Can a rare new marcomms startup upstage the status quo or will it be left tinkering at the margins?

23rd May 2016

“Whatever happened to all the startups?” somebody asked me the other day. It wasn’t an entirely flippant question, and it got me thinking – there hasn’t been too much action in the startup scene this year.

I’ve no idea why this is. In a highly consolidated industry, as marketing communications undoubtedly is these days, there will always be those who wish to break free of the corporate world and try starting off on their own, or perhaps with a couple of like-minded colleagues or workmates.

It’s the marcomms equivalent of a high-powered banker or lawyer quitting the rat race to open up a country pub, open up an artisan bakery or craft brewery, or – for the really adventurous – set up a croft in Scotland.

As with all ventures that involve change, there is of course an element of risk involved, particularly if you are at that point in your life where you have mortgages and kids to worry about.

Notwithstanding risk, startups can be hugely successful. Just look at perhaps the most acclaimed ad agency of recent years, Adam & Eve.

Back in 2008, at the height of the post-crash recession, three senior figures from WPP’s mighty Y&R network – CEO James Murphy, executive creative director Ben Priest and planning director David Golding – resigned to start up on their own.

In such an uncertain climate, this took some balls – especially since Sir Martin Sorrell, not a man to be crossed, slapped a lawsuit on them for alleged breach of contract.

But this particular startup has been a complete and unqualified success. Having blue-chip firms like John Lewis, Westfield shopping centres and the Telegraph Media Group as your first clients helped, of course, but all three principals, along with their staff, used the opportunity to shine, both creatively and in terms of new business; at one point, they’d scooped so many new accounts they had to close their doors so they could concentrate on existing clients.

Just five years later, Murphy and company returned to the corporate fold in selling to Omnicom’s DDB. Wisely Omnicom left them to it, and Adam & Eve has continued to thrive. In fact, if anything, the presence of the Adam & Eve team has re-energised the moribund DDB UK network. It could indeed be argued it was a bit of a reverse takeover, with the A&E team now effectively running DDB.

The success of Murphy, Priest and Golding must have been an inspiration to other suits, creatives and strategists with itchy feet back then. Many quit secure jobs, launched in a recession, and were rewarded with a shedload of sexy accounts and armfuls of awards.

That’s why it’s perhaps odd that, with the economy in better shape than it was in 2008, and – thanks to digital and mobile – the cost of entry comparatively low, there haven’t been more startups. It’s not just a pity for old romantics like me, who like to see people following their dreams and ambitions, but also because startups are the oil that keeps the M&A market – which of course my company Green Square depends on – moving. Startups create excitement, introduce new ideas and new ways of doing things, grow over time, subsequently seek further growth infrastructure (and value for all their hard work) and keep dealmakers in gainful employment. Putting it bluntly, fewer startups = smaller pipeline of deals as time goes by once current agencies are sold.

Whilst the last few years haven’t been bereft of startups, few have had the high-profile success of A&E in recent times; some have been getting by quietly making a living, others have fallen by the wayside, a few have been swallowed up by bigger entities.

But that should not stop anyone wanting to emulate the Adam & Eve success story. That’s why I was gratified to read the news on Monday (16 May) that a pair of high-profile executives from M&C Saatchi’s PR division – global MD, Gary Wheeldon, and global executive creative director, Steve Strickland – have decided to set up shop on their own.

We’ve said it many times before, but in some ways, PR has been the most transformed by the rise of digital. It’s no longer just about punting press releases out to the media, or crisis management; it’s about engaging influencers, and creating a buzz. It’s also now a much more ‘creative’ (in the best meaning of the word) discipline that intersects with all the other circles on the grand Venn diagram of marcomms.

So Wheeldon and Strickland’s new venture – intriguingly (or clumsily, depending on your point of view) called Talker Tailor Trouble Maker – is an interesting prospect, especially as it’s aimed at brands “looking to upstage the status quo”.

The new agency will operate as an “online shop” for brands, which includes launch client, the English National Opera; the agency has been briefed to offer creative and strategic advice to ENO’s CEO Cressida Pollock directly. Given that ENO has always been a challenger brand, forever in the shadow of its bigger, better-funded sibling the Royal Opera House, ENO is an appropriate first client for an agency looking to shake things up.

Strickland told the trade press: “We’re looking to partner with client brands that want to cause some trouble. Behaving like a challenger is not simply the preserve of startups, every brand can have a little more fun with its comms.”

Talker Tailor Trouble Maker is claiming to offer services centred on four key areas: creative, content, connections and communication.

Perhaps most interestingly, it also says that it is committed to never “white-labelling” third party suppliers, or marking-up third party suppliers, brought on board to service clients. That sounds like shaving margin (agencies of all kinds outsource work and charge it back to clients at a profit), but may win them friends as it guarantees transparency. Clients can see what they’re paying for and TTTM will only ever put people forward on the basis of excellence, not how much they can make on them. We like this at Green Square as we have a very similar ethos in respect of our board advisory team, and it works!

In any case, with PR, the costs aren’t necessarily high anyway, at least on the agency side. Nowadays it’s a highly mobile discipline, whose activities can (and should) be conducted at any time, anywhere. You don’t even need an office, just a great contacts book and a decent reputation, which both principals, with almost 40 years’ experience at PR shops like Freuds and Weber Shandwick between them, certainly have.

Having set out their stall, one can only hope that they follow through on their promises and that they do well – it’s an interesting prospect and a very ‘sexy startup’ creative way of doing things. The danger is that they end up on the margins of PR, because their different way of working scares off the (inherently cautious) big clients who pay the rent; low as that rent might be. All they need is a client as forward thinking as John Lewis marketing director Craig Inglis (who has played such a huge part in A&E’s success) and they’re away. I wish them very well indeed.