I’ve flown a few miles in my life. I can recite the security briefings verbatim, in four languages. The one that feels most relevant today is: "Make sure you put your oxygen mask on before helping others."
Easier said than done.
I know this because I am – soon to be was – the owner of a small ad agency in New York that employs 16 people full-time. And two weeks ago, I informed our largest client that I was going to close the doors of this wonderful place.
Many agencies run around with the slogan "The work, the work, the work" etc etc etc. But, for me, it has always been "the people, the people, the people". I mean, really, it’s quite hard to do the work without them. And now I’ve got to help 15 humans find work within a few weeks. While finalising my own plans. I need to slap that oxygen mask on quickly and find 15 others at the same time.
Fortunately, all of my people are young, blessed with incredible talent and the hardest-working bunch I could have wished for. Their dedication to our cause makes me weep.
The past three-and-a-half years have been a vital mixture of glee and glory, debilitating misery and disappointment, and unrelenting discovery. Starting an agency in New York is like being on a rollercoaster – you’re either laughing or you’re vomiting. We did plenty of both.
Above all, though, I felt frustration. The reasons are simple, really: the work, the work, the work. We just didn’t get enough out. I started my agency to produce great work – there was no other reason.
And we didn’t. So it’s time for me to try another way to do just that. We made money, but we didn’t make anything else. That’s not sustainable unless you’re a bank.
The work our people do is what builds a company like ours. It is what we live for, what we love. And yet, in three years of relentless toil, we managed to produce only three brand ideas and campaigns. In my first agency, Lowe Bull, we produced 15 pieces of work in the first three months.
The work is what sells us as much as it’s what we sell. So you can see the shortfall here.
Why were we unable to produce work? First, I know that we created it internally, but we were stifled more often than not by research. It has become a disease here. The principle of research is a good one – but it should be used to enlighten, not approve. And it desperately needs to modernise – starting first with being able to gauge people’s emotional reaction to work. Right now, all we get is feedback on the over-thinking, logical side of it. And we all know which is more powerful in real life.
I started my agency to produce great work – no other reason. And we didn’t. So it’s time to try another way to do just that
As hard as clients try to convince me that they don’t allow research to make the decisions for them, my experience says otherwise. I held a creative conference for the senior leaders of Anheuser-Busch InBev the other week and asked some agency executives to join me on a panel. When asked what the biggest obstacle to producing great work was, they all unanimously said: research. We have to stop pussy-footing around it and force research companies to modernise, get more accurate and helpful, and become part of the team that creates, not neutralise.
Second, we were lucky enough to win big clients, but not lucky enough to win those small, scrappy ones that take risks and take them quickly.
Third, and most important, I simply failed to overcome the two hurdles above. I can bitch and moan all I want – there are reasons but, ultimately, no excuses.
But, my word, we tried. I went around looking for business like a hot-and-cold hooker from the 70s. We produced idea after idea, campaign after campaign and I went around again trying to sell it. People worked themselves into old age in their twenties. We had our fair share of luck as well – having ex-clients and good friends move to America for both Unilever and AB InBev purely coincidentally helped us win most of our business. And then I met and hired wonderful people. My word, they made my life a joy. There hasn’t been a day within the agency that we haven’t laughed like out-of-control fire-hoses – normally at one another’s expense.
And, finally, fortunately, we managed to make a little bit of money so we always ate and drank well. Vital.
I am thankful for every day of The Bull-White House. I have learned so much, as have we all. I am grateful for what I had and what I have.
I just wish I had more.
My thanks to all those who have supported us through the years here. Our clients, agency friends, the media. And Drizzly’s late-night booze delivery.
If ever any of you ever need an oxygen mask, I’ll help put yours on before I put on my own.
Thank you. And goodnight.
Matthew Bull is the founder of The Bull-White House and a former chief creative officer at Lowe and Partners Worldwide