21 Things I've learned in 21 Years Running an Independent Creative Agency - Part 1

Dave is the Owner and CEO of The Zoo Republic, the longest-running independent creative agency in Australia. After 21 years, he continues to lead the agency to deliver globally recognised award-winning campaigns, using strategy, creativity, digital and technology insights, and commercial acumen to solve marketing challenges for businesses.

This is a collection of 21 crucial business tips he was taught (or learned the hard way) for owning and running an independent creative agency for 21 years.

Have courage in your convictions

Let me start by saying that these are by no means all my original thoughts but rather a collection of life lessons taught to me by others, quotes that have inspired, motivated, and helped me navigate the best and worst of times.

Importantly, I’m still swinging and still have a smile on my face!

1. There is no such thing as luck

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For better or for worse, from a very early age, I remember my father telling me that you can do anything you set your mind to. Sometimes, my mother thinks he created a bit of a monster. To a certain extent, what my father used to say is very true. My father never gambled and he would tell me frequently that we create our own luck in life.

Don’t rely on anyone or anything to chart your destiny. If you want something to happen, the quickest way is to go out and start working on it. He was a computer engineer with an MBA but was passionate about creating things. He also liked to save money as he came from an incredibly poor family. He did carpentry courses, plumbing, and electrical courses, taught himself how to sew, and would sew clothes for me and my sister. Some of the outfits were pretty bloody special. It was the 70’s and seersucker was en-vogue!

We were the last people I knew to still have a black-and-white television and when it finally came time for us to upgrade, we didn’t go out and just buy one, of course, dad made ours himself.

He and I would buy old motorbikes and rebuild them. And later in life, my first car was $1000, which we did up ourselves as well. 

With him as my primary mentor, this notion of creating our own luck became hardwired in me. So much so that I banned the expression “good luck” as a saying on the way to a pitch as it devalues the work by the team.

We don’t win a pitch with luck.

On the contrary, we win it because we work hard and we bloody well deserve it.

2. Ensure your vision is clear

Screen Shot 2021-11-19 at 16-46-06-pngOrganisational Health is the foundation of every successful business.

In 2014, the agency went into a perfect storm from which we nearly didn’t make it out the other side. At the height of the chaos, our then COO recommended a book called The Advantage- Why organisational health trumps everything else in business.

Eight years on and I can say that many of the principles in this book, and some monumental effort by our Management and Leadership Team (MLT), literally saved the agency.

One basic tenet of the book is around repeatedly sharing your vision and mission with the staff. The reason is, as founders and management, we discuss these matters with each other far more regularly than the staff who are at the coalface. The book suggests that when you think you have said it all to death and can't imagine saying it again, you are 50% of the way there.

Similarly, values can’t be words in your creds, hung on the wall in reception, or just in the employee handbook. You need to make the words part of your company lexicon. Have awards for them every week or month. I’d often start a meeting by springing the question “what are our values?” on a new employee.

Not to shame them, but to remind them they are important. If staff can’t remember them, or your vision, you may as well not have them. Basically, whatever is important to you as the founder and to management, say it, and keep saying it.

3. Say “yes” and work out “how” later

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Necessity is the mother of invention. After all, we are in the business of creativity. Always within reason, of course. This is not to say we should hold our hands up for tasks we are fundamentally untrained to do.

The Zoo wouldn’t take a programmatic media brief. However, bigger, broader jobs always have a crack if you think there is a basis for an informed belief you could deliver what is needed — even if it scares you.

When The Zoo first started, we could have three business cards (remember those days!?); all with a different quote on the back.

One of my favourite quotes was from Betty Bender who said,

“Everything I ever did in life that was worthwhile, initially scared me to death”.

4. Values die before the paint dries if you fail to nurture them

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Develop strong and meaningful organisational values and live by them — leading by example. Not words that hang in reception but values you and your team live and breathe and words that are used frequently in the agency and become part of the lexicon; your awards, your thank-yous, and your shout-outs, etc.

