Why I, unlike Creature, sold my indie agency to MullenLowe

101 founder on selling up

In the wake of 101’s sale to MullenLowe Group, Creature’s Dan Cullen-Shute was quick to express his disappointment that another ‘indie’ had been snaffled so soon after Lucky Generals.

As one of the protagonists of that deal, and someone racing towards the new opportunities it brings our people and clients, I thought it only right to offer an alternative point of view on Dan’s somewhat binary ‘indie=good; network (or other owner) =bad’ perspective.

There’s a bit of “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” about both our positions, I’ll admit. And I suspect much we’ll agree on also when we meet for beers, just as he proposes.

For the record, I write as a sworn fan of independent agencies. I could hardly not be. I’ve started two, after all: Fallon London in 1998, 101 in 2011. I know that independent agencies are often (but not always) where the rebels, misfits and dreamers are to be found. I know that they will often (but not always) provide the industry’s tide of reinvention. So I found myself both admiring Dan’s gung ho declaration of independence and disagreeing with much of his argument.

Dan roots his disappointment firstly in a fear that ‘less indies’ might gradually invalidate the ‘independent agency sector’. But the independent agency sector - if there is indeed such a thing - is only ever validated by the quality of work its agencies do for their clients…not by how many pirate ships are afloat at any one time. Sometimes their work is better, it’s true, but sometimes it’s not. Independent ownership doesn’t always guarantee free thinking, and may even be its enemy.

He’ll also miss “the tingle of competition” with the likes of us and Lucky Generals. Now I personally prefer the tingle of not competing for business but sincerely hope that we still cross paths on the new business front. Because if MullenLowe is competing with the indies as well as our (bigger) network peers, we’ll be doing something right.

But Dan saves most of his breath for what he sees as the consolidation of the indie agency ‘sale narrative’: the apparently inevitable cycle from start-up up through sale to earn-out and exit. A ‘built to flip’ mythology he compares and contrasts to the heroic focus of mother, Fallon and Wieden on ‘the work’.

And that’s where I think we are most at odds.

To explain why, I need to get personal. Despite the persistent ‘indie rocks’ myth, Fallon London actually enjoyed its best years, both commercially and creatively, long after - not before - it was acquired by Publicis Groupe. In fact, our most enduring work, a certain ‘Gorilla’ spot, only happened because we were part of the network and thus invited to pitch against the incumbent, Publicis London.

And despite having just ‘sold 101’, I can’t think of many other recent start-ups more obviously ‘built to last’. Our launch line-up didn’t even have an ‘account guy’ (the classic rainmaker, agency publicist and deal jockey). And we built our profile patiently, on the back of work that worked.

Six years on, as it turns out, we have chosen – very deliberately – to hitch our wagon to a likeminded network: one that shares our passion for organising ideas, for work that wins an unfair share of attention and proven effectiveness. One that offers a bigger stage for our people, rounds out our offering and helps our ideas to live in all the right spaces at all the right times.

It’s an inconvenient truth for the indies, perhaps, but the agency market segments on lines that don’t always coincide with ownership models. Adam&Eve is a network office that has an independence of spirit coursing through its veins; Droga5, now owned by William Morris, likewise. And that, it seems to me, is the key: for clients and colleagues alike. The spirit of the enterprise, the vitality of your culture, the clarity of your mission: all matter more.

After several approaches over the years, it’s that quality that won us over to MullenLowe. A creative challenger, rightly proud of its history and so much of its global work but bone honest about the need to raise the bar in London. A ‘network office’ run by entrepreneurs. A company we wanted to buy into rather than sell to.

We’ll be judged by our work rather than our sales patter, of course, but that’s exactly as it should be: for indie and network office alike.

Laurence Green, the founder of 101 London, is now executive partner at MullenLowe London following its acquisition.

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