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Inexplicably Drawn to Danger

By Clive Howse

I was asked the other day why I’d given up a comfortable life in a big agency to set up my own business.

I suspect that most people when they ask this sort of question expect you to launch into the usual (and very laudable) story of how you had outgrown your old role, could see how the world was changing and with the backing of a savvy angel investor and some supportive clients made the break to become an immediate success!

In my case though, the truth was somewhat different.

I enjoyed my 17 years at my old agency where I was lucky enough to work alongside many of the leading lights of our industry. I ended up running the largest team in the agency but still had bucket loads to learn and the support of my colleagues to continue progressing in my career.

I’m not a brave person… you’ll never find me jumping out of a plane or bungee jumping. But sometimes I find myself being inexplicably drawn to danger. I’ve always lived out in leafy Chislehurst (not in itself a particularly dangerous part of the world). One early manifestation of this occasional need to scare myself silly was my teenage habit of getting home from parties in the early hours by taking a short cut through the woods. Safer options were available (walking along well-lit roads or waiting for the night bus) but none of them gave me quite the same sense of elation I experienced when I finally emerged unharmed from the woods that much closer to home!

I think it was this same perverse fascination with scaring myself from time to time that led me to quit my secure job back in 2008 and plough everything I had into setting up my own business. Credit here should also go to my long suffering and very supportive wife and my teenage sons. I promise you that there’s nothing more humbling than your 17 year old son telling you not to buy the trainers you know he really wants for his birthday (“Dad. We can’t afford them”).

I won’t bore you with a blow by blow account of the first few years. In short, they were difficult and certainly not helped by the biggest global meltdown in financial history nor the long recession that inevitably followed. However throughout that whole period, I retained an unshakable belief that I would, once again, emerge unharmed on the other side that much closer to where I wanted to be.

I just needed an opportunity to show what I could do.

A quick aside here to anyone who has either recently set up their own business or is considering doing so. I’m sure that one of the main reasons why start up agencies can fail is down to impatience. Have faith. Stick with it. Plan for the long term. It was well over a year before I picked up my first proper client.

Anyway, by a mix of good fortune, the support of industry colleagues (sometimes mates but often from quite unexpected places) and my natural stubbornness, the opportunities did eventually come along. And then, by building a reputation as the guys who could fix any campaign and sinking pretty much every pound we earned back into employing really good people… we grew. We actually grew into, what I believe to be, the most effective advertising performance specialists in the UK.

Ten years on and one thing you realise is that you never truly emerge completely from those metaphorical woods. However I now have 26 wonderful colleagues keeping me company and together we’re ready to take on anything (something that has come into its own in recent weeks)...

And actually, that’s by far the biggest reward for running your own business. I know that I owe our success to the team around me and with no anonymous shareholders to keep happy, we can focus all our efforts on them.

Making sure they are all supported, rewarded and appreciated is critical. If you look after your people they don’t tend to leave. Clients benefit from more consistency on their account whilst we save a fortune on recruitment. Not only is it the right thing to do… its actually great business!

We’ve just come 22nd in Campaign’s Best Places to Work 2020. I couldn’t be more proud. Clearly we still have some work to do (hats off to all the agencies above us… I’m going to have to call Dan at December 19 to see what I can learn from those guys!) but it’s a great start for a first attempt.

So to anyone out there who is thinking about setting up, I’d thoroughly encourage you to be brave and go for it. Yes, taking the path less trodden is a daunting thing to do, but the rewards are worth it.. you really can’t put a value on the emotions you experience when you have successes like this.

My only advice would be to see if you can find someone to keep you company and definitely take a torch!