Getting to Year Two: It's Hard Out There for a Pimp

Nine Tips for Any Communications Agency Startup

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David Baldwin
David Baldwin
I've been in this business a long time now, but as far as owning my own agency I'm a rookie. I've only been at it for just over a year.

When we decided to start the company, the economy was doing just fine. Right before we actually pulled the trigger, the bottom fell out. We had a decision to make. Should we move forward or should we all take the safe route and take gigs at other agencies?

Well, in we dove.

Yes, this has been a challenging time from an economic standpoint, but that's just an excuse. In tough times great companies succeed.

It's been interesting to say the least, so I thought I'd jot down a few thoughts on what we've learned in this, our inaugural year of business.

Be creatively relentless. I suppose this isn't a new lesson or anything but man, is it truer than ever. You have to come into any situation guns blazing at all times and not let anything throw you. When you're new you have to prove yourself every minute of every day. There's no safety net, no other group to go to if you need to get it done. When you're small, you're it. There are no parachutes and how cool is that?

Navigate by your values. You will be tempted by market forces to do things you don't want to do. If you navigate by your values you'll always know where you are and where you should go.

The fish bowl theory. When you first start out, you have to decide whether you want to work from your garage or get your own office space. Economically, of course, it makes sense to not start out with any overhead. But our feeling was to start with a physical space. The idea is to get a fishbowl and grow into it. This was a piece of advice from Bob Barrie and it was a smart piece of thinking. For one thing you can't invite a client over to your house for a meeting and you can only meet at a Starbucks so many times. A space says you're real from day one.

Think like a band. A company isn't a building; it's made of people. It's so important to work with people you care about and who share your values. A new company is a lot like a band. Play your instrument, carry your own equipment and always make sure the entire band sounds great. Got a free hand? Carry the drummer's snare.

Make sure you're passionate about what you're pitching. It's also important to believe in what you're pitching. Especially with what it takes to pitch a piece of business these days. A small company almost always has to compete with big ones, but remember: It's not the size of the company that matters, it's the size of the ideas you bring.

Pitch to win or don't pitch. With what it takes to pitch these days, you literally can't afford to not win. So do everything, give everything you have. We had the opportunity to pitch for a Burt's Bees project last year and we decided we were going to win it well before we pitched it. All that was left was the pitch itself. We also pitched a furniture account and we made the cardinal mistake of using the pitch to see whether it was the right fit. Whether it was or it wasn't, we didn't win it because we just didn't want it enough. Dumb, dumb, dumb!

Don't think like an ad agency. We're doing mostly everything but advertising right now. We're definitely doing a bit of traditional work, but spend most of our time delivering ideas in every media. (It's amazing what you can do when you don't have legacy departments to support.) Many people start companies and base the business model on the bigger company they just came from. That's a mistake. Instead, think of things they did and do the opposite. For instance, we don't have a creative department. The whole company is the creative department; if you touch it you're creative. It frees everyone up to focus on the work.

Don't work for free. I'm sure you've noticed, but no one wants to pay anything to anybody. It could just be a sign of the economy, but I think there's something more going on. Clients have more pressure on them, so we as an industry have more pressure on us. Now, in some ways, this plays right into our sweet spot because as a small company we don't have a lot of overhead and we're hungry. Interestingly, though, many clients seem to think that because we're new, we'll do lots of stuff for free. We are running a business, so that obviously isn't the case. We talk about ourselves as being a less expensive alternative to a bigger shop, but not cheap. Our industry has done this to itself, turned what we all do into a commodity by giving it away. And we've noticed that there's always someone willing to do it for cheaper.

Underpromise/Overdeliver. Blow them away with your work, not your promises.

There have been other lessons -- watch scope-creep, live and die by your craft and ideas -- but these listed are the standouts for us as a startup. And as we steer through year number two, I find I learn a new lesson every day. Like, that trash isn't going take itself out.

Ah, living the dream.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Baldwin, lead guitar, Baldwin&, Durham, N.C. One of the most awarded copywriters and creative directors in the business today, Mr. Baldwin is the founder of the newly formed Baldwin&. For the previous five years, he was the chairman of the One Club in New York, the force behind The One Show. Alongside his creative advertising exploits, he is an executive producer for the film "Art & Copy," and was a guitarist/songwriter for the band Pants. The band's CD, "Twice the Snake You Need," can be found on iTunes or Amazon.com.
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