Why do founders no longer name their agencies after themselves?

There can be risks for a business such as M&C Saatchi that trades on its founders' involvement.

Don Draper: are modern agencies trying to get away from Mad Men era? (Getty Images)
Don Draper: are modern agencies trying to get away from Mad Men era? (Getty Images)

Once upon a time, it was the dream of every agency’s founders to have their names "above the door" – just like Sterling Cooper and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the fictional shops in Mad Men.

Leo Burnett (founded in 1935), Ogilvy (1948), Doyle Dane Bernbach (1949), Wunderman (1958), Saatchi & Saatchi (1970), Abbott Mead Vickers (1977), Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Wieden & Kennedy (both 1982) remain some of the biggest brands in advertising.

However, the recent bust-up at M&C Saatchi (founded in 1995) is a reminder of the risks for a business that trades on its founders’ involvement – even if, in the case of Maurice Saatchi, who quit last week after falling out with his co-founders over an accounting scandal, his exit was largely symbolic.

For some in advertising, naming an agency after its founders now harks back to the Mad Men days, when agencies ruled supreme and acted as if the client should feel lucky to be working with them – rather than the other way round, as it is now.

Mother (founded in 1996), Essence (2005) and Adam & Eve (2008) are some of the many agencies to have launched in more recent years that have eschewed their founders’ names.

There are exceptions, such as Mcgarrybowen (2002) and Droga5 (2006), but they are increasingly rare in an industry where buying, data and coding skills matter as much as creative magic. 

So why do most founders no longer name their agencies after themselves?

Mark Roalfe

Chairman, VMLY&R London

As the agency founder that created the straw that broke the camel’s back with their snappily named Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, you may think I have a bit to answer for. But, sadly, it really had little to do with me.

It was all down to the genius and far-sightedness of Robert Saville. In the old days, all agencies were a collection of the founders’ names and traded on their reputations. Then Robert gave birth to Mother and all that was suddenly very old-fashioned. 

Mother wasn’t just an ad agency, it was a concept, a belief system, a new way to do things. 

Since then, pretty much everybody has followed in Robert's footsteps, with the notable exception of Dave Droga, who was so good, he claimed there were five of him.

Helen Calcraft

Founding partner, Lucky Generals

I must be one of the very few people in advertising who has had the privilege of co-founding two agencies – one named after the principals (Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy) and one named after a Napoleon quote (Lucky Generals).

It is hard to imagine anyone starting an agency based on the founder's surnames in 2020 and yet it seemed perfectly natural 20 years ago. And it wasn't just advertising people who started businesses in their name in previous generations. MCBD's founding clients were Bell's and Dyson. 

But nowadays you can't imagine buying a Jobs phone or banking with Blomfield, Huckestein, Bates, Rippon and Dolman. Today, we want to create brands that are not dependent on the cult of the founder. And broadly this feels right. But have we lost a little something? Sure.

It seems to get harder and harder to think of the big names in our business and we do struggle for fame and clout in the broader business world as an industry. But, ultimately, we are in the business of brand-building, so we ought to be able to build brands for ourselves that have more longevity that the founders. 

Charles Vallance

Founding partner and chairman, VCCP

It's probably a cyclical thing and founders' surnames will come back into fashion. Evidence suggests they represent the most enduring naming protocol, with all 10 of the UK's top agencies named after their founders (allowing for Grey being a deeply reluctant switch from Valenstein and Fatt). This is hardly revelatory, as a lot of the more zany brand names come and go, especially when untethered to an enduring philosophy. What sounded waggish in one decade can sound dated the next.

The two most enduring naming protocols are for the founders to be either eponymous or synonymous with their respective brands; eg Dyson, Bezos, Cadbury, Jobs, Chanel, Adidas, Gates, Heineken, Branson, Heinz and Ford or, in little adland, Saatchi, Bartle, Murphy, Burnett, Bogle, Ogilvy, Saville, Hornby, Golding, McCann, Abbott and Hegarty. Try pitching against that lot.

Jessica Scott

Co-founder, Love Sugar Science

It’s really, really hard to think of a new business name. Probably harder than naming my kids. I definitely don’t remember rounds of Post-it note sessions for them. We’re a team of four, very head-strong people who all had very different opinions about what our company should be called.

One thing we didn’t argue about, though, was naming it after ourselves (Scott Price Wheatley Gregory – or even SPWG?). It wasn’t ever an option and one we never wanted to pursue.

The reason for this was somewhat unconscious. I mean, who does that nowadays, anyway? The very idea of naming the company after yourselves is everything that is wrong with the media and creative world. No-one really gives a shit about your name; they want you to make them famous. Nor did we want to name ourselves after a pub or hangout, which has become more popular in recent years. Being called "Ziferblat" just didn’t do it for us (sorry, Ziferblat, you were kind to us in the very early days).

Love Sugar Science is something that was born out of (many months) of crafting what our proposition was to the industry. We wanted a change, a real and different option to the masses. Initials are easier and less polarising than names which mean something, but you can’t spend your whole life asking your clients to risk standing out while you opt to blend in.

Alex Best

Co-founder and chief operating officer, Wonderhood Studios

I can see why in the mayhem of setting up a start-up, you end up defaulting to the names of the founders. You’ve got to come up with a name that’s creative, isn’t used by anyone else and sums up what you stand for as a company. Nightmare.

Mother changed the game when Robert Saville checked his ego and I believe now more than ever it’s important to have a name that reflects the way you do business and the ambition to create a company that’s bigger than its founders. 

"Best Advertising" was never going to cut it… hold on a minute.

Sascha Darroch-Davies

Founder and agency partners director, DLMDD

I imagine we're one of very few agencies formed in 2019 or indeed in recent years that has named itself after its founders. 

I like to think Mad Men is partly to blame. Parading around like self-serving megalomaniacs from the middle of the last century is not a great reference point for brands on the hunt for new agencies.  

Ultimately, it comes down to trends. Look at bands right now; no-one is "The somethings" any more, it’s all quirky catchphrases and pluralised verbs.

What’s in a name, anyway? The Beatles is a shit band name!

Craig Hares

Co-founder, Fox & Hare

We went down this path [of naming an agency after its founders], because how often does a Fox meet a Hare? That’s what happened when I met Ben Fox to form Fox & Hare.

Our existing and prospective clients love our name, so we have no plans to change it for now; certainly not to just fit in with our fellow new kids on the block. We get it – that surnames in a brand name can sometimes make an agency sound a bit corporate, like a law firm. Or a pub, in our case!

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