The hard work and stress in building a company when your financial ass is on the line is staggering. Ignorance has been the friend of limitless human endeavors in the early going. But while the task sometimes seemed Herculean, I would certainly start an agency again -- I'd just do it differently.
Looking back on what I know now, here are three things that I would change.
First, I'd create a disciplined approach to titles from the outset. One of the most appealing things in the early days of building an agency is the vast amount of flexibility you have when it comes to hiring, promoting and incentivizing. We began back in 2001 with a flat hierarchy, and titles were fluid (Sure, Bob can be an art director here, even though he would be a senior designer in the real world). This worked well until we reached about 15 to 20 people. Allowing employees to be on job tiers that exceeded the industry norm helped in attracting talent in the short term, but in the long term it caused more than a few headaches.
Second, I'd have rethought my shop's structure. In the heyday of digital display ads, we had huge demand from our Hollywood studio clients who needed flexibility to change things up until the 11th hour. When Steven Spielberg wants to change copy hours before launch, you find a way to make it happen. This required us to build up robust internal production capabilities quickly and in a small shop, that means asking your creative talent to split their attention. If I knew then what I know now, I would have set up a separate division early on to handle production, keeping the creative talent focused on the future.
Lastly, I'd refocus our approach to developing our own internal intellectual property. Over the last 15 or so years we have created roughly 10 apps, games, and b2b software products, but if I had it to do over again I'd roll the dice on smaller, rapid prototype projects versus longer-term projects. For example, we built a mobile/pad game that combines music with racing called Rhythm Racer several years ago. It charted well (No. 1 music game for months around the world), and burnished our reputation, but was not a financial hit for us. We had put all our eggs into one basket. The money we put into that game could have funded 20 smaller projects. Once I decided that building internal IP was really about R&D for our clients, rapid prototyping became our norm. The learnings are what are valuable. The more relevant learnings, the more value we can bring to our clients.
While hindsight is most certainly 20/20, sometimes the best learning comes through falling on your face now and then. For me, keeping innovation as my agency's North Star has helped pick me up after setbacks and has kept the agency work fresh, challenging and forward-looking.
For more insights, practical advice and peer-to-peer sharing, be sure to sign up for Ad Age's Small Agency Conference July 17-18 in Marina del Rey, California. For tickets and information, go here.