2020 vision: Why launching an agency mid-pandemic was a good idea

Along with all the upheaval of 2020 came a sense of opportunity and the possibility of pushing back. Lee Tan, Co-Founder of Motel, talks about the decision to start an agency in 2020, and why a company created during this time, needs to be for this time.

Face masks? Keeping two metres apart? Staying at home to go to work? Grown adults bumping elbows? 2020 was the year none of us saw coming. 

Nobody foresaw any of that at the start of the year. Nor did I see myself co-founding a creative company that sounds like a 1950s hotel for motorists somewhere in the Nevada desert.

It’s been a terrible year in so many ways, but the upheaval brought an opportunity; it gave us time to stop running. For once, we could slow down, look around and think about what was important to us. That yoga class, that friend, that relative, that habit, that thing you’d always wanted to do… we thought about the things we wanted to keep, to leave behind and to start doing. And this included our work.

Rob [Smith, Motel Co-Founder] and I have known each other for 20 years, and had been at the same agency for the last five of those. But, in that whole period, we hardly even had time to stop for a coffee. It was lockdown that gave us the chance to meet up for a walk around the park. The walk lasted three hours.  

Caffeinated drinks in hands, approximately six feet separating us, we talked about Farm, the agency Rob had started 20 years ago, when he tried to hire me. This got us talking about all the places we’d worked at - small boutiques, big global networks and everything in between. And yes, we talked about what we liked, what we’d leave behind and what we’d start doing if we had our own company.  

After more walks, it became clear we had very similar ideas about what that company would look like. What would we keep doing? That was a surprisingly short list: Make outstanding work that actually works. Have healthy client relationships. And just enjoy it. Not rocket science. Is there any other reason we’re in this industry?  

What we’d leave behind? With so many agency experiences to draw from, this was a longer list: The politics. The complication. The split between the real work and the awards work. The tensions between agency/client, agency/agency and agency/in-house department. The wasted energy. And, probably, quite a few more.  

And what we’d start doing? Get back to basics. Build trusting client relationships. Create an environment for challenging ideas. Welcome those ideas wherever they come from. Strong culture. Flexible ways of working. A truly diverse team. Build something to last.

Our ideas about our new company could be put to the test right away because, during our walking phase, we were blessed to land a founding client, Klarna. They had a diversity brief for us, so, we had to be up and running in a matter of weeks. Some stuff just has to be done the good old way; register the company, get a bank account... but many others could be done entirely differently than we would’ve done them at the start of the year.  

We had no office. In fact, we couldn’t have an office. So, when assembling a team, it didn’t matter whether they were actually here in London or half way across the world. A designer in Sao Paolo. A young creative in Mallorca. A finance person in Scotland. A creative director who wants to spend half her time on her directing career. A creative team in Australia who work while we sleep. A CFO and busy mum who works one day spread across the week. A strategist who is also launching an app business...  

Remote working, international talent, flexible hours, outside projects, work/life balance, these weren’t new ideas, but we could now put them into practice immediately. We had to; to get the best talent, to lower our overheads, for our client and for how people increasingly want to live and work in 2020 and beyond.  

We had to get to a stand-out concept and quick. I’d always liked being with the team as we came up with ideas. Sticking stuff on a wall. Then sticking Post-It notes on the stuff we’d just stuck on a wall. I still miss that. But it was a revelation how well we could all work on video chat. And there’s something truly satisfying about seeing 10 people all working on a presentation simultaneously. This tech has been around for years, but now we were actually using it.  

We were working so closely, seeing each other on-screen so often, that any doubts a culture could be built working this way were quickly forgotten. Fast forward a few weeks to our shoot for Klarna and, though most of us had never met in-person, it felt like we had. Oddly, it didn’t really matter anyway. Working this way meant we could have lots of quick check-ins with Klarna. There was no need for the old-style agency presentation and the accompanying pomp and ceremony. We could speak to decision-makers regularly and quickly - sometimes at the drop of a virtual hat.

Most importantly, this all worked for Klarna. They were already ahead of most agencies in most ways. They had a start-up mentality, were tech-savvy, and they wanted agility, quality at speed, less process, less overheads, less rigid cost structures. The agency model has been discussed and reviewed since Nick Kamen first took his trousers off in public - and no doubt even before that. A gradual shift had occurred over the years, but 2020 shook everything up.

Klarna also wanted some back to basics stuff as well. Chief among them, work which punched way above its weight. In a downturn, more than ever, putting out safe work just isn’t an option. Moving the needle requires challenging ideas. Arguably, the best agencies have always made it comfortable to explore the uncomfortable. And that’s how we’ll continue to help solve our clients’ business problems, and yes, sell stuff.  

Our company was born during this time, and for this time. There have been many start-ups in 2020, each with a different idea about what the industry needs right now. A common thread is that none of us needed to adapt to the new reality. We’re here because of the new reality. Most of the things we’re doing, we’ll keep doing, because it works. One day, we may even have an office. But there won’t be any desks. It’ll just be a place to hang out and have some face-to-face time. Maybe we’ll stick a few Post-It notes on a wall. When this pandemic is finally over, there might be a few things we’ll return to. But there will be many others we don’t have to - and don’t want to.

We may not have seen this year coming. But perhaps 2020 was about seeing more clearly after all.

18 December 2020