What Lessons Can Be Learned From Founders Who Started Agencies in Times of Crisis

Despite bleak outlooks, they managed to stay positive and forge ahead

a man walking through a lightning storm
Muh-tay-zik Hof-fer, Pereira O'Dell and Stink Studios all launched during the financial crisis. Adweek Staff
Headshot of Minda Smiley

Key insights:

If you’ve recently gone out on your own to start an agency, you might be panicking right now. Are brands, with so much on their plate at the moment in light of the coronavirus, even looking for new agencies? And if they are, what are the chances they’ll come to a shop no one’s ever heard of?

Agencies new to the scene are now grappling with a world that’s dramatically different from the one that existed only months ago. Take Broken Heart Love Affair, a Toronto-based agency that officially opened its doors last month. Its founders ultimately chose to move forward with their launch plans despite the global pandemic.

“It’s a hard time to talk about yourself,” Denise Rossetto, Broken Heart Love Affair’s chief creative officer and co-founder, recently told Adweek. “We’re definitely terrified, but at the same time, we really believe in what we’re doing. We have to be positive. We’re now a Canadian small business, and we have to carry on.”

It’s impossible to predict how and to what extent the spread of COVID-19 will ultimately affect the advertising industry, but agencies just starting out might take comfort in the fact that others have found themselves in similar situations. Several agencies and studios that are still around today managed to find their footing in other times of crisis, such as the Great Recession or during the aftermath of 9/11. In fact, many claim the experience made them more resilient.

Finding a breakthrough moment

In September 2008, Mark Pytlik signed a lease in London for the production company he’d founded, Stink Studios. With a small staff in place, he was ready to officially get the ball rolling. Weeks later, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, sending the global economy into a tailspin.

“We were basically ready to go out and do a dog-and-pony show and tell everybody that we’re open for business, and literally the following week was when everything happened,” Pytlik recalled. “Not only were clients behaving completely differently and thinking about protecting money rather than spending their money, but nobody wanted to hear about us either. The whole moment for telling people that you’ve launched a new company was completely gone.”

"Not only were clients thinking about protecting money rather than spending, but nobody wanted to hear about us either."—Mark Pytlik, CEO of Stink Studios

Stink Studios didn’t see a single brief in its few months as a company “because clients were just taking their budgets and parking them, essentially.” He feared he’d have to shut Stink Studios down before it had the opportunity to do any work.

According to Pytlik, its saving grace came in the form of a project for Philips, which was working with Tribal DDB in Amsterdam on a campaign for one of its new televisions. Stink Studios was tapped to create an elaborate, Hollywood-esque film for the brand to show off the television’s cinematic qualities. It ended up winning a Grand Prix at Cannes Lions in the film category, giving Stink Studios the momentum it needed to make a name for itself.

“I have a feeling there’s probably a lot of companies right now who are going through a similar sort of pressure cooker,” Pytlik said. “If you can come out on the other side and figure out a way to survive this moment, I think it can actually make you stronger in the grand scheme of things.”

San Francisco-based agency Pereira O’Dell has a similar origin story. Founded in April 2008 by P.J. Pereira and Andrew O’Dell, the duo also found themselves in the midst of the Great Recession just as they were trying to get their name out there.

“We just decided, ‘Alright, we’re going to make the most of this. If we can make it work with this financial crisis, we’ll be able to build a business,’” O’Dell said.

To get through, O’Dell said they aimed to have a “ring the bell” moment each day, forcing them to reflect on a piece of good news instead of dwelling on the bad. Eventually, they landed an opportunity with Lego through a friend and former colleague. The agency’s first piece of work was an animated film that celebrated the 30th anniversary of Lego’s “Miniman” figurine.

@Minda_Smiley minda.smiley@adweek.com Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.