Opinion: Joining a start-up agency is a terrible idea

Is joining a start-up agency rewarding and the right career move for people who have spent less than a decade in the business, asks the author

May 31, 2022 04:11:00 AM | Article | Abhik Santara

The Economic Survey 2021–22 shows that India has become the third-largest start-up ecosystem in the world after the US and China. The survey noted that the government recognised over 14,000 new start-ups in 2021-22, compared to 733 in 2016-17. With this, the total number of recognised start-ups in the country surpassed 61,400.
 
India’s start-up ecosystem has undergone a radical change due to a remarkable confluence of entrepreneurs with high risk appetite as well as a more conducive regulatory and business environment.
 
Yet, 80-90% of start-ups fail.
 
But the balance of 10% does make for great case studies. One such industry, where start-ups have seen an unprecedented rise, is in the area of advertising and communication. With digital marketing on the rise, many classical agencies have started to become irrelevant, and the need for data-driven, creative and media businesses has become the norm. Smart brand managers have realised that the old methods will no longer be enough to build competitive long-term equity or short-term advantage. 
 
Most of these modern day agencies are founded by two or three people coming together with business and creative skills. They have significant experience in brand understanding and the credentials of big agencies. They would have also upgraded themselves with modern methods of marketing. These start-ups are not only creating large canvas TVCs, but are also drawing up app UIs, influencer strategies, platform strategies, etc. The status quo is not an option for these founders, and they are on a mission to change the game every day. Consequently, they also need people who share the same fire and passion and have a matching measure of competence and intent. But where do they find such people? Unlike many other industries, the agency business is all about people. It is very hard to form a team that can deliver and transform every day.
 
The options available are either to go for experienced people and mould them or to find native talent who can be trained for business and brand understanding. The former is familiar territory and therefore more tempting, but the latter is an uphill task. It is difficult to choose between the talent of younger people and the maturity and craft of experienced people. Of course, it is driven by the vision, but hiring the right people becomes a very key ingredient for the success of such start-ups. In classical large agencies, 20% of the people do 80% of the jobs, and there are five people to do the job of a single person. There are enough large corners where incompetent gangs can hide and carry on without getting noticed. Start-ups don't have that luxury. From the juniormost resource to the CXO, everyone carries the burden of delivery, accountability, and the value system - every single day.
 
However, this write-up is not about those agencies, rather, it is a cheat sheet for people who want to join the agency start-up ecosystem. 
 
Is joining a start-up agency rewarding and the right career move for people who have spent less than a decade in the business? Is the grass really as green as it seems?
 
In my experience, the kinds of people who are eager to join a start-up can be classified into four buckets:
 
1. High on ambition: They don't see themselves growing at the pace they wish to grow in a large agency set-up. The optics are in place and the yearly promotions keep coming. However, there will always be people at the top (who have spent their entire lives working for the same organisation). And in spite of fancy designations, one will continue to do the same things every day. In a large agency culture, there is no significant difference between the roles of an AD (CD) and an EVP (ECD). Only the unit size keeps increasing. But these guys have a hunger to do more and are not the kind to wait and grow slowly. They are not quite fixated on the kind of work they want to do or the kind of agency they want to join, but are motivated to do something that can bring them into the limelight, fast. 
 
Trigger Points: Incompetent immediate managers; no promotions or raises
 
2. Informed and restless: This is the type that follows trends and craves to do new age work. But their current agency relies on tried and tested ways or is not able to transform quickly. They feel underutilised. Their idea of new age is also not constant, as it should be, and therefore they don't want to be clubbed as one kind. However, in spite of their overworking minds, the archaic agency culture doesn't allow newer ideas to go out. They have, in probability, identified the kind of agency or people they want to join.
 
Trigger points: Linear work portfolio, barrage of unpublished work
 
3. Disillusioned: These are people who have a misplaced notion of self. They feel that their ideas are seldom appreciated and that they are not getting the due recognition and compensation. They are confident that a new place can help them unleash their true power. They are unclear about the kind of agency they want to join, but are only looking for a change for the heck of it. During interactions, they will probably come up with a set of problems which triggered them to look out, rather than why they want to join a particular agency.
 
Trigger points: Ignored for promotions, no visible work.
 
