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The Maturation of the Startup - A guide to starting your own agency

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So you want to start your own creative agency? Well, good luck! If building a business is like raising a child, then nurturing a team of passionate, sensitive creatives is like being a first-time father or mother and caring for a sick infant. It’s a constant frustration. 

You’re always searching for answers. When you finally find them, you can’t help but wonder why it took so long. At least, this has been my experience. And while every startup’s journey is different, after six years as CEO and creative director of Bokeh, here are a few hard-learned lessons that may prove useful to your journey.

Release the creative

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Building from the ground up means everyone gets their hands dirty. As a founder, your job is to wash your hands of the dirt as soon as possible. If you are a creative person like myself, don’t be too proud or get attached to doing the creative work. Hire creatives and empower your team to do the digging for you. Let go of the creative. Learn to express your creativity in how you recruit.

To grow, people require a lot of patience and affirmation

To do this, you need to accept a couple of truths. First, there are ‘right’ people and ‘right now’ people, and you will hire ‘right now’ people. That’s OK. Everyone plays a part, and some may not fit into the long-term vision. Second, efficiency is as important as creative ability, and ‘right now’ people are short-term solutions. They tend to be task-oriented. To grow, they require a lot of patience and affirmation. As a founder, hand-holding is a drag on efficiency, and you ain’t got time for that. Identify and replace ‘right now’ people as soon as possible. 

It may be expensive, but hire people who know how to produce better creative work even faster than you. These people tend to manage themselves and require little hand-holding. They push for their growth. The ability to hire these people and empower them is the ultimate mark of good leadership.

Fundamentally, invest in people who free up your time to make decisions. If you spend your time doing anything other than growing the agency, then you need to hire for that.

Invest in yourself

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You can hire a lot of roles, but there is one role impossible to hire: yours. As a founder, nobody is as invested in the agency’s success ergo nobody is capable of pitching the agency like you. There’s no replication for your passion, creativity, and resourcefulness.I’ve tried, and I’ve failed. In lieu of finding an equivalent business development hire, invest in yourself - your agency - by making smart internal and external investments.

First, find opportunities to invest in the work. Sometimes this means accepting lower margins to produce more ambitious work that is capable of higher visibility. Sometimes this means merely trying something new, e.g., a new workflow to increase efficiency or a new creative approach or art direction. Investing in your work is a tacit acknowledgment that you still have something to learn, and therefore your best creative is always ahead of you.

The quality of your work is only as good as its visibility

Second, make sure you invest in your brand. This not only means the design of your website, social channels, etc. but also keeping them up to date. Find people who can take ownership of this internally; otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of time and money. The rub: this can’t be you. I’ve made this mistake too. As a founder, you are naturally too close to your brand. So if you don’t have the right people pay an external agency to do it -- the expense is worth it.

Finally, invest in PR. The quality of your work is only as good as its visibility. If nobody knows you exist, then it doesn’t matter how good your work or your brand is.

Be honest - with yourself, the work and the client

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Be humble to the fact that the creative needs to accomplish something. Too many creatives forget this. I’ve seen it firsthand. You are not an ‘artist’ nor a ‘filmmaker.’ We are brand builders and advertisers. We use storytelling as a tool. Regardless, our creative must always be objective-driven.

Evaluate the creative by trusting yourself as a consumer. Would the story you’re creating make you consider buying this product or using this service? Would the message resonate with you? Is this how you’d want to interact with the brand? If you cannot, in good faith, say ‘yes’ to those questions, then you’re not doing your job. More straightforward and less ambitious (and as a result, often less time-consuming and costly) can be as effective as grand and visionary.

Your client does not have to be a foe

Although I don’t advise getting carried away protecting your vision, I wouldn’t give up on it either. Make the process collaborative. Lean into your client’s knowledge of the brand and encourage their creativity. Contrary to what many creatives believe, your client does not have to be a foe. Assume positive intent. They can be your biggest ally and advocate. 

Try to bring them into the development process, make them feel heard, show them that you understand how to thread the needle between creative ambition and business objectives, and they will stand up for the creative because now they’re invested in it too.

Learning to let go

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Learn to let go of creative, never be afraid to invest in yourself, and stay honest to the work, the client, and the consumer. It just makes sense.

As a founder, you can’t wear every hat

As a founder dealing with the day-to-day minutiae, we don’t always have the time or the mind-space to see the big picture. But that’s precisely the problem we have to solve. Because as a founder, your job is the big picture. If you are not: delegating and empowering your employees, investing in your brand or your agency’s profile, or forgetting to act as a partner to achieve your client’s marketing objectives, then you are not doing your job. It’s that simple. 

As a founder, you can’t wear every hat. As a founder, you can’t control everything. And when you realise this, that’s when your agency will be ready to take the next step.

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By David Bates, CEO and Creative Director, Bokeh

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