Dan Cullen-Shute

Campaign: Building an agency, Hamilton style

Dan Cullen-Shute
Campaign: Building an agency, Hamilton style

Dan shares tips for building your own agency, drawing inspiration from the hit musical Hamilton.

From a work point of view, the first month of this year has been largely characterised by two things: pitching and interviewing. The latter, because we’re looking for a head of account management/MD type, and the former, because well, if you’re an independent agency and you’re not pitching nigh on constantly, then you’re probably not going to be around for very long. (Fist bump to the indy fam.) 

Now, on the surface, these aren’t two activities that have an enormous amount in common. On the one hand, you’re sitting on the wrong side of a massive power imbalance, as you desperately try to persuade brilliant people to give you a chance; and the other is… well, you can fill in the rest of the joke yourself. 

What both processes do lead to, though, is a fair bit of introspection – and if you’re doing either of them right, a fair bit of getting to know the agency you founded. Particularly, if I’m honest, the interviewing: because, while I may joke about it, finding someone brilliant isn’t enough. You have to find someone brilliant who will be everything you need them to be, whatever that happens to be on any given day. That means they need to love the agency as much as I do. Which means I need to be able to explain WHY I love it as much as I do. And working out how to articulate that is actually a hell of a lot of fun. 

 

So today I’m going to share with you a bunch of tips to bear in mind when you’re setting up your own place. And, for no reason other than that I’m going to see it this week, having first listened to the soundtrack more than two years ago, and I fucking love it, and sometimes I get over-excited, shoot off at the mouth, there’s going to be a Hamilton: The Musical theme to those thoughts. 

(A note: if you haven’t seen Hamilton or listened to the soundtrack, then you should. Partly because it’s amazing, and partly because the only other way to make sense of a lot of what I’m about to say would be to get pretty into American history, and it’s MUCH quicker to listen to the musical.)

So, first up, the obvious one: be Hamilton, not Burr. Alexander Hamilton, our eponymous protagonist, is defined by his principles and his beliefs. Arguably, sure, they end up killing him, but look at what he achieved first. The sad truth is, when you look at the modern agency landscape, you’ll see a lot more Aaron "If You Stand For Nothing, Burr, What Will You Fall For" Burrs out there. Principles are bloody expensive things (seriously, our P&L would KILL for a gambling company), but without them, you’re not left with much. 

Build a business full of Schuyler sisters: by which I don’t mean filling it full of smart, opinionated, passionate women, but rather being a business that embraces dissatisfaction. Celebrate the triumphs, sure, but never forget that good enough should never be good enough. Stu sent me a message yesterday that said (among other, jam-making related things): "I don’t ever want to settle on any level when there’s higher ones to shift up to". And while I’d obviously rather he’d said, "there ARE", that spirit, that ambition, that dissatisfaction is what drives us. It’s what’s got us this far, and it’s what will make us better. We can be excited, but satisfied? Never. There will ALWAYS be a million things we haven’t done. 

 

Also, build a business full of Schuyler sisters: by which I 100% mean filling it full of smart, opinionated, passionate women. The industry’s full of them, and hardly any of them are being treated right. Don’t make that mistake.

I’ve banged on about this before, but you’re not going to manage this without a great gang around you. As Hamilton had Laurens, Lafayette and Mulligan, so every Murphy needs his Golding and Priest, every Hornby his Clemmow and Inge, every Robertson her Waters, Townsend and Graham, every Calcraft her DBT and the little Scottish fella, and every me needs my… well, every single one of the brilliant buggers whose brilliance I get to bask in every day. Surround yourself with people who scare you with how good they are, and watch your business fly. 

Just as George Washington needed a right hand man, so you need to recognise that you can’t do this on your own. Perhaps ironically, a great independent agency – much like a great independent nation – isn’t about standing alone at all. 

Listen to Yorktown before a pitch. I don’t have a clever analogy for this one, it’s just a fucking great song. Do it. You’ll feel amazing. 

Oh, and brace yourself: you’re going to need to have a bit of Hercules Mulligan about you. Because, at some point, you are going to be in the shit. 

Finally, whatever you’re doing, and in whatever you do, do your damnedest to make it great, and do your damnedest to make it Good. No independent agency is going to be around forever, and the truth is, we have limited control over who (lives, who dies, who) tells our story – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be obsessed with how we’re remembered. Don’t throw away your shot. 

Read the article online here