May 7th this year: five years since my brother Gary and I launched Render Positive! Some 90% of businesses die before their fifth year. We haven’t. We have of course celebrated this anniversary with gusto, and will continue to do so for the rest of the year. I wanted to tell the story of how and why we started, and how we reached the magical fifth year. It’s a fun story. If you’ve ever entertained the idea of running an agency, or any business, I hope it will be useful in either firing you up or cooling you down.
Some backstory is needed. I moved from the West Midlands to London in March 2006. I went from just thinking about moving to actually being in London in the space of a mere two weeks. I was feeling depressed and googled ‘Online Marketing Jobs London’. The company ranked number one on Google was an agency. I emailed them a bullet point list of my skills. I got an interview, and then a job. It was the best decision I ever made (the second best being starting Render Positive with Gary). I’ve never understood patriotism, but I do love London. It has provided me everything I could wish for in life in exchange for hard work, persistence, and a little moxie.
Gary moved down to London a few years later. He got a job at a large corporation as the in-house digital marketing expert, looking after the promotion of hundreds of sites around the world. He sat at the other site of the table to me. He was client side. I was always agency side. Between us, we’d seen the compromises and problems that both agencies and clients go through. We spoke about launching our own agency many times over the years. Eventually, those conversations became serious.
I’d been promoted to Head of Social Media at I Spy Marketing (now owned by iProspect, who are in turn owned by Dentsu Aegis). One day I realised my motivation had gone. The enthusiasm wasn’t there. I told my boss I needed to talk and I put my notice in. He understood. “I noticed you stopped sending those long emails on weekends” he said. They were pretty nice about it, if a little disappointed. I worked my three months notice and never slouched. They deserved the best three months I could give.
I had saved around £8k to keep me going until we won clients, or it all fell apart and I had to get a job. Within three months we had seven retained clients and were profitable. If I meet someone and I like them, I stay in touch with them. Even if it’s just a message on Facebook every few months. I’m naturally a gregarious person. I didn’t do it knowing this day would come, but I emailed, messaged or phoned every single person in the industry I’d met. I won some business directly and some by recommendation. I hired my good friend Hannah to do the boring and time-consuming grunt work that I didn’t want to do. She could work from home in her pyjamas while she finished her degree, so she didn’t mind. Hannah is still with us today and is critical to our operation in her role as ‘Creative Yet Technical Manager’. Gary worked nights on Render Positive projects after coming home from long days at the office.
Gary handed in his notice a few months later. Usually, Gary and I talk about the big decisions. On this occasion, I was just given the news. The relationship between him and his boss had become untenable. I couldn’t fault him for it and looking back the timing was perfect.
We worked from our bedrooms. We grew. We added new clients and new members of staff at least every few months. We stayed in touch on the phone, over Skype, emails, and through project management systems. All of our hires have come from word of mouth. We ask people not to wear suits and we only give CVs a glance if at all. We didn’t want to hire people who’d already been ruined by the agency system. Seeing your new employees grow over time is one of the most wonderful things about running a business. Your staff will have better ideas than you one day. That is something to be happy about. I don’t think any of my ideas for clients have made the final cut in a good few months. The right idea is the best one.
By February in 2012, we decided we needed an office. It was another calculated risk. Once again, it was the right decision. We have fun offices in Clapham, South London. It may be a little too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer, but the rent isn’t too painful, and it works right now. We moved in and my life became more enjoyable as I could separate work and play. A culture began to emerge. Our staff enjoy flexible working hours and working from home, but having the office for face to face meetings, brainstorms, and silly chats has turned Render Positive into what we had always wanted. A place of work we liked going to – most of the time.
Running an agency is worrying and exciting in equal measure. I don’t believe you can have one without the other. There’s a saying that every agency is “three phone calls away from doom”. The sentiment of this statement is true, but a deserving agency is also one phone call away from an incredible opportunity.
