Confessions of an Agency Exec Turned Entrepreneur

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Many agencies have product fever. The idea is they’re filled with smart, creative people who can help the agencies spin out new applications.

The problem is this rarely works out. There are a few examples of agencies pulling this off, but for the most part, the rhythms of agency life aren’t made for this. Agencies are about client service, not entrepreneurialism.

In the latest installment of the Digiday Confessions series, a former agency exec turned startup founder explains how life is different now that the frustrations and comforts of agency life are a thing of the past.

What’s the draw for you to startup life? 
Working 14-plus hours a day is a lot more rewarding when you’re building something you personally believe in versus creating demand for products and services that are either commodities or overpriced. You can spend years and years working somewhere and building someone else’s legacy; it might be an agency’s or a brands, but it’s not yours. The probability of leaving a lasting impression on the world is far higher when you’re creating something that you own a huge stake in — unless you think a Clio Award is a valuable legacy. In the startup world, you will work harder, smarter and probably make a greater impact on the world applying your talents this way. And to the pragmatists out there, starting a company doesn’t mean you can’t make money.

Why do agencies suck at innovation? 
The vast majority of people outside of the agency world see innovation as technology, new business models and art. The very essence of an agency is to provide a service to a client, not to be their own client. Really the only thing that can go through innovation at an agency is the process for which a client is served. That’s boring. The agencies that are moving into product development are the ones that are being flagged as innovative. I think Coudal is a great example of that. BBH and RGA are getting there quickly as well.

Is the idea of agencies building their own products a pipe dream?
Yes and no. I think the realistic outcome in 2013 is that agencies will start investing a lot more in early-stage startups and begin claiming those products as their own. So many agencies still only focus on product creation that serves their clients, not themselves. There is a fear of building independent businesses because it pulls talented people away from work that still generates cash from client work. To add a few more examples to the list, Carrot Creative and Deutsch seem to be moving in a really solid direction.

How much is agencies’ making their own products just about PR? 
People in the agency world are generally going to be cynical about competing agencies touting products or innovation groups. People outside this world don’t give a shit, including clients.

What will you not miss about working at an agency? 
1) Servicing clients that make decisions based on politics versus logic. 2) Travelling to corporate headquarters which 75 percent of the time are located in cities no one wants to travel to. 3) Having a single entity that can make or break me.

Do you think being in the agency world first will give you an advantage in the startup world? 
The startup world is full of brilliant technologists and horrible marketers. Spending time pitching clients, understanding how large brands work internally, and managing complex projects is extremely valuable knowledge. In the end, a startup’s most important value is sales. Technology continues to get cheaper and easier to pump out; being able to build a customer base is really hard. The agency world definitely gives you those skills. For me personally, despite the negatives, the agency space has been a great place to grow my career, and I don’t regret it for a second. Also, working at an agency means you’ve developed a particular set of skills,. Those can be used to freelance here and there to make sure bills are paid while you’re not getting a steady paycheck anymore.

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