Six Ad-Agency Lessons from a Decade of Ups and Downs

Principles Tried and True: Know Yourself, Watch, Listen, Study, Engage

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As another August approaches and with it our 11th agency birthday, we find ourselves -- after having grown from three to 38 and endured our share of ups and downs -- in many ways where we started. With more than our fair share of fire in our belly. A desire to make things better every day. And a handful of basic principles that have been affirmed along the journey. It turns out that most of the cliches are true.

And so, to borrow from Tom Peters, here are six "brilliant flashes of the obvious." Six basic lessons that have informed our continued evolution, growth and success. Enjoy.

1. Be comfortable in your own skin.

It is tempting -- particularly in the early years of a startup -- to be a chameleon. A shape-shifter. The agency that is just perfect for everyone. Fight that temptation.

The more you know who you are and what you believe in -- and let that drive every part of your organization -- the faster you will become enticing to some and uninteresting to others. That's fantastic. That's exactly what we preach to our own clients -- that we should not be so earnest in our desire to be everything to everyone that we are nothing to no one. Define your brand, your values, your personality and live them.

2. Tell the truth.

"You were the only agency that really told us the truth -- that really challenged our assumptions and provided us with truly fresh thinking." I can't tell you how often we hear that when we win a pitch (and how disheartening it is that telling the truth has become a meaningful point of difference).

Blow up the RFP or the creative brief. Challenge assumptions. Demonstrate when conventional wisdom is neither conventional nor wise. While it can feel risky giving voice to unpopular truths -- particularly when many clients are living in such economically sensitive environments -- there is no better way to control your own destiny than to have a genuine perspective and to share it in an appropriate, thoughtful manner.

3. Get out there. Literally.

Great work does not happen in a vacuum. We are not in the advertising business, or the digital business, or the lead-generation business. We are in the people business.

So get out there. Interact. Watch. Listen. Play. Live. Learn. Always, always, always start by putting a set of fresh eyes on the consumer. We've never spent a day in pursuit of insights for our clients where we didn't come back more inspired and focused.

4. This too shall pass.

This is not a business for the faint of heart. It's competitive. It's demanding. It's ever changing. It can, at times, push you into situations that are incredibly difficult.

We make art that fuels commerce, and hope (and need) to conduct a little commerce of our own along the way. These can easily get jumbled in a sea of competing interests. When things get dicey, step back and try to see the broader perspective -- things are never as bad as they seem in the moment.

Embracing the uncertainty of this business is , without a doubt, an acquired skill. But it's one you'll need to learn if you're to survive, particularly as an agency owner. Think "Advertising Meets Grand Prix" -- stop worrying about what's in front of you, and start looking three corners ahead.

5. Know how your clients make money.

It is shocking how often we hear stories about agencies that had neither the time nor the interest to understand the fundamental dynamics and drivers of our clients' businesses. How can you help your clients make more money if you don't understand how they make money in the first place?

While we are most certainly consumer-centric in our approach, of equal import is a deep, rich understanding of the broader business context in which our work must, well, work. From operations and finance to customer service and human resources, it has never been more imperative that agencies become true strategic partners with our clients.

6. Trust your gut.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is . Walk away from bad and run into good. Remain skeptical but open to surprise.

As noted earlier, this is a people business. Surround yourself with a team that inspires you to be better at your job, and trust their guts as well. Cultivate a culture where people are truly on the same team. Work hard to not just hear, but to listen.

Curt Hanke is the co-founder and account director of Shine, a 38-person advertising and interactive agency headquartered in Madison, Wisc., serving clients such as Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Carver Yachts, Wisconsin Cheese, Kaplan and Winston Fly Rods.
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