Why I left the agency I created 14 years ago

Almost 6 months ago, Giorgos and I, took a very bold and difficult decision.

By the end of this year, we are going to leave Isobar & iProspect GR (formerly Mindworks) behind. We are going to resign from something we created 14 years ago. Something extremely successful across the board. I won’t go into details of our personal journey and the history of Mindworks. Giorgos wrote a long-read and I couldn’t have said it better. Read it here.

I’ll start with a disclaimer: After you read this, you might feel that everything is wrong in the ad industry and agency life. It’s not! 
I never regretted growing up in this industry and building this agency. We did a lot of great things and helped many people along the way. I couldn’t be more proud of my team and my career path so far. I’ll save all the good things for a separate post :)

I will try to share my personal view on why we did this and how it feels to make a leap of faith like this one.

The Why

I remember having watched this video of Simon Sinek dozens of times.

Long story short, I believe the reason “why” we do this job is what urged us to leave our agency. It’s not that, what we did, was not fascinating. It’s not, how we did it, that was wrong.

I always saw my work as a playground. A field where you experiment with new things, try to build stuff, help people become a better version of themselves. And in the end, hopefully, you will have added some value to someone.

No, I’m not kidding myself that through the advertising business you can change the world and make it a better place. I never believed I could change the world. If I could just change one person, one co-worker, for the better that was enough for me. Probably that’s why I also really enjoy teaching.

But, when your company grows big (for Greek industry standards at least) and is part of a multinational group, things like that change. You get super involved in everyday admin stuff, you get disconnected from where the action happens, you start treating everything as numbers & goals. Things get more complex and it becomes easier for you to add more complexity than to strip it down. At the end, you get institutionalized and you start to care less.

I didn’t reach that point — and probably I’m still far away from it — but I could see it coming. So a decision had to be taken. Shall we start from scratch? Shall we start with nothing?

When we asked ourselves this question, we already knew the answer. 
Yes, we should.

Now, this is not an easy decision. On one hand, it’s very difficult to leave behind something that you built for the past 14 years. On the other hand, we have tried to transform Isobar & iProspect. A huge effort, from a lot of people, was made during the past 5 years, that I think paid off and made this agency one of the best there is today in Greece.

Of course, there were other important drivers behind this decision.

The industry

The advertising — and especially the media business — as we know it, will face some serious challenges in the next 5 years. I don’t know if there will be an “extinction level” event but here what I can see coming.

Automation

Major platforms (like Facebook & Google) are trying to automate everything. From bidding strategies to reporting and even creative. Startups like Albert & Data Robot promise they can automate the whole process and help you make critical decisions without much human involvement. I believe automation & machine learning will have a serious impact on the industry and the people working there.

Centralization

All of the Big6 in the ad industry are trying to centralize “hygiene” services. So, services like ad serving & trafficking, programmatic setup, reporting are being handled by teams in developing countries overseas to minimize cost. This also means that local agencies lose what used to be a high-margin business.

The in-house trend

Clients are taking important services in-house. Take for example the recent Deutsche Telecom media pitch. WPP may have retained the account but DT is taking in-house strategic services like data & programmatic. Even in smaller markets like Greece we see a clear trend where big clients are starting to build in-house teams, draining the agencies from their top talent.

Transparency & Integrity of the ad industry

I think the industry has shot itself in the foot on this. The lack of transparency will lead clients to scrutinize everything, take technology in-house to avoid being charged excessive tech costs and maintain ownership of important data. Big clients like P&G are set to review all agency contracts in 2017 to bring transparency to media supply chain.

This has also led clients to believe that advertising agencies are a commodity and not a strategic partner. That’s why procurement departments have agencies compete for the lowest price and not for the highest value as it should be.

The value we provide as ad agencies

Unfortunately, ad agencies are the last part of the value chain. There is a lot more important stuff than advertising and you can understand that when you are building products. When you see the bigger picture you understand that distribution, pricing, building a user-friendly product, supporting your customers are far more important than creating a “viral” Facebook campaign.

That’s not to say that marketing is of no value. But agencies usually think that throwing money on media will solve all of their clients problems (which is usually not the case) and this undermines their position.

Furthermore, agencies nowadays are not wired to be by their clients at all times. We handle projects, so it’s “get the specs, deliver the project, get paid, move to the next one”. That doesn’t give agencies the opportunity to become true business partners with their clients.

The Bullshit

Although I like the industry, we must admit that it’s full of bullshit and buzzwords.

When a new trend emerges we are fast to embrace it and sell it to everyone, even when we don’t know what we are talking about!

So nowadays when you write code to solve a simple equation, you don’t say you code. You do AI. You do ML to predict what your users will buy even when you ignore the fundamentals like optimizing your site so that it doesn’t take ages to load. You can do AI even when you can’t tell the difference between a mean and a median.

How it is to start over

After George wrote the article about us leaving, there were dozens of comments and people saying how brave we are & how exciting this must be.

I won’t tell you it’s easy, exciting and full of new challenges.
Starting over from scratch when you are 37 with 2 kids?
Not good! It’s tough. Your anxiety levels rise significantly. You feel insecure for hundreds of things. You have to do dozens of shitty things that you hate and used to delegate or outsource.

I also miss a very important part of my past job. The people. My team. This was also the biggest barrier, the thing that was holding us back in taking the decision to leave. That we are leaving family behind. But, at some point, you need to take that decision and hope that people will understand. The good news is that we are handing over Isobar & iProspect to Sofia & Giannis along with a great team. A team that can effectively tackle all the above challenges in the years to come.

But to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t change that “blank canvas feeling” for anything in the world.

It’s the feeling of being free again to do whatever you want. It’s when you see new opportunities everywhere. It’s this creative and learning process. It’s when you know that you are the one to blame for failure & success. It’s like you are reborn and given the opportunity to do something better this time.

So, what’s next?

This is the million dollar question as they say :)

And to be totally honest we don’t exactly know what’s next.

We do know that we want to combine our strengths to help solve more difficult business problems. To be involved in product development and less in advertising. To focus on doing fewer things but more important ones. And, as always, to broaden our horizons and be open to new opportunities.

Last but not least, this time we want to try uncharted waters. Try new sectors and new markets. Somewhere where nobody knows us. I’m writing this on a flight to London where we are exploring our next steps.

Watch this space. We’ll be in touch.