Why I Started a Small Advertising Agency

Ideas and Clients -- Not Process -- Should Be Central to Creativity

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Avi Dan
Avi Dan
On Monday I started an ad agency. Just what the world needs now.

It's called Darling, and it had nothing to do with me wanting to learn how to wire a small network of computers and manage a server.

I started it with two brilliant partners. Jeroen Bours was chief creative officer of Hill Holliday in New York, who together with Ernie Schenck created the "Responsibility" campaign. Before that at McCann, he and Joyce King-Thomas came up with a little campaign known as "Priceless" for Mastercard. And at Ogilvy, besides breakthrough work on AT&T Wireless and American Express "Open," he also was responsible for the "Beyond Petroleum" campaign for BP. Other than having a first name that is hard to pronounce and is often misspelled, Jeroen is one of the most impressive people I've met in 30 years in the business.

My second partner, David Hale, has an easier, even historic name. I worked with David on the P&G business at D'Arcy, where he was executive creative director and became P&G's first "copywriter of the year." He also had a basketball hoop in his office, and I never once was able to beat him at H-O-R-S-E. After creating award-winning work on Miller at JWT and Burger King at DMB&B, David subsequently left advertising and did what most agency people dream of doing -- he went Hollywood. He created and sold two kids' TV series to Nickelodeon, and a cooking show, "Cucina Amore," which is currently in its seventh season on PBS. David also has a feature-length comedy, "Dirty Monkey," in production with Sony Pictures.

So these were two good reasons to leave the sheltered world of big agencies and go on my own.

I don't think that there's ever a good time to start an agency. Or a bad time. What matters to me is finding the right partners and sharing a philosophy. I believe in great ideas and I believe that there aren't enough of them. I believe that the advertising business today is more about execution and technique than about ideas, and especially so since the emergence of digital advertising and social media. I mean, Twitter is not an idea. And content without an idea, whether short form or long form, is crap. My partners and I believe in ideas -- ideas that last. And we hope to attract clients who believe that ideas have the power to transform their business. A bit old-fashioned perhaps, but a timely sentiment at an age that American icons like GM are crumbling.

We have a second mission. We want to bring the client back into the advertising process, put him or her square in the middle and encourage honest collaboration. Collaboration leads to better insight and better results. But most agencies have been pushing their clients out of the process because of insecurity or arrogance. Big mistake.

Why do I declare my independence? Because I love this business to which I devoted the last 30 years, and I don't like what happened to it. Process replaced creativity, P&L statements replaced the passion for great ideas. I believe that this industry's salvation will be small shops like Darling, willing to experiment -- with new approaches, new ways to be compensated, hiring different kinds of people, rewarding them more attractively. Willing to take risks. I believe that clients will see the same passion in small shops that I see, and they will reward them. My epiphany about the way my heart will lead me came about a year ago, when Venables Bell, perhaps not a start-up but still a small agency, won the global business of Intel from a giant, McCann Erickson. All of a sudden it became apparent to me that distribution is displaced by clients' desire for ideas, no matter from what size agency they emerge.

Is this a scary move for me personally? Honestly, no. Not seizing the moment of opportunity would have been scarier. But I am realistic -- most new business fail in the first year. But I am emotionally committed to take advantage of an opportunity that so few of us get these days.

Remember the scene in "Field of Dreams" when Kevin Costner hears a voice that tells him, "If you build it they will come"? Sometimes you just to listen with your heart, not just with your ears. And, anyway, if we fail and starve, we can always eat the scraps from "Cucina Amore."

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Avi Dan is an industry veteran who has worked at Berlin-Cameron, Euro RSCG and other agencies.

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