I'm sitting at a panel called Want to start an AD Agency?!. To my right sits a dude whose name I shall not mention. He expresses sincere, almost meddling interest in the GelaSkin on my MacBook. So I ask why he's here and he says, "Technically I represent BBDO, but really I am here for my own self-interest."
Tell it like it is, yo. "Lots of self-interest stewing around," I say vaguely.
The BBDO guy agrees. "I'm guessing that's why everybody's here," he observes.
This is a covert little world.
Onto the session (streamed on AEF.com*, for your reference). It's an atmosphere in which you expect the moderator - in this case, Jerry Shereshewsky of grandparents.com - to cite Leo Burnett's "When to Take My Name Off the Door." And he actually does.
"My name is Jerry and I've been an ad-aholic for 38 years," Shereshewsky begins. (Laughter.) "There is no business more amazing than this." Way to start a conversation - deprecation followed by zeal. I'm on an emotional roller coaster, man.
He notes how personal the business is, calls companies "families," and channels visions of your burgeoning agency sitting around you on the floor of your living room. You know, like Josephine Baker's rainbow tribe.
How The Execs Got Where They Are
"I was 26 years old..." begins the first panelist, Richard Kirshenbaum of kirshenbaum bond + partners. He recounts the tale of a younger, more naive Richard, comfy-cozy at JWT, preparing to leap into the Great Beyond.
One day he nailed the Kenneth Cole account and produced a great print. The head of JWT said, "Why can't you produce ads like that?"
"I did," Kirshenbaum said, then he quit.
Zan Ng of Admerasia describes his dire American beginning: No money, no English skills. He started out a commercial photographer with little technical understanding. Every morning he woke up and said, "What's the next thing I want to do?"
Now, imagine the sound of string chords as Asian landscapes flit by. This moment represents how, on the backburner, Ng witnessed opportunities bloom for the Asian-American population - not just in terms of hireability, but in terms of their attractiveness as a target market. This could only culminate in one result.
"Nobody was going to hire me - no education, no experience - so I started my own agency," he said simply.
Linda Kaplan Thaler of The Kaplan Thaler Group hails, like Kirshenbaum, from JWT. She took the jump for independence, earned Herbal Essences (the orgasmic-tastic "Yes! Yes!" campaign was her work), and actually commented to the client that "only an orgasm could save this brand."
Michael Gray of G&G Advertising said he was hanging out with David Kennedy of W+K, expressing righteous indignation about the portrayal of Indian-American products in advertising, when David (of course) asked, "So what do you want to do?"
"Change this," Gray decided. So he pursued the creation of an Indian-American ad agency.
The room is infested with pipe dreams and romanticized war tales. It's like Ad Land or Mad Men in the flesh. And I think somebody spat out "Just do it!" at least six times.
To fully grasp the inescapability of Nike's marketing-savvy, an audience member mentioned he wants to bring his London-based firm JDI to New York. "[The firm's name] stands for 'Just do it'," he added happily.
The only thing used more than "Just do it" is the word "passion."
Thaler admits that early on, clients would book shoots and not pay. When they pitched AFLAC - which thought using a duck to sell insurance was horribly tasteless - her agency shelled out $35,000 to support the research (funded by Clairol, which "finally paid their bill," Thaler quips).
"It was really scary in the beginning," admits the exec.
Kirshenbaum admits it took 10 years to get "competent" help in billing. He wrote his first invoice and said it was "like magic" when it was sent out and money came back.
Ng describes dealing with creditors. "There's no perfect picture. When you do well," put money away, he says.
Aside from that there are lots of sad stories about bootstrapping and more talk about passion which leads to "winning more accounts" - you are left to do the math.
On Hiring the "Right" People
Gray: "I had the only one-story building in Albuquerque with a revolving door." He realized in the first handful of years that you can't just have a dream; you had to share the dream with your team and keep them informed. (Helps with the passion, I guess.)
Thaler says the little things count. She also notes, "A village stops being a village after about 200 people." She bemoans not knowing everybody by name anymore at her agency, but adds that a resilient business has to keep standing without you.
Kirshenbaum**, referring to the personalities of hirees: "I'll take 'smart and mean' or 'dumb and nice' but I won't take 'dumb and mean.'" He also observes that there aren't enough personalities in the business anymore.
McGarry: "In this land of magic, the people you surround yourself with - advisors, banks, talent - is the holding. You could be at the top of the world but go right out of business." This guy needs to write a book. He says similarly Earl Nightengalish stuff like this all afternoon.
Some time later he adds, "Environment is really critical in the world of creativity."
Don't I know it. That's why I do all my work from a yacht, baby.
Ogilvy got into the agency game at the age of 38. The people at this panel are proof that anybody can be Ogilvy, or Leo Burnett, or half of Saatchi & Saatchi.
I'll try derailing the cliche train in my head (there's one in particular that comes to mind) with a frank appeal. Got a dream? Got big ideas?
Want to start an AD Agency?!
Just leap. To consider: the uglier the situation looks, the better your romantic war story will be when you're a raging exec.
I'll conclude with a flashback to the audience member with the agency called JDI. "How should I start [building a brand in New York]?" he asked the panelists.
(Long pause, awkward hesitation, furtive giggling.)
Ng finally takes the torch: "Don't rent space," he says. "The rent will kill you."
* Worth the listen.
** Korshenbaum makes me laugh. He's like David Spade, except with flair.