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Moving mountains

With a positive attitude and creative approach, new businesses can thrive during the recession

Alex-and-Kelly1 None of us is fond of dental treatment, are we? In fact, the film "Marathon Man" is far more terrifying for many than any slasher movie (if you're not familiar with it, just search "Is it safe?" on YouTube – but don't say we didn't warn you). Despite this, the other afternoon, a trip to the dental surgery left Alex with a spring in his step. Was it because he had just received that most precious of commodities – NHS dental treatment? One of the joys of working for oneself is that it allows you the flexibility to visit the dentist between 2.30 and 2.35 in the afternoon – the only times you can attend to qualify as an NHS patient, without worrying about what the boss might think of you being unshackled from the desk. But that wasn't the reason.

No, the dental hygienist had simply said to him, "Thanks for cheering me up, I've heard nothing but doom and gloom from patients for as long as I can remember. Your story is inspirational". It was after discussing her comment that the idea for this article struck us. As great believers in the power of positivity, we can't help thinking that if the nation didn't talk itself into a recession, then we are, at least, doing a great job of talking ourselves into an even deeper one. As Laura (that's the dental hygienist) said, "There's nothing but doom and gloom in the news, on the high street and in every conversation in the pub or the dentist's chair". So here's a dose of positivity to relieve some of that relentless nay-saying.

Our story is quite simple, but hopefully inspirational to some in the current environment. On returning to the UK after 10 months travelling the world, we were faced with a tough decision: take jobs within established agencies or do what we had talked about for over a year – set up our own business.

We had talked about 'Lime' across five continents and in 11 countries, and our vision was clear: a boutique agency, created in our own image, with the freedom to deliver the most effective strategic and creative solutions for our clients. We knew we worked well together as a team and that we had the respect and confidence of many of the people we have worked with in the past. We also knew that with a combined 26 years' experience in the advertising business, we had a strong network of contacts.

So we knew what we wanted to achieve with Lime and what it would stand for, but as our return to the UK got closer, so the negativity of the news from home increased. By the time we landed at Heathrow, with our first child on the way and all our savings spent, we had pretty much decided that Lime would have to wait for another time. We'd be crazy to try to set up a business in this environment, wouldn't we?

The global credit crunch, that has grown into a full-blown recession, has undoubtedly had a terrible impact on many established businesses, but does it naturally follow that it would have the same effect on new businesses? We thought not. Established businesses have established overheads and need to maintain a clearly defined minimum income and profit level to cover these costs. A new business can define its own start-up costs. Many businesses are running into trouble because established lines of credit are drying up. As a new business in the current environment, nobody will lend you a penny, so there are no creditors knocking on the door!

The current economic environment can actually favour a well-organised, financially prudent start-up that has a far greater ability to tailor its financial and accounting procedures and systems to 'lean' times than its established agency rivals. Indeed, two fantastic agency successes – Pan Communications and Langland – both started in the recession of the early nineties. And, as a friend of ours that established his business in 1991 told us, "You can pick up office equipment for a fraction of the usual price".

Safe option
So, recession may not be the worst time to set up a new business, but surely salaried jobs in established agencies are a safer bet?

As we looked around at our prospects and reviewed job options, it became clear to us that the pharmaceutical industry is not recession-proof. Just look at the job losses at Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca and you have ample proof that the recession is affecting our industry too.

So the 'safe' option of taking well-paid jobs in existing agencies started to look less attractive. We have both worked in these places and we know the reality of being part of a larger network or group. At the end of the day, the shareholders or owners want their dividends, and if a piece of business goes south, so does a corresponding number of staff. The 'last in, first out' principle suddenly makes the 'safe' option of a salaried job feel that little bit less comfortable. We asked ourselves, "Isn't a recession exactly the time that you want to be in a position to decide your own fate?"

Another sign that the environment is getting tougher for everyone is the latest news on the merger and acquisition front; Pfizer and Wyeth, Roche and Genentech – and it seems likely that another round of consolidation is on the way, with 'big pharma' looking for the associated improvements in margin and operating costs. As companies get larger, they turn increasingly to the global branding model. Love it or hate it, it's not going away any time soon. As marketing budgets are increasingly centralised and global or pan-European campaigns become more commonplace, clients have looked to large agency networks to provide consistency across a number of markets. The market for a boutique agency seems to be shrinking before our eyes.

Once again though, when we scratched a little deeper, we found that this is a great time for a new agency to establish itself. Quite simply, clients are increasingly turning away from bigger, networked agencies to smaller, boutique agencies in the quest for three things. The first is better value for money. When money is tight, we don't stop shopping, we just look for better value. In the world of Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) advertising, the agencies that have supermarket accounts are sitting pretty. Advertising spend for the supermarkets is (proportionately) higher than ever. And what are they all selling? Value. Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons, they're all at it. My personal favourite is Aldi: "Don't change your lifestyle, change your supermarket." A fantastic proposition. With larger overheads, agencies that are part of large networks can struggle to provide value for money. A boutique agency like Lime can offer the same proposition – don't change your impact, change your agency.

The second thing we hear from many clients is far from a new complaint, but seems to be rearing its head far more frequently now. It is the old issue of the 'big guns' working on the account for six months and then melting away into the background, leaving more inexperienced staff with responsibility for the business. Is this because the recession is holding agencies back from taking on experienced (and hence expensive) staff, or are they letting the more expensive staff go in order to reduce overheads? Either way, a boutique agency has the ability to buy in the services of the most experienced and talented personnel as and when the client needs it.

Finally, many clients are looking for a positive approach to the implementation of a core campaign. There is a reticence among some more established businesses to embrace the core campaign. They exhibit the less-than-healthy 'not invented here' syndrome – a belief that you can't be truly creative if you are implementing somebody else's creative work. A business that refuses to give in to this attitude can thrive.

Creative solutions
There are always opportunities to deliver creative solutions to clients, even within the framework of a core campaign. If your mindset is that you are 'augmenting' rather than 'implementing' a core campaign, then all of a sudden creative opportunities abound. Even working within well-defined boundaries of established brand guidelines, creativity can always find a way to enhance communication. Whether it's using copywriting to refine the occasionally 'lumpy' messaging that can be delivered from central marketing operations, or improving the clarity of our communications with strong design and art direction, we believe that with creativity, everything is possible.

At the end of the day, augmentation of a core campaign is just one tiny example of what we believe to be the makings of a successful business. Creativity is a force that can set us apart from the mundane. Creativity can be applied to everything we do to make us more competitive, more effective, more successful. Whether we're in the grip of a recession or not, companies that live by the credo 'with creativity everything is possible' are far more likely to succeed than those that do not.

Our positive attitude is paying off. Our first account is with Amgen UK and includes work on five brands: Aranesp, Mimpara, Neulasta, Nplate and Vectibix. We cannot give details of the second, third and fourth clients yet, although the last is a retail business that sells designer products via five stores and a website.

In the end, the choice for us was simple: live and work by the highest creative standard we can achieve, and we become masters of our own destiny.

The Authors
Alex Fone and Kelly Underwood-Fone are the directors of Lime Advertising. The agency was founded in October 2008, in the midst of what could become the worst recession since the 1930s.
To comment on this article, email pm@pmlive.com

31st March 2009

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