How has the freedom of running an agency impacted you?

Campaign India catches up with agency heads who have previously worked with a network, to ask them about the change they saw in themselves after launching their ventures

Aug 30, 2022 08:35:00 AM | Article | Raahil Chopra

Earlier this month, ahead of Independence Day, Campaign India released a special print issue.
 
In this issue, Campaign India spoke with agency heads who have previously worked with a network, asking them about the change they saw in themselves after launching their ventures and how the freedom of running independent impacted them.
 
Read on to learn what they had to say...
 
Abhik Santara, director and CEO, ^ a t o m
 
“A network job, while giving access to global talent, and clients, makes you somewhat powerless and therefore suppresses your ambition and personality”
 
Working in a network agency, irrespective of the level you are at, it binds you in so many ways. You are always restricted from making most decisions. Whether it is about sharing profits with your people, venturing into newer areas for value creation, or even pursuing a certain kind of work - there are always guardrails to follow. While it protects you from making wrong decisions, it also stifles you and makes you indecisive. You get programmed to seek refuge in the comfort of multiple checkpoints to validate your actions. You are always working to impress someone else. You are scared and afraid of bringing your imaginations (right or wrong) to life with confidence.
 
I also think a network job, while giving access to global talent, and clients, makes you somewhat powerless and therefore suppresses your ambition and personality.
 
The biggest change that I witnessed in me after transforming from ‘working for someone’ to ‘working for self’ is this sense of freedom. And with that, it has made me far more responsible and understanding of people, values, and business. It has been a complete 360 mind shift. I have started to value the contribution of every person in the journey much more - be it the junior most brand manager, the office caretaker, the vendors we work with or the senior most person in the team.
 
The freedom of running my organisation has made me more ‘responsible’ and ‘understanding’ of every small human emotion. I can’t rely on the cushioning of overseas funds to sail us through, I have to earn the salaries for the team and be responsible (financially, emotionally, and career growth) for everyone who has decided to partner with us. I strongly think that my responsibility is not just towards the people who work with us directly, but see it as a multiple of four (their families) who have to believe in the agency, every day. The people who don’t come to office are the biggest and the most influential ambassadors of an agency. They have to carry a sense of pride and stability to let their son, daughter or spouse go and work with us every day. Our biggest moment of success has never been just about the work, brands, or awards - but when someone brings food from home and says ‘My mother has cooked and sent lunch for all of us’.
 
It has also taught me that the success of every individual in the team is the actual success of the agency. Whether they achieve it by staying within the agency (ideal) or outside, makes it a worthwhile investment. We try to push our teams to punch much above their weight and empower them to fail. There is a culture of entrepreneurship that we inculcate in everyone. I feel accomplished when someone leaves for a larger, better agency. That means we have contributed to their journey and prepared them for bigger plays.
 
Abhijit Avasthi, founder, Sideways Consulting
 
“I now have much greater respect and admiration for people who have built companies and organisations from scratch”
 
My journey of being independent has been a short seven-year one. More than anything else, it has been an adventure filled with discovery and learning.
 
As I started from a completely blank slate, without knowing what I wanted to do, it has given me a much deeper insight into who I am as a person - what I am capable of - my strengths and weaknesses.
 
I feel being independent is an ongoing lesson in humility, refining judgement, endurance, decision-making, and reading people. Strangely, not having the backing of a network has been hugely empowering as it has taken my confidence to another level altogether.
 
I now have much greater respect and admiration for people who have built companies and organisations from scratch.  
 
Anoorupa Bose, founder and creative director, Optimist India
 
“I have become fiercely protective of our creative and human values”
 
I have never felt this kind of love for a company. I almost feel like a mother and Optimist India feels like my baby! I have never had so much patience. A difficult client, a lost pitch, an overdue payment, a lazy teammate or a fraudulent third party no longer unnerve me the way they used to! I have never been more optimistic. I believe we are going to become one of the greatest agencies in the world even though we are just a few months old!
 
With freedom comes accountability. If your company produces bad work or the working environment becomes toxic, you can no longer blame clients, teammates, bosses, network policies or even the industry! You can only blame yourself. So I have become fiercely protective of our creative and human values!
 
Joseph George, founder,  Tilt Brand Solutions and Vector Brand Solutions
 
“Freedom has made me more circumspect and more careful about what decisions I make”
 
It’s obvious to anyone that the freedom to run your venture the way you want to, essentially comes down to the freedom to make decisions you want to – as also to make them quickly as well as the leeway to be able to change, reverse and tweaking them – all of which, precious in the times we live in. This freedom also allows one to make their own mistakes, not someone else’s!
 
So, while this ‘freedom’ has been great and very useful in the last four years of my entrepreneurial journey, it has also been demanding on me in ways I didn’t expect. In the formative years of an entrepreneurial journey, the system is you and you are the system; so irrespective of the reality, every decision or event is seen or believed to be signed off by you – which may or may not be true too. So ironically, freedom has made me more circumspect and more careful about what decisions I make. It has made me more sensitive about the repercussions of my decisions – because they are all mine to deal with – the good and the bad.
 
