It seems that everyone in the business of advertising is talking about this amazing new discovery called collaboration. Captains of our industry have spun off new collaborative shops and are positioning them as revolutionary, industry-saving concepts.

I call total bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong – I couldn’t agree more. But my thinking on this goes back about a decade. Only, I don’t have a loud enough voice to matter. And today, not unlike in decades past, if you’re not in with the guys who do have the loud voices, you’re out. They tend to stick together to their mutual benefit.

The Skinny: Back in 1999, I was hired by an ad agency in Charlotte as a junior copywriter. It was my first agency gig, and I was glad to have it. The agency fed me challenges day after day, and I ate them up. I was fired in 2001, but not before winning a bunch of awards, making a bunch of clients happy, and mobilizing a bunch of people to act on everything from buying Lexus to scheduling appointments with gastroenterologists. Despite all this, the most important things I did during my first tour inside of a traditional ad agency was watch and learn. As far as I could tell, the creative part of the agency wasn’t that important. It was like icing. No money was really made on it. Rather, the money was made on the media buy. So when I was let go, I decided to take what I’d learned from the inside and start my own shop. A shop where creative thinking was the USP.

My problem was resources. Or rather, lack of resources. First, I could barely make my mortgage every month, much less rent brick and mortar for a startup business. My second problem was human resources. I did meet one designer in the unemployment office, but he was perfectly happy collecting on Uncle Sam for as long as possible. He had no tenacity. It was at that point that I decided that I had to rely on innovation to make things happen. It was 2001, and while the Internet was a burgeoning resource, it was a lot different than the amazing collaborative resources available today. Back then we had email and file transfer protocol. Period. I eventually met a few quality freelance designers via AIGA meetings who said they’d be interested in pitching new business together rather waiting for the traditional agencies to call them on projects.

So I started my agency as smashcommunications and called it a ‘virtual’ advertising boutique. Boutique was a fancy catchphrase back then, and everyone got it – so stop judging. The word ‘virtual,’ however, was completely new, apparently. I had to explain it to everyone I pitched at the Chamber of Commerce meetings I attended. I used to explain it as a workspace that was free of brick, mortar and politics but ripe with ideas. That the thing that mattered to us was solving the communications problems in a way that elicited action. Virtual collaboration, and bringing in the right human resources in for each project, was the core foundation of smash. I didn’t even want to buy media. We would, of course, as media buyers were part of our virtual collaborative too. But to me, media buying was the icing.

It took a few years of scraping by, and taking any job that was offered, before we started to land bigger clients that understood the benefit of a collaboration which wasn’t limited to the resources within a brick and mortar shop. Things really took off, but then cooled with the economy. And over the past two years, I’ve stopped pitching new business to focus exclusively on growing one company. But smash is still a real agency. And it’s survived as a virtual collaboration shop for a decade.

Backing up a bit – about six months after launching smash, times were really tough. And my wife was pregnant with our second child. That’s when I was offered a position with another traditional ad agency in Charlotte. They literally made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Taking the money was both the worst mistake I’d ever made in advertising, as well as the single most important thing that kept me going in the years that followed. I lasted 90 days at the second agency, and nearly died of an ulcer. Ok, that’s a bit dramatic, but it was absolute hell. After that, I said I’d never go back on the inside. And I haven’t. Not even to freelance. No, neither of the ad agencies I worked at were known as high-concept creative shops, and maybe that was the problem. Now that I’m 47, I wonder what would have happened if I’d have been inside at CP+B, for example. I’d like to think I’d have flourished, but I’ll never know. So that’s that.

Now we’re in 2011, and suddenly, out-of-the-blue, and thanks to the advent of digital networking, this amazing new concept of collaboration is beginning to take hold. New. Right. It’s only new because the old guys who have traditionally run the big shops that rely on buying media as their primary revenue source are watching big advertisers diversify – resulting in shrinking profits and shrinking relevance for traditional ad agencies. So the old guys all got together and decided to give this collaboration thing a look. Oh, and with the tools available, they could even make collaboration virtual. Kind of. But not really. A concept as new as collaboration is one thing. No need to get too crazy by giving up the brick and mortar store. After all, how else can you wine and dine advertisers if you don’t have a really cool space filled with really cool looking people who are all trained on maximizing the latest marketing buzzwords?

Right. People – don’t be fooled. You want to be in advertising? Then make yourself. Look around you at what is available, and then rip it up. Rip it up and start something new. Something that’s yours. Don’t buy into these old guys preaching the same shit in different channels. They’re only saying what they’re saying because they’ve been forced to change. I’ll bet if you ask them, 90% would revert back to traditional thinking in a second. After all, that’s how they got to be famous. Not on their ideas, but in manipulating the system to their benefit.

I was in my late 30s when I started my agency as a result of the old guys in the suits saying I was too rogue for their models. You’re younger. Remember what you loved about this business at the start, and let that be what leads you. Yes, learn what you can from the old guys – and then run with it. Run as hard as you can. And make friends along the way who are willing to rip things up with you. Go.


Jim Mitchem

Spotify is a Pretty Girl with Bad Breath
Welcome to the Machine

Jim Mitchem

Writer. Father to daughters. Husband. Ad man. Raised by wolves. @jmitchem on twitter. First novel, Minor King, out now.