by Tom Fels (@thomasfels) Having spent most of my career working at independent agencies, I suddenly found myself contemplating what it means to be an independent in this industry.

Common definitions of the word refer to the ‘absence of power or force’ but, when applied to our context, the more interesting angle is what this lack of influence enables: a total liberation of thought and action.

The reality check, of course, is that this freedom is matched with equal responsibility. With no global network to fall back upon for funding, international client alliances or knowledge pools, independent agencies are faced with the daily task of rising to the challenge of their intent.

Even as an independent agency at the leading edge, you’re probably still the underdog, and every win must be made on merit. But isn’t that just the magic? Every day is your Independence Day.

Leading from the front

When Thomas Jefferson signed the American Declaration of Independence into law, one of the three unalienable rights bestowed upon the nation was “the pursuit of Happiness”.

Independence and happiness, are they so inextricably linked? And what of the past and present agency leaders who have gone the independent route, for which the stakes have always been incredibly high and very personal?

We see a common thread develop as we glance across some of the established luminaries of the local and international advertising industry, unearthing household names such as Bob Rightford, John Hunt, Reg Lascaris, Graham Warsop, David Ogilvy, David Droga, Dan Weiden and David Kennedy.

Each of these men at some point chose to found and lead an independent agency. Many have gone on to form part of, or become a global network in their own right. And each man has, without doubt, made an indelible mark on the history of advertising.

But it all started somewhere.

Great agencies aren’t an accident; they are born of great leaders. And, in the absence of external influence, we see leaders shine.

Attitude over ability

Business aptitude is important; I think we all get that. However, to start an agency and grow it from the ground up, unaided by external support, has a whole lot more to do with business attitude.

At the recent AdFocus awards, Andy Rice eloquently described the various traits that unify South Africa’s communication trailblazers. One in particular stood out for me as a most powerful force: these guys were hungry!

Many (if not all) of the other factors, such as the right environment and the right people, became important because they were fuelled by this hunger, not despite it.

Enhanced by a generosity of spirit, a good dose of courage and youthful energy, the stitching of independent agencies are guided by the philosophies and attitudes of their leaders. Once internalised, culture becomes a significant differentiator and unique source of competitive advantage. Especially when a part of that culture is being hungry.

Globally relevant

Many of you will be reading this from behind a desk of a globally aligned agency, thinking that these principles are equally applicable to the business you’re in. They are.

Do a bit more digging and you’ll likely find your agency started life as an independent. The best agencies in the world have become what they are today because of the fierce protection of their founding ideals, further enriched by experience.

Today’s leaders may not be the people who founded your business, but it may be worth considering whether their early principles are still at the forefront of your story and how important they will be to your future success.

What next?

We’re (still) faced with a gloomy economic outlook and many may be tempted to scale back on their expectations, play it safe and weather the storm. Whether you are independent or not, I’d suggest doing the opposite.

Now is the time to give more, work harder and be more. With great adversity comes great opportunity. The potential for ground-breaking marketing that shifts the status quo is unprecedented.

In recalibrating your view toward the pursuit of happiness, I have no doubt that the best place to start is by embracing the hallmarks of your past or present independence. Then make it personal, blaze a new trail and perhaps your name, too, will be added to those of our industry greats.

Tom Fels


With a decade of local and international experience in leading independent brand consulting, design, shopper marketing and integrated advertising roles, Tom Fels has gained a deeply relevant understanding of the dynamics of independent agencies. His skills are put to work daily as deputy managing director of MACHINE.


— MarkLives’ round-up of top ad and media industry news and opinion in your mailbox every three work days. Sign up here!

Online CPD Courses Psychology Online CPD Courses Marketing analytics software Marketing analytics software for small business Business management software Business accounting software Gearbox repair company Makeup artist