Written By Iain Dawson and Doug Baxter, Agency Futures
I recently heard someone say that experience is the word that we give something that happened that we didn’t plan. I have a lot of experience and my story is one many agency heads will recognise. It is a story of blazing success, disastrous destruction of value, repair, renewal, and new growth.
The success came from founding and leading a creative agency in Dublin in the mid 2000s. Having been in advertising for 15 years since I left Trinity College it was always my dream to move back from London to Dublin and set up a creative agency. My first agency Ocean brought together my energy for new business and an instinctive sense of direction with great creative talent. I was fortunate with my timing as the Celtic Tiger was in full roar and we grew rapidly.
I had seen that digital had not been given its rightful place in most agencies in the Irish market, which was very traditional and dominated by well-established agency brands. I saw the potential of digital to lead marketing strategy within clients like General Motors and their need to generate test drives for their new models. This put my agency in a strong position when the financial crash of 2008 saw a dramatic downturn in advertising spends. Our foresight as a leadership team gave us a sense of invincibility and immense satisfaction. We were a scrappy outfit taking on the old guard of Irish advertising and winning. This was boosted by the advertising industry and wider business awards and recognition, rapid growth, and financial rewards.
However, these were good years came to an end in 2011 when I could no longer insulate my agency from the desperate state of the Irish economy. I was also presented with a personal decision. My wife wanted her turn to commit fully to her career as an actress. She wanted us to go and live in LA so she could follow her Hollywood dream. I could stay and fight it out in the gloom of Ireland, or I could head off to Los Angeles, where the sun shone every day, and there was the prospect of an unknown but exciting new adventure.
So in January 2011 we moved to Los Angeles. My wife’s career took off. I handed over day to day management of my Dublin agency to my partners. I thought that I could steer the agency from LA as well as seeking out local opportunities. This was a mistake; I couldn’t do both. I did not comprehend the impact of the gulf that opened up between myself and my business partners. After a hugely painful period I sold the agency, for a fraction of what it had been worth at its peak of 30 people and £500,000 net profit.
There is something incredibly special about building an agency up from nothing to success. The rapid success that had given us a self-belief that anything can be achieved when a team works at it with total conviction and singular purpose. The bonds that I forged with my partners felt like they were unbreakable. Unfortunately, not only did I lose the value that I had created in business but the relationship with my partners completely ruptured. To lose all this was devastating for me.
On top of this, my marriage also did not survive our move to LA. This was a very dark time for me. I was full of anger, blame, and terrible sadness for the loss of my identity as a creator of both business and personal success.
The stress of all of this made it hard for me to see a way forward. Fortunately, I did not lose my survival instincts. I found that having my back against the wall to have to provide for my family drove me in search of new opportunities. I set up an agency in Los Angeles and sold it well, perhaps too well, within a year of the agency opening. I became the founding partner of M&C Saatchi US digital agency Share. In a very short space of time, we managed to pitch for and win the largest digital contracts that the M&C Saatchi network had ever been awarded.
But I was not happy. Once you have worked for yourself it seems impossible to go back to taking the back seat as someone else makes the big decisions. I was (and will always be) a terrible employee and went out of my way to be difficult and impossible to manage.
Through some of the deals I put together I met Alex Halbur and Dave Bosses of Prosper Group (www.prospergroup.net) and started doing their marketing for them. We had a lot of success building the company through various digital marketing channels and Prosper invited me to come on board to lead their digital practice. Over a number of years, I had the opportunity to work with some of the greatest agencies in the world, working on projects that lead those agencies to grow rapidly and build more valuable businesses. I still work with the team at Prosper and I will always owe Alex and Dave a huge debt of gratitude for giving me that opportunity. It restored my self-confidence and gave me a new path in growing and developing agencies for other people, which strangely gives me even more satisfaction than doing it for myself. Plus, I do not wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when payroll day is coming up!
I think it is useful for me to say that I am proud of a number of things.
Firstly, that this is my story. I cannot say I like talking about my failures and ruptures but by being open I hope explains my huge personal commitment to use all my experience in helping agencies to find a way forward, whatever the circumstances they are facing.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of our ancient fight-flight-freeze response to signs of imminent danger. Looking back on it I now see that my move to LA was my flight response kicking in to save me from the acute stress I was facing with the business situation in Dublin during the depths of that recession. I can now more clearly read the signs when agencies are making the wrong choices, particularly over-reaching or trying to cover too much ground with not enough focus. My experience helps us guide other leaders when they are faced with their own challenges. If I was to give an owner one piece of advice in the current situation I would tell them to stick with what they are good at and trust their gut instinct. I would offer them the motto of Rome’s most successful legion, which I try to teach my kids every day:
Nulla Tenaci Invia Est Via
To the tenacious no road is impassable.
Find a way through. Stick with it. The experience will make you stronger.
Apart from my skill set I have also learnt that I do not take success for granted-or expect it. I’ve learnt that hard work is obviously essential but it has to be pointed in the right direction with single-minded focus. In advertising there is always something new happening. It is so easy to be distracted and this is why having a trusted partner outside the business to re-focus is invaluable.
Does this story have a happy ending?
I am also proud to say that I have repaired my relationships with my ex-partners, both business and personal.
And finally, my story has not ended yet. Our wider family unit, the modern family as we call it, made a decision to move back to London in 2019. I am introducing you to my next chapter: Agency Futures, www.agencyfutures.com, helping agencies outside the US build futures worth looking forward to.
Agencies Futures helps agency owners build futures worth looking forward to – www.agencyfutures.com