Biggest fuck up
‘No wanky bollocks!’.
Particularly if you’ve spent the last 35 years in advertising.
But I’ll give it a whirl.
Like bricks make up a wall, decisions make up a career. In the moment, the choices you make seem small and innocent:
Join agency A or B?
Team up with this writer or that?
Work on this brief or that?
Approve idea X or Y?
Present one idea or two?
The list is endless, the consequences are huge.
John Hegarty once told me that he didn’t waste time thinking about the future. He focussed on whatever was on his desk that day – ‘A trade I write this morning could lead to us opening an office in Europe next year.’
The choices I listed above are answered as much with emotion as logic, so the chances of fucking up are high.
It’s tricky to pick from the worst, but I guess the most consequential decision I’ve made was changing my status from employee to employer.
A gang of us set up Campbell Doyle Dye in 2001. I wouldn’t call it a fuck-up, but we certainly made a lot along the way.
Beforehand, me, my partner Sean Doyle and Tom Carty, and Walter Campbell were at AMV/BBDO. They were in the office next door. It was great – well-paid, award-winning, and fun.
But being creatives, we worried about what wasn’t working, where the industry was going, and the usual bullshit.
Technology was starting to really kick in. Easier access to information was diminishing some jobs and nuking others.
But technology couldn’t write ads. So there was a feeling that it would put a premium on the one department clients couldn’t set up; Creative.
Evidence stated to pop up.
The year before, whilst at BMP/DDB, Sean and I (and Richard & Andy) were requested by Adidas to work on their pitch. Now, BT Cellnet had asked AMV/BBDO to put me, Sean, Tom & Walt on their pitch; this was obviously the way things were going to be in future.
Plus, a new agency had recently set up ditching account handling and offering clients direct relationships with the creatives; unusual at the time. And they were doing very well (they were called ‘Mother’.)
Before long, we were having secret chats with potential planners, producers, and M.D.s. about what a creative agency for the new millennium might look like.
FUCK-UP 1: Getting flattered into starting an agency.
Our chats weren’t as secret as we’d imagined. People all the way over in Italy heard about them.
Testa, Italy’s biggest agency, invited us over for a chat. We’d never heard of them, so declined.
It seemed arrogant and frankly rude not to.
We chat, and they were lovely.
To be fair, anyone who says, ‘do what you want, hire who you want, we’ll back it’ seems lovely. Before we knew it, we were starting an agency.
It seemed churlish not to.
FUCK-UP 2: Not realising we could jump off the train.
Our initial idea was to structure an agency like a film company—clients buy the creatives, Tom, Walt, Sean and I (or others we planned), and we then build the resource around the project.
The one thing we knew was that this idea required an uber-sensible, uber-experienced person to front it to kill any potential ‘lunatics are running the asylum’ talk.
We had one, they were perfect.
Six weeks in, he decided he was too old for another start up. (Gaping hole #1.)
Then, Tom and Walt fell out, resulting in Tom dropping out. (Gaping hole #2.)
Testa found a replacement to fill the first gap, not nearly the same stature, but good, and we still had three Creative partners, two more than those regular, last-millennium agencies.
But Tom dropping out completely changed the dynamic.
At this point, with 40% of the potential partners having gone or changed, we should’ve stood back and taken stock.
Not to say we shouldn’t have done it, but we should’ve recognised it was now a different animal.
We didn’t, we were on the train.
FUCK-UP 3: Switching horses too soon.
It seems so nuts to even write this now, but at the end of our first month, we were looking for new backers.
The only excuses I can think of are;
a) We didn’t know what we were doing.
b) 9/11 happened two weeks before, so we were disorientated.
c) We were swayed by a lot of people coming forward when we launched, saying we shouldn’t have gone with Testa and they’d have backed us.
We restarted in January, backed by Omnicom.
The naïve, cock-sure bunch from September were replaced by a mildly stressed, slightly anxious bunch.
That first vibe is more attractive to potential clients.
FUCK-UP 4: Not knowing how to run a business.
To be more accurate, not having anyone who knew how to run a business.
Some businesses have done very well without that experience, but we were very lopsided; all the names above the door were creatives.
It meant all of our focus was on our output.
Should we keep a loss-making client? Of course, they buy good work.
Should we every award scheme? Absolutely!
Should we chip in our own money to get director Michael Mann? Obviously, it’s Michael Mann!
Someone has to bat for the balance sheet.
FUCK-UP 5: Only hiring the best people.
