How to become an Armchair Entrepreneur

Last week I was invited to speak at the Digital Marketing Live event in Amsterdam. I spoke about a concept I have been thinking about for a while; how you can be an entrepreneur within a large organization. A few people asked me to upload the presentation but it’s very video heavy and really the slides are just talking points so I figured a blog post would be better.

Five ways to become an Armchair Entrepreneur. Aka: The War on Talent.

Sir Martin Sorrell must have heard about this presentation as he used the phrase ‘War on Talent’ the day after I gave this talk. What this presentation is all about is keeping your best people happy and persuading new digital thinkers that there is a role for them in an ad agency rather than start-ups or somewhere like Google or Facebook.

 “You know what’s cool? A billion dollars?”

I have done this talk twice now. I always ask the audience which film this is from. Most people know its ‘The Social Network’. I then ask which character says that line and which company he was famous for founding. Still a good number know its Sean Parker and Napster. I then ask who plays Sean Parker and what tech company he now runs. Most people say Justin Timberlake and then a few real nerds know that he just bought MySpace for $35m. What’s interesting about this is that you have an actor and singer who really could do anything he wants choosing to be an entrepreneur. 2011’s best film was about a tech start-up and the hottest entertainer would rather be a CEO. Being an entrepreneur has never been cooler.

So why work in marketing?

We all have friends or friends of friends that have left the business to do start-ups and have made good money. We see ideas such as Pandora, Last FM, LinkedIn sell for absurd amounts of money and we think, ‘I could do that’.  I certainly do, I know you do too.  So why don’t we do that?

Most people are not ready to leave their jobs.

There are a million reasons why people don’t do start-ups. They might not have the right partners, they might not have any money – but both of those things can be rectified fairly simply if you have a good idea. But the fear and financial uncertainty of going it alone are enough to put off most people. Why would you leave a good job for fear and uncertainty? Especially in this economy. I did it at the start of 2008. I had what I think was probably one of the best jobs in advertising. I was co-running the creative department of Dare in London. We won tons of awards and loads of pitches. I remember in my last year we did three pitches and won them all. We turned down 142. And yet that wasn’t enough. A big reason I left was because I was fed up with London and wanted to move to New York, but also the chance of something new, with a group of new people was very appealing. So I became the creative partner of Another Anomaly in New York. Just as I got there the financial crash happened and the work we were trying to do – internal products, revenue sharing deals, content (all the stuff agencies still think they can do!) – completely dried up. It was, as they say, a fail.

But I still want to be an entrepreneur. I think now is the time to do new ideas. But how is it possible to be an entrepreneur and get that buzz within the confines of a large, albeit hopefully more stable, organization? Be an ‘armchair entrepreneur’ of course. Here are some simple ways to feel part of something more exciting while keeping your pension and fingernails.

  1. Innovate your product.

We have Band Aid as a client at JWT New York. It’s one of the most famous brands in the world and is clearly the market leader. So it would be easy to do nothing. And yet over the last few years Band Aid has re-invented itself as a fashion accessory and created many new relationships within the fashion industry.

Alongside fashion Band Aid signed a very innovative deal with Disney to have Muppets branded Band Aids. Given a fresh lease of life we have been able to do much more innovative marketing. We have created an AR app that brings the Muppet Characters to life. In a very simple but extremely cute way the Muppets take the pain away from whatever happened. For the team that worked on these projects it feels very entrepreneurial. It feels new. Creating an app is much more like doing a start-up than a traditional advertising campaign. You have to make decisions, you are never really sure it’s going to work and you see your creation up in the app store relatively quickly after you first came up with it.

We had a similar feeling when we created a game for Bloomberg. Labyrinth is the hardest web game in the world. It’s insanely difficult. Why? Because traders are the most competitive people in the world. We had to make this game sit on top of the Bloomberg Trading Platform. So again we had to ask the client to innovate their product. It led to the game being radically different from a normal campaign and made the team feel like they were making a product rather than an ad.

 2. Do an internal project.

When I first went to SXSW three years ago I had an idea for a BBQ truck that would actually respond to people’s tweets rather than expecting people to come to it. Most trucks are not really trucks in the sense that they don’t move. Clearly I wasn’t going to move to Austin and jack in my job to do that, but I still thought it was a neat idea. So we did that as an internal project the year later and it was a huge hit. For three days we ran our own little BBQ business.

Another internal project that has made us feel more entrepreneurial is Groupee. Launched during Social Media Week 2011 it was a fun way to connect people at conferences. We have now built on that – pivoted, to use start-up parlance – so that it is more of a ‘hot or not’ service for marketing conferences. The idea being that there are, for some reason, a bajillion marketing conferences but not a simple way to track speakers, comment on them, view profiles and material. Same for attendees. Groupee is going to do that. We feel that although it’s a niche area it can be a huge win for a team to develop this app and site further. We know it’s not the next FourSquare but one day it could make a little money and the experience is worth more than anything.

