How to Start an Agency when the World is Ending
Like a lot of happy endings, BOLD LIP was born out of some pretty messed up and unpredictable circumstances. Rewind with us (sorry in advance) to March of 2020.
Jo and T worked at a cannabis mega-corporation in pre and early post-legalization era; building brands from the ground up and then actualizing them on the daily. It’s where these already experienced professionals honed their craft at creating brands that were both inspiring and functional. It was a place of big teams, big budgets, and big deadlines. It was not for the faint of heart.
After a few years there made up of wacky working hours, weekly air travel, juggling small kids and big dogs, the “unprecedented” happened. The world locked down. Six weeks later, both our founders, and the vast majority of their teammates, were unceremoniously let go.
“Beyond the sinking feeling of being let go from a job that I loved and was working myself ragged over, I felt for my team. I remember wanting to make sure that they knew that I had no idea. It was important to me that they knew I hadn’t betrayed them, and that I had been just as in the dark as they were.“
“We were in the dark on a global level, freaked out, moving to remote learning, and so were our teams. We were trying our best to be there for our teams with the non-existent bandwidth I had. It was a lot. I committed myself to being there for them, which hurt extra when we were let go so suddenly. Like, these people that I’m responsible for are gone in the snap of a finger. No longer my responsibility technically, but that’s not how it felt. Heartstrings don’t work that way.“
And so it was, our intrepid co-founders found themselves out of work, entering the job market simultaneously with hundreds of their peers. With such a strong and recent memory of how a workplace shouldn’t operate, the hunt began for work that was fulfilling and fruitful. Though deeply uncomfortable, this was a period of reflection and realization (thanks to a sudden abundance of spare time and very real lack of distraction)
“Remember: it was a pandemic with no end in sight. So I felt this pressure to start job hunting right away. I remember someone saying to me ‘oh, this is a gift. It’s like, take some time off and relax.’ I’m like, ‘I can’t relax! I gotta eat!’
I was immediately on the freelance job hunting track, eagerly taking piecemeal gigs that came my way. I was slowly coming to grips with the fact that, while my last role had major challenges, it also presented a scope of opportunity that wasn’t going to come up every day. If I was going to have those opportunities again, I would have to make them happen for myself.”
“I really thought I had found the job that I would retire from, so it was a real adjustment reconsidering my career path. Alongside it, I felt some internal pressure, and some from loved ones, that I should take this time to bow out and parent my kids full time. I think it’s important to shout this out: as much as we’ve made strides for workplace gender equality, it was sobering to realize there’s still an underlying expectation that women default to the homemaker when push comes to shove. I didn’t sign up for that and wanted to keep up momentum in my career. I didn’t want to work for some crusty Creative Director, or as a tiny cog in a giant corporate machine. That said, working in-house let me see all I was capable of as a part of a team of creatives, compared to the impact I could have on my own. I came out of it knowing I was a leader who could help a team do their best. I also knew there wouldn’t be an abundance of opportunities to do my best work in Ottawa.”
Old habits die hard. Even as independent freelancers, Jo and Taralyn routinely leaned on each other for advice, collaboration and commiseration. They had unofficially worked together on a few clients, until some fateful iMessages cemented the destiny of their agency-to-be. But who made the first move? And what sealed the deal?
“I was pitching on a client that was asking for a team, that needed technical writing and was beyond my capacity as a one-woman show. So I built the deck for this client, put Jo in it, and gave the deck a studio name and brand identity. I know we’d both been noodling on the idea of our own agency for years, and I had even gone so far as to engage a small business coach. I’m not really sure what possessed me on this particular client but I just…did it. And then I sent it to Jo, simultaneously inventing a company and casting Jo as my partner. “
“Meanwhile I’m sitting on my couch as this text comes in like ‘wow, can I get in on this? Am I in on this officially?’ I texted back to ask and she said “Yeah I was hoping you’d say yes”. And away we went.”
So began the real work of building a brand, team and studio they wanted to see in the world, and wanted to be a part of. With their freelancerly agility and years of experience, they set about doing high quality work you’d expect of a big agency, without big inefficiencies and big egos. They built a team that brings kindness, humanity and fun to the work. Transparent and accessible, they designed a process that makes it easy for clients to understand and contribute. And they did it in the space of two years.
“Above all, we wanted to make an agency that just produced really good work. Coming from a working environment where we regularly outsourced work, we came across agencies where the quality of both the work and interactions were lackluster, and the rates were outrageous. We knew we had something unique to offer, and we knew we could compete.”
“As an agency, we wanted to be respectful of everybody, an experience that was woefully rare in my 15+ years of working in the industry. As creatives, we didn’t want to work like dogs all the time. Balance is important. I want to see my family and live a healthy life. We wanted to provide a working environment like that for our team, too. If you have to slog occasionally, it’s because you’ve taken on something you care about, as opposed to covering up someone else’s sloppy brief or overpromising on your time and capacity. There’s a lot of integrity and transparency here.”
The story is still unfolding, and there’s no shortage of learning left to do. But if there’s a moral here, it’s to bet on yourself, follow your strengths, and surround yourself with good people. The rest will fall into place.
“If I have advice to give, it’s ‘don’t wait until you feel ready’. I remember thinking “I’m an Art Director, I’m not a studio owner. But, that’s just it, I didn’t own a studio yet. If I had let that stop me, I wouldn’t have put our names on that deck, gotten coaching and forged ahead. It’s shocking to look back on day one and realize we’re really doing it. Give yourself the opportunity to surprise yourself.”
“Write down that list of things that you’re good at and you know you’re good at, and don’t worry about that list of things that are freaking you out. You don’t need to be perfect to try, nobody is. Rest assured there’s a mediocre dude happily swanning into a room full of opportunities that you’ve talked yourself out of, and he is no more capable than you are”.
“And, for what it’s worth, you don’t need to be like him. You don’t need to look at people where you want to be and stack yourself up against them, or emulate them. There’s still so much progress to make, and more than enough room for your perspective at the table. So go have a seat.”
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