Sell-outs

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(Photo courtesy Efrén via Flickr)
(Photo courtesy Efrén via Flickr)

Don't sell out. Not right away, anyway. Cherish your independence and marshal your creativity, for the sake of yourself and the industry

There are two kinds of companies: those for whom money is an important thing, and those for whom it is everything. So says Peter Thiel, who has made billions investing in companies for whom the former is true.

Today our business is dominated by companies that practice the behavior of the latter, for whom the business of creativity is merely a means to an end. The end being money. Not only that, but the vast majority of startups today have one ultimate goal in mind: to sell out, to cash in. They give a little to the industry, in the hope of getting a lot.

I believe this has resulted in an industry within which progress is stilted and will continue to be until such time as the great revolution takes place.

I am constantly punched in the metaphorical gut when I read the latest bright young thing has just sold out. The Adam & Eves. The Profuros. The Aquas. I even felt the same way when BBH finally sold completely to Publicis. However, they had earned the right. They have contributed to the development of the industry way beyond their return. But, like Sir John Hegarty himself says, it’s heartbreaking to see the guys who start companies and, five years later, sell out for a couple of million or 10.

What four large holding companies dominating our industry means is that unlike the decades when the most influential people were creators — Bernbach, Ogilvy, Saatchi, Wells, Chiat, Millward — today the most influential person is Sir Martin Sorrell, a finance man through and through. The result is the only innovation that has taken place over the last 15 to 20 years has been the complete financial re-engineering of our industry.

I have often advised agencies considering selling that the buyer is everything. By and large, holding companies do not buy culture or creativity or the promise of progress. They buy revenue and the snappy headline that goes with a stand-out purchase. There is no, or very little, actual innovation within these holding companies themselves, and it remains that way in spite of their purchases.

The moment a company sells out, their best work is behind them. Please challenge me and demonstrate the opposite. If there is one, or two, then they are the radical exception, not the rule.

Independent companies have clarity that sell-outs do not have. independent companies are focused on one thing: building a wonderful company by producing a wonderful product.

We all know, those that have started businesses, that you live or die by the swords you make. Once you have sold, your priorities change. First, you are no longer hungry — literally. Secondly, you have a new master. That master is no longer your desire to change the game. Your master is the financial director of your region. He who controls the money controls the company.

I am in the unique position of having had my own agency, Lowe Bull, for 17 years, during which I, for a time, ran Lowe in London and also was the chief creative officer of Lowe globally. This meant I sat on both sides of the fence, not on it. When I started Lowe Bull, we got money from Sir Frank Lowe in exchange for a 26 percent share. Much more importantly, we got guidance, opportunity and never-flinching support. A truly great partnership.

I didn’t even know IPG existed when we did the deal. Now, the front men of all the deals to buy agencies are from the Big 6. Well, at least no deal is done without the Big 6 nodding.

I do not blame the men who run these holding companies for the malaise within which we stew as an industry. On the contrary, they are smart, primarily decent men (give or take one), who have seen an opportunity and are taking it. Instead I blame the people who actually love this industry. I blame them for selling out too early, before they have done enough to help shape the future of the industry. 

So my hope is that we can find it within ourselves, as people who love creating advertising, to demonstrate greater courage, in our work and in holding out for the big payday, and help the revolution that once again makes our industry one that propels brands forward and doesn’t merely their maintain momentum.

Finally, some advice to those bright young things presently being courted:

  1. Be patient; wait at least 10 years to sell. You will savor your independent journey far more than your sugar-daddy days.
  2. If you do sell, sell a minority to a business that is going to enhance your ability to create wonderful work — like Droga has with United Artists. Sell to a business within which you feel you will find people that will inspire you and demand greatness from you. 
  3. Whatever decision you make, always ask yourself if it’s in the best interests not just of you or your company, but also the industry in general. That’s truly thinking big.

Matthew Bull launched Lowe Bull in South Africa in 1996, and the agency was regularly named among the top 50 creative agencies worldwide (Gunn Report). In 2003 Bull became CEO of Lowe London, and three years later took over as chief creative officer of Lowe Worldwide. In August 2011 he launched The Bull-White House agency in New York.

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