Your Start-Up Business: Mixing Up the Business Model


I first saw Robbie Whiting in 2012 at South by Southwest, where he gave a daring presentation on the death of the advertising agency model. At the time, he was Director of Creative Technology at Duncan/Channon, an agency which has applied a unique approach to attracting new business: Making things.

Robbie is an early adopter, and evangelist of the Maker Movement, a group of people who build anything and everything just to see if they can.

Robbie recently, with several partners who are legendary in the advertising scene, launched his own agency:Argonaut. Argonaut has a particular approach to courting business: courting the individuals who share the Argonaut philosophy, and the accounts follow.

Karen: Last year at SXSW, you made a presentation on how the agency model is dying, and how it is in great need of disruption. Do you still feel the same way?

Robbie: Yes. Digital has transformed the way brands interact with audiences, but also the way agencies function. For a long time, we’ve been obsessed with how digital has changed what we need to make, but very few agencies were challenging how we make things. That making process itself is something that has been completely disrupted from this linear model of strategy, creative, and production, to now, where making is a fundamental part of the creative strategic process.

Karen: Do you think the agency billing model in the digital age puts agencies at a disadvantage, because the onus is on billable hours?

Robbie: That’s a real problem that we’re facing right now. “How do agencies get paid for the value they bring?” I think the old model of simply churning out hours puts you at odds with getting to the solutions faster, which is really what agile is about. I think that’s what we’re all trying to figure out, what agility means in terms of how we charge for what we do. It’s less about billable hours, and more about getting paid for value.

Karen: You’re a proponent of Maker culture. How important is maker culture to businesses who want to innovate and lead?

Robbie: It is absolutely fundamental. Making is the heart of creativity. Making is thinking. Making is problem solving. We’re in a three and often four dimensional medium. Advertising isn’t just about putting words and pictures together. It’s about putting together systems and applications, and to get to those things faster, you have to start making. Sometimes the entire creative process is making. Current advertising agencies don’t have good systems for getting makers involved in the upfront creative, strategic process. There’s a lot of talk on the back end about development and prototyping, but the idea of a collaboration model upfront with makers at the table is one that we hope to achieve.

Karen: You worked at an agency before which had a pretty defined approach to making. (Duncan/Channon has a record label and a bar, among other tangible items the agency has made.) Are you taking the best bits from your previous agency, and carrying them forward?

Robbie: Duncan/Channon was an agency which was very much about “If you can dream it, build it.” Tapping into people’s passions, and giving them license to do that is the essence of Argonaut. You are encouraged to “do.” Your value is what you bring to the table, and what you do. We have a culture where if we wanted to, we could create a coffee shop if we really felt passionate about it. That comes from a maker’s spirit. For me, tapping into the next generation of makers is going to be the salvation of this industry. The maker program at Duncan/Channon was all about getting people who wouldn’t necessarily consider a career in advertising to whet their appetite by offering them an opportunity to come and work in our industry. It was very successful. We had a great run. We plan to implement something similar here at Argonaut.

Karen: When you work for an agency which has very few rules, and you are in a senior position, most people would take the safe bet. What made you decide to take the leap to start your own agency?

Robbie: There was no other option for me. I couldn’t continue to be part of a system where I couldn’t be in charge of a radical transformation. That’s the maker in me. This agency fulfils a big part of my drive as a maker. I’m a junkie for adventure. There’s definitely a feeling of “this is a great unknown.” We all came from pretty respected positions in the industry, and to jump into something where we’re rewriting the rules can be a little scary, but it’s what we signed up for.

Karen: How do you feel about what has been described as “the intrapreneur’s dilemma”: people who are cutting edge and innovative, but exist within large corporations with heavy processes and entropy. Do you think there’s hope for them?

Robbie: It all follows the money. As agencies see that it’s in their best interests to begin to take more seriously different ways of working, whereby they collaborate with different types of people, you’ll see a shift. We want to be on the forefront of that shift. All over North America, this movement exists in agencies, and it’s being led from the bottom up. To me, it’s a giant tidal wave waiting to happen.

Karen: So, how does Argonaut incorporate these ideas? How are you different?

Robbie: Argonaut is about making beautiful, useful things in a different way. Agility is at the core of what we do. We don’t sacrifice the artistry and the craftsmanship that comes with these things. What we set out to do was to target the types of people we want to work with. Ultimately, the greatest work and the most effective work in the industry right now is being led by clients who know what they want. For us, it has been putting together a list of people we’d like to work with. We have to be more agile. We have to have a system which allows us to get to the right answers faster. Ultimately, our work isn’t just going to be measured on its artistic merit, but also on its business merit. The world of data we’re entering now as an agency is something we’re really excited about, because we don’t think enough people are harnessing the right types of data to make the work effective. It’s agility and artistry, but tied to real performance.

Karen: You’ve worked with start-ups, and you’ve started quite a few yourself. How does a product-focused start-up differ from a service start-up?

Robbie: My experience in making products has prepared me for building our product (the agency.) A lot of things that go into developing a product go into developing our agency. Rapid prototyping, of collaboration models and structures, or an e-commerce engine, it’s a lot of the same skills.

Karen: As more agencies adopt your type of model, do you see the end of the sizzle reel and the agency deck pitch?

Robbie: Absolutely, and it’s going to come from clients. Clients are going to start demanding these ways of working. One of the advantages Argonaut will have is we’ve planned and worked this way since day one. Other agencies will have to turn a very giant ship. One thing that has always bothered me about big agencies is there’s a lot of lip service paid to this way of working, but fundamentally, culturally, and financially, agencies aren’t prepared to take these kinds of steps. As the world moves from gigantic, AOR contracts to more roster-based, project-based models, we’ll be right there.

Karen: There’s a lot of focus on building companies “culture first” right now. As Argonaut scales, will you be looking to hire for cultural fit, or more traditionally (Account Director, Copywriter. Etc.?)

Robbie: We decided from day one that culture is paramount. The interesting thing about culture is that you don’t dictate it. Culture happens everybody lives and breathes that way. We purposely created a company where there are no departments, and no hierarchy. It’s very flat that way. There will probably be some very diverse folks here. We’re looking for multitalented makers.

Karen: What advice would you give to someone who is looking to follow your lead, and start their own business?

Robbie: Wherever you are in this process, you can fight this battle. You can start making, like I did, on the side. The best piece of advice I can give, though is to learn a programming language. To understand what can be accomplished digitally is a very empowering thing.


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