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The Harte Hanks Blog

Injecting a start-up spirit into advertising

Explaining the inner workings of the productThere’s something about a start-up business that gets the pulse racing: that energy, that pressure, that collective spirit to pull together to turn an idea on a PowerPoint slide into a living and breathing business. Whether it’s a tech business starting out in another garage in Palo Alto or a creative one launching around the corner from our Bristol, UK office, they share common challenges and opportunities. That journey to launch will rarely be easy but the sense of achievement in taking an idea to market should never be underestimated.

As an agency, we’re big fans of the start-up spirit. Many of our clients may now be global technology corporations, but many of them still have that passion for the product coupled with a pioneering attitude to launching new products or services. I think parts of the ad industry could benefit from an injection of start-up spirit to help us ensure our people are best-motivated, our ideas stay best of breed and that we don’t get stuck in old habits of doing things.

Here are five lessons we can learn from start-ups:

  1. Speed/ agility: often the success of a start-up is their speed in executing from idea to launch. Agencies that can compete on speed and break through organisational process to deliver, no matter what, may find themselves more recession proof.
  2. Teamwork: at the risk of romanticising what can be a very tough working environment, there’s something very important in a culture where everyone mucks in, whether it’s assembling your own IKEA desk or pulling an all nighter to stick brochures in envelopes. That collaboration where people come out of their silos to take collective responsibility is a great asset for any organisation.
  3. Goals: a start-up is the machine that takes a new idea to market and that’s exactly what agencies like Mason Zimbler do. We launch products and services for brands. When the clock is ticking and launch is 30 days away, that mix of pressure and focus makes sure people are focused on action and implementation. Having a clear and simple goal on execution, and doing whatever it takes to get there, is a great motivator.
  4. Customer-focus: start-ups are usually pretty close to the customer and therefore effective at making decisions looking through the customer lens. Sometimes the ad industry is guilty of devising ideas in isolation, neglecting the most important person in the equation: the end user.
  5. Passion: working 18 hour days, sleeping under your desk and living off take-away pizzas for long stretches might not sound like fun but that camaraderie of a team preparing to launch a site, product or piece of software is often driven by passion. The ad industry needs to fall back in love with our clients’ products and rediscover our own passions.

Already we’re seeing how some more progressive thinkers in the industry are turning entrepreneurial. Some agencies fed up with clients turning down killer ideas have turned the tables by setting up their own businesses to exploit their intellectual properties – if the client doesn’t like it, we’ll do it ourselves. Other agencies are partnering to create VC funds to create and exploit IP; they’re becoming start-ups themselves.

We’re going to stick to what we know best so you won’t see us launching our own venture capital fund or setting up our own online store quite yet. But I’ll certainly stay open minded about how injecting start-up thinking might alter our routemap. And in the meantime we look forward to welcoming the next generation of Silicon Valley garage start-ups as clients.

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