Why I Started My Own Ad Agency

And Why I'm Glad I Made 'Advertising' the Cornerstone of the Business

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Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
Sometimes the simplest questions can trip you up. Last week the Ad Lab from Southern New Hampshire University visited our agency, and I dropped in to welcome about a dozen seniors who are studying advertising. A couple of people asked questions about careers and the job market. Then some fresh-faced innocent asked, "Why did you start an ad agency?"

Uh, which way to go? The party line: I had a strategic insight into the market and saw an opportunity that other people were missing. The smart ass: Because I wasn't sharp enough to write software or invent a best-selling product. The bewildered: I'm not really sure, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

In the end, I did what old pros do when sincere young people ask a genuine question. I spun a line of bullshit that I hoped sounded sincere to my audience.

So, I've decided I owe that young woman, full of ambition, with her entire career ahead of her, an honest answer. I may reveal secrets that I've never confessed before.

First of all I never worked in an ad agency. I freelanced as a copywriter for a handful of Boston agencies and learned something about the craft. As a writer, I had much broader interests. I liked the long form and wrote scripts for medical companies, speeches for corporate executives, white papers explaining new technologies, and even a couple of business plans. What really interested me was how people communicated with one another, and especially how companies got all tangled up trying to tell their stories. Over and over I met amazing companies launching technologies that would change the way people work and live, who buried their great stories in bureaucratic group speak. I liked the puzzle of figuring this stuff out. I loved the creativity and craftsmanship that went into producing content whether it was an ad, a video, or a publication.

I thought it would be fun to start a little communications company to work on these kinds of problems. My only plan was to assemble a handful of talented and creative people whom I liked. I've always subscribed to the theory that spending even a single day with people you don't like is one of life's great wastes. Is there a better argument for independent agencies?

Around this time, I made a discovery that influenced all my future decisions. For better or worse, I discovered that there was a world of people more talented than me, and my identity shifted from someone who defined himself by his talent to someone who collected talent. My brain chemistry changes when I meet people who show creative and strategic gifts that I can only dream about. I'll admit to occasional envy, but that is always overridden by the knowledge that these people have elevated my success beyond anything that I could have done on my own.

No matter how good you are, the one problem with being a little communications company is that you don't get a shot at the big problems. Talented, ambitious people want big challenges, and if you're in the communications business, figuring out a company's position, shaping a brand, launching products, and integrating communications throughout a sales process represent the big leagues, or so we thought.

While we created ads for some clients, the dilemma was that we didn't want to be limited by the narrow confines of advertising. We had a wonderful design studio. We had a lucrative publications practice. We were all intrigued by what we used to call the World Wide Web. Most importantly we didn't want to give up one of the values that we promoted since we launched the company: that the best communications were educational and delivered something of value. We weren't sure that advertising delivered on that promise and I got a lot of resistance from our staff when I brought up the A word. The words "slick" and "phony" often came up during these conversations. Thank God no one believes those filthy rumors anymore.

I consulted with a number of professionals on my thinking. One friendly agency owner liked my approach, other than the fact, that according to him, I didn't know "a f-ing thing about advertising." That was all the encouragement that I needed.

One overcast summer day, the entire company, amidst lots of whining, boarded a small boat in Boston Harbor for Thompson Island, to take part in an Outward Bound program. Through natural leadership and dogged persistence, Mike O' Toole, now the president of PJA Advertising, had persuaded us to spend the morning embarrassing ourselves on a ropes course to be followed by a half day retreat where we plotted our future. All I remember from the ropes course is the bologna sandwiches they served for lunch. That afternoon we announced that we were going to pursue agency-of-record relationships and the big marketing problems confronting our clients. Boy, were we naive.

We caught a couple of breaks and we over-prepared and over-delivered to win our first competitive pitch. While the agency owner who noted that I didn't know anything about advertising probably had a point, I'm happy with the decision to make advertising the cornerstone of the agency. Even today with many doubts about the future of advertising, some of the most interesting challenges in corporate strategy intersect with discussions about positioning and the roles and responsibilities of a brand.

I'm also equally happy that we don't limit ourselves to pure advertising. Our experience with a full range of communications helped us to adapt more quickly to the digital world, and we've always been quick to integrate our work across the full marketing spectrum. Today we talk about how to create advertising that drives engagement across the complete buying process, a focus that brings together our entire history.

That's the short story and probably a little more than our young guest wanted to know.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson
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