Ad age: What I’ve Learned on My Road From Agency Creative to Agency Owner

May 1, 2012

About 18 months ago, we all read a string of headlines about creative directors leaving big shops to do their own thing.

There was no shortage of speculation about why so many folks seemed to be striking out on their own at the same time. One theory was that they wanted to escape a holding company’s formulaic processes. Or, others mused, they wanted to start a shop so they could eventually spin it off and sell it to a holding company.

Everyone leaves for different reasons, but I think, in the end, there’s a commonality of ingredients that would be about 1/3 supreme confidence, 1/3 total fear and 1/3 clinical restlessness. In short, you move because you must. Because it’s time. When the mass exodus was happening, all the soundbites departing creatives supplied to explain their new ventures had the reassuring term “fun” built into them. It’s an amazing experience to be sure, but I bet, for those who made the leap, the “fun” descriptor might now be accompanied by some sort of asterisk. If you’re a creative contemplating this odyssey, be prepared for a crash course on some decidedly noncreative things.

I remember about three months into Amalgamated, Gerry Graf, who started BFG9000, anxiously called and asked how a specific contract might work. My response was, “I love you, but I’m fairly certain I’m not the person to offer counsel on this particular matter.” I can say with a great deal of certainty, contracts are not yet our forte.

Did you know some Xerox machines are better to own and some are better to lease? You do now. Small-business owners might want to consider two health plans. One for the younger employees and one for those over 40. If you lease space in a building in Manhattan and they decide to put up a Courtyard Marriott in your vicinity, you won’t be getting a break on your lease payments, no matter how defiantly the syncopated jackhammers cry out.

You very quickly receive lessons in all the things you thought you knew and all the things you never thought you’d need to know: Rent. Furniture. Travel. Corporate promotion. New Biz. Outside services. Consulting. Maintenance. Business insurance. Health insurance. 401(k). Travel. Dues. Subscriptions. Office supplies. Telephone. Payroll expense. Payroll taxes. Lots and lots of taxes.

I will say this, though. There was unexpected assistance from former big-agency employees who also left to start their own shop. A fraternity, if you will.

The Dave Drogas and Carl Johnsons of the world were very generous with their time and pointers. I suspect once you’ve been through the drill (and made it) there is a satisfyingly benevolent feeling in helping others navigate some of the obstacles.

Advertising is an admittedly tricky business. Whatever stage you are in, whether newly launched or 10 years in with a dozen hot clients, it’s of paramount importance that you and your partners are in constant alignment. It’s probably less about the “defining” statement you have no doubt crafted to search consultants and would-be clients and more about knowing your strengths and striving each day to remember why you got into this business in the first place.

The trick is then parlaying your existing mantra into an agency where you can’t wait to walk in the door every morning and, of course, having the patience to stick with the proverbial plan.

So has it been worth it? I think we’d all say yes. In my case I have a roster of clients and a body of work I am extremely proud of, as well as employees I consistently love being around and laughing with. To be sure, there is still much to learn. But I now know, if you own an agency, that process never really ends.

-Advertising Age, May 01, 2012