Over the last decade or so ad agencies have looked to work more and more with start-ups and founders. It felt exciting to work with some of these people as they ‘moved fast and broke things’. There was a disdain for the traditional rules of everything — including marketing. There were some good campaigns made and some very good profits.
The idea of the normal brand manager, the bland manager, from a normal middle of the road FMCG brand seemed a bit dull. All those research groups, the formal feedback and adherence to budgets. That wasn’t new. That wasn’t sexy anymore.
Having worked on both sides of the fence on this one — as an agency but also in a few different start-ups — it’s clear to me that the number of founders producing good work is incredibly low.
To be a successful founder you have to be a big of a nutjob. There are exceptions; Alex Chung the founder of GIPHY is a lovely, intelligent, thoughtful and creative person, the guys who founded Dots are the same. Both Dots and GIPHY were made at betaworks, where I was head of creative for six years. We definitely looked for a certain type of founder; a builder, with appreciation of design and no assholes. But that does not describe most founders.
You need a tough skin to be a founder. You need incredible confidence in yourself. It’s incredibly stressful. For many, seeking outside help — especially on something as lame as advertising — is seen as a weakness.
I was reminded of this recently when we chatting with a founder about a potential project. They approached us. We put together some ideas — for free. The founder hated them. Which is fine. But then a few hours later they went beserk about how we had wasted their time. They said they were ‘furious’ and that we should never contact them again.
I found this quite amusing. We had done the work — probably only a day or two — but you know what it’s like, your brain never really switches off, so probably longer in reality. The founder had spent five minutes reading the ideas. Then offloaded on us about how we had wasted their time.
This is what most founders are like. They perceive their time as more valuable than anyone else’s. Everything must work for them and if it doesn’t you’re the idiot, not them.
Of course many big businesses are made by mavericks. But there is a fine line between maverick and psycho. Not one, but now two, Tom Cruise movies spend a couple of hours regurgitating this idea.
For me, these days, there is something to be said for a good ole brand manager that sticks to the rules. I have always thought that if I’m given a real brief, with a real budget, with a real deadline — in other words some work will be made (has to be made, product is on the shelfs etc) then there is no reason not to come up with something good.
It doesn’t always work out like that. Your good work might not get bought. There are myriad reasons why. You could blame ‘the system’, and say you need more adventurous clients. But be careful what you wish for.