Rowan Adams, founder of PLAY, on the red flags he ignored when starting an agency

PLAY recently turned two, which makes no sense as I’ve aged at least 15 years in that time.

Fortune favours the brave, they say. But then they probably haven’t pitched for every account, hired every member of staff, and lost every deal through a laptop… during a pandemic.

But for better or worse, we’ve made it to this milestone with a good future (I think), a team of absolute Gs (I know) and we’re starting to tempt dream clients over to the playful side (I hope).

However, the path to this point hasn't been without a few red flags along the way. Some we swerved, some we (and I must take responsibility and say ‘I’) ignored.

So, if you’re thinking of setting up an agency when the next once-in-a-generation pandemic hits, here’s my survivor’s guide.

1. Trust your gut

I'll start with the obvious.

When the lockdown hit, every brand went into meltdown and every in-house PR or marketer was worrying about their own job security.

And there was us, the newbies, trying to get them to chance their arm on a fresh agency. It was brutally tough.

Because of this, I certainly was taking on work for minimal margins or work we simply didn't want to do. I had to build a case study of bangers, and that swiftly became the year 1 strategy.

Keeping the place afloat was more important than a more impressive EBITDA.

Though at times, I didn't listen to my gut because I doubted the approach.

We worked with brands where the fit wasn't quite right. We also, in all keenness, over-serviced one publicly listed brand for glory and little more.

Despite them floating on the stock exchange for an eye-watering sum - became a regular time-drain and a lowest payer.

Me and the team talked about where we want to ladder up client-wise, and having a finite “this is for now, not forever” mentality got us through that time.

In the first year, I felt like I couldn't risk asking for more cash, but when we were approached to pitch for another of their projects, I wished I had held my nerve and declined it.

We couldn't hide our frustration in the meeting as we watched the budgets melt away, only to be confirmed by not winning the work.

2. Don’t Go To Strangers

For some reason, despite all our collective experience, the pursuit to win clients was to go in cold.

It took us a year to start tapping up old bosses, contacts, coffee dates from years gone by. They remembered us, we laughed, we pitched, we got PO numbers.

3. Do do everything

It's your shop, so yep, you need to figure out how projects are planned, how much to charge, how best carve up work.

Once you have processes in place, only then can you delegate effectively.

It grinds my gears when I see LinkedIn posts about the power of delegation. I think it is a mistake to not be the one to set the scene.

4. Be wary of the music you're listening to

Bear with me on this one.

By autumn 2020, my mental health was about as fragile as a crispy brown leaf clogging a drain. My metaphors were equally strained.

As a recovering DJ with the hearing deficiency to go with it, I have always turned to a range of blistering techno, gospel house and disco to get through anything. (I have been known to be in an office at 7am with a Boiler Room DJ set reverberating through the office.)

During those initial 18-hour days working - because what else would you do - I would vary my soundtrack.

The problem was, writing a serious op-ed whilst mentally in Berghain, meant my first couple of drafts were packed full of optimism and what we are missing in society, rather than the technical aspects of Open Banking.

Equally having an introverted moment to a Cafe Del Mar chill album took the zest out of a pitch we should have won for an energetic streaming service.

I'm unashamedly emotional, but I must watch what I'm listening to for sure when prepping for pitches.

5. Be wary of fast deals

If it looks, smells and tastes too good to be true, it is. We have certainly won clients in 24 hours on a few occasions.

What followed was a cluster of issues.

I realised these clients were largely impulsive gas lighters who ran a hot poker through the team's confidence. I will never go for the quick win ever again.

6. No one knows more about what you want to do than you

I love taking advice and listening to others. If you're not double taking your own actions, something's wrong.

But no one else can articulate exactly what you want to be doing.

7. Promote when they are on the rise

I have a very clear rule: if you are 70% ready for the next role, you get promoted.

The sheer faith you give to staff instantly bumps their focus, diligence, and bravery.

It's paid off at PLAY with solid staff retention and overall happiness.

We have all been in places where you are asked to do erroneous tasks to prove you are already doing the job. What a massive waste of time. Let's bin this practice off.

Article written by Rowan Adams, Founder of PLAY

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