Our ‘Mad Men’ Moment


Originally published in Ad Age Magazine on July 29, 2010

Revisiting the Joy of the Startup

For Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, it was a box of sandwiches at the Pierre. For the three co-founders of Shine, it was a Perkins Restaurant in Madison, Wisc., circa August 2001. And while certainly a different time — not to mention a very different cultural context and set of circumstances — there are a few truisms that likely ring true for virtually any new agency. It’s been said that going back to the beginning is the best way to continue moving forward; so sit back, pour a martini and revel in a few thoughts on the joy of the startup.

It’s about the work. You don’t start a business if you don’t care about what you do. Period. You have to have a passion in your belly, a belief that great creative can make a difference, and a desire to make art that creates commerce. Never forget why you started your agency in the first place.

It’s about the people. More startups fail than succeed (by a lot). I’d venture to guess that among the myriad of variables that can go right or wrong finding the right business partners is at or near the top of the list. People who make each other (and their work) better. With whom you can endure the profound ups and downs, not to mention risks and rewards. And beside whom you can deal with the stresses and surprises that are quite frankly larger than you ever could have imagined.

It’s about creating the kind of place you want to work. When we started, our goal was simple: To create the kind of agency we always wanted to work at. Where creative was revered and results guaranteed. Where we were treated fairly and with respect. Where work and play were in equal measure. And where the abilities and effort of employees are acknowledged, appreciated and rewarded accordingly. Manage your agency to these goals, and you’ll find that you have a workforce that is committed, confident and ultimately more creative. (Which, by the way, is exactly what we sell — creativity.)

It’s about hard work. First, let us be clear: There are tons of harder ways to make a living. As Tina Fey is known to confess about her own industry, “It’s not coal mining,” the same can quite obviously be said of our own profession. That said, there are agencies (and people) that work hard, and there are those that do not. At Shine, we have always believed in creating our own luck. Which means digging deeper, searching farther, providing more and exceeding expectations at every turn. A little something called value. It’s amazing how attractive that is to clients — large and small, regardless of category — across the country.

It’s about controlling your own destiny. Nothing says you value your people — and your culture — more than getting rid of clients that are abusive, disrespectful and ultimately cancerous. While we are in the business of artful commerce, we ultimately need to not just believe in our clients and their brands — but be a good “fit” from a relationship standpoint as well. The same holds true for your team. We all know how important it is to reward your star performers — but it’s equally, if not more, important to remove those teammates that that are a detriment to the work and culture.

It’s about delivering the goods. As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing more exciting than bold work that leads to outstanding client success. The science of planning, the art of creative, and the common sense of a well-executed plan are additive (and arguably addictive) component parts. While some small agencies are founded on a penchant for something different, from my humble perspective, the ones that have stood the test of time took the most delight in doing not just great work, but great work that led to profound business gains for their clients.

It’s about the passion. Ours is not a 40-hour-a-week profession. Great ideas don’t start at 9 and clock out at 5. Great agencies take the time and do whatever it takes to get the job done (and done right). There is a deep satisfaction that comes from knowing that you’ve made something from nothing. That you’ve filled the blank sheet of paper in front of you with an idea that will dramatically and positively affect your client. When you no longer have that satisfaction, it’s probably time to sell the agency to those who do.

It’s about sandwiches from Trudy. We’re nine years into our own grand experiment. From three to 31 employees. From basements and spare bedrooms to a new downtown office building that we recently purchased and will move into next year — just in time for our 10-year anniversary.

And while hard work, luck and persistence have been critical to our success, so, too has been the support of our families and friends. Perhaps a difference from our friends on “Mad Men,” but one worth acknowledging (and appreciating) from our own corner of the universe.

No one knows what season four holds in store for the “Mad Men” (and women) and their new agency — or, for the crew at Shine for that matter. But suffice it to say, it will be an adventure. A brave new frontier in advertising, albeit from a different era. And at the end of the day — as someone who frankly can’t imagine doing anything else for a living — we wish our friends at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce all the best.