Small Agency Conference and Awards

If I knew then what I know now...I'd rethink my preconceptions

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Credit: Illustration by Ad Age, Composite image istock

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.

I'm almost four years into a journey that I thankfully had no idea would be so hard: joining with two partners from my advertising past to try something new, different and, hopefully, fun. At least, that's what every agency starting out needs to believe, otherwise why would anyone even bother?

In the beginning, there were a few things we knew and many more we didn't. The main learning was this: The hardest thing starting out is often not knowing what you don't know. Yes it's cliched and sounds like something Yogi Berra (or Yogi the Bear) would say, but that doesn't make it any less true. But in my experience, the difference between failure and success is re-evaluating what you think you know. Here are a few things to watch out for.

Finding the right partners

It goes without saying that to build an agency, you need a great team. There are so many great people I've worked with over the years. Some were close friends. Some were disturbingly talented. But that's not what makes a great partner. A great partner is someone as committed to the "crazy idea" as you are. You can be different people with different work styles, but the goal and dream has to be shared.

As partners, everyone has to be willing to sacrifice for that dream. That is one thing I learned about myself over this journey. I deeply connect to people who are passionate about bringing things that look hard or seem daunting into reality. Those partnerships have gotten us through the ups and downs--financial strains, client losses, staff burnout and more. We've been able to be emotionally vulnerable with each other because our motivations have always been clear--to realize this idea that we all share.

Relationships, relationships, relationships...

I can't write that word enough. Ultimately, we all work in a service industry, which means we work for people. This seems obvious. What I didn't understand is that how you treat people, how you listen, how you respect them through honesty, how you stay in touch, how you remain humble when there is truth in blunt criticism...all of that matters.

Most people like being treated like...people, regardless of whether it's a personal or business relationship. It's OK to say "hi" and not expect anything in return. In fact, never make reciprocity your main goal. For me personally, I feel rewarded just by meeting all these new people along the journey. If things work out and we get to work together...then great. If we don't, that's cool, too. It's been an important part of the journey for me--developing, maintaining and deepening authentic relationships with people.

Passion, persistence and patience

Passion is something that you can feel inside almost constantly. If you don't have passion, then don't even bother. But at the same time, it's something you need to continue to monitor, because you don't want to use up all of your passion by burning yourself out.

Paul Charney
Paul Charney Credit: Paul Charney

That's where "persistence" and "patience" come in. Most people only think they know what these mean. I thought I was a persistent person. When I loved a creative idea I would keep coming back with it until a client said " it's awkward." But I didn't really understand what true persistence was until I started trying to build an agency.

You have to come back every single day with the intent of making the agency a better place and provide more opportunities to help realize the initial dream. You have to overcome the discouragement of a shitty day, an unanswered email, an overage, a client having its budget taken away...all of it. You have to get off the mat and not accept the discouragement as the final answer, but as a speed bump along the journey.

I definitely did not have patience when I first started. I wanted everything quickly. I didn't know what a sales cycle even was or the challenges of scaling. I had vision of what the company could be, but did not understand that it takes time to build that. Getting worked up every day that you don't yet have success, riches, growth, or a hot tub at the office is a waste; that's when you burn passion and your tank ultimately empties out. Patience has helped me protect my passion.

Of course, the most challenging thing about starting any agency is taking a risk; having an idea that you believe so strongly in that it's worth taking a risk for. Luckily, we had that, and other new agencies should have that as well. Whenever there were rocky times, or moments of doubt about how to run a business, being committed to that central idea/philosophy/approach got us through the hard times, and helped us appreciate the good ones. That, and our ability to adapt and learn, provided the core foundation on which my agency continues to grow.

Paul Charney is CEO and co-founder of Funworks, a creative agency in Oakland, California

Ad Age's Small Agency Awards contest is now open for submissions. To apply, go here. Also don't forget to sign up for Ad Age's tenth annual Small Agency Conference & Awards, to be held July 30-31 in New Orleans.

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