‘Plan to succeed, not to fail’, Robert Saville advised us.
We took it to mean don’t become so afraid to make decisions that you become paralyzed; go for it!
So we set out, on day one, to hire the best people we knew for each department.
Day one, before we had any business.
Exhibit A: Typographer on a six-figure salary.
Brilliant, but he didn’t operate a Mac, so we had to hire him a pair of fully functioning ‘Mac hands’ (£65k).
Great people, but day one?’
FUCK-UP 6: Assuming awards attract clients.
The agencies we admired, BBH, GGT, AMV, did great ads and, as a consequence, won awards and as a consequence, won business. Or so it seemed.
So quality across the board was our goal, big or small, TV or mailer.
In year one, we got 70 commendations and two pencils at D&AD (or, in new money, 70 pencils and two silvers).
It attracted employees but not clients.
FUCK-UP 7: Not realising that year 1 only happens once.
People don’t know how to categorise a brand new company. They could be huge, small, good, bad, techie, classic.
That vacuum brings a wider range of new business opportunities. After that, you’re put in a box.
From then on, it’s tough to get out of that box, as the ad says, ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression’.
Your perception becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re perceived as being good at B2B, you’re put on B2B pitch lists, you win B2B accounts and do more B2B and get on more B2B pitch lists…it’s vicious.
We pitched for a lot of big accounts in our first year, but we didn’t win many of them, so got put into a box labelled ‘creative boutique’, so the pitches shrank in size.
FUCK-UP 8: Ignoring the elephants in the boardroom.
A whole herd of them.
The most problematic was how the three creative partners operated.
Initially, we tried to pick the work together, a nightmare as we’d all favour different routes.
It meant sometimes presenting in a pitch without a recommendation, going through two very different routes trying not to favour either, and letting the client choose between the big, grandiose poetic route or the smaller funny one.
To counter this, it was decided I should be the designated picker.
But it’s tough to tell your two talented Partners that their work wasn’t going forward. It’s even tougher to be told by your Partner that your work isn’t going forward. In retrospect, we probably should’ve been less polite in the boardroom and thrashed these issues out.
FUCK-UP 9: Confusing getting on with and working well.
Who upsets their friends when they can avoid it?
The risk with setting up a business with them is you can be too sensitive to their feelings. You avoid issues. See above for details.
There are also benefits, but maybe it’s better to keep it more functional, maybe even transactional?
FUCK-UP 10: Leaving.
After 6 years, I left.
After 7, they closed.
Not a great result for either.
Better communication might have avoided both.
Obviously I’m biased, being 58. But I still have all my own teeth.
I see so many intelligent, talented friends who are now considered obsolete by ad agencies. Not because of how their brain functions but because of the colour of their hair or the texture of their skin.
In other creative industries, film, architecture, and design, creative people come into their prime in their 50s and 60s.
Maybe it’ll change? Maybe we’ll be the next minority group to be championed with the goal of creating a more diversified workplace. The handy thing about that particular group over the others is that they come with decades of experience in actually doing the job, sometimes to a world-class level.
I guess agencies fear they’ll get scripts about people going to Blockbuster Video in Frankie Says’ t-shirts with Filofaxes under their arms. Like they’ve been frozen in time like the bug in Richard Attenborough’s walking stick in Jurassic Park?
“Get your head out of awards annuals and into art galleries, parks and theatres‘.
That’s what Paul Arden said to me. It sounded like a nice thing to do, but not really work. How will going to an exhibition on Norwegian embroidery help me write a commercial for Alan’s Acton Ales more than sitting in the agency writing commercials for Alan’s Acton Ales? Or, for that matter – studying award-winning ads for Bob’s Brixton Beer and Ian’s Ilford IPA?
But as time went on, I began to understand the benefit of filling your head with stuff that may not be in the heads of others.
Let’s say I did go to that Norwegian exhibition, and I learnt about a weaver who lives way up in the north of Norway, with only an hour of daylight. Bingo! A script about a weaver, working at night, watching the aurora borealis, dreaming of living in the exotic home of her favourite Ale – “Oh to live in Acton”. (Admittedly, it needs work, but you get the point.)
To stand out, you have to be different. If you go where everyone else goes for inspiration – you’ll produce work that looks like everyone else’s.
You can’t come up with an idea based on Dr Katz’s Squigglevision, Sister Corita Kent or the opening titles from ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ if you don’t know Dr Katz’s Squigglevision, Sister Corita Kent or the opening titles from ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’.
So be a magpie.