Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy: A successful advertising agency start-up

There weren't any gaps in the market. But a deal came fast
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The Independent Online

Setting up your own business is a risky affair in any industry. In the cut-throat world of advertising, some would call it madness if you left a secure job at the country's largest agency for the relative obscurity of a start-up.

It is just over two years since four senior executives from Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO did just that ­ quitting their jobs and going their own way.

Since opening its doors on 1 June 1999, Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy has established itself as one of the most successful advertising agency start-ups. Today the agency has clients including Thorntons, Dyson and Bell's Whisky.

MCBD's latest success has been to snaffle the £7m ad account for P&O Cruises, beating their old firm, AMV; it was the first time MCBD had gone head to head with their previous employers in a competitive pitch.

Founded in 1977, AMV grew to be the largest agency in the UK. BT, Sainsbury's, Dulux, Pepsi and Walker's crisps were just some of the brands on the agency's books.

When MCBD began, it had just five staff ­ the founding partners and a PA ­ and no clients whatsoever. Jeremy Miles, then 42, had been at AMV for 20 years ­ latterly as deputy chairman. He recalls the exhilaration of being the chairman of the fledgling firm: "I was thinking about what I'd like to do for the next 18 years. We started with an absolutely blank sheet of paper and no clients at all. The pensions were gone, the salaries were gone and that cars were gone ­ I can't believe we did it."

"We did something a bit unconventional, starting an agency without a pound of income," says MCBD's managing director, Helen Calcraft, who joined AMV as a student trainee and stayed 11 years, rising to be new business director.

The partners raised cash by approaching their banks, and received a further boost when David Abbott, a founder member of AMV, became an investor.

MCBD moved into a small office on Great Titchfield Street, and immediately faced some hefty challenges. "One of the things you don't think about when you start up is that all the infrastructure is taken away; you're managing director on one hand and office manager in charge of loo roll ordering on the other," says Mrs Calcraft.

Competition was fierce. As Mrs Calcraft puts it: "In a market where there are 200 agencies within about five square miles there is no such thing as a gap in the market. We suddenly found ourselves in a room the size of a postage stamp with a kettle and a phone that wasn't ringing ­ it was quite daunting."

Buy it wasn't a situation that lasted long. Within 10 days MCBD had won a place on the BBC Worldwide shortlist for the £2m relaunch of Radio Times. The agency went on to win the contract following a three-way pitch ­ just eight weeks after it was established.

The appointment put the firm on the map, but its second pitch ­ to the Britannia Building Society in Staffordshire ­ ran into the buffers. The creative team's pitch was all prepared but due to an electrical fault their train did not stop at Staffordshire.

"I wanted to pull the emergency cord but my partners wouldn't let me," says Mr Miles. After a detour via Birmingham, they made the appointment ­ three and a half hours late. They didn't win the pitch.

But a few months later the agency received a welcome early Christmas present. In December MCBD won the European business for the launch of the online share-dealing service Selftrade. It later develop the catchline "We make share dealing a doddle."

In the following year Miles Calcraft won the contract for the hosiery manufacturer Aristoc and the internet consultancy Sytegra, which is owned by British Telecom.

By the end of its first year the agency had five clients and made a profit of £65,000 ­ perhaps a small sum in the world of advertising, but not bad considering that it had been projecting a loss of £180,000.

Miles Calcraft gained momentum in its second year, building on its reputation and winning business from Thorntons, Dyson and Bell's in just one month ­ and following this up with contracts for and the Tate Gallery.

At the end of its second year the agency is expected to report triple the profit of 1999/2000. Miles Calcraft is also hoping to expand its range of services ­ it already offers media strategy and is looking to diversify into areas such as direct marketing and sales promotion as well as expanding its new media operation.

But challenges remain. "I don't think the competition has ever been more fierce; there's a collection of talented start ups," says Mrs Calcraft

The recent P&O win ensures that Miles Calcraft will be sailing into the future with confidence. And despite the David and Goliath victory over their former employers, Miles Calcraft's staff say that they remain on good terms with AMV. "They were very good-humoured; the first emails congratulating us were from AMV," says Mrs Calcraft.

Do Miles Calcraft's founders have any advice about what is needed to keep a start-up on an even keel? "You can't set up a business unless the person closest to you is 100% behind you," says Mr Miles. "You need a cool head and a strong stomach."