Agency: Starting a Creative Firm in the Age of Digital Marketing

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Perhaps the only thing more challenging than writing Rick Webb’s brilliant, dense, and comprehensive Agency, is writing a review of it. For Mr. Webb had it easy – 300+ pages in which to explore every grotty little nook and cranny of the modern agency, while we only a mere 800 words. Fifty of which we’ve already wasted whining.

For this is a tremendous work, and anyone running an agency should buy it. In fact, anyone working in an agency, thinking of starting their own agency, or planning on hiring an agency to do anything for them should buy it too.

Why? Because it’s not just a book, it’s a god-damned business manual. One that’s been tested against the successes and failures of Mr. Webb’s own The Barbarian Group, the award-winning digital advertising agency he co-founded in 2001, which leapt onto the national – or at least, popular advertising – consciousness in 2004 when they produced “Subservient Chicken” for Crispin Porter+Bogusky and Burger King.

Now, you remember 2001, right? 5 years before Twitter and Buzzfeed? 3 years before Facebook? 2 years before even Myspace? 2001? Back when AOL and Time Warner merged and dinosaurs ran the internet. When the idea of starting a digital agency was probably one part ignorance, one part genius, one part “not with my money you don’t”.

Mr. Webb served as The Barbarian Group’s COO, helping it navigate through these uncharted waters, and, apparently, making notes about what he and his partners were doing.

And why is he sharing those notes now? Two reasons, I believe. One stated, and one implied.

The first has to do with his observation about the current crop of marketing companies, no doubt gleaned from his perch these days as an angel investor and marketing consultant to companies like Foursquare, Percolate and Tumblr:

“Marketing companies used to be started by marketing people. Now they are started by internet people. They need different education.”

So he wrote a book about how to build an agency for people who probably have no agency experience, cognizant of the fact that while the old model doesn’t hold there’s still a lot about how ad agencies function that they still need to understand (which makes the book a terrific primer for anyone seeking an introduction to the business).

So that’s the first reason – to educate the ignorant.

The second reason, however, while never overtly stated, comes through time and again in passages like this:

“Of all the things that you may get right or wrong when you start your company, the culture is the one that is most important to get right at the beginning. It is painfully difficult to change a company’s culture after it takes root.”

Or this, in which he quotes Brett Martin:

“‘The trick is to avoid hollow words. Since a startup’s culture mirrors that of its founder, maybe the best thing that you can do is work hard to get clear on who you are. Write that down and share it with your team. If you’ve been honest, every action you take will reinforce your values.’”

Or this:

“Your shop needs to be your brand. Your brand needs to tie into your vision. You need to ‘have a different point of view.’ You need to ‘stand for something’. And you need to shout it from the rooftops through your PR.”

Or this:

“Repeat after me: there will always be more things to do with the money than there is money.”

And perhaps most importantly, this:

“Before too long, you will have noticed that while jobs do not come in regularly, the money goes out regularly. Every month you need to pay rent, employees, health care, electric, leases, Internet bills, and so forth on specific dates. And the checks from clients? They come in when the clients feel like sending it. This has no bearing on when you actually complete the work, mind you.”

In short, the second reason Webb has written this book, whether he knows it or not, is to lay out for any one paying attention, how to treat an agency as a business. Paying as much attention to the money and culture and politics and product as Apple or Exxon Mobil or Wells Fargo do.

To shuffle off the mortal coil of those videos we love to laugh at, cringe over, rant about and invariably share with each other about how ridiculous the commerce of advertising is, and to put forth a guide for creating a successful advertising business – whatever advertising actually is these days.

Not only is that admirable, it’s vital. Which is why you need to read it. Now.

Agency: Starting a Creative Firm in the Age of Digital Marketing by Rick Webb was published  Palgrave Macmillan on 01/06/2015 – order it from Amazon here or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).