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5 Pointers For Starting Your Own Creative Agency

Moving Brands co-founder James Bull on when to take risks, how to win work, and why you need to pick a leader.

5 Pointers For Starting Your Own Creative Agency

I often get asked how I started Moving Brands, or how you start your own creative business. To those just out of school, I say nothing beats launching into it. That’s what we did.

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Five of us founded Moving Brands in 1998 in London. We were fresh out of college, and we had managed to scrape together just enough money for one month’s rent, one month’s deposit on a building, and two laptops we paid for using our student loans. And that was it—no buffer, no angel investor, no safety net of any kind. We had four weeks to land a client that would generate enough money to pay the next month’s rent, or we were finished before we started. We were naïve, and we believed we could make it work.

What compelled us to build our own business with no money or experience? We knew we had something to say and were committed to saying it. Some of us had interned in traditional agencies and didn’t agree with their appetite for silos. We also had an opinion on—and skills in—design, illustration, brand, photography, art, film, and music. So we did things our way.

I believe a business is the product of the time in which it lives. The economy, technology, fashion, music, and society all conspire to craft and shape you and your business. Moving Brands is now a global creative business, with studios in San Francisco, New York, London, Zurich, and, for a few years, Tokyo. We’re still independent (fiercely independent, I like to think), and three of the original founders, including me, are still in the business.

Courtesy James Bull

If you’re holding a new diploma and considering your own creative business, here are some observations I’ve made from 17 years at Moving Brands that should help you frame your thinking.

1. Take big risks early on.
Running a business is all about taking risks. We were lucky that Moving Brands’ founders were all naturally comfortable with risk. We found that risk was something you have to navigate, and no matter how hard you try, it never goes away. It’s also easier to take big risks early on, when you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. So always go for it. As your business grows, the stakes will rise—you’ll have employees with families relying on you to make the right call, and you have to take that very seriously.


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2. Elect a leader, even among co-founders.
Even between friends you need to choose a leader. You will have multiple ideas and different opinions, and I’ve learned that going in a direction is much more important than arguing about the direction. It’s also a great way to build respect and trust when everyone knows his or her real talents and place within the team. Having a leader to make the call on behalf of the team, sometimes without any discussion, really helped propel Moving Brands forward in a way that we didn’t witness in our peers.


3. Bottom line: win the work.
I’ve always been critical about how the design industry thinks about the right and wrong ways to win work. For us, there is no right and wrong. Just win the work with whatever it takes. Many in my profession are staunchly against the idea of pitching, saying that it undermines the value of design and designers to give ideas away for free. I’d argue that without being willing to pitch for free, Moving Brands wouldn’t exist. We all need to prove ourselves, and I always see pitching as a great way to show the client you mean business.


4. Understand the value of independence.
Moving Brands is independent. We work with the clients we choose. We only answer to ourselves and our clients, we deliver the best creative for the job, and there are no ulterior motives driven by a network or parent company’s agenda. Independence also comes with a downside. We are responsible for every single cent that goes in and out of the business. There is no safety net. This motivates us to work hard and perform hard. If we don’t, we don’t survive.


5. Be an advocate of change.
As a business, you need to foster and be open to change. Your business will need to adapt, restructure, re-invent itself, and adopt new technologies regularly. By doing so, your business will grow. Without change, your business will plateau. So you need to be sensitive and open to change and welcome it even when it feels awkward, expensive, or time-intensive.

As part of that change, you also need to nurture your team and allow it to supersede you. Ten years ago, Mat Heinl, who is now our CEO, started as a designer. He was tenacious, thoughtful, and interested in the business mechanics. He worked hard, and when it was time to find a new CEO, he was the perfect choice. On a day-to-day basis, I now report to Mat. Not many founders can say that. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. We made a business that can grow beyond its founders.

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About the author

James Bull is a co-founder of Moving Brands, a creative agency with offices in London, Zurich, New York, and San Francisco. @jamesmbull @movingbrands.

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