If you’ve got some grey hair like I do because you grew up in the 80’s, you’ll likely be surprised to learn that this year marks the 30th anniversary of cult classic “Risky Business,” the hit film that launched Tom Cruise’s career. Yes, it’s been 30 years. Time does fly. Anyway, there was something in this film that really grabbed me in my youth and still does to this very day. No, not Rebecca De Mornay – at least any longer. It’s that critical moment when the character Miles (Curtis Armstrong) advises the rich kid Joel (Tom Cruise) to break out of his comfortable cocoon and basically “just do it,” with a bit more profundity, and profanity.
“Sometimes you just have to say, what the f—!” exclaims Miles, in this pivotal moment. “Every now and then say ‘what the f—.’ What the f— gives you freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. Opportunity makes your future.”
Obviously these words resonate with adolescent males and anarchists, but I also find them to offer insight to the entrepreneurially minded. They’ve served as the foundation for much of my business philosophy as an advertising entrepreneur. Working within a business category that is ever in flux, obsessed with innovation, and in most ways more art than science, I know that safe is never really safe.
Playing it safe in today’s volatile business environment is surest way to marginalization. Safe is the place for accountants. Heeding Mile’s advice and saying what the f— means going balls out and taking big swings. Future altering swings in search of big reward. It also means being willing to fail — potentially gloriously. Entrepreneurs know failure offers a lot of value, often more value than success. So saying what the f— seems to make a lot of sense.
Where would Josh Perretti be if he hadn’t said what the fuck, bailed from the Huffington Post after its $315 million acquisition by AOL and focused on Buzzfeed, his pet-project social news site that now has 40 million visitors a month and is valued at $200 million, five times its expected sales revenue? Or Mark Dubin, where would he be if he hadn’t said what the fuck and invested his life savings of $35,000 in a web site that sells razor blades? His Dollar Shave Club took the internet by storm and recently attracted over $10 million from a roster of big name investors. Take Shane Smith, he said what the fuck, among other things, and moved his budding Vice Magazine (along with partners Gavin McGinnis and Suroosh Alvi) from Montreal to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He now oversees a vast, and wildly profitable Vice media empire that includes a record label, book publishing, an online television network, an advertising agency and an HBO series.
As a partner in a West Coast creative agency that specialises in entertainment and earned media-oriented marketing campaigns for brands, a degree of risk is always necessary for success. And I’ve found the same rings true for building and managing a nascent company. Thus, I’ve developed a management principle inspired by these legendary exemplars of risky business moves: I call it “The Miles Formula.” The equation:
(Intuition + Balls) x Vision
Willingness for Failure
It’s a simple operational formula that I use in deciding how to navigate an unpredictable market. I and have applied the formula consistently:
- My partners and I left secure jobs at large agency networks to launch a startup in the middle of a recession that was decimating the agency business. We opened for business in Venice Beach (not Madison Avenue) which was certainly not an advertising mecca at the time and thousands of miles away from the majority of our East Coast new business contacts.
- We passed on all investment opportunities even though it was “the great recession” to open shop with an initial deposit of $5,000.
- We resigned (more like fired) our very first client, who happened to be our only paying client at the time because the relationship wasn’t working out
- We’ve positioned our agency to specialize in “affairs,” in other words, short-term assignments
- We called our agency Mistress – enough said.
The way we positioned our agency is one of the biggest WTF gambles as it’s counter to conventional wisdom and not especially recommended by accountants or CFOs (although it’s now clearly the direction our industry is headed in nearly four years later). Advertising agencies traditionally killed for long-term marriages or Agency Of Record status to add a layer of predictability in a generally chaotic business. Having “affairs” is the exciting but scary way to work. It’s hard to plan around and permanently staff up for. And you live perpetually under the gun, which equates to insane hours, consistent stress and inconsistent revenue. But it was a niche we believed in, a task we personally and emotionally committed to, and we, therefore, were prepared to apply What the F— and give it a go. If all went belly up, our bold and unashamed effort could open up new opportunities back within the safety net of the industry, and we’d have some great battle scars to share.
As an entrepreneur, I’ve found you have to learn how to move forward on things that you’re not really sure about to get your company going. You have to say what the f—. To be comfortable being uncomfortable. Whenever we feel uncomfortable it’s horrible and stressful and the scotch disappears faster than I’d like to see. But it’s also really good for us, it means we’re learning or we’re growing, we’re pushing boundaries, we’re alive. So far, Mistress has more than doubled in size year over year since our 2009 launch, our work’s garnered millions of views and billions of impressions for our clients, and we have helped set three world records for automotive feats. The Miles Formula has proved quite sound thus far.
Now, just saying WTF might not always work in your favour. Ultimately, the formula’s successful implementation does hinge on one critical component and contrary to what one might guess, it is not balls. It’s vision. Vision points you in the right direction. The Miles Formula can be applied to your goals more quickly. If you have a sense of where you want to go, then saying “what the f—” might be scary, but it won’t be random. It’s not what the f—? It’s yeah, what the f—, this is what we want to be, let’s just do it and see what the f— happens.
My advice for anyone thinking of just saying what the f—:
- Make sure you have a vision
- Be prepared to be uncomfortable
- Challenge yourself to do what others won’t
- Then just say “What the f—.”
And don’t forget, freedom brings opportunity and opportunity makes your future.
Christian Jacobsen was an account director and strategist at a number of agencies over the years including Lowe/SMS on the Mercedes Benz account, at Ogilvy New York on American Express and Miller and Kastner & Partners on Red Bull. He is now a founding partner of the independent advertising agency Mistress, which currently has relationships with Ubisoft, Jägermeister, Lionsgate, Hampton Hotels, The Coca-Cola Company and Mattel’s Hot Wheels.
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