The Untold Stories of Starting an Agency

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Johannes Leonardo began in 2007, on the eve of a global recession, with nothing but a belief: That most brands out there live shallow lives and that to make a difference we needed to stop living one ourselves. We left our cushy corner office gigs at the agency we had just helped make Cannes Lions Agency of the Year, along with our client that took home Marketer of the Year, and created an approach to tap into the new potential we saw.

We scribbled down a mantra that we still live by today: The consumer is not the destination for our work; they are the medium for it.

And to activate them as such would require giving brands a point of view people could get behind. Not just help position them, but inspire them to take a position. It was a modern approach that placed emphasis on humanity, not technology. Emotion, not science. A decade of later, we are still driven by these principles that have seen us through the ups and downs, wins and losses.

Our job as creative people is to extract a brand’s core truth and tell powerful creative stories that have a positive influence on the world.

Here’s what we wish we’d known when we were starting out:

Double down on your purpose.

Our job as creative people is to extract a brand’s core truth and tell powerful creative stories that have a positive influence on the world. When you start a company, no matter the industry you’re in, you’re always going to have tough moments. And when they happen, it’s having something bigger than yourself to believe in that pulls you through. For us it’s been the conviction that we have something meaningful to contribute to the advertising industry. We suspected early on that the industry would become distracted by endless technology and media trends and lose sight of the real value we can provide—arming brands with a powerful argument that will stand the test of time and capture imaginations the world over.

You Will Get Knocked on Your Ass.

That’s Okay.
 The most vivid moments from our early beginnings came after winning a hotly contested fashion retail assignment. We flew to see the owner for a high-stakes meeting—the catch being we weren’t allowed to show any of the work that won us the pitch. The meeting came to an abrupt halt halfway through when the owner rescinded the offer. Needless to say, the celebratory dinner with the pre-ordered champagne was hard. The flight home was even harder. That’s when we really found out that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And that if you’re inward looking and a good listener it does something else also: it makes you smarter. When we look back on some of our early failures, at the time they felt unjust, but now we see that we wouldn’t have accomplished what we have without those early learnings. Today we go about things in a different way to back then. And chances are in the future we’ll doing things differently than we are now. In this business if you’re not busy improving, you’re busy dying.

Be Honest about Your Weaknesses

No agency on the planet ever become great without a great team of people complementing each other.

The earlier you can do that the better. No agency on the planet ever become great without a great team of people complementing each other. Johannes Leonardo is ending its 10th year in business, but in many ways the agency feels two years old to us. We’ve got a fantastic management team that is helping us become better where we need to, allowing us to set precedent rather than follow it and allowing us to concentrate on what we do best: helping modern brands solve their biggest challenges.

Don’t try be everything, just try be great at something.

These days it’s very easy for agencies to pretend they can do it all. It’s also very tempting to chase every revenue opportunity. But the reality is we live in a moment when the value our industry provides is being questioned. The last thing it needs is more agencies faking it or birthing more agencies based on a trend or short term need. We need to believe in and commit to the difference creativity can make. It’s the one skill that is the hardest to come by and it’s also the one skill that will always be relevant.

Choose Your Team Wisely

As creative partners for the past 13 years, we have always shared a similar approach to work. But when you’re thinking about starting a business with someone, that’s not enough. You need to ask yourself a different set of questions, more human ones—does this person have integrity, will they be there when things get tough, will they put work before ego, will they support you? We’re obviously proud of what we’ve accomplished together. But what we’re even prouder of is, how after all these years of working together, how after all we’ve been through together, that we’re still close friends who respect one another.

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