Why 'What Now?' Is the Most Important Question You Can Ask

Let It Be a Mantra for Your Small Agency

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Anthony DelMonte
Anthony Del Monte
Three recent events -- winning a major award from an awesome publication, hosting an event highlighting the life's work of one of our favorite NYC artists, and five new-business pitches that, unfortunately, were half the budget they would have been worth last year -- have forced me to confront a question which has become my mantra: "What now?"

In fact, "What now?" was the question I asked myself right before I started Squeaky Wheel Media.

I knew I had to start my own agency on 9/11, the moment the second plane flew over my head into the towers. As a native New Yorker (close enough -- Jersey City), I cannot describe the feeling I had at that moment (and this isn't the forum to try). But I can tell you something the question that I asked myself: What now?

I knew the answer. I knew that simply talking about my own agency or toiling with a business plan wasn't going to get it done. So I took out a second mortgage on my home, bound myself to two partners bold enough to undertake the adventure with me, and Squeaky was born. Fast-forward nine years, and Squeaky has become a profitable business that supports the lives of 30 people. We've won awards and have worked with incredible clients -- to list only a few of the "ups" that come from working in this industry. And there have been "downs" but those I am keeping to myself so as best to remain out of therapy.

However, I can't seem to shake the presence of "What now?" And after spending a lot of time and energy considering just why exactly "What now?" seems to be so omnipresent, I had my very own "Aha!" moment: "What now?" is the best gift a small business owner can have.

"What now?" is the driver of business. It is the voice in your head telling you that you have to keep moving. It is the thought that propels you to understand that industries are constantly evolving and that being ahead of this curve will allow you to keep your small agency open. It isn't the little engine that could. "What now?" is the tracks, fuel and everything else necessary to get that tiny blue bastard up the hill.

Since I am not alone in this challenging time for us little guys, I have put together three tenets that I force myself to remember every time the "What now?" pops back up:

1) Stay in business.
This sounds simple enough, but it can be incredibly easy to lose sight of this when you are in the sausage-making duties of running a small agency. For my partners and me, it all boils down to the fact that we want to live a happy and fulfilling life and want the same for our employees. I know that a job (a.k.a. security) is the most important element in this equation, so survivability is always our focus. It has powered our creative and our work ethic, and consequently led to stability, profitability and growth. It sounds simple, but we concentrate on doing the absolute best work we can, which in turn provides a reinforced sense of security.

2) Have Fun
Clients want to enjoy who they work with. We like to think that having fun is contagious and it's a real differentiator. But having fun doesn't mean playing foosball all day; it means challenging each other, supporting each other and growing together. It means finding the chords that work best together and embracing that note. Our thought has always been simply that if we were going to bust our asses, we might as well be doing it with people we enjoy and have fun with. Making it fun for us stems from embracing our individuality and diverse backgrounds. Part of our added-value to clients is the fact that we have built an environment that is in-touch with the ever-evolving worlds of art and culture, which is what we consider fun. The overall sentiment about our company leaves the imprint on our clients that we enjoy the work, which gives them some peace of mind. Which helps us stay in business!

3) Be nice
This simple tenet is at the root of our success; it is the common thread in our agency, and the easiest and most memorable takeaway for our clients. "Be the change in the world you want to see" (thanks, Gandhi) may be at times simple, but that doesn't negate its worth. This change doesn't need to be transformative -- it can be easy; it can even be as simple as being nice. But you have to lead by example. This is the reason I still cook lunch for the entire staff once a week and take out the trash as often as the next guy. And it is this focus that landed us in the enviable position of accepting the "AdAge 2010 Small Agency of the Year, Best Culture" award this year in New Orleans. Because we recognize that if you look hard enough it always boils down to ... people. Just people.

So there it is. Our own personal recipe for success is not rocket science. It's based on a question that you may ask yourself when you are confronted with lower revenues, shrinking ad budgets and increased client expectations.

In short, the very reasons why you ask yourself: "What now?"

Anthony Del Monte is founder and president of Squeaky Wheel Media, New York.
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