Pawl Cubbin, 46, sold his advertising agency to a large corporation – a move he soon realised spelled disaster for his vision – before buying it back.
My agency began the way of many agencies; with me, alone, in the spare room of my house before I found a business partner to team up with to build something great. Two heads are always better than one, and my then-partner and I grew our design-based agency over a period of seven years. After a merger with an advertising agency, we became Zoo, a cutting-edge agency with 40 staff.
My then-business partners saw an opportunity to sell the majority of their shares to a small national agency group, which was then acquired by the comparatively gargantuan STW Group. I could see it was the right thing for them, but it wasn’t the right thing for me. I figured if I stayed and didn’t sell my shares, then perhaps much would remain the same – even though I had a terrible feeling that it wouldn’t.
The first day I walked in after the deal was emotional for me. STW now owned 51 per cent of what I’d built, so the company didn’t feel like it was mine anymore. I hired a new managing director because I was not used to managing an agency of that size, but it became clear quite quickly that he wasn’t the right fit for the company and clients began walking out the door. It was painful to watch everything I’d worked so hard on crumble in front of my eyes, but I wasn’t ready to walk away. After a period of soul-searching, I saw that my only real option was to buy STW – who weren’t interested in re-investing – out, retake control of the business, and take it back on the path I’d originally set out on. That was eight years ago.
Of course, not everything is as easy as it seems on paper, and with the reinvention of the Zoo Group, I lost a substantial amount of clients and staff. When you’re working for or with a business in decline, people tend to lose their mojo or they say, ‘I can see what you’re doing, and it’s great, but I’m done’. They need to go off and reinvent themselves, too. So even though I had to build the business up from scratch, I still started day one with a feeling that I’d done the right thing for both myself and for the business.
I took what I learnt in Sydney and Melbourne and moved the office to Canberra, which made it clear to clients that this was the new Zoo. I also wanted to reinvent the traditional agency so, for the very first time, I actively looked for new staff outside our industry, eventually hiring MDs with experience in larger agencies, creatives who were looking for something different and ‘suits’ from finance and business consulting backgrounds who were keen to learn advertising. It took a lot of time and persistence, but our strategy soon paid off – we’re still proudly independent, but we’re network independent with boutique agencies in Melbourne, Sydney, Auckland and Singapore.
I don’t regret the path I’ve taken to get Zoo Group where it is today. I feel like you have to go through stuff and get some things terribly wrong for you to arrive at the best version of yourself, both personally and professionally. Some journeys are worth taking, even if they don’t seem at first glance like the most traditional route to success.
I FEEL like you have to GO THROUGH STUFF and get some things TERRIBLY WRONG for you to arrive at the BEST VERSION of yourself.