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December 31, 2008
The End Game: Starting Your Own Agency
I never thought I would work in advertising.
When I was 13, I spent one of those “career days” with Lee Lynch, founder of Carmichael Lynch. Advertising looked like fun, but not like a career. Of course, I was 13. Playing drums in a band like The Police looked like a career.
15 years, 11 agencies and lots of clients later, I’ve begun the end game.
Hello Viking, my own kind of advertising entity, is now one year old.
I say “end game” because I’m not sure where I’d go after this (and I don’t intend for this era of my career to be over any time soon). I’ve always thought of ownership as the last and hopefully longest chapter.
It’s definitely been the most educational. The past 12 months have taught me a lot about business and even more about advertising and marketing.
You need friends
When I first got into advertising, I imagined I’d easily own my own shop some day. Easily. Yeah, that was a dream.
As our first client and valued collaborator, David Wecal of Spring, told us early on—make friends and prepare for the slow times, because they will come. Hello Viking owes its success to friends like David who’ve kept us going.
It’s not just friends as clients, it’s friends as mentors, collaborators, cheerleaders and senders of emails that read, “Let me just say how proud I am to know you and to watch from afar as you really take off in this phase of your career. It's impressive and inspirational.”
You also need friends who refer fantastic bookkeepers and tech support.
Thank you, friends and family. Without you, Hello Viking wouldn’t exist.
Everything is personal
When I worked for another agency—when I worked for someone else—it never really occurred to me that every document and email I wrote, every client meeting where I opened my mouth, every edit session I attended was, in some manner, a reflection on the ownership of the agency. And I’m not sure I would have realized any of it then.
When you’re responsible for everyone else’s payroll, work feels different. Almost every decision, every keystroke, has greater perceived impact. This is neither bad nor good. It simply is.
Location is nothing
We’ve employed 38 people and collaborated with 39 client contacts around the country this past year; using video chat, email, Basecamp from 37Signals for file and project management and most important—desire.
(We’ve earned a few thousand frequent flier miles along the way, too.)
I don’t think this approach would have been as successful even five years ago. The difference is, attitudes have changed. Talent and clients both are now much more eager to collaborate virtually. Travel costs have a lot to do with it. However, the desire to work on your own terms—and the realization you (and lots of other people like you) can—is what’s tipped everything.
Case in point: Women with kids. Hello Viking employs an incredible roster of producers. Almost all led big accounts for big agencies and big production shops before maternity. Now they can work for us, on their terms, and maintain quality of life.
You need an idea
If you’re lucky (and we were), you start your agency with a client already signed up. But that only forestalls the inevitable. At some point, your agency needs to stand for something—to have, at its core, a simple, distinct DNA. Ours is the digital base.
The digital base is what underscores any relationship today between any brand and its customers. It’s the data, technology and functionality that dictate corporate leadership, product design, manufacturing, pricing strategy, distribution and customer service are, by default, elements of marketing and advertising. It’s reassuringly analytical, yet stubbornly radical.
Everything we do at Hello Viking is grounded in the digital base. And while this approach might evolve or mutate—in fact, I hope it does—the point is to have philosophical guidance. How will we do what we do in a way that’s of value to clients yet distinct from what other agencies are offering?
The next chapter
We’ve just added our first fulltime partner. Alan Pafenbach has joined Hello Viking as Chief Creative Officer. If you’re unaware, Alan helped pitch, win then led the Volkswagen “Drivers wanted” campaign at Arnold Worldwide for 10 years. Most recently, Alan was the global creative lead on the Yahoo! business for Ogilvy.
It’s exciting. The stakes are getting higher, in all directions, as they should be. The energy, the risk and the emotions are palpable and vibrant. And that’s probably the best part of owning one’s own shop.

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As a writer, creative director and drummer, Tim Brunelle started in advertising in 1993 after receiving a B.A. in Jazz from the University of Cincinnati. Since then, he's worked with TBWA/Chiat Day, Heater/Easdon, McKinney & Silver, Arnold Worldwide, OgilvyOne, Mullen and Carmichael Lynch. Tim now works for his own entity, Hello Viking.

Tim has provided strategic and creative leadership to A.G. Edwards, Anheuser-Busch, Brown Forman, Goodyear, Harley-Davidson, Porsche, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Volkswagen.

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