abuzz. The trio are expected to set up shop when their WPP contracts expire next summer. Judging by the industry response, it looks sure to be the most significant breakaway since Adam & Eve's founders left Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R in 2007.

Many adlanders harbour ambitions to run their own agency, but the path to success is tough and littered with the ghosts of failed start-ups. A strong stomach is required to leave the comfort of an established agency and regular income to join the rollercoaster of running your own business. Over the following pages, Campaign asks some of the industry’s success stories what lessons they learned from their experience and, crucially, what they got wrong.

David Golding

Co-founder and chief strategy officer, Adam & Eve/DDB

"First up, well done to Nils and co: the UK needs an exciting start-up – they’ve been a bit thin on the ground recently. Obviously, they will need to play nicely with their current employer, but what else have we learned along the way?

"A good start is to leave your egos at the door. It’s not about being the superstar striker any more, it’s all about the team. Great work and a great business require a great gang, and that’s what clients buy into more than anything else.

"Next, think big and grow up fast. Don’t think that just because you are small, you should do small, pranky campaigns. Don’t make work for the juries and the industry, make it to talk to millions of real people. Make it to make a real difference. So grow up fast, set your sights on the big brands that really matter, then take on the biggest and beat them by working harder, being better and caring more. The faster you do grown-up work for grown-up brands, the faster your agency will grow.

"And, finally, don’t bang on about your radical new model. Clients want more access to the top talent – that’s the only model that start-ups need to deliver on.

"Get it right and you’ll be in for the ride of your life."

Neil Simpson

Co-founder and chief executive, The Corner

"Congratulations to the Grey trio on jumping from the comfort of the corporate nest.

"Right now, you think it’s all about you. But it’s not. It’s about the people you convince to join you and the culture you create.

"Back yourselves. You’ve started with a bold move and must continue to be ambitious. Move into that new office if it feels right.

"Hire that UX designer if they fit your plan. You will find the revenue to make it work.

"You will get things wrong. Don’t fear that. Remember the ‘Weeble’ mentality – they wobbled but they were never knocked down.

"The opportunities will come, but they will come from where you least expect them. Don’t sit and wait for the people who promised you the earth to turn up.

"Be prepared to work harder than you have ever done before. Hopefully you have seen enough of Cannes not to need it any more.

"Understand that moving from corporate life to entrepreneurial life means trading frustration for anxiety. There is nothing to moan about any more, and no-one to blame. Instead, you will worry about everything – and so you should because if you don’t, no-one else will.

"Bank the joy of the good news because you will need it to help you through the pain of the bad.

"You need to be optimistic and at ease with the unknown. Realise that you can’t plan for everything and be prepared to roll with the punches.

"Be as open and honest as you can with everyone and maintain your integrity. These attributes will be put to the test frequently and you will observe others in our wonderful industry with lesser moral standing.

"But, above all, make time to enjoy it. It’s brilliant fun but faster than the fastest rollercoaster in the kingdom of rollercoasters, so occasionally look around you and take it all in."

Andrew McGuinness

Chief executive, Freuds; co-founder, BMB and Seven Dials 

"It’s a great privilege to do a start-up: a blank sheet of paper, a profound sense of freedom and a unique and heady mix of idealism and fear. I’m really quite envious.

"But what would I have done differently if I had my time again? First, I wouldn’t have been so optimistic about whether non-compete clauses would be fully enforced. They will be and you have to start your business on that basis. Second, I wouldn’t worry as much about having a fully-worked-through business plan: when you’re starting with nothing, the numbers are only an aspiration anyway – time is better spent finding clients and doing the work. Finally, we should perhaps have been truer to our founding mission: ‘To use creativity to solve business problems.’ It sounds conventional now but, a decade ago, it gave a glimpse of a different future for advertising.

"There are many, many more things that I wouldn’t change about BMB: three people starting something from scratch who’d worked closely together for years. Getting the best planner in London to join us within weeks. The sense of energy and possibility that fuelled us, especially in those first few years. The fantastic team who joined along the way. The clients who took a risk and believed in us. The work for brands such as McCain, Carling, First Choice, Heinz and Thomson.

"Every low feels lower and every high far higher: what a ride and terrific way to have spent a decade of my working life. Good luck, guys, and I hope you have as much fun as I did."

Michael Wall

Global chief executive, Mother; co-founder, Fallon London

"The current crop of start-up teams have typically opened for business later in their careers than in my day so they’ll likely be doing all of the below and more. If not, here is my time-honoured and essential start-up checklist:

"Make sure you’re a genuine team and an odd number. You debate the little things as much as the big things. Everything matters. That’s good and healthy but, at some point, you have to make a decision.

"Every piece of work has to be high-level (that’s why you do it, right?). Our Fallon trade ad ‘There’s a waiting list for the new Skoda’ felt as hard to get out of the door as Sony ‘Balls’.

"Use the power of ‘no’. Making the right decisions for yourselves on pitches, people, work etc is fundamental. ‘No’ is a liberating and often business-generating tool.

"Hire people who are as hungry and as inexperienced as you now are. The energy level and sheer
willpower is transformative.

"Have an enemy and make it personal (plenty of obvious targets here).

"Build the business to last, not to flip. It keeps you honest and it makes for a better business and brand. While I’m still relatively new to Mother, I have long admired the company’s entrepreneurial gene as much as the brand’s enduring values.

"One ingredient I’d add to my start-up today is a ‘maker’. A start-up is a craft-skill business. Being able to prototype ideas has become a competitive and vital part of today’s creative landscape."

