Opening my mind and closing my shop

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Matthew Bull reflects on the painful decision to close his agency after just three and a half years

I’ve flown a few miles in my life. I can recite the security briefings verbatim, in four different languages. The one that feels most relevant today is: "Make sure you put your oxygen mask on before helping others."

Easier said than done.

I know this because I am — soon to be, was — the owner of a small ad agency in New York that employs 16 people full-time. And today I informed our largest client I was going to close the doors of this wonderful place.

Many agencies run around with the slogan: "the work, the work, the work" etc., etc., etc. But for me it’s always been "the people, the people, the people." I mean, really, it’s quite hard to do the work without them. And now I’ve got to help 15 humans find work within a few weeks.  While finalizing my own plans. I need to slap that oxygen mask on quickly and find 15 others at the same time.

Fortunately, all of my people are young, blessed with incredible talent, and the hardest working bunch I could have wished for. Their dedication to our cause makes me weep.

Breathe.

The last three-and-a-half years have been a vital mixture of glee and glory, debilitating misery and disappointment (first year and last two months) and unrelenting discovery. An adventure in the truest sense of the word. I recall telling all who would listen that starting an agency in New York is like being on a rollercoaster — you’re either laughing or you’re vomiting. We did plenty of both.

But above everything, my overwhelming feeling is, and has been for some time, frustration. The reasons are simple, really: The work, the work, the work. We just didn’t get enough out. The work our people do is what builds a company like ours. It is what we live for, what we love. And yet in three years of relentless toil, we managed to produce only three brand ideas and campaigns. In my first agency, we produced 15 pieces of work in the first three months.

The work is what sells us as much as it’s what we sell. So you can see the shortfall here.

Why were we unable to produce work? Well first things first — we created some work that I consider to be brilliant — for all our clients, in our pitches, for pro bono. You can imagine that with a slogan, "Where you’re safe from safe," we tended to do work that was thought-provoking, adventurous and required courage to buy. And we were just unfortunate that a lot of our work did not make it through the innovation-stifling processes called research. (I must point out that, with our current client, work may well appear shortly of which we are proud. So far, so good.)

When one fails, it’s always a good idea to face up to that failure with honesty and objectivity. That’s how you learn. Without doubt I made some mistakes on this rollercoaster (is that an ice cream cone in your eye, Mr Bull?); had some bad luck with people and clients; and was clumsy with the self-same on occasion as well.  You realize pretty quickly that having size and support is essential in this market.

But my word, we tried. I slutted around looking for business like a hot-and-cold hooker from the ‘70s. We produced idea after idea, campaign after campaign, and I slutted around again trying to sell it. People worked themselves into old age in their 20s. And we had our fair share of luck as well — having ex clients and good friends move to America for both Unilever and ABINBEV purely coincidentally helped us win most of our business. And then I met and hired wonderful people. My word, they made my life a joy! There hasn’t been a day within the agency that we haven’t laughed like out-of-control firehoses — normally at one another’s expense.

And finally, fortunately, we managed to make a little bit of money so we always ate and drank well. Vital.

I am thankful for every day of The Bull-White House. I have learned so much, as have we all. I am grateful for what I had and what I have.

I just wish I had more.

To everyone who helped us through our three-and-a-half years — Kees Kruythoff, Miguel Patricio, Chuck Porter, Miles Nadal, Frank Abenante, Carl Johnson, Christiana Paul, Kathy O’Brien, Wesley Boas, Marcel Marcondes, Rana Kardestuncer, Linda Sawyer, Dave Droga.

If ever any of you ever need an oxygen mask, I’ll help put yours on before I put on my own.

Thank you. And Goodnight.

Matthew Bull is founder of The Bull-White House.

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