The Benefit of Hindsight


Gerry Graf's success in advertising stems from his creative, rather than operational, acumen. The same goes for Ty Montague. But Graf, the departing New York CCO of Saatchi & Saatchi, and Montague, outgoing North American CCO at JWT, with partner Rosemarie Ryan (who resigned as JWT North American president) are launching their own agencies. And those who blazed the path before them say these creative minds will need to sweat the details as much as the quality of their work to establish lasting businesses.

They had other advice, too, shared with Adweek when we reached out to the principals of nine shops that opened between 2000 and 2009 (five are represented here, four more can be found online at Some wish they'd taken more time to find the "right" partner, others that they'd skipped a few pitches. But most stressed the need of paying close attention to operational details. "If you don't get the business of the business stuff right, you won't be around for a long time," said David Murphy, co-president of Barrie D'Rozario Murphy. His advice? Invest in top talent in finance, accounting and legal services.

Rockfish Interactive CEO Kenny Tomlin wished he'd spent more time selecting software systems. "We could have avoided a lot of hassle had I paid more attention to internal processes earlier," he said.

Here, more lessons learned from some of the industry's top talents.

Launched: 2004
Headcount: 100 (75 in New York, 25 in London)
Key clients: Nike (Converse, Umbro), Sony, Motorola; shop also in joint ventures with chef Eric Ripert and cosmetics enthusiast Lauren Luke
Smartest business decision:
Picking a distinctive name that "defines and differentiates" the shop, said partner Carl Johnson (pictured).
Biggest mistake: Not getting the partner casting 100 percent right the first time around, Johnson said. For example, the shop replaced founding creative chief Ernest Lupinacci with Mike Byrne in 2006. "The final partner lineup took a couple of detours in the first couple of years, delaying us hitting our full stride, which we are getting much closer to," said Johnson.
"If I knew then what I know now . . . I would have given more thought to how best to scale an unconventional business like ours where talent is at a premium, creative thinking is crucial and process is extremely hard to impose and potentially damaging," Johnson said.

The Barbarian Group
Launched: 2001
Headcount: 94 (52 in New York, 26 in Boston, 16 in San Francisco)
Key Ccients: General Electric, Samsung, Kashi, Red Bull
Smartest business decision: Opening during a recession, according to CEO Benjamin Palmer (at right). "There had been the dot-com bust and most of the small shops went out of business," he said. "So, there was an opening of sorts for us to start small and scrappy-just four guys in an apartment for a while. Actually, I think the smartest business decision was just starting a business, realizing I'd never have a job I really loved unless I made it myself."
Biggest mistake: Being "too big for our britches," said Palmer. "Most of my big mistakes have been trying to do something that was outside of the abilities of myself or the company. But every time I make a mistake I'm like, 'Fuck that, I will figure out how to pitch a client like that, figure out how to pull off that kind of work,' and a year or two later we get stronger and we can handle it."
"If I knew then what I know now . . . I would have worked at a big shop to learn more about marketing and management before setting off on my own," Palmer said. "There are a lot of folks who will work at a big shop for years and learn all the secrets and get experience, and then leave to start their new thing-Ty [Montague], Gerry [Graf], etcetera. I never really knew that was an option. It seems way easier."

Launched: 2006
Headcount: 130  (85 in New York, 45 in Sydney)
Key Clients: Puma, Activision, Unilever (digital duties for Suave), TracFone, Method
Smartest business decision: Hiring from outside the industry, said creative chairman David Droga (pictured). The shop's CFO, Judd Merkel, is from Citibank and CEO Andrew Essex is a former magazine editor. Droga also pointed to "putting the majority of our profits into hiring really smart senior people" and "not compromising ourselves for a quick buck."
Biggest mistake: Droga cited "being flattered into crazy situations." The reference is to pitch invites from five or six marketers during a three-month period in 2008, after Creativity named Droga5 agency of the year for 2007. The shop failed to win any of those pitches.
"If I knew then what I know now . . . I would have opened the agency earlier," Droga said, echoing the sentiment of others. He added, "And bought more Apple stock."

Headcount: 330 (276 in New York, 54 in Chicago)
Key clients: Chase, Verizon, Kraft Foods, Disney (parks and resorts), Chevron
Smartest business decision: Picking the right creative partner, said CEO John McGarry (at right). CCO Gordon Bowen "is the most unbelievable partner I've ever had," he noted, citing Bowen's skills as a creative director, leader and client handler.
Biggest mistake: Not starting sooner. "I wish I had another 40 years to go on this run," McGarry said.
"If I knew then what I know now . . . we would have had" digital expertise from day one, McGarry said. The agency has since developed that capability and today, digital assignments-from clients such as Marriott and Chase-represent about a quarter of the
shop's revenue.

Venables Bell & Partners
Launched: 2001
Headcount: 152 (San Francisco)
Key clients: Audi, Intel, HBO, Nestea, ConAgra, ConocoPhillips
Smartest business decision: Opening in the first place and putting a lot of thought into building an agency culture, said partner and cd Paul Venables (pictured). "The tendency is for grizzled creative veterans to open a shop and think it's all about the ads. It isn't. It's about the people," he said. "Attract the right people and they will create the right ads. And you can't attract the right people if you have a culture that supports assholes under the guise of 'the creative genius program.'"
Biggest mistake: Pitching too often and overaddressing the issue of agency size, Venables said. "We'd go to great lengths to prove we could handle a bigger piece of business. Gee, ya think we underscored our size limitation?" he asked. "You have to pitch from your strengths. ... When you've clearly defined those advantages, line them up against the potential client. If you don't see or hear them slapping the table that you're right, pull out."
"If I knew then what I know now . . . we would probably have said, 'No thanks'" to pitch opportunities more often, Venables said.

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