Starting an Ad Agency? You Might Consider Doing These 'Don'ts'

Successful founder John Geletka explains

For the past 25 years, I've occupied nearly every role one can have in an agency, from account and creative to strategy, project management and even the front desk. I've received a lot of advice from many of the most successful people in the business. 

Naturally, I've followed much of this guidance. But I've also ignored quite a bit of it—and doing so has worked to my advantage.

Here are some examples...

Don't hire your friends. You can't have the tough conversations, and it's impossible to fire them.

At first glance, this seems like sound advice with considerable truth to it. However, working with people you consider friends can be a rewarding experience. The most important lesson I've learned is to have the tough conversations upfront, letting them know what may happen, when and why. These additional five minutes of discussion have not only salvaged relationships but also strengthened them. And I get to work with people I want to be around every day.

Don't be a bank for your clients. It's costing you money, and they may never pay you.

When I started this company, Covid hit, and there was a lot of uncertainty. Rather than waiting it out or failing, I disregarded this age-old advice and took the risk—treating every project like a mini-retainer. This approach helped our early clients navigate uncertainty and turned out to be a win-win. As we grew, we were able to secure larger projects simply because we offered a better cash management option for our partners.

Don't go at it alone.

I'm really bad at many things, so I've brought in partners to offset my weaknesses. While partners can be fantastic, I ultimately decided to go all-in on myself. A couple of early investments that proved invaluable were outsourcing finance and operations to a contract team. This decision helped me focus, grow and deliver. Now, as the sole owner, these functions are in-house.

Don't deliver more than your clients pay for. They'll get in the habit of always expecting more.

This industry is tough, and over the years, agencies have developed thick skins. Our margins have been whittled down to almost nothing by large procurement teams, and our time has been consumed by clients who don't understand our business. In response, we've drawn so many operational hard lines for minor infractions. It hinders the work and makes relationships hard. Our internal motto is "125 percent is the minimum," and we always strive to deliver more. Perhaps it's delivering early to ease the minds of stressed executives, or a few extra commercial edits. Identifying what that additional 25 percent means is key and it goes a longer way than anything else when it comes to growth.

Hire the best of the best.

A strong team that knows how to collaborate will outperform the best individual contributor. Over the years, I've stopped chasing talent and started seeking a winning mindset. Today, we hire for attitude and aptitude. Talent is necessary, but I much prefer having someone on my team who wants to solve problems and possesses a solid core skill set, rather than someone who doesn't aim to elevate or support those around them. In this business, expertise is fleeting. Those who evolve and grow are the ones who succeed.

Don't hire full-timers. People are a burden.

Hiring people is costly and risky. Period. There are higher fixed costs, management obligations and an ever-growing healthcare burden that weighs on your shoulders. However, there's another side to the coin. You need a team that can work together to solve problems. A team that can effectively service a large business, propel a company forward and accomplish something meaningful beyond generating revenue. Try running a business well with 20 freelancers. I've seen that movie before, and while it can be profitable for a few years, it's neither sustainable nor rewarding in the long run.

The agency model is broken. Don't be an agency.

Our job is to disrupt other industries, so naturally when we look at ourselves, we apply the same lens. And that perspective, which makes us great at helping others, sometimes makes us terrible at helping ourselves. So many new owners choose to fight against what we are. They create the "anti-agency." Rage about our operating model.  And even if it's just their branding, a part of the game, it's become pretty common advice. 

It makes sense. I mean, there are thousands of marketing/advertising agencies in the country that represent around $68 billion in annual revenue. And most of us are internally a hot mess. But that's where that magic happens. 

At Geletka+, we embrace the idea of being an agency—standing on the shoulders of giants and striving to make a few small things better every day.

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John Geletka
John Geletka is the Founder and CXO of Geletka+, a digital agency based in Chicago.

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