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Creatives: Do You Really Need Your Own Agency?

By Published on . 3

Creatives are groomed to dream about owning their own agency. And who am I to question that, if I am on my second venture myself? Yet I have one concern about that single, collective ambition: Despite how good it may seem to be able to call the shots, you don't really get to call that many once you own the place.

Pereira & O'Dell Co-founder PJ Pereira
Pereira & O'Dell Co-founder PJ Pereira
As a start, you will have clients to serve. What they want and need, regardless of what you believe in, will sometimes have a direct impact on your ability to pay the bills. Most of the time, things won't be as simple as "selling out or not" when families you know so closely depend on your calls. You have to keep the lights on and the momentum going while still keeping your creative integrity and identity. It's a balancing act, but the point is you may not have as much freedom to live your vision as you thought you would.

Then you have the team, the people who put in hours of hard work to build your dream, and you will be so grateful for them. You can actually get a kick from how this team responds to your energy and enthusiasm, but even people who enjoy leading may break when that comes in scale. Given the naturally emotional, insecure nature of ad people, all of the balancing, negotiating, hugging and hand-holding may take most of your day. Only then do you realize how your dependence on these people to get all the work done sometimes makes you feel more like a hostage than the leader you dreamed of being. You have to keep them happy, and in the meantime, no one's thinking about how you feel.

Some people say it feels lonely at the top. And I'd bet creative leaders feel lonelier than anyone else. Because we still need the positive reinforcement ourselves--the eventual pat on the back, the craved recognition. When you have a boss, compliments usually come once you do your part. But when you are at the top of your own company, you have to come to terms with the reality of nobody taking care of you again. Ever.

Clients? Unfortunately, very few will take the time to cheer on their agency partners. Eventually the industry may celebrate the agency with an award or with a great review in the press. But that recognition won't happen nearly as frequently as it would if you had a boss. It may ultimately be more rewarding, but you have to unmistakably earn it, regardless of how much you think you deserve or how many hours you put in. And even then, it may not come. That is the biggest challenge the creative entrepreneur has to face--the solitude of having to self-motivate while also dealing with the lack of daily reinforcement we all need (God bless our spouses!).

Not an entrepreneur? It's OK
Feeling you can do it even when nobody is telling you that you can is not for everyone, and that's OK! If you get depressed when the big guys don't celebrate your name, or you get angry that you need to beg for recognition you should have been given without asking, just consider that entrepreneurship may not be your thing.

That said, I absolutely love it. That's why I started an agency, sold it, and ended up starting another one even when I could have enjoyed gainful employment for a long time. Being an entrepreneur can be grueling and lonely, but also addictive and thrilling. It just shouldn't be considered the only path for one's career.

If owning an agency can't be the only way up, neither should becoming a CCO. Or even a creative director for that matter. First, because these are variations of the same problem that comes with owning an agency--less time doing the work, more time babysitting and negotiating, which will make most creatives absolutely miserable. And second, because it's wasteful to lose our most brilliant creative minds to management tasks, when not everyone can thrive at doing them and producing good work at the same time.

The big issue is this: moving upward is currently the only way to make more money and feel respected, both very important aspects of an activity so dependent on confidence and momentum. So unless we as an industry can create an ecosystem that allows brilliant minds to stay in their corner without the big titles, and still be considered heroes, everything will stay the same.

In our current market, the only way independent geniuses without management intentions thrive is to freelance. This makes it difficult to let great brains influence and be influenced by great agency cultures. And at the same time, it may not allow them to build much in the long term other than, luckily, a good portfolio. If becoming a gun for hire is the only option for these people, the entire industry loses.

A Daring Solution
Fortunately there is an option, but it's one that is still hard to swallow: unlinking hierarchy and salary. Why can't a brilliant creative make more money than his or her boss? Engineers do, sometimes. The tech industry allows their best minds to choose whether to go up, without limiting their careers. By allowing people to enjoy the love for their craft, creativity and brilliance happen more often, in more places. Everyone wins.

If you ask me, I currently don't have an employee that makes a salary higher than mine. But I've had in the past. More than once. I've also had creatives that made more than their creative directors. These scenarios were very hard to manage though, because the people around these title-less superstars, especially their managers, at some point couldn't handle such an alien idea. This kind of lateral growth has to be recognized and embraced by the industry as a whole or it will never be possible.

But salaries and titles aren't everything.

The legends we create are the other part of the problem. You look at the many Hall of Famers in our industry today, and what do you see? David Ogilvy from Ogilvy and Mather. Bill Bernbach from Doyle, Dane and Bernbach. Dan Wieden, of Wieden and Kennedy. If those agency namesakes are the icons of our industry, how can we expect people to understand that anything else doesn't mean failure? In a certain way, owning your shop became for us what being scarily skinny is for the world of beauty--an unbearable curse that haunts everyone that isn't absolutely predisposed to that look.

It's time for us to make legends out of some great writers, art directors and creative directors that never got their names on the doors, simply because they had no patience for that kind of thing.

Fixing deeply rooted realities such as money and glory isn't easy, of course. Still, it is a fight worth fighting. Because succeeding may mean having the brightest generation of happy, independent geniuses we have ever had. It means allowing the creative equivalents of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak to love what they do and feel no pressure to do something else just because it's their only option.

All that accomplished, if you still feel you would be happier building an agency, that's great. Then it's just a matter of opening a few books, finding one or two mentors, and being ready to learn a bunch of interesting things you never would have imagined you'd have to learn, much less enjoy. But that's another article altogether.

PJ Pereira co-founded AgenciaClick in Brazil in 1999 and Pereira & O'Dell in San Francisco in 2008. Deep inside he may just be trying to change your mind to reduce the competition.
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