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Paul Venables gives a masterclass in success for online advertising startups

Paul Ven­ables, founder and exec­u­tive cre­ative direc­tor of Ven­ables, Bell & Part­ners, has been shar­ing his inti­mate knowl­edge about how start­up online ad agen­cies can thrive, even in tough eco­nom­ic con­di­tions. Aspir­ing busi­ness devel­op­ment man­agers might do well to lis­ten up.

Keep­ing human, keep­ing lean

Writ­ing as a guest colum­nist on AdAge, Ven­ables chal­lenges the assump­tion that, with agen­cies pop­ping up from coast to coast, there’s no room for new ones. But the suc­cess­ful ones need to be dif­fer­ent if they’re to inspire their team’s cre­ativ­i­ty, which means mak­ing the work envi­ron­ment spe­cial – busi­ness devel­op­ment man­agers, search engine mar­ket­ing spe­cial­ists and cre­atives need to be treat­ed “like liv­ing, breath­ing human beings,” not cogs in a machine.

And there’s no need to be tim­o­rous about mar­ket melt­downs and reces­sions. Pro­vid­ed agen­cies learn from the hard times (as indeed Ven­ables, Bell & Part­ner did when the dot com bub­ble burst and the post‑9/11 mar­ket calami­ty struck with­in months of each oth­er), prospects can be good. Just don’t let the record Dow lead to reck­less overindul­gence. As Ven­ables puts it, “Don’t start fat. Don’t get fat.”

Anoth­er don’t: don’t think that clients will be impressed with a wit­ty, eso­teric moniker. They won’t be. Ven­ables says, “You are a brand. Your agency is a brand. Makes life eas­i­er (espe­cial­ly in the begin­ning) when they’re one and the same.”

The art of persuasion

But there are some cru­cial do’s to prac­tice, too. Take on work that “feels good and right and ful­fill­ing to you.” Ven­ables believes that hunt­ing for exter­nal val­i­da­tion in the press or YouTube com­ments is way less impor­tant than choos­ing the right projects. He also thinks that once a team has been appoint­ed, their inspi­ra­tion comes not from moti­va­tion­al speech­es by exec­u­tives but sim­ply from believ­ing in them. And busi­ness devel­op­ment man­agers would be well advised, he says, to dis­card clever pitch tac­tics in favor of rig­or­ous case studies.

One piv­otal point for Ven­ables is to remem­ber that adver­tis­ing is an art of persuasion:

“Not sell­ing them, not bull­shit­ting them, not throw­ing tech­nol­o­gy at them, not mak­ing them swoon with pop­u­lar music, not impress­ing them with celebri­ty con­nec­tions, not trick­ing them into car­ing about some­thing they don’t. Sci­ence can help, but in adver­tis­ing as in life, it’s the art of under­stand­ing, relat­ing to and con­nect­ing with people.”

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