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Here's what it's like to start an ad agency

If you work in advertising, you’ve probably had those moments where you’ve been frustrated with how things are and have played around with the idea of just starting your own, better agency. While that’s a nice idea that many flirt with, it takes guts to actually go for it.

Starting any new business is a big risk, and starting an advertising agency in today’s competitive and constantly changing digital world has its own special set of challenges to take into consideration. Digiday spoke with several agency founders to hear about their experiences starting their own agencies, mistakes they’ve made, and advice for those who want to take the leap. Here are some things to think about before you start your own ad agency:

It’s not for the faint of heart.
“Make sure you understand the energy it’s going to take to see it through, ” said Phyllis Dealy, partner at Woods Witt Dealy & Sons. “Make sure you have a strong heart because you have a lot of ups and downs, and when you are down, you have to get right back up, and when you are up, you have to have some humility and understand that it’s cyclical.”

Dealy had spent her early advertising career as a traditional media buyer in the ’90s and moved over to digital agencies afterwards and then did freelance consulting. It was during this time that Dealy was introduced to Harry Wood and Gill Witt, who would soon be her agency founding partners. In 2007, Dealy agreed to join as a partner and help get the agency up and running, even though she had just had her second child.

“I knew that I had the energy to start an agency, and I was pretty confident once I met these guys — it really clicked, ” said Dealy. “The fact that I’d already been working on my own for five years helped too.”

Be ready to fail.
“It’s not that I didn’t like working for anybody else, but I honestly thought I had some good ideas and could benefit from a little less friction in getting them done, even if they failed, ” said Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus. “I was pretty good at recovering from failure, which is an important characteristic when starting an agency — you have to know when to move on from no’s to find a better yes and you have to have thick skin.”

Schafer founded Deep Focus in 2002 after working at early Internet ad firm iTraffic fresh out of college and then on the client side at Miramax Films.

“I wanted to change advertising, so I started my own agency — digital agencies had become too siloed, so it was that professional frustration, ” explained Schafer. “It wasn’t my life’s dream, but I believed in it and felt that if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out; and having a kind of devil-may-care approach got me to stick with it longer probably.”

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