Launching a creative agency in the first few months of the global pandemic might have seemed like a hopeless endeavor. In addition to the challenge of setting up shop amid social-distancing measures put in place to contain COVID-19, brands were clearly shelving campaigns and cutting their marketing communications budgets. Well-known agencies were laying off staff. The circumstances would have been scary enough for even the most daring of souls to put their entrepreneurial dreams on ice. But some creative minds ventured ahead anyway.
Like Mel Jones and Justin Polk, the TV, film and commercial directors behind Invisible Collective. The Los Angeles–based production company and creative studio partners with ad agencies and big-name brands on diverse work, made by diverse talent. While Jones and Polk had spent years spitballing the idea, and even incorporated Invisible Collective in 2018, it wasn’t until June, as COVID-19 cases were soaring in the United States, that the company officially launched, with third cofounder, Hollywood producer Stephen “Dr.” Love. The launch included a website and press outreach.
“We saw the pandemic—coupled with all the civil unrest in the United States—as an opportunity,” says Jones, who has written and directed video content for Unilever-owned Shea Moisture, Whole Foods and Spotify. The Black Lives Matter movement, she notes, “brought forward this push around identifying minority-owned businesses. We wanted to take advantage of that and be able to shine a light on ourselves.”
As for the pandemic? Jones says it leveled the playing field for upstarts; an agency with no entrenched ways of doing things was suddenly a plus. “We felt like the pandemic forced everyone to start from scratch in terms of how to shoot. Everyone was coming up with new processes; it wasn’t like anyone knew anything more than anyone else,” says Jones of operating in a COVID-19 world. “That made us feel like we could seamlessly enter the conversation without it being all about experience and turnkey processes.”
The founders also didn’t have to do a lot of networking and in-person schmoozing. Potential clients were direct and to the point. “With everyone meeting virtually, we weren’t having those general get-to-know-you meetings where you just kick it and hope an assignment eventually comes your way. Every time we spoke to somebody, it was because they had a very specific job in mind for us,” says Jones, noting a project they did for First Entertainment Credit Union. “We met with their agency on a video call, and the very next day booked the gig,” she says. “I don’t think that would have been the case before [COVID].” In addition to the credit union, Invisible Collective has worked with Spotify, alcohol e-commerce platform Drizly and Verizon.
—Mel Jones, Invisible Collective
Other creatives had quit their well-paying jobs in late 2019 and early 2020, never imagining a deadly virus would be shutting down or minimizing large chunks of the US and global economy just as they were finalizing their preparations to go solo.
“I would be lying if I told you I hadn’t been worried when we launched because all anybody was thinking about was the virus,” says Keith Cartwright, former global creative director at Wieden+Kennedy, who officially launched Cartwright in June with the support of WPP’s Grey Group, in terms of resources and as occasional partners on client work. Yet Cartwright has grown to a staff of 40, who currently work from home, with client wins including Procter & Gamble (P&G), the NBA, Facebook and Häagen-Dazs. “The firm has taken off like a rocket ship,” he marvels.
By doing away with the need for a physical presence to impress clients, he thinks the surge of remote work brought on by the pandemic helped fuel his firm’s quick takeoff. “There used to be this stigma of not having an office. You’d be asked, ‘Well, how big are you? How much office space do you have? And can we come by and see what snacks you serve?’” says Cartwright. “But because no one was in their offices, the superfluous stuff that companies used to partially judge an agency on was eliminated.”
“Now it is really about what you’re sharing over video, like a credentials document—everyone’s attention is on that, rather than the snacks, the color of my shirt or the person walking by the conference room,” he explains. While he believes there are still benefits to occasional in-person interactions with clients, Cartwright says virtual meetings have proven “really helpful in moving creative along, saving all kinds of time and money.”
Cartwright has founded an agency before: Union Made Creative in 2012, building a client roster that included Nike, General Electric and Lego before selling it to Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners in 2016. His eponymous firm aims to help clients solve business problems by “making brave work,” according to its website. He adds that by doing brave work, brands can also find their voice and humanity as it relates to diversity and inclusion.
To that end, Cartwright partnered with Grey on the P&G spot “The Choice.” It was launched during worldwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd and called for White viewers to be antiracist. The firm is also working with Facebook on a campaign about marginalized groups. “It is about how being seen is hard, a really interesting bottom-up piece of work,” says Cartwright.
—Farrokh Madon, PIRATE
Agencies are always launching in the marketing communications sector, fed by a new crop of creative heads looking to do things their way after years of making a name for themselves in big agencies. To drive better creative output, these new agency founders talk about being more efficient, doing away with layers and giving clients more senior-level attention. It is a pitch that resonates with marketers, particularly during a downturn.
“I haven’t regretted the fact that I exited a big agency network because during a pandemic, there is going to be massive cuts and lots of politics and upheaval,” says Farrokh Madon, the former chief creative officer at Wunderman Thompson in Singapore. He had spent four years with the agency before his exit in April 2020 and was previously chief creative officer at Y&R Singapore. “Client businesses are under stress and strain like never before. They are looking to be agile, nimble and get a high level of input and partnership from the start with agencies, not be pulled into time-consuming and expensive processes and layers.”
Madon now runs his own ship, called PIRATE, inspired by the famous Steve Jobs quote “I’d rather be a pirate than join the navy.” The firm prefers “agility to a cumbersome chain of command, and a crew that’s small in number but big on experience,” like a pirate, reads its promotional material.
“I haven’t exactly been fabled for fantastic timing,” he adds, of previous times he’s departed an agency job for other creative pursuits, such as to write a novel, called Offside, just before the SARS outbreak in 2003. “When I registered PIRATE in April, I did think, ‘Boy, should I have stuck around in my old job?’ Then I looked back on my life and thought, ‘Well, I haven’t had great timing over the years, and have done alright.’ I think the key is to not be afraid by what is on the radar at the moment, stay positive, put in the work and look to the future.”
PIRATE’s clients include a major international brand. “I am in Singapore, the client is in another country and the work is for yet another market,” says Madon. “I’m about to oversee the shoot remotely, sitting in Singapore while the shoot happens in another country. That is going to be a career first. I could have only gotten that work probably because of how we’re working as a result of the pandemic.”
Gemma Moroney and Damon Statt resigned from their respective jobs as head of insight and strategy and executive creative director at Engine Mischief in London, United Kingdom, never thinking a pandemic would put a crinkle in their plans to launch Shook. It has the support of public relations firm Hope&Glory, which acts as a mentor to Shook.
“We made the decision when nobody in the world had heard of COVID-19,” says Moroney, who serves as Shook’s behavior designer. “Then about a week or two after I left Engine Mischief, the United Kingdom went into lockdown.”
Yet, the agency has won eleven different clients on projects or retainers, mostly through word of mouth. They include a brand purpose project for a big American tech brand and the Ruth Strauss Foundation, a cancer charity. “We’ve only met one of our clients in the flesh,” notes Moroney.
But she’s quick to say they didn’t launch Shook because they think bigger agencies are bad. “We didn’t want to use one of the tropes of new agencies and say, ‘We’re here to tell everyone what the industry is doing wrong.’ Our vibe is, we’ve been around for a long time and think we can bring something different with our combination of behavior design and creativity.
“But I think we’re in a new place in terms of where the world is at the moment. Our industry has been stripped away of big offices, networking events, processes—clients understand what they are buying are brains,” she says. “And that shift in thinking is a huge benefit to a startup.” ca