A dozen things I've learned in 15 years at my own agency

Honesty, transparency and fairness are the keys to success for a small agency, says Smith Gifford's CEO.

This July marks 15 years since I decided to try this business on my own, since I walked away from the big meetings, politics and corporate drama. To be fair, my time spent at big ad agencies was pretty good. The last big shop I worked for was Arnold, and it is an amazing company. And because of my experience there and at other big shops, I thought I could make a difference by striking out on my own.

Of course 15 years ago we all lived on a different planet. In total, I now have over 36 years in the business I love, and I feel I’ve mastered all sorts of media. But let’s face it, none of us were prepared for what was about to hit when digital communications came to the fore. Yes, many smart folks predicted what was coming, but even they couldn't foresee the speed of change. 

The good news for me and other small agencies is that unlike the big shops we can change on a dime—and often charge a dime to do it. So we adapted. And in so doing we learned a few things along the way. Here’s a bit of the wisdom I’ve gained during 15 years under my own shingle.

No one is an expert at anything anymore. We’re changing so quickly that regardless of all the pontificating and white papers, a room of creative thinkers outdoes a guru any day of the week. Let’s not forget, even Steve Jobs needed Lee Clow. 

A truly great, big creative idea still lasts longer and has more impact than any trend or whiz-bang new technology. Remember, BMW is still called the "Ultimate Driving Machine." That campaign was developed in the 1970s by Ammirati & Puris.

New technology is your friend. Don’t be afraid to try it, and allow your creativity to use it! Even if you don't pay attention to new technological developments and make adjustments to implement them at your agency, your competitors will.

The more you know, the less you really know. Bob Dylan perhaps said it best. "Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."

We live and work in a service business. Serve your clients and don’t be a pain in the ass. When they say "jump" you don't have to say "how high," but you do need to respond to them in a timely, professional and helpful manner. Don't forget—you work for them.

Advertising is a business where we sell our time being passionate about the companies we represent. Find something in your work you can be passionate about. Your client can tell real enthusiasm from fake passion.

You spend more time at work than you do at home. Make work like home. Become friends with your co-workers. Spend time with them and get to know about their lives. It makes a difference when you know more about a person than just what he or she does for eight hours a day. And never take your work home! It gets confusing. Keep things separate.

A good idea can come from any place, from anyone, at any time. This has been my philosophy since I started in this business, and it’s the secret to great ideas, creating a fun place to work, and happy clients. It breeds confidence in your employees when they know they have a place at the table and their voices will be heard.

Be honest—to yourself, your employees and your clients, even if it’s going to kill you. Include them all in big decisions. No one likes to be left out of the game. Inclusion breeds transparency and transparency creates honest, sincere and lasting relationships.

Be financially fair. Trust your clients to pay you fairly, and they will trust you. Do the same with your staff. We’ve returned unused retainer money to clients, and we’ve handed out raises to people before their time is due. It’s the fair thing to do.

Hire people based on chemistry. Of course you need people who can do the job and do it well. But if a candidate has a great book and resume but seems like a jerk, show him or her the door.

And the single most important lesson: Family first, work second, clients third. I have been happily married for over 30 years and have two great kids. A happy family person does great work, provides leadership for a great staff and makes a great client happy. Result: the circle of the ad life is complete.

I’m wondering what the next 15 years will bring, but one thing I’m sure of is this: If I take my own advice and keep following these lessons, I’ll be just fine.

Matt Smith is founder and CEO of Smith Gifford.

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