Small Agency Conference and Awards

If I knew then what I know now ... I'd worry a lot less

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In this occasional series, Ad Age asks small agency chiefs what they would do differently if starting their shops today.

If I could have a few minutes to talk to my anxious self as I was deciding to launch my agency, the first thing I would tell myself is to go easy on myself (few others will).

It was never my plan to start to my own agency. I was climbing the corporate ladder at big shops on Madison Avenue, and I had even made my way into purpose-driven branding. But in 2014, the ladder broke. I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to go back to working on CPG, finance, or tech accounts. But, I had just bought my house, had a 1-year-old and 3-year-old at the time, and was feeling some heat.

And then I had a life-changing lunch at Ukrainian restaurant Veselka's (best pierogies on the planet) with my future business partner Bill Oberlander. He was hell-bent on launching a purpose-focused agency and wanted to pick my brain on clients and staffers I could potentially refer. Little did he know I wasn't at J. Walter Thompson any more. So, we just kind of looked at each other and said, "Let's do it 50/50." I would be the suit. He would be the creative. It was that simple.

First, I worried it was a bad idea. When I first told people that I thought purpose was the new digital and the agency world would soon be infused with purpose, most scoffed. One famous Mad Man actually told us to get a tobacco account to pay for the purpose-driven clients. It wasn't a joke. That was real advice. On top of the normal skepticism from our network, we had no capital or financing whatsoever. Oh, and did I mention no big agencies teach account people how to actually run an agency? What did I know about finance, HR, insurance, office space and 100 other things? And the kicker: On the day we signed our first office lease, my wife told me she was pregnant with our third child.

Drew Train
Drew Train Credit: Oberland

But, we forged ahead anyway. We opened our office, hired staff, and quickly expanded. All the while, I was a stressed-out mess. I worried about everything. I would lay awake night after night contemplating thousands of doomsday scenarios. I was withdrawing from those I loved and who loved me. I was working all the time but not being all that productive. I mean, how many hours can you stare at last month's numbers that don't change? Too many hours. Trust me.

My brain and time was monopolized by worry. Worrying didn't change the finances. Worrying didn't make the briefs tighter, pitches better, or make me a better husband and father. It just made me lose sleep, lose my patience, lose my temper, and most importantly, lose my focus on what and who really matters.

I was quickly becoming an asshole.

Then, about 18 months ago, I realized the worry was wreaking havoc on me personally and professionally and I had to knock it off. I had to stop the physical act of worrying. I had to steel my nerves and just do the work. Once I read the numbers, I put them away. I delegated a lot more work to my teams, who continually impress me with their talent and adaptability. And, perhaps most importantly, I spent more time with my wife and kids. I was present again. After all, my wife Marisa – my most loyal fan and advocate – was the only person who didn't try to talk me out launching my own agency. She believed in us from the beginning, and she sacrificed more than anyone to help us make it happen.

The funny thing is that when I stopped worrying about everything, the agency – like me – got exponentially healthier. Our finances surged, and our work improved. We started to scale and embrace the chaos in more constructive ways. The more I let go of my worries and stress, the further we went. I am happier. The team is happier.

And, hopefully, I'm not such an asshole anymore.

Drew Train is co-founder and president of purpose-driven agency Oberland

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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