As a refugee from the agency business, I have a soft spot for former colleagues and others who find themselves on the outside looking in. At the same time, I sometimes wince when I see other refugees mimic agency bad practices. My thought is once you leave that scene behind, you’re free from the bullshit, so why on Earth would you want to repeat it? Is it because bad habits die hard, or is it because there’s no new vision to supplant the old?
Bonehook, for the record, is the anti-agency. Agencies are bloated, slow and dumb. If you bring those things with you after you depart Agency Land, you have little chance of success as an independent contractor. You’ll need to be flexible, fast and smart to make it as an indie. Yes, agencies today want to be flexible, fast and smart too, but that’s mostly wishful thinking on their parts.
How Lean Is Lean?
Puncture the bloated beast and ask what skills (and people) do you need in-house and what can you successfully outsource? In a traditional agency-client meeting, for instance, the account service person is there, plus a strategist, a writer, an art director, a creative director, a project manager and an account manager. That’s seven people all billing the client by the hour. A one-hour meeting under these conditions will run the client close to one thousand dollars, and there are typically several meetings scheduled per week.
There are well-heeled clients who can afford to go on endless rides in the agency’s taxi. Just about everyone else appreciates a good deal. But price is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how Bonehook is different. We don’t have an account service layer at all. Even though I am a copywriter by trade, I’m the account guy. By providing excellent account service, you gain a client’s trust over time, and that is how you open the door to great work. I know “creatives” want to believe that they’re responsible for great work, and that account people are money-grubbing hacks. I used to think along those lines until I stopped blaming the rules of the game for my own troubles. The rules of the game are clear: All power, thus all creative opportunity, rests with the person who carefully cultivates client relationships.
Run A Business, Or Run For The Hills
Coming out of the creative department of an agency and trying to run your own practice is an uphill battle. For years, you’ve operated under the faulty assumptions that great work takes a long time to make, and that it’s the only legitimate path to prosperity. It’s embarrassing to be a creative at times.
Thankfully, once you start fending for yourself, you’re faced with much harder, but more essential questions like, “Am I running a business here, or what?” If you answer affirmatively, I salute you and I support you. Entrepreneurship can be a tough and lonely ride, but it can also be a glorious new way of working after you get the kinks out of the line. One of the kinks I had to work out was seeing the job for what it is. Before, the self-absorbed copywriter in me would think can I do something great here? That’s how the agency world operates—people working on the client’s business don’t really care all that much about the client’s success. They’re overly obsessed with their own.
You Gotta Serve Somebody
The problem is when you don’t care about the client’s success—or the people the client is paying you to reach—and you only care about winning notoriety for your agency or yourself, you’re toxic. When you step out of that kind of agency bubble, it may take years to fully recover from the damage. I’ve been there, and now I’m someplace else. Now, if I don’t respect or admire a company’s contribution to the world, I don’t take them on as a client. Caring, therefore, is built in to the way I work today.
It’s been nearly seven years since I left the agency business behind. The funny thing about shedding the proverbial cashmere sweater is you end up finding what’s essential and removing the rest. For me, it’s essential that I solve marketing problems for clients who are making a difference in the world; that I’m able to earn their respect over time; and that my business generates recurring revenue (so I’m not chasing projects). What’s gone is my concern about winning industry awards, pleasing dickhead bosses and coworkers, and wasting time in meetings (when I could be playing golf).