Startup 101 – Part 3 (and video): Insights from Austin’s Top VC Leaders

This article is Part 3, the final part, in a three-part series that share Startup Funding insights from Austin’s top VC leaders that comprise nearly $1 Billion of VC funding.

You can view the entire video of this session that was sponsored by Team Austin at Impact Hub, courtesy of Golden Arm Media; click here to watch.

Part 2 included the following topics:

  • If most VCs fund seed stage and Series A, what’s the outlook in Austin for funding future stages (Series B, etc.)?
  • What is so special about Austin? Why are people coming here?
  • Where do entrepreneurs get started?

You can read Part 2 by clicking here and read Part 1 by clicking here.

Here is the continuing panel discussion from the following VC leaders:

How do I get funded?

 

Chris: Internally, we talk about Fight Club. Is anybody here a Fight Club fan? We’ll find you hopefully and, if not, you’ll find us; it shouldn’t be that hard. There’s a web everywhere. We’re not elusive. If you’re not talking to us and we’re not talking to you, you might want to challenge your own business development prowess, right? Consider that a test. The big thing is there’s a certain amount of risk that is appropriate and you’re willing to take as an entrepreneur when you throw your hat in the ring without quitting your day job. There’s crowdfunding; there’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur. You can have customers pay you ahead of time. You just have to build it …. Get out there and check it out. The angel network – HAN, which is Houston, and CTAN, which is Austin, are two of the largest angel networks in the whole country. So there’s plenty of capital. I’d say the way to find us is to look at what we do and what we’ve invested in – it’s ecommerce and software – and then what stage we’re in – and build something compelling and come talk to us about it. We’re around; we’d like to help. Talk early; it is a dating conversation, yet we will give you a fast “no.” One thing that no one talks about in being VCs is that you don’t have to be that bright. The later stage you are, the less bright you have to be. Because there’s pattern recognition in throwing resources together and 90% of it is timing – or 80%. So think about that – if you’re a relatively smart individual and you’re getting pitched by 5 Machine Learning Jedi every day, you’re going to know a couple of things about Machine Learning just through osmosis. So just know your investors and what they’ve invested in and what they can do besides money…. If you need just money, I’m not your guy because that’s the wrong answer for what our strategy is. If you need cofounders or need customers or seeing around corners, and seed money to do that, that’s our way.

 

Morgan: At the end of the day, VCs are capitalistic enterprises and everyone is looking for a return. So the real question is, if it’s money and not any kind of passion, we’re financially motivated. Is that the person that will deliver the financial result? In most cases, it’s not…. You want to hire great people, you want to talk to important people and get great customers. How do you get that done? So a big part of that is the passion of the founder. You have to get people excited when it’s initially just a thought or a piece of paper with stuff written on it. And that comes from somewhere. If it’s just “I want to be rich.” Then I’ll ask, “What happens when shit hits the fan and it doesn’t look like you’re going to be rich. Do you just stop? Is that your motivation? Or someone comes to you and says “I’ll take a $350,000 job if that comes my way”…. That (passion) has to come across. I want a person to be broader than that…. And if that doesn’t, maybe someone else will be interested in it, yet that’s not what we look for.

 

Krishna: Passion is working with authenticity. When people come to us, you recognize that there’s a long list of things to you don’t know; you don’t know if the product is going to work. You don’t know if the customer is going to love it. Even if customers love it, you don’t know if they’ll love it for a long time or if it will churn. You don’t know if you can build a sales force that can efficiently scale the business and go to market. The entrepreneur will have conviction for some things and not convictions for others. There are so many unknowns…. The big turnoff is a lot of hand-waving about many aspects of the business as opposed to an honest, self-actualized perspective on what someone knows or doesn’t know about the business and …how you’re looking to de-risk certain things … – to give an intelligent, thoughtful conversation about that is one of the most important things.

 

Rajiv: I think authenticity is really one of the most important things we look for. One of the best things we look to hear from the entrepreneur in a first pitch meeting is “I don’t know.” If we’re getting to that point, then there are a lot of things we don’t know in these businesses. Mike Tyson said “Everyone has got a fight plan until I punch him in the face.” And we’re going to go through a lot of ups and downs together and some near death experiences. If we can be honest with each other in that first meeting, we can set off on a great path to date a little bit….

