Ten Tips To Starting An Agency

Ten Tips To Starting An Agency


As 2015 draws to a close, no doubt there will be plenty of creatives sat in agencies wondering what the future holds for their career. It’s appraisal season at many agencies, and as always the year end is a time to take stock.

I’m sure that there’s been quite a bit of hushed Christmas party chat about the possibility of ‘doing our own thing’. So, for those of you thinking about taking the plunge, the FormFiftyFive crew asked me to write a piece on my experience of doing just that almost two years ago.

Myself and my business partner set up Article in October 2013. We’d both been working in well known London branding agencies for years, and decided nine months earlier that we were going to take the leap.

As a lot of good ideas tend to, it began with a semi-drunk conversation in the pub. We both got on our soapboxes about what was wrong with the industry, what frustrated us blah blah blah. Usually nothing happens until you’re back at the pub having the same moan. But this time it didn’t and we can began to formulate a plan.

Fast forward nearly three years and there are five of us sitting in our studio in Dalston, little more than a spitting distance away from the pub where that initial pub conversation took place. We’re not about to take over the world and we’re certainly not about to retire on our profits, but we’ve made a pretty decent fist of getting an agency off the ground from a standing start.

So I just thought I’d share some practical advice gleaned on our journey so far, as there isn’t a lot of it out there.

1. Find a partner (who you like!)

Easier said than done I know, but finding the right partner is vital. There’s no way I’d have been able to get this off the ground on my own, and my co-founder and I have enjoyed a great working relationship from day one. If our experience is anything to go by you’ll spend more time with this person than your other half, so you need to be confident you’ll be able to work well together. The smaller the ego the better – things would have quickly fallen apart if we couldn’t openly challenge each other’s work and ideas.

2. Do different things

Often studios or agencies begin with two designers. We chose to have different skills sets, that way we could broaden our offer. Even we when grew, we looked for people who could do things that we couldn’t. It also means we can learn from one and other and continue to develop as individuals.

3. Network early

We wouldn’t be here today were it not for people we know who have given us work. It definitely pays to network well in advance. I often hear people say, ‘Do good work and the work will come to you’. That’s all well and good, but you need to have some work to do in the first place. You have to go out there and hustle. Tap up friends. Let potential clients know what you’ve got up your sleeve. Don’t rely on it coming to you. Relish the chase.

4. Keep overheads low

Technology means the only tools you really need to get started are a brain and a laptop. It might sound obvious but don’t get carried away and rent a fancy studio if you don’t have any work coming in. Work from home if you need to. Get a membership to a co-working space or club where you can take clients. Try to grow organically not get ahead of yourselves. Be patient. The trendy studio and box fresh macs can wait.

5. Step away from the desk

Starting up with two people, often working from home, meant a total change of working environment. No daily ritual of the commute. No water-cooler chat. No after work team drinks. Sometimes you have to force yourself to get out and about and interact with real, genuine humans. Work remotely. Go to a coffee shop. Organise meetings all over town. Disrupt your routine as much as possible. Avoid falling into the comfort zone at all costs.

6. Be nice

In the past we’ve worked with some fantastic people at some great agencies, and when we left we did so with nothing but good wishes. By being decent, ego-less people in our agency lives, we found that old colleagues really wanted to help us in the early days of our fledgling business. Their support has been invaluable.

7. Turn your size into an advantage

When we started we were unsurprisingly nervous about whether we’d be able to win business. Would clients want the security of a big agency? What if they figured out it was two blokes in their spare rooms? We blagged it a bit in the early days, but now our size is probably our biggest selling point. It means our clients know who they’ll be working with day-to-day. They know there won’t be any overcomplicated drawn out processes. And, of course, it means we cost less.

8. Make down time count

Things changed very quickly for us. We went from our spare rooms to doubling in size within six months. Yes, we got a bit of luck, but I really believe you make your own luck. But this works both ways. You can equally go from wondering how you’re going to get everything done, to having very little client work at all. Be prepared for the feast and famine. Even when things are quiet there’s always things to do when running a business, from self promotion and your web presence to the obvious new business hunt. Use the downtime wisely.

9. Money matters

Creatives are notorious for not being great at handling the financial side of businesses. We were no different. Get a good accountant. They helped us massively, but our own learning curve spiked hugely too, and we’re now at the point where we enjoy the accounts side of things.

And it might seem an obvious point but get as much cash in the bank as possible. You can’t rely on invoices being paid on time. So try and have a safety net. Businesses don’t go bust because they’re not making money, they go bust because they run out of cash.

10. Respect your freelancers

Without a team of awesome freelance talent we wouldn’t be where we are today. So we always try to treat them with the respect they deserve. Anyone who comes through our doors is treated as if they’re a full time employee. We try to put them at the heart of projects, not just cranking out our ideas like they might be freelancing at bigger agencies. It means they’re more engaged, do better work and the whole vibe of the studio is better. Culture is everything.

These are just a few of the first thoughts that came to mind, hopefully one or two of your might find it helpful. I can honestly say the past two years have been the most enjoyable and productive of my career. I’ve learned so much more than I would have as an employee. We’ve made it to two years, and things are looking up for 2016. Who knows, I might be sat in a another appraisal again in a few years’ time. But whatever happens, I’ll never regret giving it a go.


Graeme Cook