How to Run a Successful Creative Shop When Your Partner Is Also Your Spouse

Building a successful business is no easy feat, and neither is sustaining a successful marriage. Put the two together, and there are bound to be challenges and arguments every now and then. But there are a number of couples who run successful agencies together, because when two talented people with a rock-solid relationship and big ideas go into business together, things sometimes turn out great. Adweek spoke to five couples who fit that description.

1

Jake and Pum Lefebure

Agency: Design Army 
Founded: 2003
Jake's role: CEO
Pum's role: Chief creative officer
Clients: Adobe, GE, Disney, Bloomingdale's, Ritz-Carlton, Washington Ballet, Academy Awards 

How they met: Working at a Washington, D.C., design firm, where they started their jobs one day apart in 1996.

Their advice: Make sure you can stand to be around each other 24/7. "If the answer is no, you better think before going into business together," Pum says.

The bad: Tensions can easily run high at work and at home when the two disagree, but Pum and Jake try to avoid wasting time on arguments. "You won't always see eye to eye," Jake says. "Any couple—working together, or not—will have that. Time is what we value most, though." 

The good: Being in each other's space all the time allows the couple to work through business issues, whenever—even while folding laundry. “We try to balance work and personal by trying to integrate the two," Pum says. "It’s very efficient to be able to discuss a business—not in bed, necessarily—but discuss business when you’re brushing your teeth at night. It keeps us ahead of the game."

2

Deacon and Frances Webster

Agency: Walrus
Founded: 2005
Deacon's role: Chief creative officer
Frances' role: Managing director
Clients: Emergen-C, Bloomberg Businessweek, Pret a Manger, Staples, Amazon 

How they met: At boarding school, over 25 years ago. Frances "wanted me" throughout school, Deacon insists.

Their advice: Don't sit across from each other in the office. They tried it—and failed, about two weeks in. Some separation is key, they said, because ultimately alone time is nearly unobtainable. 

The bad: Spending every day together tends to stir up a handful of arguments, especially during business hours. “It’s out in the open and very embarrassing for people who first start working with us, but after a few weeks they learn to ignore it,” Frances says. “I think they see us as their bickering grandparents.” 

The good: That honesty is a benefit for the staff. “For employees, it’s actually great because the partners are always in lockstep alignment, and there’s no fear of there being a huge managerial rift, which we’ve seen happen at other agencies,” Frances says. 

3

Jerry and Karen Zuckerman

Agency: HZDG
Founded: 1987 
Jerry's role: CEO, CFO
Karen's role: President, chief creative officer
Clients: Hilton, Hilton Honors, Volkswagen of America, Organic Valley, Conair for Men, Dormify

How they met: As students at Penn State. Karen was a little sister to Jerry's fraternity. 

Their advice: Stay relaxed in high-pressure situations. Jerry and Karen attribute much of their success to their ability to handle stress well together. “We’ve evolved to be a lot more comfortable," Karen says. "All along, we’ve been pretty laid-back and go-with-the-flow, and if we hadn’t evolved, we wouldn’t be able to get this far."   

The bad: By spending so much time together at work and at home, the duo has started to eat dinner separately. They value any alone time they can find. 

The good: When you work with your spouse, you know you'll never get stabbed in the back, Jerry says. "You can really trust your partner, and there's never a fear that something isn't going to get done," Karen says. 

4

Franklin Tipton and Libby Brockhoff

Agency: Odysseus Arms
Founded: 2011
Franklin's role: Partner
Libby's role: Partner
Clients: YouTube, Capital One, Microsoft, Amnesty International

First met: As students in the visual communications program at the University of Delaware.

Their advice: If you have a family, always carve out time for it. "Franklin was the first to come face-to-face with [Alex] Bogusky to say, 'I am going home to have dinner with my family. I'll be online later tonight, but I am going home now to eat with my family,'" Libby says.  

The bad: Not everyone is as excited about working with a spouse as they are. "I would say 95 percent of our friends look completely disgusted when we tell them we work together," Libby says. "The first thing they say is they would never work with their husband or wife."

The good: Libby and Franklin can bounce ideas off of each other anytime. Before starting their agency, Libby helped Franklin come up with an idea for a Burger King chicken-fries spot when he was at Crispin Porter + Bogusky. 

5

Meg Donohoe and Mitch Paone

Agency: DIA
Founded: 2009
Meg's role: Managing director
Mitch's role: Creative director
Clients: HeForShe, Mitsubishi, Ultimat Vodka, Nissan

How they met: "We were freelancing at a design/production company," Meg says. "Mitch somehow spun the studio manager's rubber-band ball into our first conversation. We became fast friends."

Their advice: Don't tiptoe around feelings. Be up front and honest with your partner, no matter what. “There can be a lot of dealing with other personalities and being sensitive, whereas Mitch and I are comfortable with each other, and we understand each other," Meg says. "It makes the process so much easier."

The bad: As a married couple running a smaller creative shop, they have to fight the perception that they run a charming, mom-and-pop operation that can only tackle smaller projects. “That’s something that we are self-conscious of,” Mitch says.  

The good: Meg and Mitch know each so well that they fill in each other’s sentences. It cuts out a lot of back and forth, because each can anticipate what the other is thinking or feeling. “A suggestion from Meg will translate into a creative execution that will transfer over,” Mitch says.