You’re going to have to forgive me for this one. I’m writing it the day after our agency Christmas party, and while I can’t pretend to be anything other than the steely, cold-hearted, stiff-as-a-board emotion-vacuum that people who work with have come to know and love/tolerate, there’s something about eating, drinking and dancing with 30 brilliant people in a massive house in West Sussex that brings out the sentimental old goon in me.
So that’s what you’re going to get from me today. If you’ve come here looking for hard-hitting, punchy, aggressive advice on how to build the best independent agency in the world, you’re going to be sorely disappointed; for today, I’m going to forget about building a great agency, and talk a bit about what it takes to build a Good one. And yes, that capital ‘g’ is deliberate.
"Good is the enemy of great" is a phrase you’ll hear a lot in creative departments – and in agencies in general. Hell, it’s a phrase we’ve used ourselves, along with "good enough is never good enough", "it’ll do will never do", and "call that a creative idea? That’s shit, mate. Go again". When it came to starting Creature, though, we took a slightly different view.
Of course we wanted to be great: nobody who starts an agency doesn’t want to be great, regardless of how few ultimately achieve it. For us, though, being thought of as a Good agency was just as important; and as and when you start your own agency, it’s where I’d implore you to start: not least because it’s a hell of a lot easier to achieve. Here are a few thoughts to get you started:
1. Treat the people who work for you as their mums would want them to be treated. Of course, that means paying them decently: but that’s just the beginning. Give them enough holiday to make sure they don’t just survive the year, but actually feel good at the end of it; and then give them their birthday off, as well. Make them feel they’re part of something bigger than their job title. Give them the opportunity to fuck up, and the confidence to know that you’ve definitely fucked up worse than that in the past. Buy good coffee. Let there always be fruit (and free squash). Have a maternity leave policy that makes your CFO tell you you’re a bunch of bloody idiots, and a paternity leave policy that does the same. Cook for them at your Christmas party. And then close a couple of days early before Christmas: the work will get done. The work always gets done, because people are brilliant.
2. Do everything you can to make your mum proud of what you do. Make great work, sure – but make it for good people, and never forget how sodding lucky we are to work in an industry that believes flying to South Africa to make funny films in an office building with a bunch of smart people is work. Share that luck around. We all know how hard it is for agencies to make money nowadays, but every percentage of margin scraped on that FMCG client will taste all the sweeter if you're also making people’s lives better somewhere else. Give your time away, and don’t feel the need to tell anyone that you’re doing it. Do stuff that doesn’t benefit you directly. Fight to make the industry better, not just the bit of it that sits in your building.
3. It’ll be a lot easier to build an agency that makes your mum proud if you avoid building one that would disappoint her. That means not tolerating people or things that don’t respect your gang. That means striving to increase diversity in everything you do, whether the public can see it or not. Hell, it might mean having some fairly strict rules on the types of clients you work with (and having to miss out on ALL THE MONEY that gambling clients have), but it makes you feel better; and you don’t have to spend time stressing about all their charmingly esoteric (ahem) billing procedures.
As you might have noticed, making our mums proud is quite a big deal at Creature – whether that’s in the work we make, or the work we do. Sitting in a living room in West Sussex yesterday, watching a bunch of brilliant people take it in turns to talk about the proudest moment of their year so we could all raise a glass to them, I had a sneaking suspicion that our mums would be fairly chuffed. So this one’s for you, Jess, Carolyn, Carey, and, well, mum. Thanks for keeping us honest: we hope we’re doing ok. Oh, and Merry Christmas!
Dan Shute is chief executive and co-founder of Creature of London.