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Where did all the startups go? Adland needs more than just a fearless few in 2016

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

Dave Bedwood and new AnalogFolk teammate Simon Richings

When Dave Bedwood quit his job as creative director at M&C Saatchi in May, ostensibly to launch a healthcare business, the agency’s chief executive – and Bedwood’s close friend – Tom Bazeley joked that he hoped that his new venture would fail so that “he comes back to agency land soon”.

We don’t know whether it did fail but it’s very welcome to see that just seven months later Bedwood has rocked up at AnalogFolk as a creative partner, where he’s likely to be a useful addition in improving the independent digital shop’s creative firepower. Maybe he found the independent agency sector too alluring, which is something worth celebrating.

AnalogFolk seems to be a better cultural fit for the charismatic Bedwood than running the M&C Saatchi creative department, giving the impression that the whole ‘healthcare business’ reason for his decision to quit M&C Saatchi might just have been a fig leaf while he looked for something more suitable and entrepreneurial – and perhaps personally rewarding.

Certainly the problems at M&C Saatchi still seem to be recurring, evident by its loss of the Transport for London business – a real shame for the agency given the quality of the work it has produced on the account over the years.

It was hoped that Bazeley and his team (including Bedwood) would inject some life into M&C Saatchi when they sold Lean Mean Fighting Machine and were subsumed into it, but evidence of this looks so far pretty hard to see. Maybe mixing entrepreneurialism – of which LMFM was famous for – into a big (although sadly diminishing in size) and slightly staid agency environment was a bit like mixing oil and water.

While the evidence suggests that Bedwood is happier within the freedom provided by the independent sector, Neil Hughston will be hoping that history doesn’t repeat itself following the launch of his new startup Duke.

Hughston quit has job as managing partner at Grey London in 2011 to launch Johnny Fearless with the former Saatchi & Saatchi creative director Paul Domenet. Sadly, aside from a rather affecting “flight of the stories” spot for the Imperial War Museum’s First World War galleries, it failed to make much of an impression and closed earlier this year. Whether Duke has any more luck we’ll wait and see, but with a launch client list that includes the app Ticklr, there doesn’t seem to be much to set the heart aflutter – or worry those at rival shops.

Nonetheless, as per the agency’s mission statement – the rather trite but entirely accurate “fortune favours the bold” – it takes a brave person indeed to give up the security and safety of an agency job in order to launch their own shop in a market that’s already super-served and in a sector where margins are being squeezed across the board. All credit is due then to those who do so.

Aside from Duke, 2015 has been a quiet year for startups (although there have been some tantalising rumours of big names planning to do so that have so far failed to materialise). While the reasons above show that this caution is understandable, it’s still a shame – independent agencies are crucial for the vitality of the industry and, at their best, they also fend off complacency and help raise the overall creative bar. It’s good to see so much life coming from the likes of St Luke’s, The Red Brick Road, Joint, Gravity Road* and, of course, the flavour of the month Lucky Generals.

The end of the year is traditionally the time when agencies quietly let go of those individuals who are now deemed – for whatever reason – surplus to requirements and an unnecessary burden on the bottom line. It’s entirely possible then that we’ll see some startups being plotted, but borne out of necessity rather than design.

*Full disclosure – I do consultancy work for Gravity Road.

Follow Jeremy Lee on Twitter @jezzalee

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