Agencies are fundamentally about ideas. But not just the ideas you sell to clients. Once I moved to work in startup world, it very quickly became apparent to me that the way agencies are run is iterative of decades-old processes, rather than designed for today.
I think part of this is about the ways in which founders are able to start, run and change their business with more power and flexibility.
Let me explain.
The drive for originality
The truth is, today there are more different ways to do things in the agency world than ever before. How you choose to integrate things horizontally between the disciplines, how you choose to run your business in systems and project management, how you do measurement, how you charge for value or time are all areas for debate.
It’s no longer a case of: “pay us money and we will tell journalists about you over lunch”.
Yes, directors can have opinions about the needs of the business they run. But it’s fundamentally a hard thing to reconstitute a business which has previously succeeded well enough to build a team and client roster. You inherit a certain legacy momentum.
Founders start fresh — and the best ones establish the best agencies by bringing a distinct point of view. This lets them combine the disciplines and ways of working with their own greatest strengths and interest.
Furthermore, it also attracts a different breed of follower to work for them.
A mandate to do crazy things
But it’s not just about radical action at the start of the business. In recent years, agencies have had to flex and adapt to completely changing conditions. Most notably and commonly: why try and make all your money from an increasingly commoditised, pressurised route of media relations.
When you’re an appointed director of a business, yes you have objectives and a strategy. But it’s harder to do potentially bigger bolder gambles. Gambles that genuinely might not pay off.
All business is about placing bets. Just like any bet, it’s not entirely under your control whether they succeed or fail — and most people place more cautious bets, even though they are just as likely to fail.
If a founder wants to come in and lay it down for their team, they can: “if you want to spend all day every day on media relations and think that’s the future of this industry, you should work elsewhere”.
If you’re an appointed director, it’s just different. Tell your board you plan to halve your client base, revenue and team size and let me know how your next appraisal goes.
If a founder thinks the next 5x years of their business lay elsewhere, it’s much easier to cut old clients who may only want more limited, old-fashioned services.
A good business owner will have built up a financial buffer, for just this kind of long term need. Interestingly, the incentives actually reward leaving money within the business instead of paying it all to yourself. So this is often a natural result of success.
Babysitting vs parenthood
It’s no coincidence that founders will use the metaphor of a baby for their business. And as a recent new parent, I can confirm that the sense of responsibility, the sense of how I want my daughter to grow up, the sense of how much I want her to thrive and become a meaningful part of the world is on a different level.
I babysat a couple of times in my early teens. Needless to say it was not the same feeling…
We all think about work too much. But I think founders wonder about the future and the underlying nature (perhaps because they know they have the power to change it) in a different way.
It’s simply more rewarding when you know every ounce of the results will come back directly to you. Showerthoughts take on a new value.
The downside of this is it can be hard to quit if things aren’t working. Admitting failure, removing a part of your identity by choice is a very different process than being failed or stepping back from something that will continue to exist.
The founder experience is a double-edged sword and I would argue many have fallen by creating a role or business for themselves in which they actually feel more trapped than liberated.
Not all ‘founders’ are founders
Now here’s the thing. There are people who started a business. Then there are the people who really made that business. Some of my favourite agencies were started in one form but only truly became the most successful version of themselves when another opinionated leader took the reins to drive.
People often talk about the importance of true leadership. And I think it is hard to divide from true ownership. At least mentally.
Sadly, sometimes this means senior staff giving everything to a business they actually don’t have a true financial stake in, and will never have the true fulfilling control over.
In some ways, that’s the worst of both worlds, caring deeply and exhaustively about an institution as if it’s your baby when really it can never be.
But when it works, and when the original founders realise the value of involving and rewarding these kinds of “re-founders” for their business it can be a fantastic opportunity to take something good and really make it great for a whole new cycle of development.
Thinking like a founder is the first step to this, and one of the most potentially rewarding changes in mindset you can take in your career.