How to launch your own ad agency
Find out from agency founders how they launched their own creative businesses.
Aside from finding a suitable loft-style office, filling the fridge with beer and hanging your new logo on the wall, what does it really take to launch your own creative agency?
Not only do you have to find the clients – you also have to persuade them to part with their cash – which is how you will ultimately fund your new venture – and eventually, if you are really lucky, you might make some money. Simples. How hard can it really be? (FYI the general consensus was “very ******* hard”).
We decided it was time to find out. So we asked a number of creative agency founders for their advice. They were
- Richard Morris - Whistlejacket ; Helen Calcraft - Lucky Generals ; Jason Foo – BBD Perfect Storm ; Jim Paterson – Aesop ; Nick Fox – Atomic London ; Mike Cullis - Soul; Neil Hughston – Johnny Fearless ; Neil Simpson – The Corner ; Matty Tong – Whistlejacket
1. Launch for the right reasons
Simpson: “I always wanted to have my own agency. Almost since the very first job I had.”
All the leaders we spoke to had reached senior positions within other agencies before they felt it was the right time to launch their own shops. Far from being Zuckerburg-esque entrepreneurs by the time they were 25, the CEO’s we spoke to were able to show off hard-earned business stripes and success from larger agencies - and in some cases, brands -before they broke away and set up by themselves.
Foo: “Bide your time until you’re wise enough. You’ll need every corner of your experience when you go it alone. You have to be all in to launch an agency - 100% or nothing.”
2. Get the band (back) together
It would seem, that most agencies launch with two or three people at the top. None of the agencies we spoke to opened their doors with just one person at the helm. The overwhelming majority launched with the ‘classic’ triumvirate of Planner, Creative and Client Service head.
Fox: “To do this alone would be unimaginable. These relationships must be deep and robust. You have to have great chemistry, have experienced success together and share the same point of view. You’re not always going to agree and there may even be some stand-up rows but the important thing is that you are able to kiss and make-up, forget about it and move on.”
Most founding partners had worked together previously. Whilst they had usually met under professional circumstances, most tend to be friends outside work and enjoy a shared outlook.
3. Funding (probably your own)
Of the eight agencies we spoke to, half were completely self-funded. The amount of investment you can stump up yourself will obviously impact the amount of autonomy you have. Obviously, 100% investment means 100% independence.
Our CEO’s – irrespective of how much of their own money they had personally invested - were pretty much in agreement that excellent financial advice is vital.
There was general agreement from our agency owners that - initially at least - they earned less than they had previously. Cash flow issues aside during set-up months, much of the reduced earning levels were down to choice - partners reported preferring to re-invest profits back into their agency, building the coffers for future security. When it came down to expansion, some of our founders said they (happily) paid their first employees more than they paid themselves.
4. Fail to plan and you plan to fail
Most of the agencies launched with a minimum five-year business plan - which started with the agency’s core proposition. All our start-up founders spent a few months in planning before going live. Happily, the majority of agencies reported being on track - or ahead of their plan. However, their advice was:
Don’t be afraid to ask people in the industry what they think about your new venture and your agency’s proposition. Every single owner we spoke to commented on how tremendously generous people had been with their time. This included agency leaders, intermediaries, industry bodies and previous clients.
5. You don’t need a client from day 1 (but you’ll need to find one fast)
Most of the agencies we spoke to opened their doors without a founding client and undoubtedly invested a huge amount of time into new business – attracting the right clients and the right kind of work.
6. Enjoy building your own team
Working within a start-up can be a very different experience and it’s not for everyone – it’s demanding, it’s hard work; it’s everyone in it together. Employees who ‘get in early’ with an agency that’s going places could see their career grow as quickly as the agency does.
7. It’s an adventure, not a journey
All of the CEO’s reported they absolutely love leading their start-up but made no bones about the hard work involved and the rewards you can enjoy.
Having spoken to all these agency leaders, it’s clear that setting up your own shop is not a decision to be taken lightly and certainly needs to be considered with a healthy dose of realism. That said, it was abundantly clear that nobody who we talked to regretted their decision and they all felt that the positives far outweighed the negatives.
So, if you’re thinking about going it alone – the very best of luck, you’re in great company.