Confessions of a small agency co-founder: ‘Consultants are dumbing down the business’

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Founding your own agency may feel like a logical step after having spent considerable time on both the client and agency side, but it is no cakewalk. You have to build it up from scratch, scrounge for new business and make sure you have your hand on the pulse of the industry.

We spoke to the co-founder and CEO of a small agency to get a feel for what it’s like to be running the show for a change. In exchange for anonymity, we got extreme candor. Excerpts:

You started off on the client side. Why did you jump the ship?
There was a lack of creativity; it just felt very conservative. There was no innovation and risk-taking. It’s pretty much the same today. Clients who are willing to take risks, push the agency to do really great work are very scarce.

You eventually set up your own independent agency. What are the biggest advantages of being your own boss?
The biggest advantage is just being able to say no to the bullshit. Sometimes you lose stomach lining over that because as a small agency owner, your house is on the line, your complete financial well-being is on the line. But at least you don’t have to deal with the bullshit.

Such as?
At my old agency, I remember this client who was abusive and manipulative and really didn’t get it. It was like bonded labor. For her, it was “you’re the agency and I’m the client, so you’re going to have to take the crap.” But I was beholden to my employer.

As a small agency exec, what are the things that keep you up at night?
Keeping up with the changes that are happening in the industry, particularly on the media side. The bigger agencies tend to have greater things to invest in digital analytics and whatever the latest the industry is moving toward, but that’s challenging for a smaller agency.

And the pitch/RFP process?
It’s a completely false situation to evaluate an agency. The most important thing in advertising is the agency-client relationship and in an RFP process, the client really doesn’t have a good way to gauge how it’s going to go with the agency and vice versa. The other really frustrating thing is spec work. It’s disrespectful; it indicates that clients value neither the creative process nor the agency. But it’s on us too. We’re so desperate for business and to win things that we’ll do it.

Have you ever personally felt wronged?
Yes. We pitched this new business last summer and in the end we got a small stipend — so because of that they “owned” the work. But you never recover your cost on that sort of a thing. We also pitched this business two years ago, and we had recommended a tagline in a URL to a client for a way to market one of their services, and they kept their former agencies but they wanted to own the URL. I mean, are you kidding?

Why don’t agencies fight back?
It’s a combination of optimism and stupidity. If the client tosses around a large enough annual budget, we get starstruck with the opportunity to land the big one. And the odds aren’t so bad. If you’re one of three, there’s a 30 percent chance, right? The reason we don’t fight back is that as an industry, we can’t get consensus and traction to say no, because if we say no, some other schmuck will say yes.

Does the lack of women in leadership roles in the advertising industry bother you?
It pisses me off. And the thing that’s frustrating about the advertising industry is that we claim we’re so avant-garde, but we’re just insecure. At the end of the day, it is still white-male dominated — and that doesn’t at all reflect what the country is like today. I was on a panel with two other white guys — three white guys — and we’re talking about what’s happening in the industry, and I was thinking, “Couldn’t you have found a woman or a person of color to be on this panel?”

How do you feel about clients working with multiple agencies?
Clients are choosing to work with multiple agencies and picking specialists, but the challenge with that is that then they expect the agencies to work really well together and sandbox well together. But in some cases, the agencies are competitors and the client’s expectations are unrealistic.

Any other client pet peeves?
More and more consultants are increasingly coming in to work with clients. And most of the time, they don’t have any experience with agencies or any experience with the category or media and take a very academic approach to our business. They tend to take the fun and creativity out of what we do even more. They don’t get it.

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