Well, after a 26-year run, I’ve sold my ad agency, db&r. I’m the “b.” My email inbox is filled with congratulatory messages, which I appreciate. But it’s more about what the 26 years represent. 23 years of success with 3 arduous years of setbacks that nearly did us in, an obsession with holding on and making it all work for our clients, the agency, and the individuals who made it possible. It’s a long story. I’ll try to keep it short.
Three people – Joyce DiBona, David Random, and myself – started db&r (DiBona, Bornstein & Random) with our severance from the large agency we had worked at, a handful of clients, a decision to give it a year or so to see what would happen, and a recession that made rent cheap on Newbury Street. Our talents and personalities were complementary, and our values were in alignment: no egos allowed, the best of our large agency capabilities without the potentially toxic large agency mindset, high standards always, personal life comes first (perhaps the biggest challenge), no debt allowed to keep us afloat, and don’t order more reams of paper than we can afford.
Our first big conundrum was how many typewriters should we buy. The second was how we could afford a $12,000 stat camera (then a necessity; soon after, a relic donated to a Boston vocational school). The third was to figure out if we should get computers and what the difference was between a PC and a Mac. The fourth was when to hire a fourth person. A little more perspective:
- Macs were considered as toys by most “serious” businesses.
- Your creative lifeline was your type rep who translated designs and specs into ads overnight for hundreds of dollars per layout.
- Turnaround times were weeks, not hours.
- Facsimile machines were huge, noisy, and slow.
- A cellular phone weighed three pounds, got hot in about two minutes of use, and cost several dollars a minute to use. A charged battery could last up to two hours.
- Ad agencies had a mystique about them. (No one could do what we did, nor worked in the office environment that we had.)
- Old school mad men were retiring and far less popular than the TV show.
- Channels meant ABC, CBS, or NBC. That was it.
- Amazon only referred to a jungle, a river, or a really large and tough woman.
I remember being told by one of my account guys that there was this company I should invest in as soon as it was possible. I thought it was a ridiculous idea. How could you make money on a company with a name like Google?
The fact is that things have never been the same, but they never were. That’s why you’re an agency. db&r thrived on a consistently wonderful staff, clients who appreciated strong work and a straightforward work style (although there was one client who asked us to buy him a set of steak knives from the restaurant we were at – better than asking for something illegal, I guess), and constant change in nearly everything.
People have often asked me if I was having fun. Fun, to me, was playing with my dog. But life at db&r was never boring, and I wanted to be with the people I worked with, every day. So much talent and no two days were the same.
So why decide to sell? As much as I’m averse to clichés, “it was time.” Owning a business is a marriage with obsession…about what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s next; who’s happy, who isn’t, why not; winning business, growing business, keeping business; taking intelligent risks, resisting indulgence…it goes on and has no intermission. I knew I had crossed some invisible threshold to a sensation that I no longer wanted that responsibility and the ever-present business voice in my head, day and night. If you care about the agency, your people, your clients, and yourself, it’s no longer a choice. It just isn’t.
The real choice becomes how to best do it. I believe I did. As far as I’m concerned, in acquisitions as in medicine, first, do no harm. That means keeping people whole, teams intact, values consistent, and clients happy, as well as working with a new owner who’s so smart, energetic, ethical, funny, and engaging that you wish you had been partners all along.
db&r is now part of Hatch. I am now a Creative and Strategy Consultant to Hatch. And I am doing more of what I want to do than I have done in years, and none of what I was really done with. Not yet an exit, but a wonderful strategy.
As for what I’ve learned, those blogs are waiting in line. Meanwhile, what questions can I answer for you? Ask anything.