Things I’ve Learned.

Mike Ozan 26.08.17

Playing Offense: Building an Advertising Agency from the Ground Up.

For 17 years, I have run TWIST, a design firm, then brand firm and now a brand agency. When we started, my wife, Connie, was the sole designer and I was the sole writer. I managed clients and developed strategies and concepts, while Connie built the visual vocabulary. We presented together and split the duties of account services – based on their more emotional (Connie as account executive) or logical (me as account executive) leanings. Starting an agency with one room, a beige Mac and a one page-per-minute inkjet printer, then growing it through back-to-back recessions taught us a lot of business lessons, life lessons and patience.

The thing to understand about any agency is that in the world of business-to-business services, we are an oddity. Do you equate us to your law firm or your accounting firm? Well, I say “yes” and I say “no.” Yes, we are as essential to your business as those professionals, but no, we are nothing like them.

Here’s the difference: lawyers and accountants play defense. As your agency, we play offense. Culturally, this idea dictates a lot about how I think about TWIST. This “all-offense” style of thinking has generated a lot of breakthroughs and plenty of challenges.

Here is how I deal with some of those challenges:

1. Think inside the box too.

While we think intensely about bold moves, vision and innovation, we (creative service professionals) always need to filter ideas through business objectives and what we, at TWIST, call “in-the-box thinking.”

Every other day, I am in a meeting where someone says they are looking for “out-of-the-box” ideas. I am a writer first and everything else (professionally) second, so I take words seriously. What does “out-of-the-box” mean? To me, it seems like a ridiculous request. We create ideas that advance business objectives and in vision those things are sometimes outrageous, but they should never be uncontained, unmeasured and ultimately unusable (by professional advertising standards).

At TWIST, we are problem solvers and all problem solvers work inside a box. In the agency world, the box is defined by the parameters of time, budget, staff capacity and risk tolerance. The best, most creative and certainly most effective work lives inside that box.

2. Don’t get any on you; they hired you to do what they can’t.

I try to insulate our team from external politics, committees and corporate think. We exist as an agency to move a business, a cause or a conversation forward. If the company that hired us was able to do that themselves, then they would.

They can’t. That is why I remind our team “don’t get any on you;” meaning yes listen, yes observe but remain an outsider. This is the best vantage point to innovate. It’s our job to ask, “Why?” We are contrarians and that’s good.

3. Candor is what makes creativity go faster, better and smarter.

Wake up. Creativity compromised is not going to get the job done.

Ours is not a contemplative age. It is the age of right now. Business is aggressive; those of us who remain are the wolves. We are the survivors of one of the most challenging times for American capitalism and for advertising. The work we do leaves our caress and enters into a harsh world of digital clutter where the human attention span has been whittled down to less than ten seconds (and ticking away with every smartphone upgrade).

Before I lose your attention, when it comes to your business dealings I recommend you be direct, concise and candid. None of us have the capacity for anything more (or is it less?).

4. Most of your value cannot be seen on a spreadsheet. Never let a number dictate your worth.

Abilities like intuition, interpretation and emotional intelligence are assets that make my accountant cock his head in confusion. They don’t show up on the spreadsheet.

Back-to-back recessions taught me how and when to say “fuck it.” Our business is about doing what others say cannot be done. It’s about new, it’s about change and it’s about knowing it when you see it. If you are good at that, then get a great accountant and remember the bad numbers tell you to quit. Never quit. The good numbers tell you to rest. Never rest.

5. Embrace the silence.

In a time of instant gratification we all feel compelled to answer now—don’t. Instead wait, pause, withhold. If you are in a meeting, especially in a negotiation of any kind, be quiet. Allow the other party to speak. If you are patient they will reveal themselves and the answers you need. Quiet is powerful. It’s an important aspect of creativity. Groupthink doesn’t necessarily make for great think.

6. Professionalism still matters. Conduct business ethically, even if others do not.

When we started TWIST, I set out to do everything right – every client, every idea, every time. I had a moral compass and was rigid. Experience, time or the world wants to take that away from you, but hold on to it because it really does matter. There is the way business is and the way it should be. Hold people to what it should be.

Your professionalism is what clients pay for. Uncompromising values or morals are what talent sticks with. I do what I can to remind myself of the ideal vision for our culture and the client experience. It is the one thing we got right, right off the bat.

7. Pick up the phone already.

A conversation is worth a thousand emails.

The best use of email for complex business correspondence is simply to set a time for a call or a face-to-face conversation. Email is great for quick, get-it-done correspondence, but I have seen misinterpreted emails explode into devastating, business-killing moments.

It’s important to leverage telephone communication for day-to-day and face-to-face for conflict resolution. My father, himself a retired CEO, has always told me not to put anything in an email that I would not want read in court. Every time I have strayed from this tenet, I have found myself in trouble and saying I could have avoided it with a two-and-a-half minute call.

8. There will be fat times and lean times, learn to manage them.

When you are working impossible hours without rest, something magical happens, you complete a lot of work. Suddenly, everyone looks up at you and says what’s next? Don’t panic, business has natural cycles. Whatever your business, it would behoove you to do some pattern recognition and slot in some self-care during those less hectic times. Take the opportunity to retool, sharpen your sword or whatever in order to get prepped for what’s next.

9. Take risks to grow as long as you cannot classify them as foolish

It’s exciting and frustrating. Entrepreneurs have vision and can see the business one year from today and ten years from today. Sometimes the vision is clear, but just because the destination is in view doesn’t mean you have arrived. Take great leaps, make great hires, pursue big opportunities, but find your filter. Mine is—don’t be foolish.

10. Only show your best!

If you are going for an agency position or securing a new account, only show your best work. Less is absolutely more. We won’t miss what you don’t show us. Separate what you like from what clearly communicates your capabilities—no renderings, no incompletes. This business is a show, it’s a song and dance reel, a case study. Amazing photography, design and breakthrough copy. That’s what sells.

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