Agency start-ups: the same only different? – A view from Maisie McCabe

The unique circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic have seemingly proved fertile ground for start-ups, all promising a new take on how they do business.

Agency start-ups: the same only different?

Creative Content Works. Friendly Giants. Motel. Other. Platform. ScienceMagic. The Constellation Collective. The Ninety-Niners. 10 Days.

The random agency-name generator has been hard at work spewing out specimens over the past month. The people behind the new shops claim to be tearing apart the agency model. Or say they are not even agencies at all. One can get you from brief to a finished ad in 10 days (no prizes for guessing which one that is). And many are going to lean on agile networks rather than build vast armies of retained staff.

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But it’s rare that agencies start with: we’re going to do the same thing but better.

The founders of Lucky Generals and Uncommon Creative Studio talked of how they would grow their own brands alongside building them for other businesses. Wonderhood has a division creating telly, as well as working on ads. Fifty years ago, the Saatchi brothers opened an agency with salesmen [their word] creatives and no suits.

In a Campaign analysis in early 2008, Adam & Eve’s founders introduced the concept of “creative teaming”, where people from different disciplines were brought together to work on briefs. Upon their hiring, creative pair Ben Tollett and Emer Stamp were asked how they would get on working with strategists, rather than each other. But the concept didn’t make it into the agency’s (successful) entry for Agency of the Year 24 months later. Similarly, the Saatchis hired Bill Muirhead just two years after declaring the role of the account handler redundant.

Adam & Eve also had a comms planner – Jon Forsyth – alongside the classic triumvirate top team of suit, strat and creative. Founding partner David Golding insisted at the time: “It’s not about being different for the sake of it.”

Curiously, Golding and James Murphy (super strat and suit respectively) have swapped in customer experience as their additional offer at New Commercial Arts, which launched in May. But as one pitch consultant asked me this week, does that mean they’re not going to work with clients that want them only to make ads? We all know the answer to that.

Forsyth, meanwhile, is ploughing his own furrow at Neverland – an agency offering brand strategy alongside creative services.

Back in 1970, Charles Saatchi was insistent that his agency would have a singular focus on selling the stuff in its clients’ warehouses. But he was always very good at selling himself. And selling his agency. The new crop of agencies is simply following the same tradition.

The sales pitch can add stardust but, just like with advertising, the product has to deliver. Nils Leonard’s fledgling coffee business won’t have been the reason Uncommon won ITV, B&Q and Deliveroo. And Omnicom didn’t buy half of Lucky Generals because it foresaw the launch of the sports nutrition bar, Home Run. Creative agencies’ product is their people, their ideas, their hard work, their craft, their personalities and – dare I say it – their ads.

Whatever the real reason for their formation – true creative partnership or a sudden need to provide an income – I wish all the agencies in the class of 2020 the best of luck. It’s going to take a lot of grit, talent and passion to make a go of it during this time of intense economic pressure. But start-ups keep the industry fresh, exciting and honest and I, for one, am glad to be back to chart how you all get on.

Maisie McCabe is the UK editor of Campaign