Living on the Edge: Why more agency founders should cry in their car
Living on the Edge is a regular series exploring how small agencies have overcome adversity and applied creativity, ingenuity and hard work to solve a business problem.
My wife Carin and I started Contrast & Co. four years ago with the goal of becoming the most strikingly different agency anywhere. After two decades leading larger shops, I had grown convinced that being big and remaining creative were diametrically opposed ideas. So we set out to build something unique. We wanted to take the world by storm, and dreams of world domination danced in our heads long before we ever secured our first client.
Looking back, I was naive. Being the creative director at big agencies had only primed me. Running a successful creative business operation was an entirely new endeavor, and with it came unexpected moments that made us want to throw in the towel and quietly abandon our dream.
The most memorable of those moments occurred two years ago. A partner agency had enlisted us for a comprehensive rebrand identity for a prominent client of theirs. It was our biggest project ever at the time, and we were determined to create something unprecedented. We had a plan for the project, but it quickly became overshadowed by the universe of ideas that followed it. Before long, our walls were plastered with design concepts—each more promising than the next.
But Carin was growing increasingly concerned. We were in a deep financial hole on the project already and we still hadn’t presented to the client. We decided to forge ahead. We knew we were going to lose our shirts, but we loved the creative direction and we were confident it would unlock new opportunities ahead. Then we got the call. It was a Thursday night, and we were due to present that Monday morning. Our partner informed us they no longer felt comfortable with the brand direction.
I was devastated. Our team had been working around the clock for several weeks and we were now just one business day from the presentation. Our partner was unhappy, we had already blown past our entire budget and we were still light years away from wrapping up. The call did not go well. I left our studio, walked to my car, shut the door, and began to sob.
That moment was the best thing that ever happened to us. Up until then, we had treated each new brand engagement as an exercise in unlimited possibilities. The more ideas we could throw against the wall, the better. I had wanted to reject all of the rigid processes I had stumbled against in big agencies, but in that moment, I realized we were going to have to adapt in order to survive.
So we started doing things differently. We asked more questions. We poked more holes. We reworked everything from discovery to deliverables, and two years later, every facet of our brand process had been reimagined. Our efforts were more focused. Our solutions, more effective.
As for the brand presentation? It all worked out. After a good night’s sleep, and an early morning brainstorming call, we came up with a slightly reworked solution that everyone loved. It took one last collective sprint through the weekend, but it was well worth it. The client understood our approach and, more importantly, they embraced the direction. Total home run.
I think about that night often. Prior to launching, I had countless future visions of our agency, and crying alone in my car was never one of them. It should have been. The best lessons in life are often the most challenging—the ones that take us to the brink of the breaking point. But these are the moments we need the most. So when COVID-19 floored us earlier this year, I picked myself up once again and remembered that we’ve been here before. There is a learning lesson here, and we are determined to discover it.
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