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What We Learned From Starting An Agency From Scratch

How a Direct-To-Client Approach Enables Efficiency And Collaboration.

Three years ago, my partner Luis Ramirez and I started our agency, Cast Iron LA. We went from working at the biggest agency in LA, to arguably the smallest. It’s been an interesting, rewarding and sometimes scary journey.

As an exercise of reflection, we’ve collected some of the lessons we learned along the way.

1. When Times Change, Be Ready To Change With Them.

Listen, this is not revolutionary thinking. But the occasional reminder to take a moment to back out from the day-to-day and be present with an openness to personal and professional growth is important. As a digital team in the 90’s, even though we were winning awards with many blue-chip clients, it was easy to feel like imposters. We were the creative team stuck in the shadow of the TV creatives. But even when we started broadcast work, we continued to learn and never let our ego get in the way, or assume what we were doing was the only thing.

As the book says about “Finding the Cheese,” the continuation of learning and growing is important. When we got more video work, I started working again as an editor. As a writer, that is uncommon. But I needed to help my partner and adapt to the changes. We constantly challenge each other, stepping out of our comfort zones. In fact, Luis challenged me to write, direct and edit our sizzle reel.

Luis has been a mentor to me for many years, and I admire the way he stays current on the industry and is constantly looking for efficient ways to serve our clients. Together, we are hands-on and take on as much as we can before bringing in partners. We have an insatiable curiosity that helps keep us close to the work, and constantly learning.

2. Relationships Matter.

There are some really great people in the agency world. It’s important to find them and connect. Several of our past clients are our current clients. Why? Because we always listened and put their needs first. There can be an adversarial relationship between creatives and the client, especially if their goals are not aligned. That behavior can sometimes be rewarded by the agency higher ups, when creatives refuse to budge. It is mistakenly reframed as a “never give up attitude.”

We never thought of the client as the means to a Lion or Pencil. They were not a patron of our arts, instead, we worked in service to their business needs. You can still create great work under that philosophy, and that is something we always aspire to do. And now, we can do that freely, without friction from above.

3. Be Open Minded.

We don’t believe the idea must be born, nurtured and ultimately executed by ourselves. We believe the more collaboration, the truer the idea.

Early on, we firmly understood that we needed a team approach as our skillsets often overlapped. During that time, we knew that being open-minded to new ideas was critical to the success of a project. Think of it like this: Everyone brings a piece of flair and you must be willing to create a safe space where people can be heard and include these diverse viewpoints in the overall tapestry. These days, we see a range of opinions, and consider them all. Ultimately, the decision must be made on what goes forward, but getting a broader perspective helps take us down that road.

4. Stay True To Your Beliefs.

We started the agency with an ideal. Over the years we have stayed true to that. We have removed ourselves from RFPs in areas where the potential client does not sync with our ethos. Yet, we will considerably cut fees for projects we believe in. If we had investors, that probably would not fly. But since we started this with our own funds, we can make decisions that are not merely based on the bottom line. We are transparent and honest, and only work with clients who share those ideals.

Agencies become defined by the brands they take on. Many fight the perception of being defined by their biggest client. So, we have been cognizant of that from day one. It is the balance of a business need to take on the right amount of clients to pay the bills in startup mode, with being confident and selective enough to only take on those that will ultimately define your own agency brand.

5. Listen And Ask.

Running an agency is tough. Luckily, many of the answers are out there if you take the time to listen to the right people. We honed that skill early in our careers, and listened more than we spoke.

Most of the time, we can find a tagline, an insight or a concept by simply having a conversation, when clients are at ease. No one knows the product or service better than the people who live it. So it becomes a collaboration, where they fill us in, and we figure out how to market it.

6. Use Tools.

We developed a Direct-To-Client approach to cut out excess and put resources into the end product, rather than the process. Clients love this as they feel heard, and layers are eliminated.

We have heard from clients over the years that they were sick of paying 25 people to be in a meeting, where most were tapping their laptop or social feeds waiting to present one slide. So we don’t enable that. For many services we use tools that make the processes automated and simple, with less resources, or just roll up our sleeves and do the work. When we shoot, we prefer productions that feel more like film school, giving up creature comforts, limiting people on set, and ultimately putting that savings into a better end product. We keep overhead low and talent high, to deliver a premium experience without the premium price tag.

That philosophy allows us to stay lean, fluid and have a direct relationship with the client. Many agencies run an idea up and down the food chain ad nauseam, and everyone takes a bite. We prefer to hire people who do the work, present the work, and are accountable to the work, rather than the ones who make a living simply by commenting on it.

7. We Will Win. We Will Lose.

When we lost our first client, it was a big blow. A changeover in leadership, the cutting of budgets and we were out the door. It was tough, and it brought a great deal of anxiety. But then we realized this simple thing: We will win clients and we will lose them. We need to be equally accepting of both outcomes. That level of mental balance was not easy to achieve, but it changed our approach, and leveled our mindset. We don’t act out of fear or compromise our beliefs. We just accept that some things are out of our control.

8. Find The Advantage To Your Weakness.

Big agencies, like big studios, have an enormous amount of clout and funds. We don’t have that, and neither do our clients, so we need to be scrappy, and really work hard to develop ideas that break through. At big agencies, they rely heavily on influencers and celebrity endorsers (especially around Superbowl time). Much like the studios, they find a celebrity franchise and bleed it dry.

It is easy to rely on best practices as a coping mechanism for risk aversion. Careers are built on that, and it slows the industry and disengages the customer. There is an abundance of boring, expensive, borrowed interest in our field, which leaves little room for independent thought.

But as a small agency, that is all we have, streamlined, independent thought. Lucky for us, that is what our clients want.

For example, our second year at Cast Iron LA, we were working on a Super Bowl spot for a top-25 dma. We had to innovate when we lost the :15’s, and had to come up with a way to tell a collective story using multiple :05 spots. It never saw the light of day because of 11th hour media negotiations, but the idea and the groundwork was there. Not having huge budgets and star talent pushes you to think differently. And that is what we do best.

This Is Us.

So after 27 years as partners, friends, carpool partners, and now as agency owners, we have learned how to adapt and stay on course. It’s nice to be able to give Direct-To-Consumer clients access to an experienced Direct-To-Client Agency. Most appreciate that personal approach, as they know from experience they could not afford our access at the big agency level, relegated to Jr. level teams instead. It’s nice to be accountable, figure things out, and not fall into the trap of contentment that many agency people can fall into. Our enemy has always been ego, ignorance and waste.

While some creative leaders lack the ability to keep their sticks sharp as the industry changes, we work to be different. Luis and I are on the front line, participating and accountable, hustling and pushing ourselves and the work. And that is what drives us everyday.

Interested in working with us? We are a full-service, Direct-To-Client Marketing Agency and do everything from Big TV campaigns to websites to banners to events. Check out our reel, and see if Cast Iron LA is right for you.

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