 

Tom: Intellectual honesty is the term we use for that – being able to say, “I don’t know.” I don’t know about you guys, yet how many deals do you do per year? We make 2 or 3 investments per year. What does it take to get our money? You’ve got to rise to the top of 900 other things that we look at for the year to be the top 2 or 3. It’s not one variable. Sometimes it’s “wow, that’s a great entrepreneur and a great market fit because they’re going to figure things out. We’d be lucky to be in business with them.” Other times it may be “that’s a great business plan and business model; I know a bunch of people who can help this person. Let’s get them there.” So it’s not a simple formula. That’s why it’s dating. A lot of variables go into this equation. I wish I had a simple answer because if I did, I’d probably go back and be an entrepreneur and raise a bunch of money.

 

Matt: I agree with everything that has been said. I think the other thing to keep in mind is that metrics also tend to raise money. If you have a clear line that if you put $1 in and you get $2.36 out and here’s why and I can tell you that story up and down. And when I ask you a question and you are honest when you don’t know the answer. The metrics really do matter. Storytelling is good and authenticity is good, but being able to tell it in a believable way is something that maybe people take for granted. That’s really a differentiator. There’s a company that pitched us not too long ago that had deep experience in waste management; and that was compelling because they had spent twenty years in an unglamorous business and they banged their heads against the wall and realized “I could do this better.” That’s what we mean by authenticity – that there really is that kind of passion and deep experience and the metrics are also quite helpful in addition to the entrepreneur.

 

Chris: The hand waving and the buzz words that I mentioned earlier is that there’s a lot of misdirection going on right now that you may not want to hear, yet it’s really important that we need to take this town to the next level with bitter honest truth. Some of these incubators where you’re sitting on bean bags, there’s groupthink there’s and a lot of misdirection there. You know who knows? The customer knows. Spend more time with customers. Take me down a deep customer journey and show me data. That’s better than the “who’s who” awards and these exits; that’s all noise. Show me your customers. That shows you’re smart enough to find out who pays your bills and take care of them. Then it’s all about – how big can this thing be? But who’s on your cap table or who your mentors are – all that absent of your customers and knowledge of your industry and where you want to go – is just useless for early stage VCs.

 

What’s the one thing that you would like to see the entrepreneurs bring to you?

 

Krishna: This is not big picture, yet I’ll talk about the small picture. When one of you wants to talk to any of us, talk about what in your life journey has contributed to the insight you have about your business. You really want to talk about that. You have a certain perspective about what problem you want to go after. Maybe that problem that you want to tackle in the first place is directed by your personal experience or your own personal journey. I strongly urge you to lean on your personal experience to come up with the right companies…. Then be prepared to talk about how those experiences and life journey makes you uniquely qualified to have that insight to start your company.

 

Tom: What problem you are solving? How do you make money? Keep it simple. That first meeting is: why are you the right entrepreneur to do this? What’s the problem? How can you make money at this? What’s it ultimately going to end up being?

 

Rajiv: Make sure you solving a problem. Your goal in that first meeting is to make sure you can continue the conversation after that. Be authentic and passionate and care about your business and you will continue to do well.

 

Morgan: One of the things that is commonly misunderstood among VCs is that a lot of entrepreneurs don’t talk about the team. There is no greater social proof than having a lot of great smart people who have other options yet are choosing to do your thing. So talk about how great they are and why they joined you. The other one is investors look for risks. You’ve got to identify your risks. That is true. The other thing people don’t necessarily talk about is “What could go right?” If things work out, what is it about your business that may make it impossible for someone to compete with you? Or is it some technology? People call it barriers to entry. It doesn’t need to be a particular technology. Yet if everything worked out in the way you talked about, would this be a big outcome? If you look at the really big outcomes, they all had something differentiable, unique and sustainable. Talk about that. Do some thinking about why that is. At the end of the day, we want to create big outcomes. Big outcomes have certain characteristics. So identify what those are in your business and be prepared to talk about them.

