Why I’m starting my own agency
By Vann Graves
And why I’m asking you to help name it
More than two decades ago, at a time when our industry was just a little simpler, I joined BBDO New York as a completely green, yet unwaveringly optimistic, creative intern. I was lucky enough to be ushered into this crazy business by the late Phil Dusenberry — the legendary man behind campaigns like GE’s “We Bring Good Things to Life” and Pepsi’s “The Choice of a New Generation,” and certainly one of the industry’s greatest creative leaders.
Phil must have instantly picked up on my determined enthusiasm, as he didn’t waste a minute instilling in me the importance of independence when it comes to fostering great creativity. A certain amount of independence is absolutely critical to it. This is still true today, even as the advertising industry has evolved and gotten more complex. Undeniably, every creative still has an innate desire to craft things without others telling them what to do. This eventually turns into a desire to strike out on one’s own. Even Phil tried his hand at this in 1969. After his initial seven-year stint as a copywriter at BBDO, he left the agency to start Dusenberry Ruriani & Kornhauser, returning to BBDO in 1977. He came back, because, despite its “bigness,” BBDO ultimately offered him the perfect balance of creative freedom and opportunity. It was home, and Phil was fulfilled.
For a very long time, I was creatively fulfilled there too. I spent 15 years at BBDO, and I got to work alongside some of the best in the business. The mentorship of these brilliant creative minds is precisely what got me to VP, Creative Director by the time I left. Later, I spent six years at McCann New York, where I got to work on massive clients like Coke, MasterCard and American Airlines. Many of these accounts were equally as inspiring to me on a personal level as they were impressive. There aren’t many other places where you can work on a piece of business like the U.S. Army after you’ve already dreamed up loads of creative ideas from actually being on active duty. I was on a high, and I wasn’t coming down anytime soon.
Fast forward to 2015, when life and love kicked in. My best friend and devoted wife landed her dream job in Chattanooga, Tenn. It was my turn to be her biggest cheerleader. Fortuitously, Chattanooga was an emerging hub for startups, bubbling with the same spirit of possibility that I displayed on my first day at BBDO. Phil’s simple lesson came flooding back: “It’s all about the work, the work, the work,” and soon, the indie itch started to emerge. However, I wasn’t ready to go all in yet — that was a big step.
Leaving McCann was terrifying, and I wanted to create a situation that gave me the best of two worlds — a welcoming, established home and a place where I could produce and practice my craft on my own. I was thrilled when an opportunity arose for a job as President and CCO at Fancy Rhino, a young production company that had gotten a successful start a few years before in the documentary space. I was at a place where I saw the potential to creatively shape a company — not just its clients — and suddenly, the pull to do my own thing started to grow.
I stayed at Fancy Rhino for about a year. During that time, my indie itch only got stronger. I began to realize that while my opportunity there was great, it was not a perfect fit. With a final push from Shelley Prevost, the CEO of our first client, Torch, it felt like it was now or never. So, I reached out to a few friends (now my founding team), and they agreed that it was time to create something that we believed in. A year away from big agency life had opened my eyes. I was ready to take the plunge.
By that time, I knew that a different kind of agency model was essential to making creativity work in a rapidly shifting marketplace, and I knew that this model would not come to full fruition until I built it from scratch. Marketers today are demanding high quality, shareable content, in every form. And they are demanding it faster than ever before. However, it takes a certain type of creative agency to understand that content is not just content for its own sake — when executed properly, it is a highly effective creative solution to a business problem. It also takes a certain type of creative agency to bring quality content to market quickly and efficiently enough to meet these demands.
My founding team, formed with former colleagues of similar mindset, will be armed with a skillset rooted in both production and creative. Using our agility and technical capabilities to encourage experimentation with content, our goal is to integrate production seamlessly into the brand building process. We will have the freedom to deliver beyond a client’s brief and to demonstrate that we can steer our creative in many different directions.
My hope in starting my own agency is that other entrepreneurially-minded creatives might also be inspired by the prospect that, amidst the noise of technology and new media, creativity does still matter; that an efficient structure enables it; and that this noise is actually an opportunity, not a hindrance. Every day, threats to the agency model are bemoaned and dissected; so-called “in-house agencies” are becoming the norm to solving the problem of efficiency, and the agency world is pointing its fingers at Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and publishers for encroaching on a space that we used to own. But we need to stop pointing fingers and realize that agencies can have a model that’s special and capable of bringing big ideas to life — as long as we’re willing to rethink how we operate those agencies.
In the spirit of honoring the bold creative ideas I’ll be asking my clients to trust me with, I’m putting my money where my mouth is and asking the industry to help me name my new agency. And in a nod to the entrepreneurial drive that I credit to my creative friends and mentors, I’ve asked a few of them to throw their suggestions in the hat. The name will be decided through a poll that will be featured here tomorrow. I couldn’t be more thrilled and excited to be able to strike out on my own in an industry that truly never shies away from possibility.