4. The Deal Seekers: Money is their biggest motivation. They have no clear direction or point of view, but want to keep experimenting. They exploit the talent shortage in the industry to their advantage. There is nothing bad about it, as one should know their true worth and must maximise it in their formative years. However, it is important to complete the learning curve or have a worthwhile body of work before moving on to justify their expectations. (Refer to a book called Catalyst, authored by the late V Chandramouli)
 
Trigger points: Friends in start-ups, unsatisfactory increments.
 
Start-ups provide answers for most of the above categories of people. Culture to foster new age ideas, freedom, fast track learning, growth, fame, bigger responsibilities, better money. But there are many other areas that one should carefully examine before joining a modern agency ecosystem.
 
One may consider the following do's and don'ts :
 
Consider joining a start-up, if :
  • You are massively hungry to grow and learn faster. What you would have learned in five years, you will learn in three months. Since you will be thrown into a high-pressure situation from day one, you will not have the luxury of acclimatising. You will have no other option, but to learn and implement.  
  • You think you can set a culture and not someone following a set culture. What you say, what you do, and what you think of advertising will become the culture of the agency. Since you will not have layers and layers of people under or over you, your interactions with clients, vendors, and internal stakeholders will become an integral part of the agency value system. For example, how you make your PowerPoint, present your ideas, or write your minutes of the meeting, will define what kind of agency an outsider will perceive it as.
  • You are action driven and a risk-taker. You will have plenty of opportunities every day to do things your way, make decisive actions, and implement them. But most importantly, you will be empowered to fail. People who are not trying new things are most likely to fall short in a start-up environment as compared to people who are trying and failing nine out of ten times.
  • You believe in bringing new ideas to your functions. Ideas are not limited to creative people alone; newer ideas to do business, tech, and new platforms are all essential parts of a start-up ecosystem. Founders will always look for people who are bringing new ideas to create examples. Every member of a start-up agency has to behave like a founder to make a mark for themselves and the agency they are part of.
Don't join a start-up, if:
  • You are too stuck with one kind of working style: start-up founders will make mistakes every day. A CEO of a large agency has multiple check-points, and therefore very little chance to go wrong. However, a founder will do things his/her own way and therefore make decisions that can go horribly wrong. If you cringe at the thought of doing things differently, and are only comfortable operating in the most accustomed way, a start-up is not the right place.
  • You have a classical notion of stability: Start-ups will be volatile during their initial years. The processes, systems will not be in place. There will be uneven increments, rash business decisions. What classical agencies can only talk about in town halls, start-ups implement that day in and day out. Things like meritocracy (performance based reward system), be more brave and honesty with brands, etc are things that a start-up will practise in reality. But that also means, you will see more frequent business losses and higher employee attrition. Those incidents will create doubts about the viability of the agency and your job. Chances are, that the founders will recalibrate much faster and will always work with back-up plans. But if you are not the resilient kind, start-ups are a bad place to join.
  • You are territorial: We have all grown up in systems where servicing will get a brief, planners will do research, creatives will work on a strategic note. And we all meet two days before the meeting. In between, each department will do their own stuff. If that is your notion of how agencies of the future should function, joining a start-up is a terrible idea. 
  • You want to stick to your KRA: There is no one KRA in a start-up culture. You will be encouraged to play multiple roles. One will come from your professional competence (hard skills) and the other will come from your life goals (soft skills). You can be a great account manager and a platform specialist, a great planner but also a writer, a creative guy, and good with HR too. Playing multiple roles doesn't come naturally to most people, but this is one skill that would come in very handy and make you indispensable. If you don't fancy playing the role you are not paid for, a start-up is not a great place to join.
  • You need a lot of handholding:  Continuing from some of the earlier points, a start-up is a great learning ground. But it also requires a start-up mindset for those who join. People who can self-learn, make mistakes, and grow. There are never enough people to guide you at every step. (I also think 'guidance' is a counterproductive word in the new ecosystem. Guidance will mean teaching the tried and tested ways. But the whole beauty of a start-up ecosystem is to do things that have never been done before and make glory out of them. Of course, knowing the fundamentals is important, but if you fancy being guided at every step, start-ups will make you worried.
  • You love to operate in a slow and languid space. Start-ups are in a hurry to scale up, create noteworthy work fast. And they may not have big brand budgets to do so during the initial years. If you like to swim at a pace which is different from the speed of the agency, you may not be right in choosing a start-up.
Having said that, every start-up has a different vision. For some, valuation may be the primary motivation, and some may just want to create greater and long lasting value. The degree of the above measures may change drastically from one another depending on the vision of the founders.
 
(The author is founder, ^ a t o m)