 

Chris: One thing that would be great to have more of is self-awareness in founders and know your limitations and be “open kimono” and articulate those up front. These are my limitations; I may not be the guy for this. The other thing is that there is a rampant situation that people who are not technical founders are trying to start technical businesses. Get a technical cofounder. It’s a big deal. If you’re building a product and you don’t know how to build a product, get a technical cofounder; there are plenty of people coming out of grad school. … Not only that, who’s going to build the team of other builders? What’s that person’s ability to lead? At some point you will need to build the company and it’s not just a CTO or a VP. It’s people building a technology. What’s that person’s role going to be?

 

Matt: I’ll go in a slightly different direction. Everybody on the stage believes that are certain things that will be true 10 years from now. Take advantage of that. If we have excess capacity of all sorts of assets in the US, which is part of the pitch of AirBnB or Zipcar, what are the things that the angels or VCs or banks are committed to in the future? Build off of that. If you have an investor that believes that blockchain will be the future of the world, you should anchor to that thesis about what they think the future will look like. I think people miss that a lot. It’s not just money. We have biases and opinions as VCs and you should understand those. You should tailor that conversation along the lines of what that person is already inclined to believe about the future. Make sure that fit really is there and recognize that we all have particular viewpoints and use those to your advantage as an entrepreneur.

 

If you enjoyed reading this article, you can read Part 2 by clicking here and read Part 1 by clicking here. In addition, you can view the entire video of this session (courtesy of Golden Arm Media) by clicking here. The event was sponsored by Team Austin at Impact Hub.

 

Thank you.

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The Dangers of Ongepotchket Marketing

Ongepotchket means overly elaborate or excessively decorated.
Ongepotchket means overly elaborate or excessively decorated.

Yiddish is expressive. The Yiddish word ongepotchket is full court onomatopoeia from a language that has given us such classic terms as schlepp, nebbish and oy vey.

Ongepotchket means overly elaborate or excessively decorated. That’s what most Marketing has become.

Marketing used to be campaign driven. What that meant was after a brand agreed upon its positioning, a bunch of people worked really hard to express the brand’s campaign theme in a strong, consistent and often clever way. Yes, this was very much one-way communications. The brand approved the narrative and worked hard to control how the brand was expressed. It was considered managing.

These days controlling the brand is nearly impossible.

When we buy media, Marketers have an imprecise notion of who is viewing their advertising. There’s ad skipping. Advertising overload. Lack of viewability. Ad fraud. Huge ‘taxes’ paid to enablers in the digital supply chain. You get the idea.

The owned and earned media realms are equally problematic for marketing control. Every consumer is his/her own publisher with opinions about your brand. There’s an overwhelming amount of consumer-generated comment you cannot control. You can control what you post on you brand social media sites and your website. But you definitely cannot control what consumers and critics say. What’s more, there are so many venues for folks to use to say it.

To the consumer who wants to buy something there is messaging overload too. It comes from people who are considering your brand. In addition there are countless messages from and about other brands that are part of a consumer’s minute-by-minute, second-by-second narrative. This is marketing ongepotchket.

Solving this problem is not easy. Here’s my simple suggestions on how to attack the issue.

Declutter your marketing. Build a strong, singular compelling message. Deliver this message consistently over all your communications channels.

Stick with it.

Grand Central Station, New York. Photo by Jad Limcaco
Grand Central Station, New York. Photo by Jad Limcaco

Branding is a lot like going to Grand Central Station in New York City during rush hour. There are tens of thousands of people in the terminal, but over to the left you see someone you know. That’s your brand. Uncluttered in an ongepotchket world.

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It’s About the Consumer

Customer Choice, Photograph by Joaquin Mixon
Customer Choice shows Consumers Matter,  Photograph by Joaquin Mixon

My friend John Durham, who lives and teaches in San Francisco but practices Marketing globally, publishes the most interesting things on social media. Recently, he retweeted some thoughts from Tom Goodwin who said:

2005- It’s all about 3G

2010- It’s All about Big Data

2015- It’s all about IOT

2017- It’s all about AI

Can’t it ever be about people?

In my experience as a Marketer it’s always about people or in more basic marketing terms it’s about the consumer. If we believe the foundations of Marketing theory (and I do) the definition of Marketing is to understand what people wants and then meets those wants.

Granted, categories of people must involve more than just the consumers who buy your product or service. But consumers are the best place to start. That being said people also means investors, business partners, employees of your company, the media (mainstream and social) as well as folks who may fall into any of these categories in the future. The key is to have a brand, positioning and narrative that will resonate well with all of these groups and reinforce the power of your offering.

