As a 21-year-old CCO and founding partner of a digital agency, I have learned a lot over the past five years. Age is never an excuse for failure, especially if you are incredibly young; on the flip side, you are never too old to understand culture and technology. To be successful in the agency world, my No. 1 piece of advice is to find your niche and own it. To do that, answer the question: “What makes you different?”
Here are nine more lessons I learned while starting an agency in my teens, and a few thoughts on how small and medium-sized agencies can grow faster in 2017:
- Never take yourself too seriously. Regardless of your company’s accolades, success or client roster, taking yourself too seriously is detrimental to the way your employees, clients and peers view you and the company as a whole. There is always another award to win, client to land and dollar to be made. Remain humble.
- The client is rarely right. Client-side marketers are experts when it comes to the brand they represent and their company. However, they are far removed from the pulse of culture, human behavior and advertising. Stand up for your ideas and opinions because at the end of the day it’s why they hired you. There is a fine balance between holding strong and educating the client while still making them feel like they are in the driver’s seat. Clients will respect you much more in the long run for it.
- In 2017, awards are going to mean less than they ever have. Awards in advertising date back to before the “Mad Men” days, and it is starting to show. Advertising has gone from a “that looks beautiful” game to a “how can you tangibly improve my business” one. There is a reason Deloitte and Accenture are so successful. To them, it’s about numbers. Creative is secondary. Although awards are a nice-to-have, they are mattering less and less.
- Impressions aren’t impressive. There are 7.4 billion people on the earth. Of course a campaign had “25 million impressions.” It is no longer a large feat to simply reach people, especially with the scale of the internet. Impressions are irrelevant unless they help support how many people’s attention you were able to get, and in turn drove some sort of action or behavior.
- In advertising, growing always hurts. If you win a big account, you are going to have to rush to hire. You might hire the wrong people and your finances become might become bloated, which is a disaster waiting to happen. Monitor and manage growth closely. It can be your biggest nemesis, and you may get blinded by the new clients and revenue. When starting out, hire well-rounded employees rather than experts. You need people who will do anything and everything from the start. Don’t create an IT department until you have over 100 people. Use tools like Google Apps and Dropbox until you get there.
- The largest agencies have the most to lose. Traditional means of advertising are less effective than ever, and some of the largest agencies have their entire business models built upon this. If you run a small or medium agency, you are in the right place to take advantage of the current state of the market by approaching clients with an expertise. Don’t focus on your competition too much or you will start to replicate their work style. Focus on what you do best.
- Find clients who will allow you to make an impact. Everyone wants to shoot a car commercial. But 2017 is going to be about the agencies that increased sales, market share or market cap for their clients. Find clients who want you to be a part of their business. If you are an entrepreneurial agency, try going on a pay-for-performance deal. Add value to your clients and make sure you show them that value — as often and as quickly as you can. The CMO only cares about how much he can brag to the CFO.
- Headcount never matters, but talent does. Sure, it’s nice to have 100 people, and some clients only take you seriously if you do. However, with the AOR model slowly dying off, it is important to realize your expertise and value matters more than how many people you pay. For example, we offer our team unlimited vacation and no fixed office hours. Remember that, for every employee you have, there are a thousand agencies hiring. Focus on making it an amazing place to work.
- Never turn down work. There is always a freelancer or partner agency who can help you find a way to do something for a client. Take every single piece of work you can get until you are established and know what you want. Also, know that the day you sign your first client is the day you start losing clients. It’s advertising. Understand the inevitable and plan for it.