If I knew then what I know now ... I'd have trusted my instincts and never looked back
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.
When I founded Cactus in 1990, I was 26 and ready to make my mark on the world. I was full of ambition and ideas, but I needed a place to turn for inspiration and guidance.
So, I turned to one of the most successful ad men of all time, Mr. David Ogilvy. Ogilvy on Advertising is the closest thing agency owners have to a user's manual for how to succeed in this crazy business. The insights shared by Mr. Ogilvy made a significant impact on me as an earnest young man with big dreams.
But, like most things in life, you can't learn advertising from a book, and there's nothing like a good kick in the teeth to make you grow. The truth: There is no blueprint for surviving and thriving in this business. If I had another swing at it, I'd trust my instincts and never look back because I know one thing to be true: you create your own destiny.
Know thyself and unleash the power of no
Learning how to say no is not easy, especially when you're not in a position of strength. And, when you are trying to run an agency and compete with the multitude of other talented and hungry agencies, it's a hard lesson to learn. In this business, we thrive on challenges and regularly solve problems for clients that require us to pull off amazing feats of creative brilliance. Saying no is not in our nature. You have to work hard to build that muscle.
I wish I would have recognized losing situations sooner or had the wisdom to avoid them. The amount of time and energy you waste going down the wrong roads is astonishing. What if you recognized those situations sooner and took a left turn to avoid all that distraction and misery (including new business pitches you should never be in)? Just imagine what is possible when you put all that time and energy into something you're right for!
Learn the serenity prayer for agency owners
God, grant me the serenity to accept the clients that are good for our agency
The courage to say no to the ones who are not
And the wisdom to know the difference
Follow your heart
You need to pick your path up the mountain and stick to it. It's O.K. to make small, smart course corrections as you go, but don't diverge from your vision. Never compromise what you believe to be your true north star.
The reason I founded Cactus was simple. Inspired by the futurist Buckminster Fuller, I wanted to put our agency's talent to work for organizations we believed in. I thought that if we could help nonprofits, foundations and purpose-driven brands do a better job of marketing and growing, the downstream residual impact would be huge.
And while this founding principle has always guided our agency, we spent a lot of time and energy chasing accounts that did not align with our core values. Ten years ago, we planted our flag firmly in the ground with the statement "Cactus grows brands that help people thrive." This positioning provides a useful filter to ensure we work with the right clients and build a unique, strong and consistent agency brand.
Never stop being innovative and entrepreneurial
We're in the business of solving problems for our clients by being thoughtful, smart and determined. I believe my agency can solve any problem through the power of innovation, creativity and technology.
For years, we threatened to develop our own proprietary innovations and launch new products and brands. So, about five years ago, we decided to take some entrepreneurial risks.
This isn't for everyone, but it's one of the best things we've ever done at Cactus. We've worked diligently, developing brands and software solutions in the behavioral health and well-being fields including "Man Therapy, "YOU @ College," "Operation Veteran Strong" and a unique partnership with Hopelab to take on the issue of loneliness among adolescents and young adults. This work is in line with our mission, creates new and exciting revenue streams and attracts top technology talent. It's a boon to our new business efforts in the national healthcare space.
It's a shame that wisdom is usually attained toward the end of life. Still, it's never too late to wise up and put those lessons to work. Good luck as you pick your way up whatever mountain you decide to climb.
Joseph Conrad is CEO of Cactus
Ad Age's tenth annual Small Agency Conference & Awards will be held July 30-31 in New Orleans. To enter the awards, which is open to shops with 150 or fewer employees, go here.