Consumers have power well beyond their decision to purchase or not purchase your product. In effect, every consumer is a publisher. With an ability to create or share or share content, opinion and influence all over the world. In the old days companies used to create and control brand narratives. Today there is little to no control. And the narrative is shared.

These changes have major implications in the ways consumers and brands interact. There are as many media channels as people in the world who have access to the Internet. So it’s not about that one big thing. It’s about everything. I suggest you focus less on the latest communications tool. The latest trend. The next big thing. Understand how consumers feel about your brand and you’ll get closer to success.

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Start Up 101 – Part 1: Insights from $Billion VC Leaders

Austin VC Panel: Habits of Highly Successful Startups.
Austin VC Panel: Habits of Highly Successful Startups.

One of the top reasons why startups fail is “running out of cash.” [source: CB Insights Sept. 2017). As a mentor in several accelerators (Techstars, Capital Factory, et al.), I always seek to learn as much as I can about funding resources to guide first-time entrepreneurs in their journey to create a value-added business.

This panel discussion below presents Part 1 of a snapshot summary of VC expertise from a groundbreaking event last week in Austin titled “Austin VC Panel: Habits of Highly Successful Startups.” The Team Austin venue hosted at Impact Hub tapped the expertise of six Venture Capital firms that represent nearly $1 Billion of Texas venture capital. Paul O’Brien, founder of Media Tech Ventures, moderated the VC panelists noted below:

Here are a few excerpts from their insights:

What is the purpose of a VC?

Rajiv:  What is Venture Capital? We all go out to our investors and find pools of capital…. We have $350M total that we are currently investing. We… invest in great companies and help them grow through a lot of coaching, getting the right folks in place and a number of other things along the way. When we sell those companies, we get paid a percentage of the upside and our investors get a majority of the upside.

Tom Ball:  “ …We do the same things entrepreneurs do. …We just raised a $90M fund in March…. How do we get money? We go out and ask people for money just like you guys do. There’s a multitude of groups you could get money from – traditional investors and venture capital funds (called Limited Partners), institutional investors such as big state institutions, pension funds, corporations and then you can go down the stack to high net worth people and family offices. We just go out and pitch them and have a strategy for how they can invest, how we think we can make them money better than other ways they can make money; and you try to convince them to give you money to invest in things like Rajiv said. “

WHEN ENTREPRENEURS RAISE CAPITAL, HOW DOES THE PROCESS OF ENGAGING WITH VCS WORK?
Morgan Flager - General Partner
Morgan Flager, General Partner, Silverton Partners

Morgan:   Venture capital has evolved…. I need money; these guys (VCs) have money so this is a necessary evil. So they kiss the ring and talk to VCs…. It’s evolved a bit to be more of a service business. We’re not just money managers…. The successful VCs are partners in helping to build companies. We want to help you recruit and share the strategies of some of the wounds we have had to help you avoid some of the same stuff…. My role is not to pick a company and stand back and watch magic happen. So the best way to engage with VCs is to figure out which is which. The best way to do this is to meet folks early before you raise money and see how they react. Are they asking intelligent questions? It’s fair to ask them if they can help out in some way, especially if they’re connected to someone who is doing something that can be helpful to you – especially to see if they deliver on it and things work out. A lot of people promise stuff and nothing happens. If they do that on the front end of the relationship, it’s usually indicative of what might happen later. So it’s due diligence both ways. It’s meeting people in advance and figure out if they have reservations on the business. What are they? How do you get comfortable with those things to make progress against those such as reporting that progress back so by the time you actually come to the point and need money, you would have hopefully mitigated some of those things… and move forward from there.”

HOW DO ENTREPRENEURS KNOW IF VENTURE CAPITAL IS AN APPROPRIATE CONVERSATION?

Matt:   People on this stage invest in trend lines, not data points. That’s an important piece to think about. It’s rare when someone comes into a coffee meeting and you go “Holy smokes, I want to write you a check!” It really is about relationship building; and more importantly, it’s doing what you said you were going to do the last time you had a conversation. When I think about what kinds of things go into the checkbook, …it’s really about follow through and follow up. The other thing the panel said that was important is that it is about fit. Do you want a VC that understands your business…? We’re looking for fit the same way that other people are. Yet we are looking for a story…. It’s not some sort of magical thing. It’s like dating. It’s building trust over a long period of time.

