If I knew then what I know now ... I'd embrace failure
If I knew then what I know now is a series of bylines from small agency executives about the lessons they learned in building their shops.
There is no shortage of stories romanticizing the advertising industry or campaigns that have been elevated to lore.
But what the business books don't often tell you is that there is far more to be learned from failure than from success. If I could impart a few words of advice to my 28-year-old self when I started Levelwing, I would tell myself to truly embrace setbacks, learn quickly and take action.
Failures don't just mean shuttering the doors. Failures come in all shapes and sizes. Failing to reach full potential, failing to grow sustainably, failing to do meaningful work, failing at daring to be great. Note that failing to be "big" is intentionally not mentioned here. While big is often associated with "better" in the ad world, that's not always accurate.
When my co-founder, Steve Parker, Jr., and I started Levelwing out of his 400-square-foot New York City apartment, neither of us had ever worked at an ad agency. Our experience in digital media was on the publisher or client-side. Because of this, I recall being fearful of not knowing what I didn't know, and specifically what I didn't know about how agencies "do it." In hindsight, this should have been liberating; I wasn't tethered to any preconceived business models or process.
It took me several years to realize this, and today we operate under the motto that "those who have nothing to hide, hide nothing." We are 100 percent transparent in how we operate. Doing the work is the table stakes; educating clients on the how and why we do what we do makes for a stronger partnership. Some may argue, teaching a client "how to fish" may eventually render our work obsolete (and that does happen from time to time), but we've found that more often it builds trust and clearly aligns our interests with the client's.
As the agency began to grow in the early years, we (like most new businesses) had client-concentration issues. I ignored them because hey, we were growing. As the client in question carved back their scope of work dramatically, I was forced to face the music. This blessing in disguise gave me the clarity to reprioritize and move from "doing the business" to "thinking about the business." It's too easy to get caught up in the doing and harder to force yourself to spend the time needed to think critically and plan.
As a business owner, one of the things I find most stressful is dealing in the unknowns. A good friend once told me, "worrying about things that haven't happened yet is like paying interest on a loan that's not yet due." When I was forced to refocus on sustainable growth, I opted to create a plan for three distinct scenarios–the good times, neutral times and bad times. While these are always works-in-progress, it gives me comfort to know that I've created a directional guide to help me navigate whatever waters are ahead.
For all of the technology and tools available, we in the agency world are still in the people business, and people are human and make mistakes. Some of the best systems we have implemented – the ones that have really helped us operate more efficiently and effectively–have come from internal failures big and small. The more expensive mistakes can feel like a bitter pill to swallow, but when you amortize the cost over the life of a business, they usually end up being a bargain. When mistakes happen, I always ask the same two questions:
1. What was learned?
2. Was this a breakdown in an existing process/procedure or do new processes/procedures need to be created?
Fear of failure can inevitably change your behavior from operating in a manner that allows you to optimize your agency and your work for the upside, to operating your agency and your work to minimize the downside. If you put all of your eggs in a government-backed CD, you may not lose it all, but you certainly will miss the wonderful runs during the bull markets.