Relationships in the workplace
It takes two baby
The Drum’s resident agony uncle, Carl Hopkins, has both worked for a husband and wife team, and been the boss of his own partner while at JDA.
For a husband and wife running an agency together, Hopkins insists it becomes, “more than a business”. The advantage is having a level of trust and understanding that you’re unlikely to have with any other business partner. The danger, he cautions, is that anything that can threaten your business can threaten your livelihood.
Suzi Peake, who set up Speake2 advertising in Chester with husband Saul, says that not only did she have no reservations about starting a business with her partner, but it was through their own relationship that the idea flourished.
While working for different agencies in London, the pair found themselves taking separate briefs home to work on. After a year, Peake says it seemed only natural for the two to start their own agency together given the ideas from work that were already spilling into their home life.
Having worked together on projects while both at TMP, the pair were confident that they could run their own business at such close quarters. Not only that, but Peake stresses that rather that impinging on the business, their relationship has actually been useful when dealing with clients.
She explains, “It puts them at ease because they find us very open and honest. Our understanding also gives us a good rapport when in dealings with clients. We find it quite easy to slip into good cop, bad cop with them for instance.”
Peake says she finds it cringeworthy when people talk about husband and wife teams in the same way they discuss parochial family businesses.
“It’s not like a businessman employing their son or daughter purely on the grounds of who they are,” she says. “Me and Saul decided to work together because we knew our skills were complimentary and above and beyond that we’re so passionate about the business.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Suzy Glaskie, who’s built Peppermint PR from scratch and brought husband Jean-Phillipe to the agency in November last year to develop its business prospects.
With her husband’s city experience, working as managing director at babywear company The Dalya Group, Glaskie says getting him involved in her firm as joint MD was an easy decision to make.
“My focus has always been on the creative side. I’m not especially business savvy whereas Jean-Phillipe is a very astute businessman, with financial experience, and so when Dalya sold-up [the result of a management buyout] it seemed like the perfect time to finally get him involved.”
With three children and knowing that their work together is for the good of their own future, Glaskie believes her situation ensures that the business goes in the right direction.
“When you’re working with a spouse you’re both heading towards a common goal. If it’s an unrelated business partner, you don’t know what agenda in life they’ve got or what their priorities and plans are.”
Despite this, she confesses it’s inevitable that some elements of work life find their way home. “Work things do inevitably crop up at silly times like when we’re chopping up vegetables,” she says, but reasons that it’s a small intrusion to accept if it means working with someone she trusts implicitly.
Despite evidence of married couples forming good working teams in the industry, relationship counsellor Denise Knowles, from Relate, says that she is now encountering troubled couples who are in business together on a regular basis.
“It’s important for couples who work together to have clear boundaries in their home life. If they’ve not got on or had a row over a problem at work, they mustn’t let that creep into their home life, they must get on as a couple,” Knowles advises.
For a start-up business launched by a couple to survive, Knowles says it’s imperative both parties remain patient and keep focussed on their original plans of what they want to achieve.
“It can be very difficult with a start-up because a new business requires so much attention. This is when problems can arise and it’s important that the couple keep the strain from their working lives away from their personal lives.
“Sometimes I ask the couple to explore the positives and negatives of working together. If they feel they can’t maintain both, a number of times it can be the case that it is the relationship that is the casualty and not the business.”
While there are unique benefits to setting up and running a business with your own partner, that relationship, in turn, brings its own hurdles.
What if the dynamic is different though, and couples get together naturally through work, rather than for work?
Robert Harwood-Matthews, chief executive of TBWA\Manchester, brought wife Charlotte into the agency last year to work part-time on the GHD account.
“Apparently one in two of every office affairs results in marriage and nine out of 10 companies employ at least one married couple, so there’s no point in a business applying draconian measures, least of all in a young, vibrant and creative environment,” he reckons. The key, according to Harwood-Matthews, is treating these relationships, when they do arise, with “maturity, respect and professionalism.”
Given the long hours and sociability of the industry, Carl Hopkins agrees that relationships are bound to form. He says it’s crucial however, that if one partner stands higher on the corporate ladder – as he did as chairman at JDA, with now-wife Stefanie in his team – to be mindful of how that relationship could affect others.
“When you are in that kind of situation you will make decisions that can impact on your partner and the rest of the team.
“As long as you can look your staff in the eye and justify why that decision was good for the business though, it is never an issue,” he insists.
Relate’s Knowles agrees that when hierarchy comes into play the need for professionalism is paramount. “It’s important in that scenario that the boss maintains his managerial role. If he stops doing that then he stops being a manager.
“Likewise, it’s essential that they don’t start pulling rank in their home life too,” she counters.
From a boss’s perspective, Hopkins maintains that while he’s delighted for staff members who couple up or tie the knot, he’s always worried that it’ll mean one of them will find things a little too claustrophobic and leave. In his experience, he says, this happens more often than not.
“If people are on the same level at an agency, they’ve got mutual affinity because they have the same daily gripes and the same enemies, but it can still get too much,” he says.
And while it might be love for them, Hopkins’ heart sinks. “When one of them does inevitably leave,” he warns, “it’s always the wrong one.”