Start-up lessons from a returning ad man


Thirteen years after launching multi-national ad agency Archibald Ingall Stretton, Stuart Archibald has sold-up and returned home to Sydney.


As he prepares for his next venture, we chatted to Archibald about what start-up lessons he learned on the road.


Archibald is sitting at a concourse cafe in Sydney’s bustling Strand Arcade, near a gentlemen’s outfitters from which he’s just emerged.


The backdrop gives an appropriate context: Archibald is preparing for business.


“I’m going to do another start-up. It’s as simple as that,” he says.


“Building on what I’ve learned in London over 13 years doing that start-up, developing it, taking it international into Europe, America, New York. It’s time to do it all again.”


Reflecting on London-headquartered Archibald Ingall Stretton – the direct and digital agency he co-founded in 1998 – the most salient points for Archibald seem to involve the agency’s beginnings, and waving goodbye earlier this year.


He says: “We started up as three guys in a room.”


“We didn’t have a founding client, or the money to form the business, plus we wanted to continue to pull a wage.”


“The more you give away early on, the less you have if you ever sell the business, or autonomy and so on.”


“If you want money up-front you have to realise it can affect you later on, that’s one learning.”


After talking to potential investors, Archibald and his partners ultimately struck a deal that saw French holding company Havas take a minority share in their business.


In return the agency received funding that helped it get off the ground quickly.


“It’s this double-edged sword of ‘No support, you’re out on your own and all the hard things that go along with it’, or ‘Give away a bit early on, some autonomy, in exchange for the benefits of an easier life’,” he says.


“When you’re doing a start-up you’ve got to have the vision early on: ‘What do we want to do?’ Where do we want to be in five years’ time? Ten years’ time?”


Archibald adds: “Have a clear vision about what you want to do, and decide carefully about which investor you want to go with you.”


“Who are they? What are they about? Are they going to be breathing down your neck?”


“A reason we went with Havas was they were very autonomous – they let you get on with setting up the business.”


Having a long-term vision sounds like an especially handy advantage for communications agencies in Australia; a market where independents are few and far between.


And a clear vision is also something Archibald points to as valuable for start-ups during the key stages of growth – be it those crucial first few hires or, later on, when the need comes to rapidly staff-up as the business expands.


If staff are going to put as much in as the business founders “you can’t walk around your office imparting on people ‘It’s my mortgage on the line here’ and all that, because you’ll only scare people,” he says.


“You have to give them the vision: what are you trying to do day in, day out? And the bigger you get, you have to reaffirm that vision.”


Where to start in NYC


Founded as a direct marketing agency, AIS was relatively fast to embrace digital.


Notable early new business wins, such as Skoda and Virgin Net, helped put the agency on the radar.


Then giant UK telco O2 consolidated the arrangements it had with multiple agencies into just one by moving to AIS during 2003. In the process,  the agency doubled in size.


The next big phase for AIS was to go international – an expansion Archibald himself spearheaded.


And it’s after spending the past two years setting up AIS in New York that he finds himself back home in Sydney.


Archibald says start-ups from any industry with aspirations to open in New York or London should note the investment trends of large businesses.


“If a start-up agency has done well in Australia and wants to go overseas to New York or London I would be talking to the communications industry – depending on what the business is of course,” he says.


“In New York we found there were a lot of incubator businesses going around visiting advertising agencies saying ‘Can you help us get started and we’ll give you a stake’.”


“I’d be talking to the media companies, because they know the consumers. I’d be talking to research companies, and ad agencies, too.”