So You Want to Start Your Own Agency?

Here are a Few Tips for Making it Big(ish) Without Driving Yourself Bonkers

Jan 28, 2014 · 5 min read

Some might say it’s totally counterintuitive for one agency to pass along its supposed secrets of success to their potential competitors. But it’s not like anything we’ve learned over our past ten years in business is really NDA-worthy. In fact, some of it is just common business sense. And since we’re often in the position of having to turn away work (as a factor of being a deliberately small shop), it’s actually in our interest to build up the next wave of creative talent. Why? Because, when we have to pass on a project, it’s nice to be able to point to someone we know could get the job done—probably better, faster, or cheaper than we could. With confidence.

Plus, we’re firm believers in the old adage we picked up managing teams on the clients side: always be hiring your replacement. Always be on the lookout for talent that, with the right training, could eclipse yours. It’s kind of an HR cliché, but it’s totally true. If you seek out up-and-comers (who ideally see things differently than you do) and then do whatever you can to foster their expertise—whether by putting them in situations that will pull and stretch them or by giving them the autonomy they need to risk total failure—you’re doubly likely to have a team that helps pull and stretch you. And function well without you.

Anyway, in that spirit of all-for-one/one-for-all, here are a few potentially useful tidbits of information that we’ve learned over the past decade. Some may be super-helpful. Some may be totally irrelevant—depending on what sort of work you want to do and how you want to do it. And some might be totally particular to our brand of branding. But most of them are the sort of principles we tend to want to see reflected in the firms we reach out to when we’re too booked to take something on.

01 /

Don’t act all ‘agency-y’.

It’s way, way better to work quickly and collaboratively with your clients (and sometimes their internal teams) to generate ideas that they can actually use. Sometimes, the worst thing you can do (believe us) is to walk through the brief and then steal away to your studio and churn out a bunch of ideas that may be better for your book than their bottom line. Don’t tell your accountant this, but sometimes it’s better to be valuable than expensive—no matter who you’re working with. In other words, just don’t milk things.


02 /

Walk in your client’s shoes.

Well, not literally of course. But sometimes it’s super-helpful to spend some time working on the client side. God forbid you get sucked in and spend a decade riding some posh double-decker bus down to Palo Alto every day. But with the right sort of situation, you might learn firsthand what it’s like to make decisions based on actual, tangible business drivers—in a way that’s informed by multiple perspectives. Being forced to patiently navigate internal politics in order to get things done will bleach the fancy prima-donna right out of you. Which is good for everyone, right?


03 /

Play well with others.

It’s an old chestnut but it’s true. Some of our best projects have been the ones where we couldn’t, in the end, hog all the glory. Instead, we’ve tended get the best results by working in a totally open, honest, and collaborative way with in-house design teams and UX folks, or external agencies and PR firms. We’ve seen how the best results come when the whole team is part of the solution. Trust us, you’ll be at your best when you’re bringing the best out of others.


04 /

Think like designers and design like thinkers.

Sounds schizophrenic and, in truth, it kind of is. But the sort of agencies that are doing the best work right now are the ones that are pretty good at toggling between left brain and right. In today’s business climate, it’s important to be intensely analytical (when it counts) and super comfortable with ambiguity (when it’s time to generate and explore). The best creative comes when you’re able to connect the dots between the why and the what—and let go of things that don’t make sense (no matter how beautiful or funny or brilliant they might seem).


05 /

Rent, don’t own.

Ideas, silly. While it would be nice to be able to take total credit for some or all of the brilliant things that come out of your work, the fact is, most of the good stuff actually comes directly from the client. At least that’s true in our experience. We’ve seen how, if you create the sort of situations where good ideas come naturally, they tend to. In droves. And then all you have to do is be smart enough to stand back and say: ‘Yes! More of THAT!’.


06 /

Don’t work weekends.

Really, just don’t. It could be a holdover from our early days on the ad agency side, but we’re dubious of superfluously burning the midnight oil. Instead, we’re sticklers for setting realistic, hard deadlines—and then hitting them. It’s way better to work swiftly and surely to the ticking of a chess clock than to call out for pizza at 2:00 AM on a Saturday night. Call us old fashioned, but we like having a life. You should too.


07 /

Work with the CEO.

This doesn’t mean you’ll have to take up golf or anything. But logging some serious PRs on Strava couldn’t hurt. Because, when you’re able to join forces mano-a-mano with the ultimate decision-maker, you’ll radically increase the likelihood of your work seeing the light of day. Not because you’ve won them over—or swayed them with your brilliance—but because you’ve both arrived at a new way of thinking about the greater good.


08 /

Vacation together. Regularly.

Or rather, take elaborate minutes on exhaustive board meetings, often held in exotic locales. Use these ‘meetings’ to remind yourself and your team of the real reason you work together. It isn’t to make make a shit ton of money, win shelves of awards, or do work that other firms envy. It’s to honestly savor the energy that comes from pushing each other to be your better selves, together.

Oh, and having plenty of espresso and Tecate on hand at all times (to enhance and diminish productivity accordingly) can’t hurt either.

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