If you are reading this in Aurora, you are probably familiar with what agencies do and how they operate. I am also pretty sure that at some point, you may have wondered whether you could have done something better had you been in charge.
Seven years ago, I had the same feeling. A few months before my 25th birthday, feeling particularly hot-headed, I found a co-conspirator and decided to take the plunge. I was going to start my own ad agency. (Take that, timid bosses and conservative clients!) Today, given that our experiment has turned into a proper agency with 25 people onboard and a slew of clients, I can retroactively see how foolish and lucky we were. If you are looking to start and grow an agency, here are some points you may want to consider.
Should you meet us professionally, we will give you one of our business cards. The card itself is a conversation piece and the most interesting thing about it is that it does not give our designation. Nowhere does it say founder, director or anything of the sort. This is because when we started out, we were juggling roles. For one client, I was the strategy guy. For another, I was the dispatcher. And the operations manager, client service rep and everything in the middle. We deliberately avoided designations because we were a two-man agency pretending to be a bigger setup (we wanted the freedom to pretend to be whoever we wanted to be). We don’t like labels and contrary to what everybody else in the industry thinks, we don’t like specialists. We did everything ourselves. This ethos is still present in the agency. Sometimes, our peon (a delightful man called Faheem) can steer us towards a winning idea for a campaign. In that moment, he is not just a peon – he is a creative director.
It would be unfair to claim all our success as our own doing. From day one, we had a bunch of helpful friends who supported us in myriad roles. Some were officially integrated in the agency when we were able to afford them. Others still work in the shadows, pulling strings and helping us out when we are stuck. We did not have an NTN, so we used the one of a friend. We did not have a physical office, so we registered the agency at my father-in-law’s company address. We did not know how to prepare invoices on excel, so we asked someone to help us out. Often, we did not have enough brainpower to figure out pitches, so we invited friends from the industry to help us crack them. All this was done pro-bono, built on a one-sided bet these people made, sure that we would succeed. Initially, I wasn’t keen on asking for favours. But truth be told, we are part of a society that is inherently interdependent. I changed my stance when I realised that people wanted to help us. When you set out to achieve something, the whole universe conspires to help you. A big part of that helpful universe is made up of the people you know.
It is foolish to restrict creativity to artworks, storyboards and scripts. Creativity is the ability to find a path where none exists. Most of our problems were simply challenges that had to be solved with a different line of thought. For starters, we could not afford office space; eventually, we managed to strike a deal for what basically amounted to a small room underneath a telco tower and where we could only turn on the air conditioner when the tower’s generator was switched on. It was a hot little room that only became bearable when there was a power outage in the rest of the neighbourhood. Luckily, in those days, Karachi had a lot of power breakdowns and we were able to secure this office for about Rs 5,000 a month (five grand more than what we could afford). When clients came over, we sat them in the outside area, which had a great view of the tower and of a satellite dish that felt very ‘media-company-ish’ – and hosted them over chai. It made for a great photo opportunity and even brand managers from big companies loved the quirkiness of it all. This attitude carried us all the way to our current position. Any ad agency person will know that there is always a limitation; limited budget, limited time, limited resources. Yet, it is these constraints that help inspire the really creative solutions, the ones which push the envelope and break the clutter.
I was taught at school that an entrepreneur needs to have capital to start a business. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that kind of moolah. We could have secured some investment through loan sharks (in those days, banks would not even give me a credit card), but we decided to be self-sufficient. By bootstrapping our operations, we managed to achieve efficiency and cut down on excess. Over the years, we built a financial model that relied on our hardwork and our successes. If we managed to secure business, that meant we could pay our bills. While this may not be the most prudent way to go about things, it worked for us. Sure, there were months when we didn’t have enough funds to pay salaries and we decided to withhold our own and focus on paying our employees on time. The loyalty we received from these little sacrifices is something we cherish to this day. Even today, our agency is largely self-sufficient. While our financial model is a little more complex, it still relies on building value and powering the company through our work. It helps us stay agile, instils a sense of urgency and prevents us from snoozing on the job. It also avoids the overly optimistic bubble that comes with outside investment models.
Most great entrepreneurs attribute their success to their people, and for good reason. Unlike our seth counterparts, we are forever on the lookout for people who are better than us. More than anything, I think this is what allowed us to grow at the rate we did and become the brand we are today. I understand the lure of hiring for a price point rather than a skill-set, especially during growth years – and good people are expensive. However, most of the time, money is not the only factor in the equation. Some people want recognition, some want challenges, others flexibility and some want to be able to nap on the job. I am proud to say that we accommodate all types of behaviour, as long as they are absolute rock stars at what they do. I am sure I will get into trouble for saying this, but when we interview people, we make choices based on how interesting a person is and not on their salary expectations. Sometimes, we will even pay a premium for the nut jobs. The short-term pay-off is that our people come onboard without feeling like commodities, because we didn’t gauge them on market price. In the long-term, it means an infinitely more fun workplace, with people with diverse interests and passions fuelling the creative fire.
The most challenging aspect of growing from a start-up mindset to a professional company was to put a check on our ragtag ways of doing things. Chaos is good for a small team, but when you are working with a larger set of people, you need organisation. We still remain true to our motto of “the only rule is that there are no rules.” But in the last couple of years, we got the ‘big-boy help’ we needed to iron things out. This meant automating systems, creating learning models and constantly re-assessing the value we provide. It also meant formally registering as a private limited company (no small task given Pakistan’s red-tape bureaucracy), building a national presence and learning to delegate. All this may sound rudimentary on paper, but trust me, they are hard to do – and ultimately absolutely necessary. The most important lesson we learnt was to say no. Our time, our people and our minds are our most valuable assets and we have to pick and choose our projects. In the agency world, your last project is your reputation, so every job we pick must inspire us to do something buzz-worthy. We learnt not to be ‘just a design house’. We trained ourselves not to be yes-men. We expanded our skill-sets to add new capabilities to the agency. All this is a constant and conscious effort to be more than what we are and more importantly, more than what we were. Start-ups are sexy, but you know what is even hotter? Real, powerful businesses that can leave a legacy.
In a nutshell, the transition from start-up to becoming a major independent player in Pakistan’s ad industry is a difficult, yet ultimately rewarding journey. If you are so inclined, you should give it a shot. As a company, most of our contemporaries are well-established giants with half a century of experience behind them and international affiliations to boot. Yet, we often provide them with tough competition in pitches and win clients that last us a lifetime. So light your inner fire, learn from our mistakes and go start your own agency. Give us some competition. And if you want advice, reach out to us! We are more than willing to help.
Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari. firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustrations by Creative Unit.