Never let a good crisis go to waste and other things I wish I knew then that I know now

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Looking back, there are six pieces of advice I learned when founding my agency.

Chris Raih
Chris Raih

1. No lumpy carpets – To paraphrase Adele, the beginning of any creative agency like being born and raised in a summer haze. It's fun, it's fast, and love is in the air. But consider this: you are laying the foundation of what's to come. Staff, services, structure – and yes, equity payouts. Lumpy carpets will topple everything eventually. So spend time carefully considering partnership and get clear with your partners. Get good legal advice. Do you think Mick and Keith would still be together 50 years later if they didn't have a solid LLC Membership Agreement in place?

2. Compete against the brief. Don't burn calories worrying about who else is in the pitch. You're the underdog? Get used to it. Establish the number of competitors, because it will give you insight into how much respect the client has for agencies in general. But then, focus everyone's energy on conquering the brief. Solve the problem. And make no mistake: the brief is the problem, not the other shops.

3. Get paid. We don't pitch on spec and we don't pitch for projects. End the insane practice of giving away the only thing we have of value in the world – our IP and our creativity. Clients who pay for pitches are serious about the pitch. Clients who don't pay are only window-shopping. Demand skin in the game, both ways.

4. Some are for reels and some are for meals. We all want the holy grail of a client who takes risks, loves great work, and pays well. So recognize when you've got one, count your blessings, and service them at a high level. But also be receptive to different types of brand partners; your most profitable piece of business may not take you to Cannes. It may not be the sexiest brand on the roster. But it's those steady, methodical clients that tend to keep your people happiest over the long term.

5. Talk money early. You're courting a new client. Chemistry is good. But what does a win mean financially? Get this information. Ask the client before you're friends. It's awkward by the time you know each other's kids' names. Woody Allen says, exchanging money is the unpleasant part of art. So get it out of the way early.

6. Never let a good crisis go to waste. Turbulent times are a great opportunity to set your cultural norms. If you have the mettle to found an agency, that means you're likely equipped with a sense of calm in the storm. Rally your staffers to save a quarter or convert a must-have pitch. But also let them see you making the hard calls, whether it's firing a toxic client, or dismissing a bad culture fit. Remember: Culture isn't just what you celebrate, it's what you tolerate.

Chris Raih is president and founder of Zambezi. Want to hear more lessons and advice about how a small agency can thrive? Sign up for the Ad Age Small Agency Conference & Awards July 17 and 18 here.

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