If you've always wanted to start a creative agency but fear has held you back, you're not alone. Owning an agency is top of the list of many creative's ambitions, but there is a lot to learn in the process – and not every agency ends up being successful.
We spoke to the co-founder of creative agency Sergeant Walnuts, Richard Attwater, to find out about his experience and impart his wisdom. Sergeant Walnuts opened its doors in Manchester, UK in 2022, so the journey is still fresh in Attwater's mind. Here, he gives insight into the pitfalls and successes he, and his partner Gary Toal, encountered along the way.
So, read on for 8 top tips for success and remember, if you've got an example of outstanding branding you think deserves an award (from packaging design to print ads and beyond), consider entering the Brand Impact Awards on its tenth consecutive year.
How to start a creative agency
01. Find the right time, and the right partner
I’d always thought I’d like to start my own agency one day, but it was important for me to first garner enough experience at really top-draw agencies, so I felt ready. And then it became a case of ‘now or never’. I felt I’d reached the right age, and had the right level of experience, and so decided to go for it.
It’s perfectly possible to enjoy huge amounts of satisfaction working for other people – and I have – but I knew it would feel different when it was my own place. Every client win, or successfully completed project, feel even more rewarding now, and I knew that would be the case.
Setting up with my business partner, Gary, was also hugely important. You can’t just start a business with anyone. It had to be somebody who I rated professionally, as a great creative, and also somebody who I consider to be a good friend. We get on, laugh at the same things, and had similar ambitions in terms of what we wanted the agency to be, and so when we realised that (after many conversations) then there was nothing to stop us.
02. Finesse the perfect attitude
It’s easy to say things like ‘create brilliant work’ or ‘we want to win X awards’ but every agency under the sun will say that. We talked a lot about attitude, and ambition, and working with clients of a similar mindset. There’s a lot of extremely mediocre and forgettable creative work out there – and if your work doesn’t get noticed or remembered, it’s all completely pointless. So ‘creating work that commands attention’ became our core ambition (and mantra).
We also want to be an agency that’s enjoyable and fun to work for and with. That’s really important to us. We knew we wanted to focus on our core strengths (brand naming/creation, brand identity development, comms) but loads of agencies do that. So then it becomes a case of how well you do them (which is obviously important) and what you’re like to work with along the way – and the second one is often underestimated. If you’re nice, fun, and also good at your job, then you’ll do ok (we hope!).
03. Spend time crafting your brand (the name is key)
We started with the name – and that’s the hardest brief of all. We considered hundreds, and it took us weeks. We even got as far as buying a couple of URLs, only to change our mind and go back to the drawing board.
Gary’s a self-confessed naming geek, and loves the science behind a name. So we talked a lot about that. And we did a lot of looking at other agency names, to see if we could find obvious patterns to avoid - we were keen to practice what we preach (stand out rather than blend in) and avoid any well-trodden paths or clichés.
Loads of (brilliant) agencies have cool one-word names (e.g. Anomaly, Bulletproof) but good luck trying to find a meaningful word that hasn’t already been taken. Then there are bucket loads of agencies who pick a ‘colour and animal’ (Google it, pick any colour/animal combination and I’m willing to bet good money there’s an agency using that name).
So, we reverted to things we love for inspiration, and we’re both big fans of Bob Mortimer. He occasionally puts lists of cat names for sale on twitter (for £8) and when scanning the list Sergeant Walnuts immediately jumped out. It fitted really well with our mantra of ‘creating brands that command attention’ and is unlike any other agency name we’ve heard of. Plus, it made us smile. So we posted the £8 off to Bob (we stuck 8 pound coins to a card using Sellotape like your Aunty used to) and that was that. We also bought some artwork, (made using Bob’s cat names) to adorn our office walls.
The brand design work came relatively easy after that. If you use a good designer, they’ll design you something good, so we asked one of our designer friends to help us and we think he nailed it.
