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5 things you should know about setting up an agency- And what happened when I took the plunge nearly two decades ago

By Stuart Bryan  //  Wed 6th November 2019

No-one said it would be easy. But 18 years later, the learnings remain just as useful, says David Yorath


Energised by a growing demand for greater flexibility and accountability, Oliver Durkin, Ben Livingstone and I wanted to demonstrate why advertisers didn’t need to invest millions a year to make a success of TV advertising. So we set up Guerillascope, with a vision that was different to anything else in the media industry at the time. It was 2001. We had spotted the first shoots of a shift in the landscape and decided to act.

 So what did we learn?

1. Do something different
The level of accountability we were able to apply to campaigns was eye-opening for clients

2. Get lucky
With no family to provide for, no significant overheads, and a roof over my head, I could afford not to pay myself...and I met the right people at the right time

3. A disaster can be your good fortune
It could have wiped us out but, actually, the financial crash of 2008 meant it was suddenly acceptable to insist on upfront payments - a game-changer for a start-up

4. Stay responsible and honest
Learn from the early striving; build resilience and avoid complacency

5. Keep true to your values
Now a multi-disciplined, results-driven, media neutral full-service media agency, we still place flexibility, accountability and a willingness to go the extra mile at the heart of everything we do; and we still aim to demystify and de-risk the process for everyone we work with.

This is our story...

The struggle

There’s no sugar-coating it: starting a business is really hard. It requires sacrifice, thick skin and a drive to succeed.

Getting funding was initially difficult, but we eventually secured an investment from three supporters who believed in what we were doing. This allowed us to develop software that let advertisers track audience viewing figures online for the first time. Accompanying it was a platform that analysed regional viewing and pricing on TV channels, with another system scrutinising the demographic breakdown of audiences watching any programme on any channel.

Focusing on software in our earliest days allowed us to promote a new way of thinking when it came to the planning of TV campaigns. We were showing people that every single spot had a value, and that, by implementing a more hands-on, forensic approach, we could make budgets go further.

Advertisers were soon taking notice.

The efforts to earn trust

Yet the labour-intensity required to gain their business was exceptionally high. Having come from a network agency where brands were simply given off-the-shelf airtime packages, it took a little time to adapt to the level of effort required to win over understandably cautious brands. We were new. We had no track record. Working with us was essentially a leap of faith.

Ultimately, it all came down to how many case studies we could amass. Thankfully, we soon got our first break: the account for Mark B & Blade’s single, Ya Don’t See the Signs, from Source Records. Operating with a small budget, we helped get the song to number thirteen in the charts. This then led us to work with Universal Records on Afroman’s Because I Got High. Again, with limited spend we played a pivotal role in its ascent to number one.

The level of accountability we were able to apply to these campaigns was eye-opening for the client. We could accurately demonstrate the return on investment each had generated, which, combined with the plans, detail and changes we were willing to provide, turned the heads of other figures in the music industry – as well as ringtone brands and chat lines. At the time, such companies were the perfect fit for our developing modus operandi.

Luck played a part

I remember being surprised at the time by the lack of competition; there weren’t really any other TV specialists doing the same thing as us. Now, I understand it completely: you need a certain level of investment and time to get a business into a position where it can fund itself, and I was lucky. I had no family to provide for at the time, no significant overheads, and a roof over my head. All of this mitigated the months where I didn’t take home a salary.

And yet, it never felt like a worse gig. Despite earning less than I did in my network agency role for the first few years, I was my own boss. I felt empowered and liberated. I was also surrounded by the right mixture of personalities and had the fortune of meeting the right people at the right time.

The financial crash

But although trust and friendship are crucial when it comes to establishing a start-up, you also need things to fall your way. Somewhat perversely, the financial crash of 2008 was a saving grace for Guerillascope.

Pre-crash, we had a really tough time getting payment from clients. We also lost out on business due to brands wanting credit, which we were not in a position to provide. Not that I had the time to cater for more business – I was essentially balancing a full-time role as the company’s main planner and acting as an accountant at the same time. It was nigh-on impossible to devote the energy needed to drive a new business strategy.

Post-crash, it was suddenly acceptable to insist on upfront payments. With companies showing a lot of resolve by continuing to invest in advertising, this transformed our cash-flow, and enabled me to start building a team.

Then the digital switchover happened.

The revolution will be televised

Suddenly, we were able to track and optimise TV activity by channel, time of day, day of the week, ad creative and programme. The switch also created better targeting opportunities for advertisers, with a much wider selection of TV channels catering for niche interests. We could plan using far more detailed and granular audience profiles, and were able to accurately present both immediate and longer-term results.

The number of spots advertisers were getting for their money also exploded, with the consequent increase in both reach and frequency meaning brands could now find fame on smaller digital channels. For clients with tighter budgets, this was revolutionary – and we stood on the vanguard. The age of TV being an exclusive plaything for the biggest brands was over.

The blossoming of culture

By this point we were assembling a team schooled in the values of entrepreneurialism and disruption. Every new personality added something, and we were careful to ensure that compatibility and harmony were central to the way we worked.

The early years of striving to survive also instilled within the leadership resilience and an aversion to complacency. The success we’d had in avoiding heavy debt was borne out of a commitment to keeping overheads down and not paying ourselves too much. We acutely understood the importance of conducting business responsibly and honestly – these are traits that will never disappear.

Guerillascope today

Fast-forward to now, and we’ve built an extensive track record of successful campaigns, working with hundreds of brands across every sector. This experience has led to bigger clients and award wins. But our values remain: Guerillascope still places flexibility, accountability and a willingness to go the extra mile at the heart of everything we do; and we still endeavour to de-mystify and de-risk the process for everyone we work with.

We’re fully aware of the need to remain relevant, however. In 2019, brands are looking for agency partners who operate as an extended marketing team; we’ve moved with the times, expanding into a full-service media agency that is multi-disciplined, results-driven and media neutral.

Looking at where we are today, I am immensely proud of Guerillascope’s heritage. But I also heed the lessons learned from that heady mix of fun and struggle those early years brought. The knowledge and experience we have accrued now help start-ups and challenger brands working with us – I also hope it can be of value to somebody who may be considering starting their own agency from scratch. Competition, after all, is the lifeblood of innovation and progress.

David Yorath is the co-founder and CEO of Guerillascope, an independent media agency



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