Starting an agency will make or break you

rob lowe square 2In this guest post, Poem’s Rob Lowe reflects on the tough business of building your own agency from scratch. 

Six months ago, myself and my business partner Matt Holmes, left the relative safety of the career ladder to launch our own PR agency called Poem. Taking that first step was possibly the most daunting thing either of us has ever done, but it has also been the most rewarding. 

Below is our advice to anyone in the industry thinking of going out on their own.

Handing in your notice will be the scariest thing you do (until you make your first hire)

It took me at least eight heart-stopping attempts to hand in my notice, which in hindsight seems silly, as it’s the best career decision I’ve ever made. Taking the first step is always the hardest, but then the clouds clear and the world opens up. Making your first hire is just as nerve wracking – it’s a landmark moment and up there with other coming-of-age landmarks like holding a newborn baby or buying your first lawn mower.

Promote yourself

A lot of people get so caught up with the client workload, that they forget to promote themselves. Make your footprint a priority. Get a website you are happy with up and running as soon as you can.  It’s the first thing people see – how else are people going to know who you are without it?  Have an opinion. Write stuff (cough). Meet lots of other agency people. If there is a time to network, it’s now.

Be single minded

We’ve heard people say not to sweat the small stuff. But that depends on what you think is small. We worked hard on our brand, deciding what we stand for, what we want to change, who we want to be and what makes us different, then channeled this through our website, credentials and social media from day one. Our first full time staff member was given a brand manifesto (which admittedly sounds over the top) but it was important to us to start off in the way we mean to carry on.

Don’t be scared to say no

At the beginning, you’re so desperate to bring work in that you’ll accept almost any offer to discuss a brief. It’s a bit like moving countries, wanting to make friends and accepting every social invitation – you end up at some weird dinner parties. So don’t be scared to be selective and use your time wisely.

Be flexible while you can

Most agencies carry baggage – there are processes and expectations of how things should be done that can be difficult to change. But the consumer media landscape is changing so quickly. Starting afresh allows you to let go of precedence and do what’s right without regard to convention. It’s liberating.


Having worked in large agencies and global networks, I was nervous that going solo would mean doing just bread and butter work for years whilst we grew. But I underestimated the number of skilled contractors out there and the love we’d get from other independent agencies. Independents thrive on collaboration and this allows you to think big and work with the best talent available.

Share some space

These days you don’t need to start off in your kitchen. There are affordable shared working spaces all over town, or there are the other independent agencies you can share space with. You’ll be able to compliment each other’s skill sets and it makes beers on aFriday more fun.

Don’t let finance frighten you 

ABN numbers, BAS, workers comp, dividends, PAYG and paying Super all seem pretty intimidating when you’re first introduced, but they turn out to be puppy dogs with the right accountant, plus MYOB or Xero accounting tools. Don’t let people confuse you with jargon and make sure you ask lots of dumb questions – it gets simpler.

Create an environment people want to work in

Gen Y is rocking the industry. They’re quicker, more efficient, steeped in culture and this fractured media landscape is all they’ve ever known. They’re also demanding more flexibility and independence from the daily grind than us Gen Xs ever did. Traditionally agencies try and own staff from 9-6pm, 5 days a week, with set annual leave, long term contracts and long notice periods, but Gen Y don’t want that. We’re seeing this shift in employment from an ‘ownership’ to ‘usership’ model. It is the same as what’s happening with telcos, taxis and even homes.  We’re trying to grow a different model at Poem, whereby skilled staff are more empowered, take greater responsibility and are happier, nicer people to work with as a result.

Enjoy the benefits

Undeniably the best part of running your own business is having the freedom to get off the hamster wheel when you need to. You’ll invariably have to work some odd hours at times but you’ll be ok with that since you’re doing it for your own benefit, rather than out of obligation or fear. And if you turn up to work in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt or take an early Friday, who’s to stop you? Just keep your Don Draper suit on a peg in case a client turns up.

  • Rob Lowe is the PR director and co-founder of Poem, clients include Guzman Y Gomez, nudie juice, Expedia, Dilmah Tea, the Luke Mangan Group, Matter, SkinVision, Pinnacle Drinks, Distillery Botanica and the People’s Climate March.

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