Starting a new digital agency

I started my digital career in 1997, my job titles have included HTMLer, Interface Development Manager, Project Manager, Senior Producer and Executive Producer. In the last few months, my job title has been changing multiple times a day, from Finance Director to IT manager to Washer Upper to Ikea furniture builder.

Going from a specialist to a generalist is often labelled as a step back, but I love it. I love that every day is different, that I know what’s going on across the business and most of all that I learn lots of new things every day. I get satisfaction knowing that the desk I’m sitting at I built, and that the chair I’m sitting on I tested, chose and scanned through the self checkout at Ikea. I see it more as honing my skills and broadening my knowledge rather than being a jack of all trades. In the last few months I’ve figured out how to install apache on Windows Vista, customised a wordpress blog, worked out the difference between a CNAME and A name, set-up email hosting, as well as remembering to pay bills on time and track GST in and GST out.

Getting through the day to day challenges of running a new business is invigorating, but my motivation for being part of a new agency is also about fulfilling a vision of how I think a digital agency should run, and being part of defining a working environment that is satisfying, challenging, supportive and enjoyable.

I’ve worked at a number of pure digital agencies both in London and Sydney and through my experiences have a pretty good idea of the kind of company I want to work for, and the kind of company I don’t. I agree wholeheartedly with Val’s Tips for starting a new agency.

Back in the dot com era, I was employee number 18 in an up and coming digital agency in London. We had custom made carpet with our logo in it, a stunning boardroom with a remote control to open the curtains, a room with wall to wall whiteboards, a dreamcast, playstation, foosball, table tennis, pool table, dartboard, pinball… We hired the London Aquarium for a client function, and partied on after at Heaven nightclub that we had exclusively hired. We even recorded our own brand theme song. We worked long hours and had two or three local pubs that we would go to after work every night. Sometimes we went back to work again after the pub. It was an amazing time and I met some amazing, talented people who have become lifelong friends. Bluewave was a rollercoaster ride and there were many successes and good initiatives, but also a lot of learnings for doing things differently.

I want to be friends with my colleagues, it’s important to know what’s happening in their personal lives and it’s great to share a drink and a meal and have a good time doing it. But working hard and playing hard with the same people day in, day out, it becomes hard to separate professional from personal. And going to the pub every night of the week isn’t really conducive to a productive work environment.

There are always going to be times when you need to hit a deadline, or you need to do work outside of hours, but I don’t believe working long hours is sustainable or healthy. It inevitably leads to burn out and points to an issue, it could be bad time management, bad delegation, bad resource planning, or management taking advantage or not listening to their staffs issues.

The key thing I’ve learned over the years is that it’s all about people. People include your clients, your staff, your peers, your suppliers and of course yourself. You need to look after their wellbeing and their aspirations. You need to keep them motivated and give them the tools they need to succeed. You need to know when to help them and when to let them figure it out for themselves. I believe that instead of focusing purely on business performance, if you strive for happy clients and a happy team then you’re well on the way to having a successful business.



  1. Valentina Borbone

    Great post Sarah and it’s raised a few questions for me. I too worked for a company that sounded like Bluewave (back then we were called Legion Interactive) and funnily, the unsustainable part of the whole “fun” culture was when Legion was bought by the Photon Group. Suddenly the game changed dramatically – employees who were once happy to be part of the success for the 3 directors who put themselves on the line for the business were turned on their head. The Group didn’t care for them as individuals, only bottom lines of each individual business. It changed the dynamics incredibly and whilst some of us could see this from the moment they had the reigns, others were completely surprised (some even flabagasted) when their drinking-well dried up.

    I’d really like to work out the balance between having an effective team environment and having a really fun team environment. Retain stability whilst having a good time doing it. The only conclusion I’ve come to is “no brilliant jerks” but I’d welcome some ideas on how to get this balance right. Anyone have a success story?


    That is a good tip particularly to those fresh to the blogosphere.

    Short but very accurate information… Appreciate your sharing this one.
    A must read article!

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