Wake The Town
Gear Seven/Arc Studios/Shift
Contemplative Reptile
  • International Edition
  • USA Edition
  • UK Edition
  • Australian Edition
  • Canadian Edition
  • Irish Edition
  • German Edition
  • French Edition
  • Singapore Edition
  • Spanish edition
  • Polish edition
  • Indian Edition
  • Middle East edition
  • South African Edition

How to Start a Creative Agency: 10 Lessons I Learned from Advertising and Entertainment Icons


Teddy Lynn, co-founding partner of Episode Four, on learning from those whose work you admire

How to Start a Creative Agency: 10 Lessons I Learned from Advertising and Entertainment Icons

At 18 years old, long before I had any plans to work in advertising, I was lucky enough to meet legendary film producer David Brown (Jaws, The Sting, A Few Good Men) and he gave me some sage advice. When building a career, he said, "Find people whose work you admire and work for them." 

I took it.

Now, five years after starting Episode Four, I find myself considering what I learned from those amazing people, and how those lessons might be relevant to someone considering starting an agency of their own. 

1. Find the right partner. There have been many great partnerships in advertising, but I was lucky enough to witness one of the greatest when working at BBDO. Andrew Robertson and David Lubars are a truly formidable duo, and while both have an extraordinary grasp of what the other does and work very closely together, it’s clear that they completely trust each other to focus on what they are best at.

While at BBDO, I was lucky to have found the perfect partner for me. My co-founder at Episode Four, Mark Himmelsbach, is a brilliant strategist, amazing at managing client relationships and a skillful operator of our business. I know creative and production. What we do each day barely overlaps and, because we trust in each other's expertise, we never disagree. It's simply fun and easy to work together every day. Without that, our agency would not even have gotten off the ground, let alone flourished. 

2. Meet anyone and everyone. In my early twenties, I was a producer on two films back to back for New Line Cinema while Michael DeLuca was in charge. While he was there, New Line made dozens of hits across numerous genres including Seven, American History X, Austin Powers, Wag The Dog, Pleasantville, Rush Hour and Boogie Nights. He has since gone on to be nominated for Best Picture three times and is Chairman of Warner Brothers. He said to me once many years ago, “I’ll meet with anyone who calls because you never know where the next big idea or opportunity will come from.” I’m sure he was being hyperbolic, but it stuck with me. It’s a rule we try to live by because our network has been our most valuable asset. For at least the first three years, every client came from it, and our ability to call upon the perfect collaborator, no matter the genre, has been priceless.

3. Create mythology. There are literally hundreds of small agencies, so you need a story. But more than a story, you need layers of stories that get you meetings, get you clients, get people talking about you and, most of all, referring business to you. Mark and I crafted a story based on reverse engineering our favourite projects from prior jobs. Hits. But that wasn't enough. We then built a proprietary data product that helps inform briefs and sell work. That helped. A lot. But what has also helped are some lessons we learned from our friend Jae Goodman who founded CAA Marketing and Observatory. I remember him explaining rules of engagement like "we don't pitch" or "we don't give away ideas for free.” These rules might seem crazy, overconfident and frankly problematic for someone leaving a big agency and setting out on their own. After all, you need revenue when you start. But I believe the confidence they exude is powerful because people want to work with successful businesses. We adopted these rules and haven't looked back. 

4. Be prepared. Miles Young invited me to tea at his office. At the time, he was the chairman of Ogilvy. It was framed as a chat about content. Who was doing what? Which agencies were doing it well? What was my view of the landscape? I went because I was flattered and because I was interested to meet Miles. I was not actively looking to work at Ogilvy. When he walked into the room, he had under his arm what can only be described as a dossier, with my name on it! He knew a lot about me, about opportunities I was considering, about my business partner Mark and, of course, about the subject he had invited me to talk to him about. He was what can only be described as impressive. I left tea and called Mark. “We’re going to Ogilvy aren’t we?” he asked. And we were. Miles is always prepared. I think it’s the thing that set him apart as an ad man and as a leader. It didn’t just impress me, it meant he was able to talk fluently to anyone about their field and their passions and it’s something I try to emulate so that when business opportunities arise, we are able to capitalise on them.

5. Get the answers, don’t guess the answers. The toughest client I have ever had is, without any doubt, Microsoft. I worked on their media business for the launches of Windows 7, Bing and Xbox Kinect. It was tough because the clients were very smart, didn’t suffer fools, and were interested in understanding what made advertising effective. Truly understanding. But my colleagues at the time, Brian Monahan (head of global clients at Dentsu), Mike Barrett (founder of Supernatural) and Jason Tsai (CMO of Captify) were all brilliant data minds and it was the three of them that taught me the value of what data can bring to a creative process.