04. Be flexible with your timeline
Luckily, [the process has] been fairly smooth sailing. We had a number of potential clients lined up, and projects we thought we’d get, and most of them have come to pass. Apart from wrestling with the agency name for longer than we’d planned, it’s all gone pretty well.
The curveballs have all been things relating to outside of work – and suddenly you realise how closely entwined your personal and private lives have become. I had to unexpectedly go into hospital for five nights for a tooth problem (I’m fine now, thanks for asking) and only then do you realise there’s not a huge team around to pick up the slack like in my previous agencies. If you’re not around to do something, everything stops. Gary and the other creatives stepped in to do as much as they could, but you realise how, in bigger agencies, there’s safety in numbers.
Gary too – who has been living in the Northeast – was expecting to sell his house so he could be down here in Manchester, and we could get our agency office sorted. But the house sale fell through, and so office plans got delayed. So there have been little hiccups like that, which is just life I guess.
05. Channel the wisdom of others
Naturally, we wouldn’t have been in the position to start Sergeant Walnuts had we not spent many years working at other agencies, experiencing things, and learning from talented people. I’ve worked at all sorts of agencies: ginormous to tiny; advertising and design; networks and independent; B2C and B2B; Manchester and London based. I’ve learnt something at every one of them.
I frequently think of particular people I’ve worked with – be they an amazing creative director, or strategic planner – and ask myself ‘what would they say?’ or ‘how would they handle this?’ if I find myself in a tricky spot. You’re only as good as the people who’ve taught you, and I’ve been lucky to spend a lot of time with some brilliant people over the years.
I’ve definitely learned a lot since we launched, but one of the key things is how lucky I’ve been to have worked with such a diverse mixture of people at previous agencies. When you start something new, suddenly you’re MD, financial manager, account exec, talent booker and producer all at once. If something needs doing, you have to do it yourself. So in a typical day, I’m doing new business calls one minute, speaking to packaging suppliers the next, then doing project timing plans at the end of the day whilst trying to cook dinner. It’s not always glamorous, but you don’t mind doing it as it’s your place, and you’re building something.
06. Believe in yourself
For somebody looking for advice as to how to run a successful agency, I’d probably direct them somewhere else! We’re only nine months in, so we’ve a long way to go before we can be considered successful.
But in terms of getting as far as we have, there are definitely a few key things. Firstly, you need to have conviction, and be sure that starting your own thing is definitely what you want to do. It can be tough and stressful at times. I really took my time to think about whether it was what I wanted to do, and waited until I felt I had the right level of experience to run my own place (20 years working in a variety of creative agencies). But if your mind’s made up, then throw everything you’ve got at it, and don’t look back.
07. Think of the practicalities... (but luck helps, too!)
Get an accountant before you do anything else. There are so many things you don’t know you don’t know – from how to register a business at Companies House, to tax and insurance – and a good one will take care of all of that for you.
Have some savings in the bank before you begin is another big one. When you start out, you need to first find the clients, then do the projects, then send the invoices, and then wait at least a month to be paid. So there’s going to be a good few months where there’s very little coming in, and quite a lot going out. Some kind and thoughtful clients let you bill a certain amount upon appointment, so really push for that and try and get your cashflow going early doors.
Finally, just cross your fingers and hope for the best! You can do everything right, and plan all you want, but ultimately you’re in the lap of the Gods – and you need a bit of luck to help get you going.
08. Don't look too far ahead
It still feels like we’re just getting started, so we’re trying not to look too far ahead. Many new agencies don’t make it past the first couple of years, so we’re just focussing on working hard, and trying to build a reputation for ourselves as an agency that does good work (and is fun to work for and with).
Then if we get that right, in 15 years or so, hopefully somebody will come and buy us for millions and millions of pounds, and Gary and I can go and live in big castles (next door to each other, like Ant and Dec).
Check out Sergeant Walnut's website here, and for more inspiration see our list of the best design portfolios around.