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Building a business: How the good guys do it

Bill Brock talks to me about building a different sort of agency, with collaboration and cooperation at its core

Bill Brock, co-founder of AnalogFolk, knows a thing or two about building a business. In 2008, at the height of the recession he launched a small start-up with Matt Dyke, aiming to build a world-class global creative agency. Eight years later, they have offices in London, the US, Australia and Asia and boast an impressive client list including Absolut, Dulux and Sainsbury’s. For Brock, one of the main reasons the business has been successful, even in challenging financial times, is its culture. And that, he says, is something that was born partially from the limitations imposed by the recession itself. “When we started out, we didn’t have many clients and it was pretty slow going. It was 2008, which made things even slower. With hindsight though, it was actually a blessing in disguise - in deep disguise - that the first months were lean. While it was a financial challenge, it meant that the first 15 staff members we hired were pretty much all below the age of 28.” This was significant because of what he and Dyke were trying to build. He explains: “We were really trying - and we are still trying - to be a different sort of agency. I know everyone says that, but we’re built on different values to what I think the rest of the marketing industry is built on, where the focus is on specialism, not on collaboration, and on competition, rather than cooperation. It’s hard to get people out of the industry and re-train them out of that type of thinking.”

It’s not about how ‘it’ works, it’s about how we work

“Hiring less experienced people as an economic necessity really was a blessing. Take one of our first hires, Stuart Pearman, for example. He was 22 years old and fresh from university. He didn’t have any preconceived notions about how things worked. It was more about how we worked. Now, nearly seven years later, he’s still with us and is not only a living example of the AnalogFolk way, but has also progressed to become our Head of Content Production.” Part of the way AnalogFolk differs from the typical agency in the industry is the flexibility afforded to its employees. For them, it’s not about the number of hours you work, it’s about what you accomplish. “There’s no checking that people aren’t leaving before six,” Brock explains. “We don’t have pro-active policies about working outside the office; we trust the people who work for us to take responsibility.”

AF-we-use-digital

Be remarkable

The AnalogFolk business, however, does not focus on presenteeism. Instead, it gives primacy to its five core values which underpin all that the business does. These, Brock explains, are pretty simple. “Our first core value is ‘be remarkable’ and we mean this in the most basic sense - do things that are worthy of remark. That doesn’t just mean doing brilliant work for our clients, it also means doing little things like, for example, buying a pizza for a colleague that is having a heavy day and may not get out of the office until late. [I suppose it’s about always trying to make an impact].” The second value for the business is to ‘always make things’. “Our industry is far too reliant on PDF and PowerPoint. We need to always remember why we do what we do and create and put things out into the world,” he says. Another thing AnalogFolk tells its staff to do is ‘fail fast’: “We should never be afraid of failure, it’s about doing it quickly, learning from it and moving on.” The final two tenets of the AnalogFolk ethos are ‘never say it can’t be done’ and ‘be nice’. The former is a reaction to the negativity sometimes found in the tech industry. The latter is self-explanatory: “Life is way too short to work with arseholes”.

Scaling up

The theory that nice guys finish last is certainly confounded by the very impressive growth the company has achieved in its eight years of operation. It now employs over 200 people in London, Sydney, New York, Portland and Hong Kong. “I see our growth as having occurred in three chapters, which overlap to some extent” explains Brock. “The first chapter was very lean, very ‘start-up’. Our focus was more on finding the right people and building a culture rather than building a client base for the first two years. “In the second chapter, we really started to come into our own with regard developing our principles around the work we do. “We always knew we wanted to be a strategic partner to global brands and you can’t really be that if you are not a global business yourself. It’s about understanding the pressures, challenges and also the cultural nuances of different places. We knew we wanted to expand internationally pretty early on and that created a lot of challenges.We actually picked the farthest place to start from, or rather it picked us. We were working with a client, an Australian business, and they wanted us to have local account management. We jumped at the opportunity to build a sustainable business there. We then opened New York a year later, and Hong Kong and Portland followed in 2015. “This second stage was still very lean, but with much more pace. We had bigger clients, bigger relationships and bigger teams. It was then that we started to invest in our environment [which moved us on to phase three].” This, Brock explains, was not just about making improvements to the physical environment but about the way the organisation worked: “We want to attract and retain the best talent, and develop an environment for lateral decision making.” Even in a market where the business has the sort of reputation that leads to many talented people clamouring to work for it, finding the right people is still not a simple process, says Brock. “At every stage we have faced diversity challenges so we’re trying walk that careful line between trying but not forcing it. In the early days you just need the best possible person but your playing field is very small - few big players will take a punt on moving into a smaller agency which smaller budgets.”

Room to grow

“We attracted the right people and now it’s about finding the people we need to take us through the next phase. We want to pick people who will grow with us. We want as much progression as possible.” Another major issue for Brock is finding women to fill senior roles in the business. “Our industry is male dominated, and there’s no escaping that” he explains. “Within our agency, we’ve tried to foster a good culture, supporting our staff and driving career development for everyone. We want to develop an environment that allows everyone to succeed. “We’re also both privileged and excited about being a pilot agency of Creative Equals, an industry initiative equal representation in creative departments.”

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Bill Brock talks about tackling diversity in a male-dominated industry

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Author: Alice Weightman

As Founder and CEO, Alice established Hanson Search in 2002 and has since gained a reputation as one of the leading search professionals in senior appointments across communications, developing an incredible network globally.

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