3. Be Philantrhopic

I’m sure you have all been in a situation where a client or a boss wants something new but also wants a guarantee that it will work. This kind of dichotomy can sometimes be solved by finding a charity that is willing to run an innovative piece of technology. Our sister agency Digitaria in San Diego, recently teamed up with Invisible Children to create the LRA Crisis Tracker. This innovative piece of tech coupled RF Radio, an app and Salesforce to create an early warning system for villagers who were being massacred by The Lord’s Resistance Army and it’s leader, Joseph Kony. Of course Kony is now famous due to Invisible Children’s most recent KONY 2012 campaign, but they have been doing really innovative work for seven years now. Although I didn’t work on this idea I know the team felt the same buzz that entrepreneurs do when they see their idea out in the world working. In this case working didn’t mean making loads of money but saving lives.

 4. If you can’t beat ‘em. Partner with them.

In New York the tech start-up scene is gobbling up talent that a few years ago would have at least considered your agency a cool place to work. No more. The east coast is the home to the more media based start-ups where as the west coast – as a general rule – seems to be more tech focused. There are a number of start-up incubators that are helping fuel this growth. One of the most famous is TechStars. I got to know them through ADstruc, an outdoor media selling start-up for which I am an advisor. I knew I wanted to be part of this exciting start-up scene in New York, but again, I wanted to do this through JWT. Believe it or not I still passionately believe in advertising and the power of a brand so this is not about leaving advertising, merely making it more interesting. So, along with Ann Mack, our wonderful director of trendspotting we signed a partnership deal with TechStars. As David Tisch the TechStars MD has said, many agencies tried to do this and many have since. I’m not sure why they chose us but I am glad they did.

The way the partnership works is that we offer the companies branding and strategy advice. We also try to connect them with our clients and hold a practice demo day that our clients attend. It gives the start-ups a useful practice session before their final demo day – where they present to 500 VC’s in order to secure funding – and it gives our clients and the rest of the agency a sneak preview of some of the hottest emerging tech.

Two examples that I think are apt for the marketing audience are Chat ID and Urtak. Chat ID allows brands to put a piece of code anywhere on the internet so that users can chat with an official representative. For example instead of just being able to chat to a Sony rep on the Sony site you could chat with them on the Amazon site too. In an age where the next generation feels more comfortable chatting over text and therefore shopping over text I think this is huge. The second example is Urtak. Again, a neat piece of code that allows publishers or brands to ask readers simple questions. In tests they have found they get ten times the amount of people answering and asking questions than people who comment.

These are just two examples that I think our clients could use. I am on record for saying I don’t think an ad agency can create the next FourSquare but I do believe an agency can broker the next exciting deal between a start-up and a client. That would make me feel like I was part of something entrepreneurial. We are just about to enter our second year with TechStars and I couldn’t be more excited to see what’s in store.

5. If all else fails, go solo.

It has never been easier to set up a business. The means of production have never been cheaper. Pretty much everything you need to do to start a business has been simplified by a web 2.0 service. Book-keeping, e-commerce stores, raising finance. So, if you have tried all the above points and you still have the itch do something for yourself you can run a business while still working.

I have recently launched Thompson Punke; the world’s only badass ping pong clothing brand. For those of you who know me you will know that I am a ping pong nerd and have been running a magazine and web site called Celebrity Ping Pong where I interview interesting people over a game for three or four years. I have seen the rise of the sport but also noticed that there are no cool brands within that space. So I created Thompson Punke. Together with the brilliant people from Red Antler in Dumbo we have a product line, a website and an online store launching very soon.

More importantly we have a brand story. When I was working on Yoplait we were trying to get more young men to eat yogurt. But all young men – especially teens – want to do is get big. By this I mean get muscles. To be popular at high school you become a member of the team. To get on the team you need to bulk up. Being a sportsmen has become less and less about talent and more about brute force, dedicating yourself to the gym and sadly, for lots of people, taking steroids. I see ping pong as a great antidote to this jock philosophy. At Thompson Punke we believe you don’t need to be a jock to be an athlete. We also believe that ping pong is ready to ditch it’s nerdy reputation and become more cool. So the brand is more of streetwear brand that has it’s soul in ping pong where people will hopefully like the clothes even if they are not obsessed with the game and the people that are into the sport will get some of the more inside references.

I am under no illusion that this is going to be a multi-million dollar business that allows me to quit my job. Think of it more of an entrepreneurial itch that just had to be scratched. This makes me the classic Armchair Entrepreneur. I know I am not unique in our business so hopefully some of the above points will help you or your co-workers scratch their itches while staying in the business. God knows we don’t need to lose any more talented people.

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