The trials and tribulations of setting up my own agency

After he grew tired of the demands of adland, James Sutton decided to make a go of it on his own. Here, he explains why he bothered to set up his own agency in the first place.

I come from big agency land where we work hard, drink hard and make no excuses. I used to love getting a pat on the back for clever creative work, having access to unlimited beers from the fridge and 24/7 table tennis.

Well, as fun as that all was, the culture started to take its toll and the shine wore off. Don’t get me wrong, I miss it from time to time.

It was an addictive culture full of social promise and (some) awesome creative. I’ve worked with some of the most talented people in the game. They’ve passed down some priceless skills, insights and advice, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without the agency world.

The problem is, it all got too demanding. The culture dictated how we should work. The person who stayed the latest was the hardest worker. Are you kidding me? The person who stays the latest has either very bad time management skills or is being passed on someone else’s mistakes to deal with. Something wasn’t right.

I loved the creative challenges. They got me up in the morning. But what I didn’t love was pointless work. Doing work for the sake of doing work, making sure I sat on my ass for the contracted 9–5.

Someone might tap me on the shoulder at 4:55 to tell me about an awesome opportunity to pitch for a new client. All I have to do is stay late! Give me a break. What type of bullshit is that?

It got me thinking. How can I work on meaningful stuff that is not judged a success unless I do an all nighter? Surely clients are human enough to want us to go home and be with our families. Surely there’s another way to have the same creative output without killing everybody involved.

I’ve always thought that things could be done differently. I spent year after year witnessing pointless meetings, multiple pitches for non paying clients, jobs being passed through account managers, creative directors, art directors, junior designers, UX designers, the receptionist, the office dog… the list goes on.

I got sick of my calendar filling up with meetings about meetings, and not actually leaving enough time to do any work. If you add up the billable hours against the actual hours spent on creative, it does not align. Something is wrong here.

I’ve noticed a huge wave of change within the remote working space. There seems to be more and more demand for us to work when and where we want.

Why can’t we pull talented people in when we need them? If we’re working on a branding brief and we need an illustrator and a copywriter, let’s get an illustrator and a copywriter. They are all working remotely anyway. This way we would have no overheads, no rent to pay, no bills, no pointless meetings. Bring talent together when we need it. Cut the wasted time and produce amazing creative work.

This all started a few years back when I decided to go freelance. I gave up a great job. I gave up the security and jumped into the whole new world of the unknown. That was the best thing I’ve ever done.

When you enter the freelance market, you start to think differently. You start to take more risks. You start to realise that having the safety net of a perm gig means absolutely nothing apart from having a month’s notice.

It changes your mindset. It allows you to say yes to the things you were too busy to do last year.

It took a few months to set up a business, create the brand and find a niche. I’ve spent more time learning about business than I have design.

I didn’t think I was a business-y type of person, but surprisingly I enjoy it.

To be honest, the difficult part has been finding paying clients. It isn’t going to run on fumes. It’s a slow process, but I wake up everyday positive and driven, because I know the hard work will pay off.

So what have I learnt so far? It’s difficult, lonely and sometimes feels impossible. But I’ve learnt to let the self doubt push me to work harder.

I’ve learnt to keep thinking about what’s driving this and never forget it. I’ve learnt that it will take time. But however long it takes, it’s better than being in the same situation in 12 months’ time, not even trying. I’ve learnt that it’s possible.

James Sutton is the founder of Studio LDN.


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