My first agency: blissful ignorance and a powerful lack of knowledge
Before setting up Contented Brothers neither my brother or I had any experience of working in an agency. We worked with them and for them, but never in one. When the journey that led to Contented Brothers started I was an academic and Birdie was a film maker.
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Socrates, ages ago.
If we assume that Socrates is worth listening to (and as the father of western thought you’d hope he was, a bit) then starting an agency was the wisest thing I could have done. Socrates is a pretty big gun to open with, but I think another giant of western thought sums up the first tentative steps that Contented Brothers made into the world.
“Operator! Give me the number for 911.” Homer Simpson, much more recently.
There is something liberating about ignorance, a much-maligned word that has its place. Our lack of knowledge meant that we got through the first few years of the business by making stuff up and not knowing any better. As the business began to grow, challenges arose and it became apparent that we needed more people. This is where our lack of agency experience began to show. While we were able to carve a new path due to not being encumbered with “the right way” to do something, we also took a long time to solve problems that other people had been solving for years.
With that in mind I’ve started compiling a list of things that I have learned along the way:
- Account managers and other useful people
In the early days of Contented Brothers it was Birdie, myself and a production manager. I began to struggle in my joint role, bringing work in and then delivering that work. We agreed that I needed support with managing our client relationships. But who could do such an important role? We agonised and interviewed lots of different people with a massive range of experience and skills. When discussing our predicament with a friend in the pub, he couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard about account managers. He said that I could walk out of our (then Soho) office and probably stumble across a clutch of them. We ended up hiring a business development manager just because we really liked him, which led the business down a new unexpected path.
- Timesheets — and other cumbersome processes
This was another surprise for me and initially they felt like a throwback to some 1950s “us and them” infantilisation of the workforce. I canvassed opinion and had the process variously described to me as a “meaningless retrospective chore” and “just what happens in agencies” or an “essential and rewarding group exercise”. I have been intrigued by my visceral resistance to them and have thought about it a lot. Neither of my two other main places of work have been designed around time and materials. Academia, whether my own work or marking the work of others, is judged on the outcome not the process. When marking you could tell the brilliant student who could write a A* essay the night before the submission deadline but it didn’t make the essay less good. We’re lucky enough to have such a tightknit team at Contented Brothers that we regularly meet up and check progress in a conversational face to face kind of way. My mind is open to be changed on this subject and I understand that as we grow it will be more difficult to maintain our current face-to-face approach, so we’re thinking about what time and effort management looks like for us. Any advice and insight is much appreciated.
The other reason might be personal. I rarely do only one thing at a time. I know that this is frowned upon according to LinkedIn clickbait articles (5 Habits of Successful People and all that jazz) but it is just not the way my mind works. I like to jump around and always have done. It’s allowed me to make unexpected connections between apparently disparate things and allows the mental porosity that means that inspiration can strike at the unlikeliest of times. I have also felt it wrong to expect people to do something that I wouldn’t or couldn’t do. On writing this, there might be some thinking to do about my own approach to management, both time and otherwise.
- Marketing — not just for other people, apparently.
While I realise that we work in the marketing industry, it felt like a big step when we recently hired a full-time marketing manager. We’ve been head down, focusing on the client, the brief and the work, not on awards and gaining publicity. Rightly or wrongly we didn’t think as much about the face we presented to the outside world. Our phones have always rung with enquiries and clients have always returned. So why did we need marketing?
At this point in the Contented Brothers journey, I feel that we’re at a point in the business where we can start being publicly proud of the amazing work we create for our ambitious clients. Also, our talented, growing team deserve to be celebrated. We need marketing like all ambitious businesses need marketing, to thrive and grow.
I like to think (again perhaps naively) that our tactical ignorance was a strategic success; we may have lost some battles but it feels like we’re winning the war, on our terms. My lack of knowledge about traditional roles meant that we hired slower but it meant that we hired based on the individual rather than words on the top of their CV.
My ignorance of timesheeting meant that from the outset we created an environment of trust and empowerment for the team. As any HR will tell you the flipside of empowerment is accountability so we create a detailed budget using our knowledge of what was required and then we made damn sure that it was delivered on time and within our budget, or it was coming out of our pocket. Lastly, The fact that we have a new marketing person felt like a milestone in our development as an agency and inspired me to reflect on our journey and write this post (and also, she told me to). One last quote to finish up…
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” Isaac Asimov, a galaxy far, far away.
Perhaps we would have grown faster if we had done these things differently, if one of us had been steeped in agency lore but we definitely wouldn’t have the business that we have today, and that would be a shame.
That said, if anyone has any tips or insight from their experiences, I’d be really interested to hear it.