Mark Wills: Buy the Ounce

Mark Wills is the Founder of the Audacious Group, a Branding Consultancy. Mark has been working in advertising for 20+ years at companies including Saatchi & Saatchi, Coca-Cola and Ogilvy & Mather.

Have you ever noticed things bought by the ounce are normally better than things bought by the pound? Saffron versus salt, caviar versus cod – for example. So why should we believe it when we’re continually told that bigger is better? There certainly are times when the merger of two companies can create economies of scale and greater efficiency. But trying to scale the amorphous thing that is creativity is a much tougher task. And judging by the comments of many industry luminaries – such as R/GA’s Rob Greenberg – there’s grave concern that rather than success begetting success, success will ultimately beget failure. Success is commonly measured by growth. As an agency succeeds it takes on more clients and requires more people to service the new business. But when your raison d’etre is high quality thinking and ideas, when does growth start to stymie these outputs? This is the question both agency leaders and more and more clients are now asking.

I’ve been fortunate to be part of two incredible agency growth stories – one on either side of the pond. Firstly, in London I was one of the inaugural account directors at the genesis of M&C Saatchi. We started with about a dozen people in a two-room office. When I left, a mere three years later, we had six international offices and over 200 people in London alone. Secondly, when I joined McGarry Bowen we had just over 100 people in New York and a couple of creatives camping out in the conference room of a production house, which we called our Chicago office. Again by the time I left we had more than tripled our headcount and I’m pleased to say the Chicago office found a stunning new high-rise home.

So growth can be exhilarating, until one day you wake up and realize you’ve become exactly the bureaucratic company against which your founders had rebelled. Too large. Too corporate. Too cumbersome. And too self absorbed and overcome with success to notice. When intoxicated by the hubris of success, one can often fail to spot the unintended consequences of growth. For example, the inherent need to finance the rapidly rising overhead can dictate you only take on work for big clients. This can eliminate the smaller brands that are keener to experiment and are more receptive to edgier ideas – exactly the type of work that attracts the industry’s hot young creatives. And when the most important assets of your business – your talent – come in and out of your front door every day, keeping them excited and inspired is paramount. A further unintended but inevitable result of excessive growth is the loss of the culture that spawned the work that facilitated your original success. An agency may start with unique language, tools and process, but very soon these will be replicated and re-codified within other organizations. So, it’s the quality of your creativity and your culture that creates it, that are the only really differentiating things in an ever more commoditized business. It is therefore imperative these things be understood, protected and nurtured over time.

So the question remains, can you grow whilst maintaining the culture that was responsible for your newfound success?
I believe you can and it’s delivered through the idea of esprit de corps – literally, the ‘spirit of the group.’ When I was at Saatchi & Saatchi, it was an 800+ person agency. But it was split into groups that were focused on specific clients and whose group members only worked on the clients within that group. This in a sense created mini-agencies within the agency with smaller groups of people all dedicated to the same task and having a common goal. A sense of pride had fostered within the groups and in fact there was healthy competition to be the best group – often coming to a head in the agency pub. There’s a very good reason why the British Army – which I pitched and won whilst at S&S – was configured around regional regiments and even more local brigades and battalions. This configuration ensured you had something in common with the man next to you and this common sense of unity drove men to do extraordinary things for one another. When esprit de corps exists, the capability for people to maintain a belief, to be inspired, to have enthusiasm and devotion, creates a potent mix where ‘Nothing is Impossible’ – the motto we created for our Army pitch team, which subsequently was taken on by the whole agency.
It is clear that there’s normally a small group, usually of senior staff, that have the biggest impact on a client’s business. Yes, execution needs to be seamless, but this again takes us into a world of commoditization. And it is this small group of senior leaders that must personify and carry the culture. When small groups of like-minded people – with complementary skills – work as one together, anything is indeed possible. And this is as true for the C-Suite as it is for the Account Team.

So, it is my audacious conclusion that as agencies grow it should not be a question of ‘do we have enough people?’ It is a question of ‘do we have the right people?’- with leadership setting the example and fostering an environment of collaboration and respect. At audacious group, as should be the case with all agencies, we believe in careful casting to put the right people together, with the right skills for the job at hand. This creates the spirited mini groups that can be scaled for growth, whilst
maintaining the culture and the quality of creative output.