Our business is full of spin doctors and salespeople promising success, but if you can deliver real data, real measurable success, you have a true advantage. It gives clients a reason to work with you over every other shop out there. It’s why we invested our own money, before we were making any, on building a proprietary data product to inform our creative product. We use it on every project we do and believe it truly does separate us from our competitors.

6. Feel what your clients feel. Listening in meetings with clients is important. It’s certainly more important than speaking. Everyone knows that. But I have worked with two people in my career who seem to do more than listen. They seem to be able to feel what their clients feel. Jacki Kelley, who is CEO of Dentsu, and Pete Favat, who recently retired as global CCO of Deutsch. In their own way, both Jacki and Pete channel their clients. They genuinely care. They admire their clients. Sure, they might push back when they disagree, but only with the utmost respect. More than anyone else I have worked with or for, they taught me that it’s our clients who are brave, not us. That it’s our clients who know their brands best, not us. And that without a truly strong relationship with your clients, you will never make great work.

7. Trust your taste. I have worked for three great film directors: John Landis (Coming to America, Trading Places), Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) and my dad Jonathan Lynn (My Cousin Vinny, Clue). They are all students of the craft. They have seen every movie and each look to learn from directors who came before them. They are constantly learning, but none of them doubt their taste. They know what they want out of a scene, or a shot or sequence, and they know when they have it. They know when something is funny or moving. They know when an idea is good. They don’t need validation by committee. In fact, they all hate that.

As the creative leader of a company, having confidence in one’s taste is essential. At Episode Four, we don’t have the resources to have the most ideas, but we do have on our team the talent to have the right idea, along with the network to execute it well.

8. Grow carefully. The temptation is great for a small agency to take any new client and all potential revenue. But as we learned from our friend and advisor Matt Jarvis (chairman of 72andSunny), that is a dangerous game that requires caution.  Bringing on a big new client can entail a massive increase in the workforce very quickly. It can challenge the comfort of knowing everyone personally. It can mean changes in policies, practices and even the personality of an agency. His considered approach to growth is one of the reasons 72andSunny has been so successful at scaling globally while maintaining its personality, and we have taken his advice to heart. We have grown to a core team of twenty people, but we still contract more than five times that number each year so that we can maintain the flexibility and low overhead required to choose exactly how we want to grow.

9. Look after your people. I’ve listed this as number nine, but it could just as easily have been ranked at the top. At Ogilvy there is an often quoted saying, "Hire people bigger than yourself, and we shall be a company of giants.”It's smart and something we try to do. But when I was working at Bloomberg, I learned something perhaps more applicable to our business. Look after your people. If you do that, they will work hard, stay at the company, and help it grow rather than bouncing off to the next new thing. Bloomberg pays for 100% of its employees’ healthcare because Mike Bloomberg thinks it's the right thing to do, and so do we. I’m sure plenty of companies do this, but when I worked there it was the first time I had seen it. We also offer unlimited vacation and, because we heard that can mean people actually take less vacation, we require them to take a full week off every six months at a minimum. We don't track hours because we want people to work smarter, not more, and should we ever sell our agency, every single employee would benefit. These could be seen to be financial burdens on small shops, but since small shops need good people even more than big ones, for us it's a no brainer.

10. Life matters. I have already talked about Mark Himmelsbach, my partner at Episode Four, but there’s one more thing to say. Mark may not be the most well-known person on this list of teachers, but he has taught me the most important lesson: that life matters. Starting our own agency has meant we have never worked harder, but it has not been painful. In fact, I have never been happier. We have had more time for our families, not less. We have only worked for clients we like and only with people we like spending time with, and it is Mark who has championed this. He has taught me that we will have a better and more successful agency if we enjoy working there.

I realise that I have dropped a lot of names in the course of my reflection. But that’s exactly the point. I could have started an agency earlier in my career, but would it have worked? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps that’s the real lesson here. If starting an agency might be in your future, follow the advice of David Brown, and spend some time learning from those whose work you admire. It’ll help you build something great.

view more - Thought Leaders
Sign up to our newsletters and stay up to date with the best work and breaking ad news from around the world.
Elvove Associates, Mon, 06 Feb 2023 10:03:00 GMT