Small Agency Conference and Awards

If I knew then what I know now ... I'd be more like Jason Bourne

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Credit: Universal via YouTube

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.

We started Walrus when I was 32. Thirty-two is probably too young to start an agency. It didn't help that I have always looked like I'm 17 (and have had the same haircut since then). In spite of that, we've made it 14 years, and while there are hundreds of things I'd do differently (including getting an age- appropriate haircut), there are four things that I have come to believe are integral to surviving as an agency owner.

The value of great senior people

A-level people make your business. There's a huge difference between someone that's simply good and talented, and somebody that's a star. A-level people stand out in your organization. They get it, go the extra mile, inspire everyone around them, care about the company, get praised in side emails from clients. One A-level person is as valuable as three B-level people. In our early years, we didn't work hard enough to determine whether or not we were bringing in people who were truly going to shine in our environment. Sometimes we got lucky, sometimes we didn't. Don't settle, great people shape a company.

Know what to be precious about

In the early days, our mission was to create the platonic ideal of the perfect ad. We wanted to show the world what we could do. In fact, we needed to, because we had to have work to show to prospects. This put a lot of pressure on everything we did to be absolutely transcendent, at all costs, and it made it hard on our clients who wanted good work, but also wanted to be heard.

I've come to realize that our work tends to get better the longer we've been with a client. At its core, creativity is problem-solving, and the problem you're solving for during the first six months of a client relationship is missing some key variables that you only comprehend after being in the trenches for a while. Be patient, the good work will come.

Ride the wave like an assassin

Owning an ad agency is an emotional tilt-a-whirl and at first you have no clue how to absorb the wild psychological swings that come with the job. At first, every single new business call is reaffirmation that you've done the right thing by starting this company and that your parents were fools to doubt you were ready. At the same time, every bad meeting or missed opportunity brings forth a sense of failure, inadequacy, and doom. These emotions usually arrive within hours of each other. It took us years to master the gyrations of the business cycle and learn how to ride the wave both up and down as it hits. You need to be Jason Bourne. Everything is going to be thrown at you and you have to take it as it comes. If you need to commandeer a city bus and drive it in reverse up a one-way street, well, then you do it.

Realize that it's just advertising

We used to pull all-nighters almost every week. It was a given that creatives had to live and breathe the work in order to achieve brilliance. Guess what? It's not true. A good night's sleep actually does wonders for creativity. I've learned that long hours are a product of a larger systemic problem within agencies. Agencies are terrible at managing their own time, and it starts at the top. If an internal meeting doesn't happen until five because the senior people were over-scheduled and kept pushing the meeting back, and the presentation is at 11 the next day -- of course everyone is going to be up all night. This is a management problem. We work extremely hard to enable our people to get their work done during business hours so they can go home and have a life. If people are having zero experiences outside the office, how can they possibly hope to bring new and different ideas to the table?

If I had to do it all over again, above all else, I'd tell myself of this: You only live once. And after all, it's only advertising.

Are you a small agency leader with a tale to tell in hindsight about your founding? Contact Judy Pollack at [email protected] To sign up for the Ad Age tenth annual Small Agency Conference & Awards, to be held in July in New Orleans, go here.

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