So You Want to Start an Agency? Pin These Tips to Your Wall

11 Things You Need to Know

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Fueled partly by the rising Dow, and partly by pure entrepreneurialism, we're in a state of creation. Agencies are popping up from coast to coast, even in places like Chicago.

I'm pretty sure it's written in the Ad Executive Code of Conduct that after a decade or more, it is mandated that any and all founders of agencies author an article on what they may have learned. So now for some advice from a guy who started his career by failing typing tests at N.W. Ayer, J. Walter Thompson, Ogilvy & Mather and Grey.

1. The world does not need another ad agency.

I know, I know, you've assembled four or five good-looking white guys with varied backgrounds and you've promised to be much more than just an ad agency. Still won't cut it. The world doesn't need you. However, the world does need special places to work. Places where "culture" is more than foosball tournaments and happy hours. Places where both employees and clients are treated like living, breathing human beings. Sounds so simple, until you realize most agencies treat employees like cogs in the machine and clients like walking revenue streams.

2. Recessions and market meltdowns aren't the worst thing in the world for an independent, creative, free-thinking agency.

A bad economy forces clients to shine a light on fat overheads and thin ideas and start to look for nimble agencies with razor-sharp creative. The other side of the food stamp is that tough times can shape an agency. We were born in 2001 -- two months after the dot-com meltdown and three months before the global free fall caused by 9/11. We also were heavily leveraged in auto and finance in 2008. Good fun. But like those Depression-era grannies, we came to respect the value of a dollar and an honest day's work. The lesson for your precious little creation feeding off the milk and honey of the record-high Dow? Don't start fat. Don't get fat.

3. Information you could've used before now: Use your name.

It's not that clients aren't impressed with your witty agency moniker, it's that -- oh, you got me, I'm lying. They aren't impressed. But the better reason to name your agency after real humans is a marketing one. Everything you do, every tweet you make, every lame article you stumble through with dubious advice for startups, every panel you sit on immediately gives credit back to the agency. It doesn't require two connections. You are a brand. Your agency is a brand. Makes life easier (especially in the beginning) when they're one and the same. Plus Dan, Jeff & Rich, Alex, David, Pat and Sir John agree with me.

4. Be intrinsically motivated.

Do the kind of work that feels good and right and fulfilling to you. Chasing extrinsic validation (press, awards, YouTube comments) will only lead to random outbursts of profanity directed at the press, award-show judges and commenters on YouTube.

5. To be successful, you have to inspire your people.

To inspire your people, you have to be a motivational speaker living in a van down by the river. No, actually, you only have to do one little thing to inspire people: Believe in them.

6. Govern better than you campaign.

The new-business rigmarole is like a political campaign. And we know how sincere those are. Ask yourself this: Who would you rather have in office -- the politician who campaigns well or the one who governs well? Build your agency on case studies, not clever pitch tactics.

7. Charity is a rush.

Whether it's a massive undertaking (The Meth Project), a quick one-off campaign (Marin Public Schools) or just an agency volunteer day (March of Dimes March for Babies), we feel good when we're doing good. The positive energy and biochemical blasts of oxytocin that flow from these experiences don't dissipate when you turn to the yeoman's work of brand building. When you and your people get a buzz off of doing good, all your clients benefit.

8. Big budget? Sexy product? Creative opportunity? Who cares?

Don't be seduced by anything but the people across the table in a new-business opportunity. A huge budget or a sexy product or a with-it brand cannot begin to compensate for a passionless or lazy marketer.

9. Advertising is the art of winning people over.

Not selling them, not bullshitting them, not throwing technology at them, not making them swoon with popular music, not impressing them with celebrity connections, not tricking them into caring about something they don't. Science can help, but in advertising as in life, it's the art of understanding, relating to and connecting with people. Award-show judges do not, in this context, qualify as people.

10. Take care of your own.

When you're having an agency party at a bar, and as you head toward the bathroom you glance down the corridor of a galley kitchen and see a body lying face down, check to see who it is. Could be your new project manager. Who will likely need some help getting a cab. (This gem of advice will likely prove to be the most useful.)

11. Be grateful.

If you believe in God, thank God. If you believe in Lady Luck, tip the dealer. If you believe you've had a mentor who's helped shepherd you in the right direction, thank him or her. If you believe your family's support and willingness to put up with all your craziness has got you to this point, give them a big hug. And if you think you've gotten to this point all by yourself, see a shrink.

Paul Venables is founder and exec creative director of Venables Bell & Partners.
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