Co-Founder and Managing Director of Next Coast Ventures
Tom Ball, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Next Coast Ventures

Tom:  Don’t come to us when you need money; come to us before. You can get to us. How do I get to you? Do I email you? Do I call you? I get about 300-400 emails per day. You have to get a good qualified introduction…. You have to date. We’re not going to decide to marry you after the first date. And the joke that I head somebody else say recently is “the good investments last longer than the average marriage.”

How entrepreneurs find that fit with VCs

Rajiv:   We are mostly enterprise software focus and industry agnostic. Businesses solving big business problems – that’s our bread and butter. Outside of that, we have a medical device practice. We’ve invested in medical device businesses; we know how to grow those. And then broadly speaking, we are opportunistic; even if it’s something a little quirky, we just invested in a robot coffee deal. We’ll take a look at it. We’re always happy to chat.

Tom:    We look at it in three parameters – stage, geography and sector (or domain expertise). The stage for us is we are a Series A, Series B investor. We don’t do a lot of seed investing…. Getting companies ready for Series A and Series B – that’s where we can add value as an investor. My partner and I have both been entrepreneurs before so we can help with company building. From a geography perspective, we call it Next Coast for a reason. We don’t call it Austin; we call it Next Coast. So although we live here, we go to other places. We think you have to have a referential perspective about what’s going on outside of Austin. There are some funny things you can say about… – you can get head faked by being only in Austin. It’s an interesting and unique culture here. And then from a sector perspective, my partner and I have both been entrepreneurs. We both started multiple companies around software, the Internet and the technology and services space. We try to apply a slightly different lens to think of things more thematically. So we’ve got a bunch of things on our website that’s pretty dynamic and they change over time. We don’t only invest in those themes. For us, it is: what are the interesting trends we think are going on? And that’s how we spend time learning about those things. One is how digital natives become digital consumers; i.e., Millennials. We think Millennials will change a lot of businesses. So we try to get in the heads of Millennials.

Chris:  It can go from “I’ve got a product and 10K in revenue” to “I’ve got products and a team and we’re doing $1M in ARR [Annual Recurring Revenue]- taking that to $10M in ARR.” That’s a season. We only do Texas because early means a lot of risk and a lot of grind. So the last thing I want to do is fly to Illinois to meet some founders with 2 hours notice; no, meet me at Mozart’s. Close and early stage and ultimately, we have a bias toward people we know. Why roll the dice when we don’t have to? You think the hockey puck is going there. We think the hockey puck is going there. … We’ve already invested in you before…. Let’s get the band back together; that’s what we do.

Krishna Srinivasan - General Partner Live Oak Venture Partners
Krishna Srinivasan, General Partner, LiveOak Venture Partners

Krishna:  We are pan Texas. Of course the bulk of it is in Austin. We’ve got offices in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. We think there are a lot of synergies across those markets. 1) Pan Texas in nature. 2) Predominantly Series A investors – where we write a check of $2-4M for the first check, yet more importantly, we are life cycle investors…. We are there to be with you through multiple rounds of financing –from the first round of financing to hopefully the Promised Land. 3) We have active investors who work closely with teams and help you be successful: help with strategy, team building, and other things we spend a lot of time on, etc. Lastly, we are intentionally more people centric in investing rather than segment specificity. We want to back the best companies in Texas – companies that can be world leaders in their respective categories…. We have a strong preference for companies doing enterprise software, solving complex business problems in real estate, healthcare, etc. … Having said that, investing is very people centric in nature: Is this a person we can see ourselves being in the foxhole in good times and bad times? There will be bad times…. Is this a person we can have a long-term authentic relationship as we grow to build the company? In general, this is the most important criterion about a company.

