What does a start-up need ?

I was talking to a planner the other day from one of the big agencies. We were talking about start-ups because I give two bits of advice to everybody I meet in this business.

One is, start a new agency. You’ll have more fun and get more sense of purpose than at any other time in your career.

Two, don’t sell it. If you want to have a proper relationship with clients, you’ve got to be able to part company with them. And the holding companies don’t like that.

A passion for doing the right work has to be more important than agreeing to do stuff, just to pay the bills.

Having said that, HHCL didn’t fire a lot of clients. In fact, I’m not sure we ever fired any clients at all.

But we knew we could, and that made a big difference.

However, some of the toughest times in my career have been working with clients where we couldn’t fire them and they couldn’t fire us.

These accounts were held at some higher level which precluded either of us saying “this isn’t working, let’s call it a day”.

I know for a fact that this was as frustrating for them as it was for us.

In this context, I remember Jay Chiat once telling me something which I still find astonishing. Apparently, when Chiat Day was the hottest shop in America, he used to formally resign ALL his clients every December 31.

It was up to them if they wanted to re-hire the agency.

But back to the planner. What she said was really interesting – if she did a start-up, she wouldn’t take any creatives with her.

Now, she may have just meant from that particular agency – but it raises an interesting question as to whether you need creatives at all.

It used to be that a creative “star” of some sort was considered a sine qua non of any start-up.

For instance, Simon Clemmow and Johnny Hornby made a huge PR story out of looking for the most talented creative guy in London to partner them in their start-up.

Before settling for Sidney Qua Non.

(Sorry, a joke based on an obscure Latin phrase may be over some of my readers’ heads. Feel free to make up your own jokes at this point.)

But these days creatives are often seen as “not getting it”, holding up the process, being old school etc.

And I think that, sadly, there is some truth in this.

On virtually every jury I’ve ever been on, I’ve been shocked by how conservative most established creatives are.

Young creatives are different – they’re out to prove themselves, and they’re generally open to new thinking.

But throughout my career I’ve seen the massive difference 3 or 4 years in the business can have on creatives.

They either find they don’t fit in, and understandably become very disillusioned – or they manage to get some work out that attracts good notices, and then they think they’d better keep repeating the same formula.

Or, the horrible middle ground, they find that by doing average garbage they get their bills paid and so they just plough on, but without any belief that outstanding work is possible.

I’m off for a week’s holiday now, but in two weeks’ time, I’m going to Creative Social, the group of digital creative leaders set up by Daniele Fiandaca, and also going to mentor at the School of Communication Arts.

Those are the two extremes (consistent success as radical thinkers or early naivety) when people tend to be most open-minded.

But it’s interesting to consider whether you actually need “creatives” to start an agency.

Especially if you want to focus on the area which will give you the biggest USP right now – which is a passionate belief in rule-breaking, original creativity.

  • James Dawkins

    Steve, first of all think this is a great piece. You mention at one point ‘the massive difference 3 or 4 years in the business can have on creatives’, based on your personal experience. Could this not be translated across other disciplines where 3 or 4 years of business ‘grind’ for want of a better word, can also stop planners or account managers from pushing themselves and ultimately creatives to take risks?

  • Jacqueline steel

    Ha ha. Funnily enough, we have just started up our own agency, formed only with creatives. We want the ‘proper relationship with clients’ you speak of, because it is the traditional agency structure that is getting in the way of good ideas

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