There are a lot of cliches about the entrepreneur but none so pervasive as the ones that start with “it was time.” Fact is, when you start a new business it’s usually because you were or you are about to get thrown out on your ass. Sure you’ve had the idea to start something rattling around your brain for a while, but starting a business almost always requires a spark, a bit of fire on that underfed thing we call willpower.
I thought it was a remarkably stupid and simultaneously brilliant idea to leave my “dream job” for something even better, the ability to own every part of my stupid. No more blaming the boss, the board, the client, the team, the customer, the budget, just me – owning every part of the win-loss scenario of storytelling. I don’t necessarily think we’ve got “the better way” just to be clear, but I knew there was a reason I had met and worked with my new partners Michael Carpenter and Bruce Gray at GMMB, a political hotshop in Washington, DC. We landed there because we wanted to do good, but we realized over time we wanted to do good AND make great work. Yes, you can have both, but you’d be surprised how hard that is to come by.
When we decided to launch Admirable Devil, we knew we also needed to spend some time together.
We’d all gone our separate paths after GMMB – I became CMO at Trout Unlimited a conservation organization. Bruce had gone to NY to Taxi. Michael had gone to a local shop to help up their game. It’s safe to say we all ran into deeply ingrained CAVE mentality (Citizens Against Virtually Everything). So Bruce offered a thought – we drink a lot, so let’s brew a beer, make sure this’ll be a good fit. We hit the Flying Barrel and schemed to make two cases of stout, one fortified with a bottle of Makers.
We chatted as we weighted the yeast, barley and other ingredients. Would this thing work? Would we screw it up? The last thing we wanted was to brew something that was undrinkable, start a shop that wouldn’t work for the market. DC is an odd bird you see with some recognizable name brand agency outposts, small indie shops, and a few shops surviving by drafting off government business with little chance to do great work. We knew that DC itself though was the place to be. Nothing but potential. Great quality of life, unique culture, big enough to be urban, small enough to feel like you own the place. We’d done the NY thing each of us, been there done that. We agreed DC needed a shop that kind of sets up a best of both worlds scenario. There are great brands here and nearby, we’re a train ride from the best production houses on the coast. We had the bona fides.
We did something wrong while brewing the beer. When we opened the first bottle four months later the thing nearly blew up in our hands. 90% foam. Crap I thought. That’s not how this whole experiment was supposed to turn out. It was supposed to be a perfect brew, just the right amount of head, a bit of sweet and then a hit of the whisky at the back. Bad omen? No, just another cliche dying, like the one about DC can’t be the home of the next great agency. When you let the foam settle a bit the beer tastes just fine.
Joel Johnson is co-founder and Chief Strategist at Admirable Devil, a purpose-driven ad agency.