Two years ago, after deciding to leave my role as Creative Director at NBCUniversal, I began to plot out what to do next. I had spent five years working on a team that would do anything for our clients — a can do spirit that gave us a great reputation and would often help us to win business away from outside agencies. We worked on everything from rebrands to app design, internal marketing to interior spaces, digital campaigns, strategy, content creation, even sports jerseys. Anything and everything. If a client asked we’d simply say yes.
What seemed clear to me at the time was that if I took this attitude with me into the world, I’d have everything I needed to start my own creative services agency. I knew how to build a pitch, how to present, how to design an experience, how to concept a campaign to market it, and I was willing to take on any type of work. I could start small and grow over time, using onsite freelance roles to supplement my income.
The service agency model is simple. Find a big client that needs a website, mobile app, or campaign. Become a reliable partner. Take on as much work as they’re willing to give you. Build out a creative team and retain a percentage on their billable hours. Sustain this over time and repeat. The model breaks when a client underestimates the value of your services on a small scale. This happens almost every time. Most companies are already overpaying a large agency on retainer, often by millions of dollars a year. This makes it hard to justify paying other, smaller firms. Unless they can do so cheaply.
A smaller project such as a site redesign can bring in say, fifty grand. This sounds like a lot, but there is a ton of work that goes into it. You’re often starting from the ground up, creating requirements, wireframes, concept, UX, content strategy, and visual design. There is also the time and effort to win the business and the period where you literally just wait for the approvals on their end, which can take months. These are all unbillable hours. I would estimate 50% of an agency’s time can be spent in this way.
In order to build this into the cost you need to do one of two things; double your cost to the client or work for free. Doubling the cost is directly contrary to the benefit of being cheap. Most successful smaller agencies use interns that are working for next to nothing (or for nothing) or push salaried employees to work unfathomable hours to bridge the gap. This has become standard practice for almost every small to mid sized agency. Churn and burn is often only path to sustainability.
In the past year and a half since Science & Co. incorporated I have looked for a solution. It’s a problem that became most obvious after pitching a large client and not winning the business — a process that took three months. It became more obvious after winning business from another, only to learn the project would eventually be cancelled — six months. The solution became clear, either put my own and others blood, sweat, and tears into running a company that would be barely profitable firing on all cylinders or change the business model.
Over the next few months I’ll be shifting the focus of Science & Co. toward content creation. I hope to specifically explore data-based storytelling and visualization. Content that is both easily consumable and highly compelling. Using my experience in design, art direction, and technology I will be exploring topics in politics, science, and other subjects that have the potential to reveal big truths. I have seen so much great work in this sphere recently and I’m extremely excited to be a part of it.
The reason why I became a designer and art director lies in the ability for design to tell a story. With the onset of big data from so many new sources that story can not only be inspiring and disruptive, but it can be supported by real-time information. With the focus on this kind of content creation, I have a new found sense of freedom — not just from the trap of the agency model but from the idea that I can help give information a voice. Stay tuned for what comes next.