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A friend of mine asked me to start an agency with him last week.

Drink was involved.

So it wasn’t a serious conversation in terms of real intent.

But it did get quite serious in terms of terms. Under what terms would we seriously consider it?

Here are mine.

  • Not with close friends. I’m the kind of person who has a few deep friendships. No way would I risk one of those by starting a business together.
  • The right people. So obvious I deleted it, rewrote it, and deleted it again before deciding to leave it in. A group where the whole is considerably greater than the sum of the parts, but where each part pinches itself every day about how lucky it is to be involved with the others. The collective reputation of the group would raise eyebrows.
  • A lead generator. I’m not cut out for making a nuisance of myself and cold prospecting. I’m good at converting leads but pretty crap at generating them. I’d want someone on the team from day one who was completely on board with the agency’s purpose and vision, and who was getting us meetings with the right kind of clients with the right kind of problems. Too few agencies get the sales end of their operation right. I wouldn’t start without it.
  • Sustainable, scalable ownership structure. I’m not greedy with money. I’d want an ownership structure such that amazing people would be attracted to join not just for the fun but also because they wouldn’t feel like second class citizens compared with the founders. Haven’t and probably never will think this one through to a conclusion. But something with a partnership vibe maybe.
  • A good answer to the question “why?” (Part 1). Personal motivation. Starting up would have to afford me an outlet to do and learn things that, for whatever reason, I don’t feel able to do or learn in an existing agency. Right now I don’t have that good answer.
  • A good answer to the question “why?” (Part 2). A point. What would be the point of yet another agency in an already oversupplied market? I don’t really have a good answer to this question either. Other than a loose thought about being a commercial problem solving agency rather than a communications agency. Not a marketing services business. More an upstream consultancy that makes stuff when the need arises.  (I don’t think I could be happy in a business whose only product was advice). We’d solve strategic problems to whose solutions clients could accurately attribute a high value. And the value of the solution would be significantly higher than the time costs associated with it. The client would gladly pay more than the agency’s time to have the problem solved. High margin, intellectually rewarding and fun. Likely to include a fair degree of b2b work. (If you work in an ad agency the b2b thing is most likely a turn-off. If you work in a digital or social environment it will sound sexy.)
  • Minimum 25% margin. Repeat, minimum. I’m not going to make the sacrifices required of a start up to scrabble around for 10-15%. If the proposition (see above) is right, this should be achievable for a small, lean outfit.
  • Engineered for collaboration. Collaboration works best when the skills of the collaborating parties offer maximum complement and minimum conflict. The digital *thing* and the social *thing* have greatly increased the potential for conflict between erstwhile collaborative disciplines. I see border skirmishes between advertising, media, PR and digital *friends* most days. But there would be opportunities aplenty for maximum-complement collaboration for a small, problem solving business that makes stuff as the need arises. The secret would be in the variety of the stuff and in not having too many maker skills in house. The more skills you have in house the more time you spend trying to find an outlet for them, rather than having an output-neutral approach to problem solving. One of the potential attractions to starting up would be the opportunity to work with brilliant specialists to make a more eclectic mix of stuff than just “content” in its various forms.
  • Inherently social. Social in the proper, human sense of the word. Getting out and about. Meeting people. Putting together that network of maker-collaborators. Being seen. And, yes, joining the dots and staying in touch via social media platforms.
  • A significant anchor client. Significant in two ways. 1) Just big enough to keep the business running at breakeven in the early days. This is important. Partly because it would negate the need for debt finance and all the additional stress that brings. But mainly because it would allow the agency to politely decline the wrong kind of work from the outset. Compromised principles is the price some agencies feel they have to pay in order to survive into a second year. But those compromises are cultural poison and a bad habit of saying yes to the wrong things can be hard to shake. 2) Providing an opportunity to do the kind of work for which the agency wants to be known. The sooner we had work to point to rather than just credentials the better. When I was at BBH the agency shut once a year for the Audi Day Out – a day of fun to remember and celebrate the vital importance of the agency’s first client. I’d want to start up with that kind of client signed up.
  • A potentially charismatic brand. Definitely not names above the door – a) Yawn! b) It would run counter to the vision for ownership structure and partnership vibe above.
  • No timesheets. For anyone. Ever.

This really is a Fantasy Island post.

Frankly I think an agency is the last kind of business I’d want to start up.

Equally frankly I’m not sure I’m a start-up kind of person per se.

Planning Director is a great job. There’s no such thing as a shit-free role in an agency, but this one is probably as close as it gets.

And the conditions under which I’d consider starting an agency double as reasons why I almost certainly never will.

 

4 Responses to “Conditions under which I’d consider starting an agency.”

  1. Chris Brind says:

    No timesheets eh?

    I agree on principle, but having just started my own business and am dealing with people paying by the hour or day, how else do you manage that?

    • Phil says:

      Hi Chris. Thanks for taking the time to comment. a) I guess the no timesheet thing would be for full time employees. b) I guess freelancers and 3rd party collaborators who charge by the day/hour tend to do their own timesheets and invoice accordingly no? They don’t need your system to pug into. c) I guess I’m guessing because I really haven’t thought this through with serious intent.

  2. tom says:

    Love this post. Honest, human, insightful. Contains all the reasons I’ve thought of for and against and so many more that hadn’t occurred.

    Have you thought about going freelance? Know people that have? Any good stories/advice to share?

  3. David says:

    Phil – great post. And very opportune – broadly this has been my model. Now the question is: have I got the balls to do it?
    David

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