Networks might be able to provide that startup buzz

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Campaign's global editor-in-chief seeks wellsprings of opportunity for budding entrepreneurs

LONDON — If you work in advertising and have anything approaching an ego, then it’s almost certain you’ll have thought about launching a startup agency.

Even now, I could give you the names of at least three or four big-agency CEOs who’ve been nursing the fantasy for the past few years, all the while taking the big check and biting their tongue when it comes to all the rubbish internal politics of a large company. They talk and talk about doing it, and it gets harder and harder as their salary rises and pension plans become more important.

But it’s our superb heritage of a startup culture that has helped London punch above its weight on the global ad stage over the past few decades; this was such a richly entrepreneurial market, with the confidence to fight for good work and walk away when clients wouldn’t buy it. It’s still like that sometimes; Adam & Eve/DDB – which has retained the startup culture that made it so successful – comes in at number three in The Gunn Report’s latest tally of the most-awarded agencies in the world.

And of the London start-ups that bloody-mindedly chose to launch in the recession, most have turned into interesting, sustainable businesses, even if they’re not all regularly taking on the big agencies for the big accounts.

Yet our feature strikes a cautious note that might well give comfort to all those who will never be bold enough to cut the big-agency umbilical cord to create their own shop. Both Saatchi & Saatchi’s Magnus Djaba and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO’s Ian Pearman (from the comfortable vantage point of deep resources) reckon it’s now too expensive to launch an agency from scratch. As Pearman points out: "To service any brand properly, the pressures of lower cost and higher integration make more capability on one cost base essential."

It’s a depressing thought – this idea that the advertising world has become too complicated to provide fertile soil for the best budding entrepreneurs. I’m not convinced that’s necessarily the case – though, with more clients looking for integrated solutions across the marcoms space, I can definitely understand the argument.

What’s certain is that there’s a big opportunity here for the big networked agencies that are prepared to create the right environment for those budding entrepreneurs to thrive inside the machine.

That right environment means greater autonomy for the would-be entrepreneur, a clear pathway for them to feel some real sense of ownership over the agency they run, greater skin in the game and the chance to build their own brand alongside the agency’s. The start-up culture has always been the lifeblood of our industry; perhaps there’s now room for a new interpretation of that in this ever-complex world.

Claire Beale is global editor-in-chief of Campaign.

This article first appeared on campaignlive.co.uk.

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