Monday 24 September 2012

How to punch someone, get 15 minutes of fame and start your own agency

There are many reasons why people start their own businesses but often one needs that little push to get you to make a leap of faith in to the unknown. And it is an unknown because however much you think you know what it's going to be like to run your own business, take it from me, unless you've done it, you don't. 

Nothing can prepare you for how different it will be from the cocoon of employment. I've had a couple of friends who've made 'the leap' quite late in life after long careers as senior executives and how ever much I tried to give them some idea of the way their lives were going to change, I couldn't adequately prepare them for the shock they had in store. Indeed they both walked around the first year looking completely shell shocked - the speedy realisation that there is no support structure apart from 'you', left them reeling. Whether it's office cleaners, employee contracts, loo roll in the client toilets, what coffee cups to buy or indeed which brand of coffee, photocopier leases and much, much more, it all initially is going to come down to yours truly. 

I've seen directors in agencies be given shares in well established set-up's and cringed as I heard them talk about owning their own business. Until you have set up that company and been there on day one, you simply have no idea what it entails and there is no reason you should but it's a bit rich when you hear these people talking about being entrepreneurs and having started their own business. I hope a few people I know will blush on reading this.

My push in to taking that leap of faith and starting my own agency happened when I was twenty nine and fortunately when you're young you simply don't know how little you know, you're fearless and seem to have a lot less to lose and plenty of time to put it right if it all goes pear shaped. So I'd say to anyone who is thinking of starting their own business - do it sooner rather than later.

In 1988 I was twenty eight and a board account director of one of the hottest agencies in London, Yellowhammer (which was folded in to DMB&B in 1990). We'd made our name on highly creative work like the anti-fur commercial shot by David Bailey and award winning campaigns for Barclays Bank and Fiat. Managing director, David Gray had just been wooed away by his old mucker Frank Lowe to run Allen Brady & Marsh, which Lowe's had just bought.  ABM's star was waning and the flamboyant Peter Marsh had gone but the agency still had some huge clients like Weetabix, Thomas Cook, B&Q, the BBC and Midland Bank, and David Gray had been brought in to bring the agency back to its former creative glory. 

David had only been gone two weeks when I got a call from him asking me if I'd like to meet him for dinner at La Brasserie in the Fulham Road. Over dinner he handed me a blank  piece of paper and said, "Write down on there what it would take for you to move to ABM." Now don't forget this was the 80's and I was the epitome of the yuppie.  I was very happy where I was, so I wrote down a £100k pa (a lot of money in 1988), a Porsche 911 Turbo (I was already driving the 911 Targa) and a few other things and slid it back across the table to him. He turned it over, looked at it for a few seconds and said, "I'm sure this won't be a problem Philip."

A few months later, in January of 1989, I started work at ABM. I'm not sure how long it took me to realise the culture of the agency was rotten to the core, that clients were treated with complete contempt and that the joint-creative directors, Smith and Everett ruled by intimidation and fear but probably no more than a week. What had I done?! Taken the filthy lucre and sold my soul, and this Titanic of an agency was not up for any course altering, even by David Gray.

Three months in and I was grinning and bearing all but underneath utterly miserable - it was a Monday morning and I was in Broadcasting House at a meeting with Jonny Beerling, head of Radio 1 and the BBC head of marketing. I'd struck up a good relationship with this client and was pleased to be out of the agency and the weekly Monday morning account management bully fest conducted by messrs Smith & Everett.

Returning to the office just after lunch I had a message on my desk that I should go down to Everett's office as soon as I arrived. As I walked in to his office, I was greeted by him screaming,

"And where the fuck were you this morning!?". 

Somewhat taken aback, I replied, "I had a meeting at the BBC." 

"I couldn't give a fuck about your fucking meeting," he ranted on, "you should have been in my fucking meeting."

"It was the only time they could make it and I think clients come first and to be honest why don't I come back later and discuss this when you're a bit calmer." And with that I proceeded to turn round and leave.

Two things then happened. One, he screamed, "No one ever walks out on me!", and two, something heavy hit me on the back of the head ( I was later to discover this was his very large Mont Blanc fountain pen) and it hurt a lot. Now anyone who knows me, knows I'm short (no, not average Mum) and everything they say about short men is true. The red mist descended and I swivelled round and marched back up to him, stuck my face in his – well more of his chest really – and said, "What the hell do you think you're playing at?!" It was then that he threw an ineffectual punch but luckily for me (from a legal perspective) he threw it first and my retaliatory blow caught him clean on the jaw - knockout! I won't go on too much about the arrival of his screaming Sloaney PA, or how I walked straight out of the office round to my solicitors, or how we negotiated a year's salary for my departure but I will tell you that it did lead to my fifteen minutes of fame.

ABM was handling the European election campaign for the Conservative Party at the time and their performance and that of the advertising had been widely lambasted. The Daily Mail picked up on the story which had featured in Campaign the week after the incident about, 'Mighty Mouse Philip Beeching' having a contretemps with the much larger Everett. 

"Punch up at Maggie's Ad Agency", ran the Daily Mail headline and for about a week I was hounded by reporters but part of my year's salary deal was not to talk to any of them, which I was more than happy to go along with.

So with a year's salary in my pocket I knew that I wanted to start my own agency and never have to deal with the likes of Everett again. Not one to shy away from a little publicity, I decided to call that agency Mighty Mouse Communications and we (two talented partners, Julian Stubbs and Eric Dowellopened our doors in September 1989. I was later joined by equally talented business partner, John Wood and we built it up in to what became top 20 ad agency, Beechwood and digital agency Beech2 which we sold in 2000, weeks before the dotcom bubble burst but that's another story. 

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