You Don't Manage a Startup Agency; You Ride It

Ingenuity Must Carry the Day -- There's No Other Option

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O'Keefe, Reinhard & Paul had a problem.

It was two days before hosting our first big client meeting at the agency. Clients were flying in and we had an agenda to cover. All good, except for one thing: The shared "work and wellness" space we temporarily occupy had no available conference room large enough to accommodate us.

Normally, this would have been problematic -- no meeting space, no meeting -- but charged by our startup mentality, we advanced undeterred. Our plan: to "borrow" the entire raw unoccupied second floor of our building and turn it into a custom meeting space. Conference tables and chairs were rented, a large screen and projector were brought in, giant panels were designed and hung like floating walls to give the space some dimension and orange extension cords ran like little thieves across the cement and up the stairs to steal power from other floors. We had pulled off the perfect meeting-space caper -- the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of communal-workspace startups.

So we thought.

It's like this every day. We find ourselves working through challenge after challenge with a mix of inspiration, exhilaration and blind faith. Part of it is by design -- we intentionally created a culture that's open and rapid-fire. Part of it is just survival -- you do what have to do and ask for foregiveness later. Our job is to feed the machine, then stand back and let it take on a life of its own. That's the thing you quickly learn about a startup -- you don't manage it as much as ride it.

Of course, this means nothing if it doesn't materialize in the work. Without the process and layers that quickly fatten things up, our ideas develop simply because we think they're good, we're excited to see them come to life and because we're in the position to make the call. And we can make a lot of them, quickly.

But this mind-set is not and should not be exclusive to startups. Just the other day, News Corp. said it would behave everyday as if it were a startup. You don't have to be a startup to know the business is moving into a more nimble and prolific era, with clients taking the lead in creating environments in which multiple teams, agencies, projects and ideas collide every day. It's an insatiable need for constant innovation that drives this evolution, along with a growing desire to push against the very processes that bind so many companies every day; conventions and practices that have made them successful, but now make them feel a little too slow afoot. Big, small, agency, client -- we all feel this pressure daily.

Our new clients were feeling some of this when they first called us. They were facing a product launch, and rather than run it through their typical process, were interested in creating a "lab." For them, this lab would be where ideas could be developed quickly, tested, modified or discarded -- a more creative enterprise, built for speed. All with the hopes of an end result that would feel as fresh and spontaneous as the situation that created it.

That's how they found themselves in the newly converted space of our building's second floor.

The meeting started smoothly. The organic setup seemed to inspire our clients, and the work showed well. Everything would have been right on, but for one detail: Our plan for the perfect meeting-space makeover didn't include telling the landlord we were using his 7,000-square-foot second floor as an agency showroom. Imagine our surprise when halfway through the meeting he bounded through the door with a posse of about eight, loudly announcing, "I have a showing scheduled for now!" Imagine his surprise, walking onto what must have looked like some kind of reality-show set. Imagine our clients' surprise.

Surprise. Surprise. Surprise.

Our meeting muddled on in hushed voices while the landlord walked his prospects around, talking HVAC codes and tax breaks, and peppering his presentation with the rattlesnake sound of a tape measurer constantly uncoiling and recoiling across the cement floor. Our clients politely carried on as if they noticed nothing, but I'm sure they couldn't have been more distracted.

The good news: We won the business. The bad: We won't be using that "conference room" again.The second-floor meeting space has now been locked, with no access from the floor above or below.

Tom O'Keefe is founder at O'Keefe, Reinard & Paul.
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