8 Tips for Launching Your Own Agency in a Time of ‘Disruption and Chaos’

The industry has problems, but you may be the solution

Starting your own agency requires a mix of confidence and openness to new ideas.
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It’s either the absolute worst time to launch an ad agency, or it’s one of the best. Sure, there’s plenty of doom and gloom about the outlook for even the most iconic agencies, but perhaps one behemoth’s existential crisis is a nimble startup’s moment of opportunity.

At Advertising Week New York this week, multiple sessions are tackling the issue of entrepreneurship in advertising—specifically, the difficult question of whether it’s worth starting an agency at a time when the entire value of the agency model is up for debate.

In-house creative teams, marketing-focused consultancies and increasingly automated ad processes are just a few of the factors that might make a new agency seem like an unwise investment, but the recurring theme of presenters at Advertising Week certainly seems to be one of optimism for agency startups.

“You kind of see everything right now, from clients who are frustrated and decided to build their own internal machines to clients who’ve never been more reliant on a trusted partner,” said Lisa Clunie, who co-founded agency Joan last year. “It’s a great moment in the sense that anything’s possible.”

But obviously launching an agency isn’t something you should do with blind confidence, so here are a few tips shared this week by agency entrepreneurs and veterans alike:

1. Just do it already

Cutting right to the chase, the overarching message from Advertising Week agency panelists was that despite all the dark clouds casting shadows over the advertising industry, it’s worth setting out on your own if you have the talent and ingenuity to create something valuable and new.

"Disruption and chaos bring amazing opportunity if you play your cards right."
Dave Luhr, president, Wieden + Kennedy

“Disruption and chaos bring amazing opportunity if you play your cards right,” said Dave Luhr, president of global independent agency network Wieden + Kennedy.

Clunie said it’s an especially important time, as brands demand more action on diversity and gender balance from their agencies, for aspiring entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups.

“Especially if you’re a woman or a person of color or a person who feels yourself not being represented,” she said, “yes, do it now.”

2. Learn to live with the word ‘agency’

The term “ad agency” has been out of vogue in the industry for quite a few years, with shops embracing a wide range of more ostensibly forward-sounding terms like “integrated communications firm” or “engagement collective.”

But Jason Harris, CEO of San Francisco-based Mekanism, advised creative startups to just make peace with the A-word rather than waste energy and create confusion.

“You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to come up with a name,” Harris said. “Call yourself an agency.”

3. Be lean as hell

Now is not the time for conspicuous flourish and presumptuous staffing if you want to create a new agency that appeals to the modern marketer, agency execs say. If you want your new agency to take on the big dogs of advertising—namely the agency holding companies and their sprawling global networks—you need to keep all costs to an absolute minimum.

“You make money through discipline,” Luhr said. “Money is tighter and tighter. You have to watch your overhead. I feel sorry for the big holding companies today, because they have a lot of overhead.”

Agency growth is vital, of course, but Luhr warned that it must be tied to firm opportunities for revenue.

“We’ve been very careful,” he said, “to build a network that reflects what our clients need—and nothing else.”

4. Use your size to your advantage

While it may seem to conflict at times with the previous point on lean staffing, another theme among Advertising Week presenters was the fact that small and spry agencies can carve out opportunities many established shops can’t.