One of our spectacular opportunities came with the call to pitch to Symantec. I can’t go into detail of how we got the opportunity, but it took risk and creativity. If you’ve not heard of them, you’ll likely know one of their products, Norton Antivirus. We had done work for Channel 4 so were not totally new to working with big names, but Symantec are gigantic, and our young agency had the chance to add them to our client roster. After countless brainstorms, hours putting Powerpoint decks together and three impassioned pitches filled with creative ideas and compelling logic, we got a phone call. We had been chosen as their content marketing & social media agency. We were given the biggest budget I’d ever seen in my entire career and we’d be doing cutting edge work. It came with a warning, though: “None of our other social agencies have lasted one quarter. We are demanding.” They weren’t lying. We worked our asses off. We navigated the complicated politics, committees and bureaucracy that comes with corporations their size. We delivered fantastic results.
We worked with them for four full quarters until one day I answered the phone and was told Symantec’s new CEO was restructuring the whole business, that all my client contact’s jobs had changed or could soon be made redundant, and that all marketing budgets had been frozen indefinitely. We went from earning six figures a year from Symantec to nothing. This was terrible news, but we knew it could happen at any time and had been prepared for it. We survived. We got a great testimonial and built a brilliant case study from our time with them. This has helped us win countless new clients, including gigantic names like Hewlett-Packard. We also earned experience, which cannot be bought or taught; you just have to travel through time and honestly try your hardest.
We’ve started making the time to do more of practicing what we pitch. We create a regular video podcast called ‘Positive Chats’ where we interview the most talented people in advertising and marketing. Our first interview was with Rory Sutherland, the Vice Chair of Ogilvy. He is a marketing idol of mine, and a man who’s always in high demand. It further goes to show, if you reach out in the right way, anything is possible. Our team write useful content for our blog frequently, and I plan on launching a video podcast series and blog posts called ‘Agency Life: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ through which I aim to be as honest as possible about the ups and downs of agency life.
I wish we’d started doing this kind of stuff five years ago. And for any of you debating whether to run a business, I say “there’s no time like now.”
I have a few pieces of advice for those who’ve made it this far and are thinking about starting their own business. Some are agency specific, but hopefully they’re useful to most people.
1. Make sure there are people you can seek advice and counsel from who are further ahead than you. Your mileage will vary, but they will provide invaluable advice while putting your mind at ease
2. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You’ll make mistakes, it’s only natural. Just try not to make the same mistake more than twice at most. Try hard to only make new mistakes. Don’t be too easy on yourself either. This is difficult, and I still struggle with it.
3. Goals and targets are great, but your mind is not capable of time travel. Bad things will happen but given hard work and time, amazing opportunities will present themselves too. This makes forecasting difficult but your work life exciting.
4. Where possible, hire people based on their personality over their experience. Experienced people can suck. People who need some training can turn into superstars. Neither of these is always true, but experience can be gained with time. It’s near impossible to change someone’s personality, just as you can’t convince someone their favourite sports team is the wrong one. You won’t always get this right, which is why probationary periods exist.
5. When clients are hard work, remember that it’s a privilege to work with them. They chose to work with you and could go elsewhere. There is an exception to this rule, which I’ll deal with next.
6. If you have a client who’s an asshole despite your best intentions and hard work, fire them as soon as you can. Even if they spend a lot of money, get rid of them like you would an abusive partner. You can’t always do this immediately, but as soon as you can make payroll safely, let some other agency deal with them. I see it as a form of industrial sabotage; weighing some unfortunate competitor’s team down with the client’s time-consuming and mood ruining bullshit.
7. Not all clients give a shit. Your contact may just want to earn a paycheck. Not everyone is passionate, ambitious, and daring.
8. Finally, I come to the central tenet of this piece: ‘Always Be Different’. Gary gave me this advice when I was 10 or 11 years old and it has stuck with me to this day. We genuinely wanted and still want to run an agency like no other. At times, this has made us poorer. As Omar from The Wire once said: “A man’s gotta have a code”. If there is nothing unique about what you want to build, why should anyone give a shit? You should want your clients to love you, your team, and how you operate. This means other potential clients will reject you, and that’s how it should be.
That’s all I’ve got.
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