The StrawberryFrog story is an object lesson for ad start-ups or start-ups of any kind.
The first week hatching StrawberryFrog, my own ad agency, was the worst week of my life. Karin Drakenberg (a Swede) and I (a Canadian) and Zorro (a Flat Coated Retriever) wrote the businessplan, then we moved to Amsterdam, where we spent all of our time finding an office space, taking out the trash, eating brooches, hanging out in places we never would have imagined existed, hiring talent, calling clients and writing ideas for clients - lots of ideas. Would I do it all again? Unreservedly, yes.
The ideas we hatched at the very start of our new agency are presented in my new book Uprising. They are especially relevant now that advertising is going back to the streets and alley-ways, again. The same place it started out 10,000 years ago in the bazaars of the Fertile Crescent and the Eastern Mediterranean. Advertising is a different experience than sitting passively in front of a TV set. It's searching actively for something that must interest us, isn't it? What are the advantages of reaching customers away from their living rooms, their TV sets, their magazines? There are new ones every day, any one of which could spark your new firm.
The early weeks of entrepreneurship requires canyons of endless work, rivers of excitement and rapids with ugly boulders. Any one of these can take you out (financially). Days are filled dreaming with a small group of like-minded people. There is something poetic about a bunch of friendly creative people elevating each others' work. And then at night you collapse into total exhaustion. Fried yet blissful. It's a dirty world at the bottom of the ladder but by the end of the first year you'll find yourself wishing it hadn't ended so fast. I learned a lot. If I were doing it all over again, a survival guide would have come in handy.
So for those stupid enough to start their own agency, here's an abridged survival guide. Today is a good day to start you new advertising agency. Not tomorrow, today. And therein lies the first key step to starting a successful advertising agency from scratch: fighting your own nagging apathy.
Getting past your own excruciating self doubt is the biggest hurdle to blowing it out of the water. It will make ignoring the 'it will never work' from your friends and family seem easy by comparison.
Today the conventional agency model is crumbling, even as traditional ad people cling to it. It's a time of change and upheaval. You need to think completely differently to have any sustained success, and that requires you to think as problem solvers. So new agencies should stop chasing awards and start chasing phenomenal solutions to problems, housed in creative think tank. Or in our case a FrogPond.
There's so much innovation, so many new companies starting up, new tech firms seeking breakthrough ideas and marketing help to clarify, define and build their brands. There is, according to the data, lots of investment in new tech firms, huge ratios of investment...reminds me of the late 1999s. The reason to start an agency now is everything is up in the air--and up for grabs. That's true in the US market and in Europe, but also in places like Brazil, China and India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Dubai and all points in between.
Starting your own agency from scratch is totally crazy. Totally nuts. Expect many sleepless nights full of tsunami sweats that soak through your pajamas, bedding and mattress. Starting your own agency is dopey. Exhausting. It could cost you. Which is exactly why you should do it, because chances are 99% of all the normal people won't. But you can.
Insanity has a certain charm. I started a successful agency 16 years ago and here are some rules to live by if you want to kick off an advertising agency of your very own. Cindy Gallop a former ad exec and now a successful entrepreneur of internet start up ifwerantheworld.com uses the term 'advertising agency' because, she says: "I haven't found a better word to describe the full gamut of marketing and communications services that 'advertising' covers, even though 'advertising' is an outdated word. Words like communications agency, digital agency or design agency are too limiting."
This is why Fahrenheit 212 calls itself an 'Innovations' agency rather than a design agency or why I called my place the 'Cultural Movement' agency -- which brings us to our second key rule to live by: Differentiation. Why do you exist? Service based business including ad agencies face fierce competition, in creating the world's first cultural movement marketing agency 16 years ago, and formulating a propriertary approach to marketing and a framework is our secret sauce. No one else has this, it's ours. Sure there are many who sell creativity but not the way we think, and how the way we apply our ideas. This is crucial in our space, in the advertising agency sector, as we fight for our very existence and for every client, and the opportunity to make a business impact for our clients.