Helen Calcraft

Founding partner, Lucky Generals; co-founder, MCBD

"If we were to start Lucky Generals again today, I don’t think we would do things very differently, as we have been so happy and so very lucky – so far. But if we did have our time over, we would aim to have even more courage in our convictions. 

"We have learned that Lucky Generals only flourishes when we are being true to ourselves and building high-commitment client relationships based on shared values. You can’t credibly change what/who you are in order to win a pitch, let alone sustain a successful relationship. It is ultimately much more rewarding to work on a lesser-known brand managed by fantastic people than it is to work on a ‘badge’ brand managed by people you don’t relate to.  

"Creating magic is only possible when you work in partnership with clients you like and enjoy. So if you are an anteater and you find yourself trying to mate with a gerbil in a pitch situation – call it and walk away. In the end, you can’t walk into a meeting and hide your lengthy proboscis or feign interest in nuts and seeds. 

"This all sounds obvious, but it is unbelievably hard to do when you have mouths to feed and bills to pay. But ‘get it right rather than do it often’ feels like a good mantra for new business, which is the lifeblood of a new agency. 

"So best of luck, Nils, Lucy and Natalie. We salute you. Welcome to the club."

Kate Waters

Co-founder and chief strategy officer, Now


"Like all planners, I like a bit of evidence to back up an idea. But our business is also about gut instinct, albeit gut instinct that’s based on many years of experience. However, it’s easy to ignore your instincts when you’re starting a business, particularly when people question your ideas and ideals or when your confidence gets knocked (as it does, inevitably, many times). 

"But if you’re trying to create something new, sometimes the ‘evidence’ isn’t easy to come by. You have to rely on gut feel. So resist the temptation to
listen too closely to the naysayers or to allow yourself to be distracted. Trust your gut instinct. And not just about the ideas that are the lifeblood of our business, but about all the other stuff too – the people you hire, the clients you choose to work with, even the policies you have to write. 

"There’s no greater opportunity to build something exciting and distinctive than when you start with a blank sheet of paper. Do what feels right and the chances are everything else will work itself out."

Laurence Green

Founding partner, 101;  co-founder, Fallon London

"As Jeremy Bullmore once observed, the biggest question for advertisers is often not how to advertise but whether to. I’d suggest the biggest question for start-ups is the same: not how to do it but whether to, because the decision to go it alone creates its own propulsive energy – whether that’s fuelled by hopes and dreams or sheer terror. 

"That said, I started the Fallon London office in 1998 and 101 five years ago. The world has spun ever faster since and margins have grown ever tighter, so ‘taking the leap’ is now a necessary but not sufficient condition of success. In that context, my advice to others is the same we give ourselves: to cheat the odds by developing deep expertise, creative or otherwise, that plausibly commands a premium over your peers. 

"Too many advertising start-ups do the opposite: the random walk of new business overwhelming the patient cultivation of brand and culture, the very stuff you’ll need when that launch energy eventually dissipates. To put it another way: the wrong clients, tasks and even colleagues can lead you astray. Presume there is a better prospect just around the corner. Or in the words of David Bain: be agency hardwood (slow-growing but strong), not soft."

Johnny Hornby

Co-founder, CHI & Partners and The & Partnership

"You might argue that only an ill-starred agency opens it doors to the cheerless prospect of Brexit, but our timing wasn’t much better. In 2001, the dotcom bubble had burst and the introduction of the euro coincided with a European recession we narrowly avoided.

"In other respects, our timing was good. Big ideas were in fashion but big agencies were not. Clients were more interested in original thinking than organograms; they wanted the agency principals to be worrying about their business, day in, day out.

"When Simon [Clemmow], Charles [Inge] and I founded CHI, that’s what we promised and it helped us win not just the smaller FMCG brands that are start-up staples but big retail and service clients too.

"Now I suspect the pendulum has swung back and the network agencies are a compelling proposition once more. Not because their ideas are superior or they’re better-organised to give clients the attention they deserve, but because clients are looking for things that smaller agencies find hard to deliver.

"A breadth of disciplines. With a depth of data. Using cutting-edge technology. To drive smarter creativity. At scale. The telcos, grocers and banks have sought this marketing model for some time; now FMCG and auto brands pursue the same goal and any new agency will have to scale up and skill up to meet it fast.

"So the timing may be a little out for a start-up agency. That said, talent trumps timing and this line-up has bags of the former – I’ve every confidence they’ll prove their timing was right."

Start-ups: The marketers’ view

Taking a chance on a start-up agency might be a riskier option and a more difficult sell internally for marketers, but it can provide rich rewards. 

First, the common bait-and-switch tactic – where the "A team" gets rolled out for the pitch, only to be replaced by junior staff as soon as the ink dries on the contract – is no longer a problem. A marketer is almost guaranteed an audience with the most senior staff.

As Charles Moore, former editor of The Daily Telegraph, once said: "When you have big, long-established advertising agencies, you get the big guys coming in once, and you never see them again. And CHI, because of being newer and smaller, was ready to put more of itself into it. And that made them more imaginative and determined."

Second, a hungry start-up will be desperate to make a name for itself, keen to please and desperate not to lose the business. This means marketers are given a disproportionate amount of attention. As John Lewis customer director Craig Inglis said, he wasn’t being "philanthropic" when he hired a young Adam & Eve: "Other people wouldn’t have been that dedicated."

Sir Charles Dunstone, co-founder Carphone Warehouse, agrees. As he told the Financial Times: "We were [CHI’s] only clients for a while, which means you get the most fantastically intensive, diligent service from amazing industry professionals. The TV ads they did for us were the first TV ads that they did for anyone – they were terribly important to us, but they were more important to them."