In its Agency Growth Stories series, The Future Factory interview some of the most interesting and successful agencies operating right now, to unpick and share how they began and how they’ve got to where they are now.
Based in beautiful, light flooded warehouse space in Hackney, London, Ecstasy of Gold are a tight knit team producing award-winning film and animation content.
The Future Factory chatted with the agency's Arthur Lewin and Lee Richards about going from freelancing to starting an agency, why they did it, and what they’ve learned along the way.
The Future Factory: How old is the agency?
Arthur Lewin: It feels like it's been a lifetime. I've certainly aged. I think we're in our fourth or fifth year now. It's all merged into one.
TFF: Was there a clear start date?
AL: It was a gradual process. Originally when I started I was freelancing.
It got to a point where I was working until 1am every night, trying to finish edits. At my edit suite at work, I was secretly doing my own projects. That was the point where I really had to just take that jump. It had to be one or the other.
TFF: Until that point, was it just you or were you working with others too?
AL: I had a little black book of all the best people in production (we've now managed to employ some of them) but at the time I'd phone them up and be like “this needs to be delivered Friday, can you do it?” So I always had people ready to jump on things.
That collaboration meant we could always say yes to everything that came our way.
TFF: Why did you decide that you'd rather have your own agency, which is not an easy route to go down, rather than working for other people?
AL: I guess I'm a bit of a dreamer. It's something I’d always wanted. There was a certain type of work I always wanted to be doing.
I got to a point where I thought maybe the best way to get that was to try and get it myself rather than working at other companies where you're limited to what they're bringing in, or they get one project a year that interests you.
TFF: Has that been the reality? Have you managed to get the kind of work that you wanted to be able to produce?
AL: I think so. I'm sure there's a few projects that I've happily forgotten about. But for the most part we've managed to avoid doing talking heads or anything like that because we’ve always tried to come up with a better creative approach. If we think there's a better, more interesting creative way to do something, we push for it.
TFF: Did you have a founding client when you started?
AL: We had a number of clients when we started but their requirements of us were small.
Then we were lucky enough to get one client who was the next step up in terms of quantity of work and billings that helped us to that jumping off point.
TFF: Where was your first office?
AL: We were sat around a table in my bedroom. It was a drop leaf table that could fit about two people, but we all squeezed around it.
It was Lee, Ben, and I. We've all worked together previously at different production companies or agencies, so we go way back.
TFF: How did you fund the early days? Or did it happen organically?
AL: There were lots and lots of sleepless nights where I waited for those first invoices to be paid, and I also got a bank loan.
TFF: How difficult was it to get a loan for a new business?
AL: The bank wouldn't give us a business loan because the business was too young. However they would give me a loan for a vintage car. We took that and used it to fund the business.
TFF: Mental. What did you need money for at the beginning? Did you move from your bedroom quite quickly?
Lee Richards: The team was growing day by day. There were more and more people sat around this drop leaf table or sat on the bed or on the sofa. And then we started buying kit.
It just happened naturally that the next step was to get a small studio. The rent and deposit is never going to be cheap in Islington and a loan was the only way that we could fund it.
We were still waiting for invoices to be paid from the first client. That was the trickiest thing.
AL: When we moved into our first little studio it felt like the best moment in the world.
TFF: How has your mindset changed as the business has evolved from that first year?
AL: For quite a while it didn't feel real. We felt so lucky that things were going well and we were working with a group of friends.
But then there was a turning point where we realised we had built all of this and there was actually a responsibility to maintain it and a responsibility to continue providing jobs for people and suddenly it felt far more real.
That was a big learning curve for me. It was no longer a silly dream or something I always wanted to do. It was happening, and we had to keep it going.
TFF: What mistakes (if any) did you make in the early days?
AL: Some of the first big shoots we got, we were so ambitious or adamant to put our stamp on it that we were throwing everything at it, but to our own financial detriment. For example the client wasn't paying for it, but we thought it'd be awesome to have a rain machine, motion control and slow motion cameras.
But the clients turned around and said “I don't actually really like it raining” and we were like “do you not realise how much we've put into this?”
We learned that we needed to find the balance between what we do for us and what we do for clients.
TFF: What do you find hardest about running an agency?
LR: That probably changes every day. Forget about the last couple of weeks!
Pandemics aside, I think the hardest thing is probably trying to stay true to the reason we started. Trying to find the balance between managing the business side of things and still pushing the creative side.
TFF: How have you gone about attracting and winning new clients?
LR: It's changed over the last two years. I think that when we first moved into this studio we were planning on running all kinds of industry events in the space we have downstairs. We did one. It still gives me anxiety thinking about it, but it actually went really well. We got a new client (Fremantle), which was huge for us. And then we got really busy very quickly and events were no longer a priority. We took our foot off the gas in terms of new business and there wasn't as much cold calling.
I think we were lucky that word of mouth was brilliant and we got a few referrals and we were picking up wins from people we'd never spoken to. And that's where we still are, although we definitely know that we need to be doing a bit more outbound that's for sure.
TFF: Who looks after new business and cold calling when you do it?
LR: I've never been shy about picking up the phone and talking to people, so yeah, whenever there was a need, it was always me.
TFF: What tip would you give to someone else if they were freelance, doing well in their career and were thinking of setting up their own agency? “Do it, it's great” or “tread with caution”?
LR: I’d just say, in those early days, take things slow. I had imposter syndrome and so was in a rush to prove something. Clients didn’t care. But if we’d spent another month around that bedroom table, financially it would have been a much better decision.
TFF: How are you navigating the lockdown?
AL: As soon as the first announcement came, most of the shoots we had in the pipeline got postponed or pushed. We've been talking to our clients about how we can turn them into something else, like a 3D animation, which could actually create some real showpieces. Animation gives you the ability to potentially be more creative.
And we're set up to do that all from home. Everything we do (like most companies) is on Google Drive or some equivalent. So it's pretty easy to transition. We just have less banter.
TFF: Neither of you sound stressed by running the agency, which is good!
Is there anything you do in your personal lives to stay sane and balanced and still feel creative and motivated by everything you do work-wise?
AL: Well, Lee's got the work life balance nailed. He lives on the Isle of Wight and comes to London three days per week.
LR: Mate I've got two kids. It's not what you think.
AL: I like to spend my weekend collecting antiques - taxidermy and skulls. I don't know if that helps keep me sane or I’m delving deeper into insanity.
Alex Sibille, owner and managing director, The Future Factory