Agencies - both new and old - don't put a lot of thought into differentiating themselves in the market place. Clients have a hard time knowing the difference between agencies, even the old ones which have been around forever. So if you're going to set sail for the glorious land of opportunity you need to stand out and have a different point of view.
In the early days of StrawberryFrog, my own agency, I realized that you need a spark of energy. You need to start your own religion. A ballsy, emotional point of view that you and everyone else that comes after-wards can get behind. There isn't much money. The vision has to be able to turn a bunch of independent creative and strategic people from other agencies into a political organization fighting for one team, and committed to the success of a fledgling agency. They're going to need a steely resolve and incredible enthusiasm. Legendary ad man Jay Chiat said you need to be a pirate. Well, he was right. In the early days of an agency, it's got to feel like you are a bunch of rebels fighting against the rest. You'll be the new kids on the block. You'll be asking staff and clients to take a leap in the dark. Your vision has to move the world. When we set out, Advertising Age had published an article calling the established corporate agencies "dinosaurs." We were Frogs. Dinosaurs were slow and had the systems of the past that weren't the systems of the future and represented all the things that lead to bad creativity and expensive costs for clients. StrawberryFrog was the complete opposite: a place for fresh perspective and fragrant ideas...agile, a leaper, a challenger to the dinosaur. It made a lot of sense to our vision of building a smarter, better agency. The timing and context was right. It felt like we were the ones to challenge the dinosaurs that controlled and dominated the advertising industry. It was Frog v Dinosaur in an epic battle along the very battle lines of evolution and fun. We had an idea that was relevant in culture. We had a company based on an idea. And we set off.
At the start, I learned one of the best lessons from one of the most respected people in the business. He said there is no "proper" way of doing things. There's just doing it, feeling yourself out while you're in the middle of it all, not worrying too much about it. Sure, I used to follow the legendary bosses like Dan Wieden (cofounder of Wieden + Kennedy); Tim Delaney (cofounder of Legas Delaney); John Hegarty (cofounder of BBH); the late Pat Fallon (founder of Fallon) and Uli Weisendanger (the W in TBWA) and the most brilliant and kindest advertising man of them all.
I thought that having a non-executive board right from the get go was a good idea so I asked Uli if he would be chairman. He had just retired and fortunately agreed. A non-executive board is massively useful. It is there to prod you to stay true to who you are, to push you to stand up for what you believe in, to help focus you on a few bets, to remind you to say please and thank you. And to be generous with you staff when times are good and even more generous when times are bad.
At the start, the agency thing is very fragile wrapped up with a bit of luck, without which none of this would be possible. You're working 24-hour days, no one is looking for this thing to pop. You are crazy-busy and all you want to do is be the best new agency in the world and show the legacy agencies that you can do it because you can. You're idealistic and don't think you can accomplish much, but you will. That's the next key element - good fortune. It happens when you least expect it
Years ago, I had lunch with a friend of mine who, after patiently listening to his talking for over an hour, said: "You are pregnant with an agency". StrawberryFrog Brazil was born. I have seen ideas materializing into desks, chairs, computers. Ideas that made an old building get renovated and occupied by talented people and companies such as Natura (largest cosmetic company in Latam), PepsiCo, Quaker, Henkel and many others. Sometimes we have no idea where our ideas will lead us. But we are sure that, regardless the destination, it will have been a great journey.
You need a behind-the-scenes person who can make it all happen: the billing, the financials, operations, leasing, dealing with staff. I don't think StrawberryFrog would have actually happened without Karin Drakenberg pulling it all together. She was the one who did all of the above. The calm tiger. She is Swedish so she was naturally well-organized, patient, and miles ahead of many others.