Years ago, I was at an industry seminar on how to run a high-performing agency and the keynote speaker was Peter Mead, co-founder of Abbott, Mead, Vickers, one of the UK’s most iconic and respected ad agencies founded in 1977. He was talking about running an agency nearly 41 years on (double my meagre 21 years!).

He told powerful and amusing anecdotes. I wished I could have invited him for dinner and kept the stories flowing. He was quite possibly the most charming, interesting, and experienced adman I’d ever heard speak (even though I guess technically I was paying).

Anyway, his killer point about values was that if your business has strong values that everyone truly lives by, there are very few tough decisions that require too much debate.

You filter the issue through the 3-4 values (try not to have any more) and in 85–90% of cases the values will be your north star. Then, in only very rare cases will you need to have multiple sessions to deliberate. This creates a powerful and efficient decision-making matrix that Peter said guided AMV for nearly 50 years.

Carefully select and nurture values so as to guide decision-making in your business to build a culture everyone can take part in. Skip the aspirational word art — your staff will thank you for it.

5. Culture is an output of great work, not great nights out!

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Trivia nights, lawn bowls, secret Santa, and everything in between are hygiene and simply part of any agency environment. In a high-performing team, energy and mojo are created by winning and delivering great work— period.

Late-night pitching, agonising over the strategy, creativity, and the copy is the glue that unites us. Mile-high pizza boxes or Thai takeout containers in a stinky war room surrounded by stimulus and mood boards is where we bond and really get to know each other. As they say, communal “suffering” around a united cause.

Let me frame it this way, ever sat at a staff trivia night 3 hours after you’ve just lost your 4th pitch in a row?

6. Be decisive

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Be thoughtful and considerate, but don’t sit on problems. If it looks and smells like shit, it usually is. The more experienced you get in managing and leading a team, and if you have strong values that are well-articulated combined with a clear vision, it becomes very easy to spot who is not “on the bus”.

Your gut will usually be right and you can rely on your MLT for counsel if you need to; however, agility and speed in our game are crucial.

Wrong or bad decisions sit in an organisation like cancer and need to be excised quickly.

7. Never, ever give up

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For many years, I had this picture stuck on the edge of my computer. I have always loved it. Running your own business is not easy. It’s not for everyone and it really does “take a village”.

My father used to say to me, “Anything that is ultimately worthwhile in life never comes easily”.

I used to get so sick of it, however, later in life, I began to understand what he meant. Satisfaction comes from working really hard to achieve something, not having it fall in your lap. He used to make me save 50% for everything I wanted — skateboards, BMX bikes, surfboards etc. He knew if he just gave them to me, I wouldn’t look after them or properly appreciate them.

Interestingly, after 21 years, I have come to realise that I learnt the most from the worst of times, not the best. The toughest of times made me better at running a business, a more humble and appreciative person, and a better leader. I have had terrible days, weeks, and months, and I will concede I wanted to throw down the towel.

But two very different motivations always prevented me from doing it.

Firstly, I couldn’t let down my MLT and all the people who were in my corner, fighting with me. And second, very egotistically, I was not going to give my enemies the satisfaction of dancing on my grave!

My good wife (who is much smarter than me and who has a far better perspective) always tells me, “Get a good sleep, do some exercise, spend time with some people that you love, and you will feel better in the morning."

Of course, she is right. Tomorrow is, as they say, always “another day”. If you don’t solve it today, try again tomorrow.

There is a great quote by Calvin Coolidge:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent”.

I think this sums up business perfectly.

And lastly, always remember the great words of John Lennon, “Everything will be okay in the end. Because if it's not okay, it's not the end!”



Stay tuned for Part 2 of the 21 Things I've Learned After 21 years in Marketing series on our next blog post. 




David Lo
David Lo

Dave is the Owner and CEO of The Zoo Republic, the longest-running independent creative agency in Australia. After 21 years, he continues to lead the agency to deliver globally recognised award-winning campaigns, using strategy, creativity, digital and technology insights, and commercial acumen to solve marketing challenges for businesses.