Great name, pity about the timing: The rollercoaster ride of launching an agency

Founder of Kookaburra Riot, Paul Murphy, shares his story of starting his agency three months ago and what he's learned in the process.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about the launch of a new independent agency, I mostly picture someone in their new office in a client meeting, with modern furnishings, a shiny logo on the wall and busy people bustling about the place.

I generally don’t think of a lone person sitting at the new family laptop with a blank screen considering what to put on that page.

From my newfound experience, the first serious moment of launching a new agency starts with the moment of commitment when you first dare to tell someone (someone you don’t trust to keep a secret) that you are going out on your own.

After a conversation with Linda Robson at the Hummingbirds I knew I had to throw my hat over the fence. This was the start of Kookaburra Riot.

It was scary then, and it remains so now. From a quick survey of the many small business owners I have been connecting with, this won’t change any time soon.

If you have ever wondered what the first months of a new business are like, then this is the article for you. If you want to know more, I love a chat, so please feel free to get in contact with me directly.

To keep my story on track, here are the top five things I have experienced so far.

1. You quickly learn who your friends are

This is a good thing.

I have been pleasantly surprised consistently by the people who have been generous with their time and insights. As a person who enjoys getting different perspectives, I have appreciated the people who have been willing to give me feedback and support over the first months. These people have included marketers, ex-colleagues, journalists, media salespeople and indie agency leaders. People that you would expect not to give you a nudge of support have often given the most generously.

I owe a debt of gratitude to those who have given the toughest criticism as this is often what was needed.

I considered naming names, but will protect the identities of the guilty unless they ask otherwise (for now I hope you know who you are).

2. Being back on the tools and working directly with marketers and SME businesses is hugely rewarding

Owning the business challenges and building the solutions myself is what I have always loved to do. Clients haven’t wanted me to stay in my lane, appreciating my wider experience outside of my media specialisation. I have felt the pressure of being accountable for the advice I have given but experienced the privilege of seeing the positive impact in real-time. Communications is the business of change and growth, seeing your role in this is gratifying, particularly in a small business when it correlates directly to someone’s family.

Becoming a bigger wheel in a smaller machine has allowed me to bring in agency partners I have previously loved working with. These people are highly experienced and immediately bring value, making us all look good and achieve meaningful work.

On the flip side, I need to do a spectrum of work, from strategy, planning and buying to air-checks, entering spots into BCC and building audiences in Business Manager. It is taking some discipline and attention to detail. Trying to remember skills you haven’t needed to use in a while can be frustrating. But this is the price of keeping overheads low and having independence.

3. Response rates on cold calling are extremely low. Even lower than your average display campaign click-through rate

Winning new business is a long game. Although I have chased meetings with people that I know, I have also sought to connect with new people. But when they do not know me, and have other important things to be doing, it is unlikely they respond. I get it.

The best networkers I have seen in action are the ones who know people who know people. They are not afraid to request an introduction to a person or business and often have a piece of value they offer the new person in return. Having spent many years in agencies where salespeople have called me, I admit I personally have room to improve in this area! I have a new appreciation for the people who put themselves out there every day.

4. The need for self-motivation cannot be overstated

On busy days when you do not have a hot lead or a brief to work on, you need to grow the business.

For me, this entailed creating strategies around business connections and then following them. Each time one finished I needed to think of a new one then rinse and repeat. I don’t think I have ever spoken to as many people around the industry as I have in the past three months. One of the more enjoyable aspects has been the excuse to reconnect with previous colleagues and to see where everyone is now.

The hardest part has been making myself busy when I didn’t have a deadline. In agencies I had processes to follow, people reporting to me and people to report to. I then had templates to fill out and timelines to adhere to. In my new world, suddenly I was in complete control of my day, which was daunting. It is a little like a person that is institutionalised suddenly being set free and then missing the walls that once bound them.

For me, the answer has been to recreate the process, as silly as it sometimes seems. Even when creating my business name I wrote presentations with recommendations and various territories to explore. I even set up mini-meetings to present to trusted people for feedback. Luckily they were too kind to mention how weird this was.

I have also found value in giving regular business updates to my wife. If I had a dollar for every time I heard “Did you get any new business today?” this article would instead be about how I paid off my loan in six months during a recession.

5. So much work needs to be done behind the scenes

Like a duck on a pond, the action happens below the surface.

Before clients can be approached there are big questions to answer, like what is your point of difference? Do you have tools, tech and systems in place to meet your promises?

Having led teams and been in an indie before, some of this was something I knew, but there is so much more to starting a business.

The other parts were daunting but fun. I am sure that finding a good accountant will be proven to have been important, but something I enjoyed. However, building a website was definitely not my forte. This remains at the forefront of things people have given me constructive criticism on. Yes, it still needs a lot of work! If you check it out, please know that I know I need to invest in a web designer.

In my quiet moments of contemplation, I have wondered about the sanity of launching an agency, particularly in 2024. The industry is more complex and competitive now than it has ever been (at least in my 28+ years). There is more to understand regarding technology, additional tools, more partners, higher costs and lower margins. What was I thinking? Should I have instead dragged the family up to far north Queensland to start a fishing charter business (with my sea sickness and inept fishing ability this could have been more problematic)?

Like many of us, I realised that after so many years in the industry, I still love trying to understand categories, shoppers, technology and people’s behaviour. With so many great friends and characters, why would I want to be anywhere else?

If you enjoyed reading this, then I hope I can give you an update after 12 months.

Paul Murphy is the founder of Kookaburra Riot agency.


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