I was 44 and the creative director of an advertising agency. My boss walked in and randomly asked me where I wanted to be in five years. It’s a question that had never occurred to me before.
So after giving it a solid 12 seconds of thought I answered that maybe I would like to be running my own agency. This had never really been my goal, but it sounded really cool. I wasn’t entirely stupid, there was no way I was capable of starting anything without adult supervision, so I asked him if he wanted to come along too. He declined my generous invitation, a decision he probably regrets to this day as he drives his Bentley to the airport heading to New York in his role as a global CEO.
Be careful of what you dream
Less than five years after being asked that question, the universe’s cosmic tumblers clicked into place, and I somehow found myself in a position to be starting up an agency.
Some people start a business to try and get rich, or to change the way that business is done. Some people do it as they feel their genius should be unconfined, others wish to try and build a global empire from Ponsonby.
My personal goals for the agency were rather more mundane.
1) I wanted the agency to be somewhere that people liked working
Having done several jobs that I hated, I decided this was something to be avoided. The single most important thing to me was that I, and hopefully my colleagues, would enjoy turning up every day. Well, other than Monday, of course.
Several of our employees stayed for over 10 years and I believe that is at least partly because it was fun and not solely because we’d chained them to their desks.
2) I wanted the agency to be respected by the industry
I expect this was an insecure desire to have my decision to set up an agency validated. I wanted everyone to feel proud of the agency and good about what they’d done.
3) I wanted the agency to make a profit
I was financially aware enough to suspect that if we didn’t make a profit we would have to close, and I would be unemployed and broke. Having previously been both of these I had no real wish to return.
Converting goals into plans
Advertising agencies spend their days making plans for their clients but for some reason are generally terrible at doing it for themselves.
However, providing you have a goal there is a simple formula that can help convert this into a workable plan, or at least a semblance of one, let’s call it the Ad Hoc Strategy, or probably more accurately Making It Up As You Go Along.
If you are in any position of responsibility your day will contain a whole heap of decisions, some trivial some far-reaching. So when faced with any of these forking paths just frame the question as to which option would bring you closer towards your goal. It’s very reactive, but it makes decision making much simpler.
Of course sometimes your goals will be in conflict with each other, for example soon after we started we took the whole agency to Fiji for a Christmas party. This did nothing for the finances of the agency but plenty for morale, staff recruitment and sales of Berocca at the Denarau Sheraton.
In time, the agency fell into a solid plan more by accident than design. Not long after we’d started we entered a campaign into the Advertising Effectiveness Awards. We were up against all the big guns so weren’t expecting any heroics. Our little start-up agency won Campaign of the Year and we were off. Once we’d sobered up we took this as a sign.
Every other agency was obsessed by announcing how creative they were, instead we decided to concentrate entirely on effectiveness. It seems crazy that this isn’t everyone’s goal but, like I say, agencies aren’t very good at making their own plans.
Conquering the world. Mildly
With this new focus in place, the whole agency had something to get behind. We soon became the most effective independent agency in Asia Pacific, a position we held for the next five years. After a while our efforts brought us to the attention of an international group to whom we sold.
It’s probably worth remembering that a plan can’t possibly come together unless you have one in the first place.
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