Five pieces of advice for a new age of agency startups

Stewart Shanley

In the world of business, entrepreneurialism is the new black. Startups proliferate every category – disrupting the market, nipping at the heels of the big boys and driving change and innovation. This is particularly true in the agency world where nimble, quick and creative startups are firmly (whether they’d like to be or not) on the radar of the big holding companies looking to benefit from their dynamism.

Due to the rapidly changing nature of our industry, the agency paradigm has shifted. The big agencies are still very good at doing what they do best, but with more ambitious and talented small businesses entering the market on a daily basis the industry is more diverse than ever.

I’ve had the joy of working in both types of businesses. In 1999 I was simply an account handler at a big agency who at the age of 29 was frustrated with a company I thought was more preoccupied with looking after its shareholders than its talent and clients. As ignorance is of course bliss, with nothing more than a handful of like-minded friends and a founding client who believed in us, we broke away and set up iris (too young to be scared of non-compete lawsuits) and off we went to change the industry.

Fast-forward a decade and a half we’re now a 1000 people in 14 locations. We're a little bit wiser, always learning and most importantly still saying ‘who says we can’t?!’

Iris, now considered a big boy of sorts, has gone through an incredible growth journey. Yet there have been challenges along the way. No surprise there. And whilst I’m not sure I should be giving advice to those creative, entrepreneurial minds that will soon be nipping at our heels, the industry would be a duller place with out them, so here goes:

1. Know why you’re doing it in the first place

Agencies are brands too, and the best brands have a very clear and authentic promise on the difference they set out to make. When we started up we wanted to give the holding companies a run for their money. If iris were starting today I like to think we’d be a bit like Gallant, a startup agency in Austin, TX, whose mission is to build brands that help build a better world. That makes it pretty clear why it exists and how it'll grow.

A clear reason for being will help you present yourself to the market confidently and define the choice that you represent vs. everyone else.

2. Don’t hire people and persuade them to believe in your dream; hire people who share your dream and align their destinies with yours

Human beings act when they feel a strong sense of purpose. If their personal mission aligns with the company's, magic will happen with little need for micro-management (a huge time saver!). It’s a win-win-win. Clients win because happy, motivated people do great work. Your people win because they are happy, successful and supported. And your agency wins because both of those things drive great product performance and growth.

Talent attraction and career creation has always been a passion of mine and I am fascinated by how you can create performance through empowerment and encouragement rather than directive leadership and excessive process. Agency life is all about people getting together with other talented people and making great things happen every day because they want to, not because they have to.

3. Don’t be afraid to change the guard / hand over the reins – the young and the restless are the future, don’t hold them back

The past can get in your eyes. Learn from it yes, but don’t let it restrict you or make you a protectionist. The world changes at such a pace that half the reasons why something did or didn’t work today won’t even apply tomorrow.

The youth of your agency has a short past and naturally higher energy levels. They’ll drive the agency more bravely than the team which has already crashed a few times. You don’t see your favorite sports team winning year after year with the exact same squad do you? The best teams maintain their core spirit but continue to evolve the talent tasked with delivering on it.

4. Be unreasonable

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw

I learned this from my executive coach, and I love this phrase. If you’re not to be a flash in the pan as an agency then you need to act with the audacity and bravery of someone who has nothing to lose. Agencies thrive when they are a bit uncomfortable and frustrated with where they are. They need the energy and tension that comes from choosing honest over nice and the constant challenge that 'more is possible'.

In my experience every time we have started to feel even the slightest bit comfortable at iris we have paid for our complacency, and then some...

5. Look after your people and your clients

When all is said in done, the measure of your success is not in how much money you made; it’s in the difference you've made in the lives of the people who signed up to come along on the journey with you and the impact the fruits of their collective labor had on your client’s brand and overall business.

Remember, 'Work Hard and Be Nice to People' is not just an Anthony Burrill Poster.

Stewart Shanley is joint global chief executive of iris Worldwide

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