Meet nomadic ad duo Faris and Rosie: ‘compared to even the best agency life, it’s a dream’

Rosie and Faris Yakob run nomadic agency Genius Steals

For some, aspects of the industry grind is too much and such frustrations are being played out in our new series ‘Why I Left Advertising’, which has featured the likes of Chris Maples and Jonathan Durden. For others, like Jess and Charlie , the opportunity to travel is just too appealing and, while careers in advertising have helped spur on a creative take on travel, it’s not a way of making money.

While large agencies are breaking apart business models, trying to be agile and facilitate modern client demands, people like Rosie and Faris Yakob have realised they could fill this need while living the ultimate ‘agile’ life – nomadic.

Rosie and Faris Yakob are the co-founders of Genius Steals, an itinerant strategy and innovation consultancy that works with brands and agencies, as well as occasionally start-ups, as partners and consultants.

According to Genius Steals, work has included customer experience workshops for InterContinental Hotels, innovation sessions for AirNZ, brand and communication strategy for Freshpet and Gibson Guitars.

Tell me a bit about what you are doing and where this concept of nomadic working came from for you both…

Rosie: We’ll have been nomadic for four years in March 2017. After five years in NYC Faris had the option to sell his equity in the digital agency he co-founded and decided to take it, proposed to me, and suggested we sell our stuff and travel for a bit.

Faris: While traveling, we started to get email enquiries about consulting work or requests …and so it began.

Rosie: We didn’t plan to run our own business, honestly. We thought we’d find a place we love and live abroad for a few years, at an agency in a different country. But, we love traveling. And we didn’t realize, until we were on the road, that it was possible to take on clients while traveling.

How do you organise yourselves and ensure that you have work coming in?

Rosie: I act as the managing director, and generally run the business operations, while also handling a lot of the client services side of things. I’m more behind-the-scenes. So negotiating contracts, working with our business managers, hiring and paying our contractors - I manage all of that. I also love design and am the art director when it comes to our website, branding, presentation design, etc.

Faris leads on the thought-leadership front, conceptually and in practice. He’s the copywriter in our creative partnership, and his way with words and storytelling means he’s usually the one who writes and speaks, although we also give talks together, and I’m the primary workshop facilitator.

We collaborate on strategic client deliverables: Usually we will decide on the direction together. Faris will build the arc of the story, the framework and we’ll divide and conquer on the specific sections within.

Our admin extraordinaire Elea helps with all kinds of logistics, from support booking travel, to billing clients, to scheduling, to production support.

Faris: We’ve been incredibly lucky to rely entirely on emails coming in to drive our business, from day one.

As for keeping those emails flowing, we just do what we’ve always done - share. We write and post regularly, and have a bi-weekly [annoying word since it means two different things, but twice a week] newsletter we send out with updates on where we will be and inspiration to help you have better ideas.

Rosie: And being nice doesn’t hurt. It’s one of core values and beliefs. One of the things I’m most proud of his how many of our clients have become our friends. In January, we headed to Vancouver and rented an Airbnb with one of our clients from New Zealand and her family. I can’t think of any clients from my NYC days that were ever friends. There’s usually this weird us vs. them mentality when it comes to clients, which is just silly.

How does the work-life balance compare to what you were both doing before?

Faris: It’s mostly much, much better. We get what we need to do done and then go exploring - we don’t have to sit in an office and clock hours. Partially that’s because of our business model - we don’t sell time, we sell products, and how long they take to create is on us.

So, it fluctuates. Some weeks we block out time to just travel and then just do brand and business ‘maintenance’ work - emails, writing, some regular writing deadlines we have, keeping things moving.

Some projects we sprint and work all day with a client at their office, all evening on our own, all weekend writing things up. Again, it’s part of our business model - we can be very agile and fast because we work on project basis and can offer clients exclusivity for a project period if desired.

Rosie: Weekends are less relevant for us as we control our own time. We often work in sprints, so as Faris said, some weekends we work, and some Mondays we don’t. But compared to even the best experience of agency life, it’s a dream.

Do you think the culture of our industry is healthy? Should businesses be allowing people more flexibility to adapt working styles?

Rosie: There’s no doubt in my mind that businesses that allow for more flexibility with their employees will do better. You have to treat people as people, not cogs. That means understanding that some people will do better by getting a few extra hours of sleep in the morning, and working later in the evening. It’s crazy that that idea is perceived as so radical.

People often think culture is worse at bigger places, but I don’t think it’s fair to generalize like that. I was fortunate enough to work at 360i, where they constantly reference this idea of productivity over presence. And it worked on this “innocent until proven guilty” way. Meaning, you were afforded flexibility until/unless you didn’t get your work done. The culture there was phenomenal: People felt the trust the leadership put within them.