You need to be strong and prepared to know when to adapt. And you must make the adapting work or else you are dead. I believe that starting an agency is a lot like setting sail. Sailing has been around for the last 10,000 years and has had to adapt like hell in order to survive. The elements on the high seas are volatile. Decisions have to be made and changed again in fractions of seconds. You have to be adaptive. The captain must have an inner compass for the right kind of orders to be given and to delegate decisions to the guys in the bow who can't hear them in the noise of the wind and the waves. Sails tear, masts brake, repairs have to be made with terrific speed while the boat is moving and the waves don't stop either. Captains and crews who do things by the book will be washed away. Great captains are bored when the sea is calm. The captain is in his element when things get volatile. In the end, they always do and always will. Today's volatile business environment has existed all through civilization. Heroes thrive on it. Farmers know about volatility of the elements too. So do mountain climbers. That's because it's in nature's and life's character. When things get staid and lose their volatility, the bad sides of human character get the upper hand: Greed and laziness.
You need to believe that there is room for one more agency. Yours. Classic advertising communication has boxed itself into a corner. There is a need for fresh perspective and new ideas. The advertising and marketing industry is constantly changing. Since the time of Mad Men, it's gone through three anthropological phases--all understandable--until advertising ran into the wall.
I paraphrase a discussion I had with Uli one day because it pin-points where opportunity lies. We were talking about how advertising evolved. In the beginning, advertising concentrated on the product. But when differences between products gradually disappeared or became so minute and irrelevant, there was no drama left in this. So, what else could advertising do? Advertising started to talk about the people behind the products, the brands. In time, the drama went out of these stories too. The visions and missions of most companies started to sound very much alike. Better living, more happiness, better social status for its customers. Better service, invention, whatever. What was left? The customer herself. She and he were analyzed. Were put into groups. Were asked what they liked. And soon campaigns started to look very much like each other again. Only, now advertising had lost the product and the company. Advertising was parroting what customers, according to the people who listened to them, had said themselves. And the last sparkle of interest left classical advertising. Of course, this is exaggerated, but somehow true. And when advertising budgets shrank during the last few years, and media prices went up, even Google is expensive nowadays, opportunity came knocking for new kinds of ideas and thinking, the way was clear for the social media and innovative use of digital and film. And so now the fun, the excitement is coming back. Big enough to interest the journalists of TV and press to comment on. The originality, the charm and all that. Digital, technology and social media - places where more fun can be had and better selling is going on than on the classical media. And where the work follows clear strategies, opportunity and is terribly sales oriented, in spite of (non-serious) appearances. This is the room for your new agency.
One question, which I am sure you must have thought of by now, could be: How aggressive against competing agencies are you willing to be? Do you want to go as far as creating a real revolution? With heads rolling on the other side and declining empires? How far can you go in telling people that advertising and creativity is FUN?
So should you take the plunge and launch your own ship?
I was sitting in a room chock full of students. There are many questions. They are hanging on my every word. Then someone asked the classic one: "how do I get my first job in advertising?" This time, I didn't give the classic answers like "build your portfolio," "Figure out which agencies best suit your soul then be relentless at getting your foot in the door." I did not even offer "work as an intern for beer and chips." Instead I said: "start your own agency".
"Huh?" they said.
"Yeah, now's the best time," I told them. "You have nothing to lose. Moreover, clients are looking for agencies to reach Gen-Y consumers, which is you."
I've spent the past few years talking to the leading marketing and media people around the world and no one really knows where it's all going. One this is certain, the systems of the past aren't the systems of the future. So my answer to the students was in line with this fact. And why would you consider working for a traditional agency at a time when the very business of what traditional agencies do is being questioned?
A few of these students did start their own agency - two in fact. Both "Playground Digital" run by Ryan Bannon and Sami Sadaghiani and "Switch Advertising" are doing well.
Surprised? You shouldn't be. Marketing isn't about agency dynasties, marketing is about the same principles that have been important to companies since the first people started hawking their wares in the Fertile Crescent ages ago: doing it faster, smarter, cheaper and more innovatively.
Scott Goodson is the co-founder of StrawberryFrog and author of "Uprising: how to build a brand and change the world by sparking cultural movements," a best selling book published by McGraw Hill.