Morgan:  Silverton is seed and Series A predominantly Austin – 89% of capital we employ goes to work here. Is a VC right, in general, for your business? Does it make sense? Are we the right people to talk to? The expectation of investors (in VC funds) is that we will give them roughly 3X plus their money back at the end of that period. So if it’s a $100M fund, they expect $300M+ in return. So we’re going to make 15-20 investments. So a deal where you may want $1M to $2M and it’s going to be 3-5X in a couple of years. That’s not a venture capital deal because, if you just do the math on that, we would have to have 100 of those to deliver the return. Venture capital really is an investment if you want to try to build something big. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a $1B business. A $75M- $100M outcome is really what most of the folks up here are looking for. Not a lot of companies achieve that. The last thing you want to do is get crosswise with investors: When you guys want to build a $30M business and you get 80% of that and your investors want you to build a $300M business and investors get 40% of that. It doesn’t broadly change between venture folks.

Matt:  For us, we’re a bit of an odd duck here. Technical businesses are really interesting though the way we look at things is: The future is here and it’s not evenly distributed…. So there are still lots of opportunities where technology has not gotten into a lot of industries. So we are really looking for those types of opportunities…. Through operational excellence and operational technology, how can you really change the outcome for a particular industry or a particular investment? Along that line, the other place where we see undercapitalized markets is really in the social impact space. When you look at that market, there’s not a lot of risk capital yet and there are very few examples of institutional capital providers that are looking for the social impact opportunities. So where we really fit and see our role is being that seed stage investment in places where other people are not willing to take risks with the parameters that everyone else has mentioned. And the other thing that is important for us and for other seed stage investors… is that we want to make sure that when we get involved in this – there’s something else upstream. Our utility is limited to a seed stage or approaching an A-round investment. We think very carefully about the ecosystem and that’s important from an impact perspective because we really do need a place to nurture a company to get past what we are capable as a seed stage investor.

Click here to for Part 2.

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Advertising Week

Advertising Week, by Dean Harris
Advertising Week, by Dean Harris, photo by Mingwei Li

This week is Advertising Week in New York City. As a third generation New York advertising guy, every week seems like Advertising Week to me. I think about advertising all the time, probably far too much.

The advertising business has changed dramatically since my wife and I started our agency in Manhattan. Advertising used to be a business you could launch with no capital if you had a client and some ideas that persuaded them to hire you.

My wife of 36 years and I met at a wedding. We were not married yet, but both of us were in advertising. She was running a small agency that was about to be acquired. I was in Account Management at a big Madison Avenue agency, working on a pretty high-profile disposable diaper account.

We hit it off, started dated and heard that there was this camera account up for grabs. So, against the advice of just about everyone (you don’t want to mix dating with a business relationship), we pitched the account and to our pleasant surprise, got it.

Etkin & Harris Advertising was in business. We operated out of Marcia’s apartment in Murray Hill with not much more than a yellow legal pad and a phone. We kept the camera account for about a year only to lose it when we refused to put half of our commissions into the company president’s Swiss bank account. Apparently, another agency agreed to that deal.

Back in the day, the advertising agency business model let agencies make a fair profit. We billed 15% on the media we placed and 17.65% on production. In effect, we gave away our creative product for free. The assumption was that as your client grew they would spend more with you and your agency would grow correspondingly. Your success and theirs would be tied.

This model was far from perfect. It promoted increased ad spending at all costs. I remember from my large agency days we were taught to tell the client to spend more when sales were up. And we were trained to tell them spend more when sales were down. Advertising was considered the best marketing tactic and an investment.

Things in the world of advertising changed in a number of ways. There were a bunch of high profile agency buy-outs. Agency founders made huge dollars. Well known agency brands became part of large international holding companies. At the same time, agency services started becoming decoupled. So, clients could shop for creative, media and production services separately. Not surprisingly, there was price competition and agencies margins went down.

Enter technology into the ad world. Agencies now had other avenues to make money. It was a way to keep the lights on. Much of this ad technology was complicated and often it was far from transparent. Sometimes agencies found ways to build their own bottom lines, not the bottom lines of their clients. Things like agency trading desks enabled agencies to arbitrage client media dollars. And programmatic ad tech, which was supposed to save money, sometimes meant less working media spent on behalf of agency clients. An unreasonable share of the spending went into fees, not into media that would push brands ahead.

I get it. Clients want to get the most for the advertising dollar. And agencies need a way to deliver profit for their shareholders.

As Advertising Week comes to an end in New York, I want a return to the glory days of advertising. And I don’t mean three martini lunches served with a huge dollop of sexism. I want advertising to make a difference in business again. I want advertising people to be respected. And I want both clients and agencies to be pulling for sales success together.

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