Keith Cartwright Shares What It’s Like Starting an Agency During a Pandemic

His namesake shop officially opened this month

Adweek senior editor Doug Zanger spoke with Keith Cartwright about starting an agency during a pandemic. Adweek
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Keith Cartwright left 72andSunny L.A. in December to start his own agency. Months later, the spread of the coronavirus and the ensuing global lockdown hindered those plans—but he’s still forging ahead and creating work.

While his namesake agency has been in the works since the start of the year, Cartwright officially debuted it earlier this month. He joined senior editor Doug Zanger during Adweek’s Elevate: Creativity and Experiential event today to discuss his experience starting an agency during a pandemic and what he’s learned along the way. 

Cartwright said he’s having more contact with clients than he ever could have imagined thanks to the rise of Zoom calls, but the lack of in-person interaction has been difficult, particularly from a creative perspective.

“It’s not easy to ideate, with creatives specifically, in this world. It’s hard,” he said. “You’re sharing screens and you don’t have the human interaction.”

He’s also found that hiring senior-level employees, rather than bringing in a team of freelancers and full-time staff, has proven to be helpful in these unusual circumstances.

“We realized that it’s probably better, for now, to bring in senior-level people who I have a shorthand with, which gives me the ability to ideate quickly,” he said. “Once this is over, I can bring in the next tiers, which is required for a company to grow. In this moment, with the pandemic, you need senior-level people.”

Luckily for Cartwright, this isn’t his first time starting an agency. In 2012, he founded Union Made Creative, which was acquired by BSSP four years ago. He learned valuable lessons from that experience that are coming in handy now.

The first time around, Cartwright said he went in “intentionally blind to some things,” something he wouldn’t advise others do. 

“My nature is to learn as I go, which can be dangerous,” he said. “There are certain things that I’d recommend to anyone now, like make sure you understand as a creative person the finances and at least some basic accounting and budgeting before you start a business. You don’t want to learn that on the go.”

For creatives thinking about starting their own agency, he suggested “finding a business partner who you trust and can rely on to take some of the load off of you as a creative person so you can focus on your core competency, which is making work.”

Throughout the discussion, Cartwright also explained his decision to partner with WPP, his thoughts on 600 & Rising—the nonprofit recently started by two Black advertising professionals—and his agency’s recent work for P&G, “The Choice.”

Watch the conversation below:

@Minda_Smiley Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.