Lessons From Launching a Startup From a 30-Year Agency Veteran

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John Roberts
John Roberts



agency-startupLook around you: It’s constantly in the marketing news, in the internal emails, and the weekly after-work farewell drinks.


There is a growing band of mavericks who have chosen other pathways or created their own. They decided to explore, invent, and own. And I belong to this group. I am part of a growing group of agency vets who traded in fancy titles and comfortable salaries to become decidedly uncomfortable.

I believe that it is in this discomfort and change where the wild things grow. Or as Paul Arden, author, creative director, and iconoclast once said, “Risks are the measure of people.”

But this transition hasn’t been without its challenges. And even this veteran had a few lessons to learn. Here are a few of them:

1. Life Is Organic — Our Workplace Should Mirror This

Human communities develop and depend on a rich diversity of talent and skills and thinking to survive and thrive. But why doesn't “normal” work life mirror this?

We’ve seen how broken the business of marketing is. It was built on a mechanistic, linear, production-line hierarchy and processes that no longer fit the collaborative world of today.

So we built Truth Collective on a passionate, fundamental belief in the value of a company as an organic being — one that grows, shapes, nurtures, and unites teams.

2. Size Really Doesn’t Matter

We’ve built traditional companies by measuring what frankly, doesn’t matter to us, or to our clients. Size doesn’t matter – you just need to be big enough to deliver and smart enough to do it well. As a startup, we’re learning to appreciate the small and the big. You need to pay the mortgage, as well as nurture talent. You need to pay attention to the monthly revenue, as well as the silly, seemingly insignificant daily moments that make you smile and rejoice your decision.

3. Even Democracy Has Leadership

We started a creative company that would rely on the collective talents of specialists and freelancers. But we’ve already been challenged by how do we grow (hire), yet maintain the integrity of our idea of the (freelance) collective specialists recruited for the specific task and skills required.

When we started our company, we assumed that the first hires would be amazing producers: creative project managers who can also manage people. But we’re finding that what we need, what clients really value most, is a more senior leader. A strategic-thinking ally who helps them see that bigger picture: the why and how, not just the what and when. But these people also need another innate skill: benevolence.

4. No One Loves a Scrooge

It’s a very rare senior leader who understands that the best talent gives away knowledge and doesn’t hoard it. Think about it: Many of us grew up on that ancient business model of acquisition and aggression. We learned to steal business, fight for the seat at the table, and keep others out. But genuinely creative people — real integrators — invite people in.

5. Focus on What Matters

Great ideas, more than execution, are what matter most to clients. Flawless execution of the average is still average. Build your company’s structure around this. To paraphrase Tim Williams: If the client views it as a commodity, it probably is. And there’s no value in valuing a commodity.

Since my partners and I left the expected career path, so many people have said to us: “I wish I could do that.” Well, my friend you can.

Just make sure you really want to choose another path, and you really feel a compelling need to take the responsibility and the risk. Because as a man far smarter than me once said, “Risks are the measure of people.”


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