Advertising has always attracted a high proportion of entrepreneurs - people with the belief to go it alone. We speak with five of them (from four different agencies) to find out more
08 November 2022
Like all entrepreneurial businesses, there are ups and downs of running your own advertising company. But among our members, Creative Salon has a host of entrepreneurs who have enjoyed more of the former than the latter and gone on to form hugely successful business.
We asked them for their best advice for tomorrow's entrepreneurs. And we also discover, that from selling vegetables or homemade lemonade, through to running a theatre company, entrepreneurialism is in their blood.
Helen Calcraft, founding partner Lucky Generals
Helen Calcraft is something of a serial entrepreneur, having co-founded MCBD in 1999 after a decade at AMV BBDO, and then launched Lucky Generals in 2013.
She says her first go at the entrepreneur experience was "when I was six. I persuaded my dad to go out and buy 20 lemons and 2 kilograms of caster sugar and proceeded to sell him homemade lemonade, needless to say his ROI was pitiful."
After her time at AMV, and taking an MBA at London Business School, Calcraft says: "It was my dear friend and partner Jeremy Miles who had the idea to start an agency.
I describe myself as an accidental entrepreneur as I have been in the right place at the right time and been asked by incredible people to join them not once, but twice, and all I really had to do was say 'yes'."
MCBD was entirely self-funded, and launched with no clients - "it was incredibly nerve-wracking, really" says Calcraft. But with the team completed by creative leaders Paul Briginshaw and Malcolm Duffy, MCBD went on to prove a significant success and then came its merger with Dare. At which point, Calcraft says, she intended to "hang up my red sole shoes and leave the industry."
However, she reckoned without the persuasive powers of Lucky Generals co-founders Andy Nairn and Danny Brooke-Taylor. Since then, Calcraft says the highlights at Lucky Generals (which was acquired by TBWA in 2017) have included "Creating a flat structure and meritocracy, where people fresh out of school and college can express themselves and learn and grow. Promoting from within. Having people choose to come and stay (we have one of the lowest staff turnover ratios in the business) because they feel they can flourish and because it feels like home."
And what advice would she pass along to people in the industry thinking of doing similar? First, "run to the edge, hold your nose and jump. The water is lovely. But make sure you are jumping in with people you admire and like. All we have in this business is each other. And make sure you have a brilliant finance person who isn't afraid of you and can tell you straight up when you are being an idiot (Simon Ellse - I salute you)."
And, then, "if you can afford it, fill your place with young, diverse, fearless, talent. Experience is overrated. Work Life Balance is one of my most hated phrases. No one ever asks a man about it. Make sure your work enriches your life and that you love it. Definitely don't start a business if you don't love it, and don't start a business if your end goal is money, rather that joy."
Andrew Stephens, co-founder, Goodstuff
Andrew Stephens founded Goodstuff in 2004 with his business partner Ben Hayes as a planning-only media agency. In late 2011 it added media buying to its offer and then, earlier this year, was acquired by Stagwell, the US "challenger" network that also owns Anomaly and 72AndSunny.
Stephens says that in his early teens he learnt the basics of "supply and demand" and making profit by growing lettuces before selling them by the side of a busy road near his home. At university in London his entrepreneurial flair went up a notch when Stephens launched the "Party Party Society" to "make student parties better" at hired houses complete with security, DJs and bars. "We got around 1,000 members, it went mad, we made a lot of money," says Stephens. In the end though, things turned sour, when the Party Party Society was "scammed" by a top London promoter.
Stephens and Hayes left Manning Gottlieb OMD (itself founded by two ambitious entrepreneurs in the shape of Colin Gottlieb and Nick Manning) to launch Goodstuff on the back of an agreement to handle Virgin Media's media planning business. "Up until that conversation I'd never genuinely thought about doing my own thing in media because it's really hard - to get the finance, accreditation and systems," says Stephens.
Ultimately, Stephens says that he still cares deeply about the business and its people, which was reflected in the decision to sell to Stagwell in January rather than choose another suitor. "For 17 years we've flown the flag of independence, we've really enjoyed running our own business, based on largely leveraging legacy networks. So the primary reason for doing a deal was to increase our capability and our resources."
Having been through the cycle of launching, building and selling his business, is there any advice from Stephens? His main suggestion is create something compelling in the market - "if you do a good job, and have a distinct product, the money will flow, and if you manage the business in a professional way you will make profit."
Beyond that, don't do it alone. "The idea that one person can do this, particularly in media, is practically impossible. It's better to have a smaller percentage of something big than a bigger share of something small. So, I'd always encourage people to share around equity in a reasonably fair way."
Neil Henderson, chief executive, St Luke's
St Luke's was founded on a collective spirit that extended to shared ownership of the business. However, the last remaining of the original founders, Andy Law, departed in 2003.
Neil Henderson, the chief executive and current owner of the agency, had joined in 1996, after seven years in senior account roles at Still Price Lintas and BBH. It was Henderson who led a management buyout of St Luke's 2010, in a bid to preserve the agency's "creativity and collaborative team spirit" while providing a new sense of impetus following the meltdown of the banking crisis.
Henderson displayed earlier signs of entrepreneurial spirit when he ran a theatre company during his time at university. This, he says, gave him a taste for "being in charge, and for high risks", especially when the thespian venture proved a critical and financial success with a "promenade version of Ulysses" that was a hit at the Edinburgh Festival.
Back to the St Luke's story, and Henderson, alongside management colleagues including chief creative officer Al Young, was determined to ensure that its "people were part of the enterprise, as much as creating great work." In recognition of this, the agency continues to ensure everyone at the agency is bonused on the same targets, and has released equity to keep its team in place.
Henderson says he is most proud of "hand-picking" the team that has helped the agency grow, alongside building long-term relationships with clients, such as its 17-year partnership with Heineken. And what advice would he give to budding advertising entrepreneurs? He says that owning the agency is a "rollercoaster" of elation and disappointment but "you have to control that emotion otherwise you'd never sleep."
While he sees St Luke's maintaining its proud independence, he says he's careful when looking at ideas for expansion and new ventures. "We've looked at launching our own brands and businesses in related areas. But whenever we have those discussions you immediately feel the distraction from the core business. We're very focused on St Luke's and where it's going to go next."
Mike Sell, chairman, and Guy Sellers, group CEO, Total Media
Total Media, founded in 1982 by chairman Mike Sell and his research partner Mike Dinsdale, is an entrepreneurial success story stretching back 40 years. Sell takes great pride, alongside Guy Sellers, the group CEO, that the business has survived two recessions (and entering its third!), grown from three to 160 people, and thrived while remaining independent.
Sell was 34 when he launched Total Media, and came out of the big agency network world, including time on the Unilever media team at Lintas. He says the idea to launch his own agency stemmed from age and opportunity: "Somewhere in my late 20s, early 30s, it became clear there weren't many people older than me still working in media and if I wanted to create some security around the future I would need to set up a business on my own."
Sellers, who had worked in ITV's marketing department, joined Sell and Dinsdale (who is no longer at the agency) three months in as a freelancer and eventually took a stake in the business. Sellers' early entrepreneurial projects before Total Media included creating an advertising medium in the shape of umbrella hats, after buying 2,000 and selling ads on them,
One of Sell's early beliefs was to "create a point of difference" in the media market, which Total Media has continued to do throughout its history. Most recently by evolving its behavioural planning and buying specialism, and Behave consultancy which launched in 2020. Alongside its proud BCorp status, this ensures that "finding and spotting opportunities has been really satisfying for Mike and I," says Sellers.