I worked at a smaller shop where it didn't matter if you had worked until 2am the night before, you were expected to be at your desk by 9am. That’s a great way to ensure that your employees aren’t going to be doing their best work - not just because they’re tired, but because it’s easy to see the leadership didn’t have their best interests at heart.

Faris: Agreed. And flexibility is key to keeping more parents [especially women, because the burden of childcare still disproportionally falls on them, which isn’t they way it should be, but that’s another story] in the industry. Since parents and families are the core target for such a large number of brands and products, this is something we sorely need.

Where has it taken you so far?

Faris: Well, in rough chronological order, ignoring repeat visits: [many states of the] USA, UK, Germany, Croatia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Mexico, Canada, France, Spain, Burning Man, Coachella, Summit-at-Sea, SXSW, Singapore, Myanmar, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, New Zealand, Uruguay, Chile, Cyprus, Greece, and we’re currently in India.

Rosie: It’s a little deceiving when you do the whole list of countries though, because take Chile for example. We spent several weeks there, but in only two cities. The country is massive. It’s basically the entire length of South America. We don’t have this sense of having “done” a city, much less a country. We lived in NYC for 5 years and I don’t think it’s possible to have “done” NYC, even spending a lifetime there.

How much non-work travel does it allow you to have?

Faris: Quite a bit, but it’s blurrier than that. When we get booked for a speaking event in a country we will plan travel around that country or nearby, and when we decide to go somewhere we’ll say in our newsletter, and very often people will request a talk or workshop. Or just to meet for a beer!

Rosie: People often confuse non-work travel with vacation. Sometimes it’s simply a different desk, maybe with better views or warmer weather. We’re writing from Goa: We didn’t come here for work, so I would classify this as non-work travel. But we aren’t spending every day sunbathing on the beach: We’re sorting contracts, writing proposals, advising clients remotely, etc.

How do you decide where to go?

Faris: Places we haven’t been are very appealing for exploration, places we love and have friends for recuperation and community.

Rosie: Warmth. I love NYC, but as long as I can help it I will never spend another winter there. It’s miserable. For me, I push places where I can wear flip flops and a tank top. If it’s somewhere that offers great diving or snorkeling, even better.

Is this a 'forever' plan or is it something you are doing for a shorter time period?

Rosie: You can only ever make decisions with the best information you have available at any given time. And you update your own point of view when new information becomes available. You work somewhere until you don’t like it, or until a better option comes along, or until you’re unable to work there. Right now, we love what we’re doing and don’t see any better options out there, all things considered. If that changes, or if we’re unable to make it work financially, then we would update our plan.

Faris: Forever ever? Ain’t no such thing. We didn’t plan the timing, but something in my head said give it five years, same amount of time we spent in NYC. Seemed like such a big chunk of time. But as we hit four we feel like we’re starting to get good at this - be a shame to waste these new skills.

What advice would you give others from the industry wanting to change their work perspective to add in more travel?

Rosie: I think most people would be surprised as to how open their bosses and colleagues would be to the idea, especially at this juncture. That being said, I think you have to come to the table with a clear proposal of what you want to do, and what you want them to do in return.

If your company has offices in other parts of the world, why not propose a stint there?

The next time you’re up for a promotion or have a salary review, consider asking for more paid time off and/or a conference stipend.

I always say one of the best ways to sell someone on an idea is to show them how it will benefit them. As an example, if you are into public speaking, you might ask for support to speak at conferences in other parts of the world. This could be in the form of training, or financial support, or simply time to be able to do so. As you put in the request, frame the benefits: How does this expose you to different thinking that you can share back with the agency? How might this help build the agency brand?

Don’t be afraid to have conversations with managers and get their input before you put in a proposal.

Faris: In the words of Dallas Clayton:

Make a list of things you love.

Make a list of things you do every day.

Compare.

Adjust accordingly.

You can stay up to date with their movements and projects via the newsletter, “Strands of [Stolen] Genius”

Charlotte McEleny

Charlotte McEleny is The Drum's Asia Editor, charged with finding all the interesting industry news and insights from the Asia Pacific region. During her year in Asia, she's covered topics as wide ranging as industry overwork to artificial intelligence, and interviewed top CMOs such as Alibaba's Chris Tung, and world famous creatives such as Rankin.

Based in Singapore, she travels the region regularly, attending and presenting at many top events, such as Spikes, Ad Week Asia and Innovfest.

Prior to her role as Asia Editor, she spent 10 years working across the London marketing trade magazines, even picking up an award for Best Digital Team at the PPA Digital Awards during her spell as digital editor at Marketing.

All by Charlotte