Last week I watched the documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom:
It’s about all the great backing singers who supported the biggest acts of the last fifty years. Some were famous for taking on that role, while others were unknown despite being the real (but uncredited) singers on lots of big hits.
It was interesting for lots of reasons but for me the point that stood out concerned the balance between having a lot of talent and remaining in the background. There was a constant tussle for some of them about why they weren’t fronting the bands they were singing in. They were often better singers, but they had to stay at the back while someone with less ability got all the glory. Several tried to break out as a solo artist, but none seemed to make much of a success of it. (Obviously there’s more to being a star than just a good singing voice, and that’s what many of them discovered.)
That got me thinking about the mentality it takes to start your own agency. What mindset is required to give up the steady pay cheque and perhaps remortgage your home for a chance at running your own place?
When I was part of the team that started Lunar BBDO in 2005 we still had our salaries coming in from AMV, so the situation was never under the same risk as a real start up, but what I got was the invigoration and excitement of having the buck stop (to some degree) with me. Being somewhat in charge, deciding what accounts to take on, who to hire, what work to present etc. was really enjoyable, and if you haven’t experienced that I recommend moving things in that direction until you do.
But I never had the inclination to create a proper start up. I get the impression that those people are driven by something else, at the core of which must be the feeling that you can do it better that the rest. In many ways it’s the next logical step after proving yourself in some kind of high level position, but many people can simply keep going within their current agency or network. To feel like you need to step outside those strictures must take a different perspective entirely.
From the outside, the benefits appear to be: not having a boss; the possibility of making the kind of money you just can’t make as an employee; the chance to learn from a fascinating life experience; the opportunity to see if your suspicions about how the agency set up can be improved are correct; possible fame; freedom (of one kind); and a bigger sense of satisfaction in the successes that have been won with more risk and effort.
The downsides appear to be: lack of security; all-consuming hours (at the start, at least); and the ball-ache of running a company (regulations etc.).
So the good bits seem to outweigh the bad, but if that’s the case then why don’t more people do it? I suppose one significant stumbling block is having to find a bunch of people with whom you’d be happy to step off a cliff, and that’s not always easy.
Have you started an agency? Have I missed out the real reason you decided to go it alone? How has it worked out? Do you regret it? And if you haven’t done it, would you like to? What’s stopping you?