At the root of this is the undeniable fact that you tend to take everything personally. And every successful entrepreneur needs to quickly find a way to ‘de-personalise’ more and more aspects of the running of the company as fast as possible; because not doing so or doing it too late is personally and professionally, plain inefficient. This becomes even tougher if you take failures more personally than success!
 
Yeah, so is there more freedom in your venture? Absolutely. But it ain’t a free parkour run either. People (Voltaire/Churchill?) say with great power, comes great responsibility – let me say that with great freedom too, comes great responsibility.
 
Nisha Singhania, co-founder and director, Infectious Advertising
 
“You stay up at night worrying about whether you will survive and how you will pay salaries”
 
The change is transformational. It changes you as a person, your outlook on life, success, money, everything. In your venture you do everything - from HR to admin, to new business, to financials, to cash flow management, to even making your coffee and cleaning the office.
 
In the initial days, you stay up at night worrying about whether you will survive and how you will pay salaries. But then eventually when you overcome that stage there is no fear. Nothing can flummox you.
 
Since you are building something, you define your culture, the kind of work, the kind of clients and business you want. It is immensely liberating as you say ‘no’ very often to things you don’t want to do, to people you don’t want to work with, to the rat race, to the trite definition of success.
 
Like I said, it is a roller coaster ride everyone must get onto once in their lifetime.
 
Raj Kamble, founder and chief creative officer, Famous Innovations
 
“Agencies flourished because someone was putting their name on the work released”
 
At a personal level, I can say that I have learned more in the last eight years than in all of my career put together. However, more fundamentally, I think there is larger accountability for brands and clients in an independent agency vs a network. Unlike networks, we don’t have any global accounts handed to us, and that’s why every piece of work we do earns us our next piece of work. Our skin is therefore in the game with our clients because we are only as good as the work we do and our careers are dependent on the work we release for them. Secondly, at the end of the year, we aren’t committed to sending any earnings to a New York or London office, which means everything we earn gets invested back into the teams and resources needed to service the brand.
 
Advertising used to be about David Ogilvy, a Leo Burnett, a Sir John Hegarty, a Sir Frank Lowe. These agencies flourished because someone was putting their name on the work they released and therefore taking complete accountability for the same. Today, their names have become letters outside the office door and when you’re inside you don’t know who you’re working for.
 
Satbir Singh,  founder and chief creative officer, Thinkstr
 
“Often I feel I’m the CCAFITSMHREO: Chief Creative Admin Financial IT Strategy Marketing HR Executive Officer”
 
Large network agencies, because they’re, well, large network agencies, have an abundance of everything: Clients. Resources. Manpower.
 
Some would even say politics. Or, large-scale resistance to even buying a laptop as “clearance is required from Singapore/London/Paris/New York”.
 
As an indie, you are the local, regional and global office. You call all the shots. Decision-making is faster. Of course, you also sanction that laptop only to realise that you should have waited till the next quarter.
 
At a large agency, people with ‘large’ designations are seen only at pitches. Ask any client.
As an indie, you are also involved in creative pieces that you last did in the last century. Invitation cards. Car stickers. FB post captions. (I know you’re straining at your leash to point out that FB didn’t exist in the last century. But, hey.)
 
It means going back to basics. You soon realise that it’s what you enjoyed most about this industry. The opportunity to create. Being hands-on is definitely a plus.
 
Often I feel I’m the CCAFITSMHREO: Chief Creative Admin Financial IT Strategy Marketing HR Executive Officer.
 
You tend to, at our scale, interfere in everything.
 
Being indie, has its stress points. For instance, ensuring that ‘salary credited’ SMS reaches all staff on 30th. Your annual revenue is what large network agencies pay in entry fees at Cannes alone. You may sometimes have to choose between sending a couple of token entries or purchasing that laptop.
 
The good thing is that there’s no regional CCO breathing down your neck for creating award entries or regional CFO for B1 revenue targets. And it’s somewhat difficult breathing down your own neck.
Both large and indie have their ups and downs.
 
In sum, while large network agencies do give you a larger canvas, being indie means you’re faster, more agile, more hands-on, more client connected.
 
Smarter clients tap into indies for precisely that.
 
Sheetal Pritmani Mukherjee, CEO, GripDigi
 
“The freedom has impacted me both philosophically and financially. I crawled, I walked, I ran, I fell… then I stood up again and I started running”
 
While working for others, I helped grow many brands but working for my own venture I realised that I am the brand myself. I can create my culture and ethos and go with that. My colleagues would respect that. If there is a problem, we all address it together and change it accordingly. So that brings us to the next point – freedom. We all have a perspective that we could share and contribute when we were employees of other organisations. But when we build our ecosystem, it is our baby – we can raise it in our very own way. So yes, I’m enjoying the freedom and the growth as a brand – and that’s the biggest change I saw in myself.
 
The freedom has impacted me both philosophically and financially. I crawled, I walked, I ran, I fell… then I stood up again and started running… yet again. The rise-and-falls directly impacted me and my venture. And it will keep impacting me wherever I am decades later. It’s difficult to launch a startup. But it’s extremely difficult to keep it going. Because there is no off day, no one else to blame and no one to help you get up if you fall. You have to get up by yourself. So when you’re free, you’re all by yourself.