How to Start a Successful, Purpose-Driven Ad Agency

The first week hatching my ad agency, StrawberryFrog, was the worst week of my life. Karin Drakenberg and I wrote the business plan and defined our purpose: “Creativity for Good,” because we believed that it’s in the interest of large companies to drive positive change. Then, we spent all of our time taking out the trash, hanging out in places we never would have imagined existed, calling clients and writing ideas for them — lots of ideas. Would I do it all again? Unreservedly, yes.

The ideas we hatched at the very start of our new agency are especially relevant now that advertising is going back to the streets and alleyways, again. Marketing and advertising are a different experience than sitting passively in front of a TV set. It’s searching actively for something that must interest us, isn’t it? What are the advantages of reaching customers away from their living rooms, their TV sets? 

The early weeks of entrepreneurship are canyons of endless work, rivers of excitement, and rapids with ugly boulders. Any one of these can take you out (financially). Days are filled with dreaming in a small group of like-minded people. There is something poetic about a bunch of friendly, creatively-driven problem solvers elevating each other’s work. And then at night, you collapse into total exhaustion. Fried, yet blissful. It’s a dirty world at the bottom of the ladder, but by the end of the first year you’ll find yourself wishing it hadn’t ended so fast. I learned a lot. If I were doing it all over again, a survival guide would have come in handy.

Today is a good day to start your new advertising agency. Not tomorrow, today. And therein lies the first key step to starting a successful advertising agency from scratch: fighting your own nagging apathy. Getting past your own excruciating self-doubt is the biggest hurdle to blowing it out of the water. It will make ignoring the “it will never work” remarks from your friends and family seem easy by comparison.

There’s so much innovation, so many new businesses starting up and new tech companies seeking breakthrough ideas and marketing help to clarify, define, and build their brands. There is, according to the data, lots of investment in new tech companies. The reason to start an agency now is everything is up in the air — and up for grabs. 

In keeping with the changing needs of large companies, and wishing to provide services that few if any others are providing, I worked with our leaders in 2019 to launch StrawberryFrog’s Change Management practice, focusing on transformation of employees and company culture with clients such as Walmart and Coca-Cola. We did what Felix Oberholzer-Gee recommends in his new book Better, Simpler Strategy and developed our own value map, which helped us see the opportunity to focus our efforts to grow.

Rather than do everything, or focus on digital like Martin Sorrell’s S4 Group, or compete with what’s offered by larger marketing firms such as WPP or Omnicom, StrawberryFrog launched a change management and innovations practice using creativity to solve business problems as opposed to data analytics. This puts SF in a different category compared to the large consulting firms, while offering similar services in organizational and employee behavior change. 

Agencies — both new and old — don’t put a lot of thought into differentiating themselves in the marketplace. Clients have a hard time knowing the difference between agencies, even the old ones that have been around forever. So if you’re going to set sail for the glorious land of opportunity, you need to stand out and have a different point of view.

In the early days of StrawberryFrog, we realized that you need to start your own religion — a ballsy, emotional point of view that you and everyone else that comes afterwards can get behind. There isn’t much money. The vision has to be able to turn a bunch of creative and strategic talent from other companies into a political organization fighting for one team and committed to the success of a fledgling agency. They’re going to need a steely resolve and incredible enthusiasm.

In the early days of your company, it’s got to feel like you are a bunch of rebels fighting against the rest. You’ll be the new kids on the block. You’ll be asking staff and clients to take a leap in the dark. Your vision has to move the world. 

When we set out, Advertising Age had published an article calling the established corporate agencies “dinosaurs.” We were Frogs. Dinosaurs were slow and had the systems of the past that weren’t the systems of the future and represented all the things that lead to bad creativity and expensive costs for clients. StrawberryFrog was the complete opposite: a place for agility, innovative, a leaper — a challenger to the dinosaur. It made a lot of sense in our vision of building a smarter, better agency. The timing and context were right. It felt like we were the ones to challenge the dinosaurs that controlled and dominated the advertising industry. 

Yet we needed something bigger to build our reputation globally. We landed on Movement Thinking — our prosperity approach to marketing and transformation. Instead of your company having toothless purpose, Movement Thinking lets leaders activate strategy in a “Let’s do this because we all want to do it — because it’s something that really matters to us” way versus “Do this because I tell you to do it.” More on this in our book, Activate Brand Purpose

One of the best decisions I made was to build a non-executive board. At the start, I asked Uli Weisendanger, the W in TBWA and the smartest and kindest advertising man of them all, to be our chairman. He had just retired and fortunately agreed. The non-executive board is very useful. It is there to help you stay true to who you are, to push you to stand up for what you believe in, to help focus you on a few bets, to remind you to say please and thank you. And to be generous with your staff when times are good and even more generous when times are bad. Today, our board includes Pauline Brown, former chairman of LVMH; Maryam Banikarim of Nextdoor; Matt McGowan, president of Snap; Becky Schmitt of Cognizant; and Suzanne Tosolini, to name a few. 

You also need a behind-the-scenes person who can make it all happen: the billing, the financials, operations, leasing, dealing with staff. I don’t think StrawberryFrog would have actually happened without Karin Drakenberg pulling it all together. She was the one who did all of the above. The calm tiger. She is Swedish, so she was naturally well-organized, patient, and miles ahead of many others. You need brilliant leaders such as Shana Bellot and Dan Langlitz, co-managing directors of our marketing firm, and Michelle Fogarty the lead of our change management practice.

You need to believe that there is room for one more company. Yours. Classic advertising communication has boxed itself into a corner. There is a need for fresh perspective and new ideas. The advertising and marketing industry is constantly changing. Since the time of Mad Men, it’s gone through three anthropological phases — all understandable — until advertising ran into the wall.

I once was sitting in a room chock-full of students. There were many questions. They were hanging on my every word. Then someone asked the classic one: “How do I get my first job in advertising?” This time, I didn’t give the classic answers like “Build your portfolio” or “Figure out which agencies best suit your soul, then be relentless at getting your foot in the door.” I did not even offer “Work as an intern for beer and chips.” Instead, I said: “Start your own agency”.

“Now’s the best time,” I told them. “You have nothing to lose. Moreover, clients are looking for consultants to reach your generation, which is you.” A few of these students did start their own agencies — two in fact. Both Playground Digital, run by Ryan Bannon and Sami Sadaghiani, and Switch Advertising are doing well. 

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Marketing isn’t about agency dynasties, marketing is about the same principles that have been important to companies since the first people started hawking their wares in the Fertile Crescent 10,000 years ago: doing it faster, better, cheaper. 

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