Are you sitting in a cubicle right now, or in your large public company's corner office, fantasizing about starting your own agency? Breaking away from an established and trusted agency to start your own might sound like an impossible, sanity-questioning delusion. But in reality, it's not.
Based on the increasing digital demands of clients, new agencies are popping up everywhere and flipping the traditional model upside down. And the window to create your own opportunities is wide open for every level of experience -- from the eager novice to the industry expert.
Here are three different perspectives from industry professionals that took the risk and created their own ventures. More importantly, their ventures were able to grow and survive. Although their backgrounds vary, all three had a similar approach: Starting a new company in the digital market is not just about breaking the rules; it's about creating your own.
The seasoned mover and shaker
Huge, a digital agency founded in 1999, was started based on the industry changes that were happening at the time. After selling his email marketing service, Silverpop, Aaron Shapiro became the tenth employee at Huge, when it was just a startup. Now the CEO, Shapiro describes how when most agencies were resistant to the digital revolution, Huge saw a gap that most were skeptical to fill:
"For traditional agencies that for so long just saw the internet as a place to put banner ads, it's been a very difficult adjustment. Back in the earlier days, companies would come to us requesting website redesigns or basic app builds, but what they were really struggling to deal with was the transformation of their business brought about by digital – and delivering on that is what Huge's core strength as an agency has always been."
Shapiro and his colleagues saw the potential impact of digital and how the internet was redefining consumer values. The company has now reaped the benefits of its initial risk, in more ways than one:
"Since 2005, we have grown Huge from a seven-person agency to a 750+ person company with eight offices spanning three continents. Even when Huge was a small agency comprised of only a few people in one tiny office, we had big aspirations and worked really hard to be able to capitalize on the moment we're at right now -- when digital services are not just in demand, but essential to the long term survival of any company."
Although digital's nature can seem chaotic to some, the endless entrepreneurial opportunities to create new methods, technologies, and best practices within an agency is a major bonus for the black sheep type. Case in point: Beth Trejo, co- founder and CEO at the Midwest-based online marketing and social media agency, Chatterkick.
"When I started Chatterkick, I had little agency experience. My background was working with businesses directly so I felt their frustrations with standard approaches as they looked to expand their marketing efforts. I set out to create an 'agency' mainly because I saw many problems with the traditional agency model and felt breaking that mold would be beneficial to my clients and my staff."
Part of Trejo's breaking-the-mold strategy included redefining employee roles:
"Although at many times, having a dedicated graphic designer, copywriter and account executive would come in handy, each staff is trained in all aspects. This ensures that every status update, or piece of text that goes out from our company doesn't just sound good, it looks good and is going to work in all contexts. Social media is very visual, and by hiring staff with extremely diverse talents, we've been able to handle growing pains and client needs effectively. The slightly challenging part about this model is finding the right people to add to our team, but once we find them it's dynamite!"
Chatterkick has also found a way to deal with the common "billable hours" agency dilemma:
"For the most part, we don't do traditional agency billable hours. Working on a retainer basis helps our clients budget for the year as well as not feel they are being 'nickel and dimed' for every request. Being a true part of each client's team, we build our consultation time directly into the retainer model and create a win-win situation."
Although he was chief innovation officer at a large public company, it didn't stop Jonathan Haber from leaving his cushy job to start his own agency, Giant Spoon, in 2013.
"As creative talent shifts around from shop to shop and programmatic buying becomes more commonplace, those brave enough to venture on their own, have to find whitespace and be truly different. For us, the whitespace is the notion that creativity in media is not an add-on, but the centerpiece of a campaign. A central idea that can come to life through media platforms, partnerships, content, experiential, new technology, products, and more is the new paradigm."
Haber candidly states, "You have to be a little crazy to look at the ad business and all of the existing massive institutions and say, 'I think we can do it differently.'"
But that didn't stop him. He approaches the existing market by looking "at the complexity that size and legacy generates as opportunity." And then he finds the stories for clients that the big agencies might be missing.
Haber offers five tips to those brave enough to start their own agency:
- Define a clear story about why you're different; know this before you leave your current job.
- Be prepared to do everything (i.e., benefits, taxes, insurance, office space, legal, HR, finance, etc).
- Balance your focus on your vision, and prove that vision to the marketplace.
- Meet with everyone you can; use your network to get your business off of the ground.
- Know your value. If your product is good, have self-esteem and resist the urge to give it away.
"Big agencies are not your enemy," Haber emphasizes. "There can be symbiotic partnerships. If the big guys see you as a genuinely unique entity, you may be as much an opportunity for them to sure up or win business as you are a minor threat."
So, are you ready to go rogue?
Betsy Farber is an associate editor at iMedia Connection.
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"Collage - one looked different," image via Shutterstock.