Why it's time for the advertising industry to get serious about startups

The former Campaign deputy editor Jeremy Lee gives us the inside track on the stories that have got the ad industry talking.

There was a smattering of the advertising community to be recognised at St James’s Palace last week. Sir John Hegarty, Publicis’ Dylan Williams, the boys from Gravity Road, Lisa Tookey from Jamie Oliver Media Group and – for those of us with longer memories – David Mansfield. Much more noticeable, however, was the potent smell of money from attendees and the frisson of opportunity from those presenting.

The fourth of The Duke of York’s Pitch@Palace events, which sees a group of selected entrepreneurs pitching for either investment or mentors, was packed to the rafters. This meant that temperature inside the Palace’s room where the pitches were held brought the concept of hothousing very much to life.

As a demonstration of the best of British entrepreneurship, and the laudable attempt to connect those bright sparks with good ideas to people who can provide them with financial backing, support or connections, it was an impressive evening. It also revealed the appeal that a little bit of Royal juju can have in helping galvanise decision makers to a worthy cause – all credit to the Duke for that.

Williams is probably among the most committed and one of the earliest proponents in recognising the power of startups. It’s two and a half years since he launched Mother at Trampery as a way of introducing blue chip clients to start up businesses and entrepreneurs. When he moved to Publicis he took the concept (and the Trampery) with him and created the Publicis Drugstore in Old Street, where it occupies a prominent position.

Hegarty too has launched an incubator business, called The Garage, with the investment specialist Tom Teichman and his former BBH colleagues Kevin Brown and Nick Kendall. Rather than introduce clients to startups, The Garage provides investment, advice and office space to startups that are lacking in the above but promise scale and a disruptive business model.

But, other than these few examples, what are agencies themselves doing to assist – and by doing so gain an important new revenue stream? Well many have claimed to also to be able to hothouse or support entrepreneurs – it’s almost become a classic “me too” strategy with its own section in agency creds - but in reality evidence of their contribution looks hard to find.

Iris Worldwide London has a start-up programme called the Nursery; Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R has Spark Plug; and RGA has Tech Stars but success stories from their incubators (at least in the UK) either go unchampioned, unreported or just don’t exist. In fact, it’s difficult to think of any shop other than Albion London and TMW Unlimited (which has an internal scheme to encourage staff) that have managed to achieve much success in this field. It’s difficult not to conclude that, much like the ‘Saatchi Institute’, they exist only in the minds of their founders.

This feels like a missed opportunity for the industry and entrepreneurs alike. Agencies, which are seeing their revenue models threatened on a number of fronts, would do well to invest in making their businesses future proof by nurturing and investing in or assisting companies that exist beyond the narrow realms of the 30-second spot. Equally, their expertise in brand building – or creating connections with clients - is essential for those entrepreneurs who need strategic business advice.

To show that the advertising industry is serious about demonstrating its worth – both societal and economical – as well as safeguarding its own future and helping entrepreneurs kick-start the economy, then surely events such as Pitch@Palace are where more agencies should be heading. And who knows it might even reignite the inherent entrepreneurial zeal within them.

Follow Jeremy Lee on Twitter @jezzalee.

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Jeremy Lee

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