“Maintain high creative standards when the world wants anything but.”: Jonathan Trimble, CEO at 18 Feet & Rising discusses leadership in run up to the Agency Leadership Assembly

Continuing our series ongreat agency leadership in the marketing services industries, The Drum’s associate editor Richard Draycott catches up with Jonathan Trimble, CEO at 18 Feet & Rising, to find out what makes a great leader as Trimble prepares to be the keynote speaker at the Agency Leadership Assembly, MiNetwork's one day conference taking place in London on Wednesday 29th May.

Great leadership starts with conviction, something Jonathan Trimble is familiar with. Formerly of Fallon, in 2010, along with Matt Keon and Tim Millar, he left the agency to start independent creative agency 18 Feet & Rising. The Drum’s Richard Draycott catches up with Trimble to talk leadership and creating effective communications in the digital age.

What was your first real leadership role?

Agitating two others to join me in leaving Fallon to start 18 Feet & Rising, becoming its managing partner and subsequently its CEO.

How did you approach your first leadership role?

It was without design, more learn by doing.

What three key attributes does an effective leader need?

A will to stand up for principles, by which I mean they cost you money.

Ability to have the difficult conversations, usually involving saying no.

Exercise a zoom lens appropriately, such that you don’t demotivate great people.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I can tell you what I intend, which is to broadly bring energy, apply intelligence, instinct, vision. However, you’d have to ask those around me. I suspect they’d say I am erratic on all counts, with the exception of the energy bit.

Have you studied leadership and management or does it come naturally?

I am a student of it. I have received coaching from Paul Feldwick, who is a master advertising practitioner and thought leader on organisational change; Roger Mavity, the CEO of Conran Group, dealing in premium creativity; and Stephen Greene, CEO and co-founder of RockCorps, the pro-social volunteering brand platform. Jon Claydon is a mentor and Martin Brooks a good friend (chairman and CEO of WorkClub respectively).

How far ahead do you plan for your business?

So far, we’ve built the plane whilst falling or whatever that awful analogy is. But I am currently developing a three year plan. Plans and goals are damn dangerous. So this is more for the purposes of simplifying the things we can be more certain about and having some kind of benchmark framework. Beyond that, we broadly believe in a high level end point – ‘creative agency of record for this decade’ and then letting things emerge towards that. Which has its pros and cons.

As an agency leader, how do you make important decisions? Is it down to you or by committee?

I am paranoid about dilution, so I dislike any kind of joint decision making. I prefer someone to take charge, consult others as appropriate to help make the best informed decision, bring a wider range of perspectives and so on. But then call it based on what they believe, and call it quick. I wish it was always that clean. Life and people get in the way of course, as do the dilemmas of business. But the ambition is that people can call things for themselves without the need for approval.

What has been the biggest leadership decision you have ever made? Did you call it right?

Declining to re-pitch business when it significantly impacts income. Firing people who I personally liked as friends. Both right decisions.

What do you like about yourself as a leader?

I’m not sure it’s about liking your own traits, more about being as self-aware as possible about how positive and effective your impact is. I doggedly believe in the power of creative people and I will back them no matter how strange their instincts may seem.

What do you dislike about yourself as a leader?

Impulsive and quixotic – both of which cost the company time and money. Obviously backing creative instinct doesn’t always yield results in a straight line. But that’s part of the game of being creatively led.

What has been the most important decision you have made to get the agency to where it is today?

Deciding to do it in the first place.

What is the key to being an effective agency leader in today’s economic climate?

You have to be ready to accept that up to 50 per cent of the income of advertising agencies is or will be project based and therefore you need 25 per cent flexible workforce.

The model of how we produce ads is broken, so you need to find your own way of reinventing that, ideally as an additional revenue stream. Keep the main thing the main thing.

Don’t get distracted by additional marketing services, or else you’ll have lots of small interesting things rather than a big brilliant thing. But the most important thing of all is to maintain high creative standards when the world wants anything but, because that’s where the long term premium is.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges faced by agency leaders in the next few years?

Economic contraction leading to declining spend, of course. Plus the creative entropy that engenders.

How honest does an effective leader have to be?

I’ve been opaque about business issues in the past and tried to top spin bad news. It doesn’t work in our culture. They prefer the truth, to see my human side if angry, and I’ve found the more transparent I am about the numbers ,the better our account handling in particular has been able to adapt and respond. You can’t over-communicate, I’ve found. And don’t do it in big all agency meetings – that’s a party political broadcast. Walk the block with people in small groups or individually.

How do you pick people up when something goes wrong, like losing a pitch or a client?

If I feel OK about it, or we’ve done it with the right feeling as an agency, then it’s really easy to take the Coach Wooden type approach and celebrate playing well rather than winning.

If we’ve been jilted, it’s harder. Angry drinks in the pub ensue, followed by a period of cathartic calm and then better not to talk about it again – and definitely don’t analyse it.

How do you react when someone you view as integral to the success of your business resigns?

That hasn’t happened to me. The opposite, we’ve let people go who were important functionally speaking, but ultimately incompetent as the agency raised its game through growth. If I did lose someone integral, it would hurt a lot. Good people are so rare. I would try to take the view that the very best talent has options and is only ever on loan to you.

Who do you admire as a leader of people?

Martin Boase, founder of the undisputed world champion of agencies, BMP. To describe him as a class act is an understatement. I am full of admiration for him and have been lucky to spend a bit of time with him one-on-one hearing his story.

If you lost it all tomorrow, what would you do? Would you become a leader in another area of life?

When you are in a rapidly expanding business there are definite moments where you face that, or at least get a glimpse of its profile. Notably as you invest working capital to scale the business, winning business can actually kill you as you provide the product and wait huge periods of time to get paid. I’ve only really thought about failure once; it was a very dark moment and I had no idea what I would do next.

Jonathan Trimble will be speaking at MiNetwork’s Agency Leadership Assembly on 29 May – a one day conference during which all areas of agency leadership, management and growth will be explored by a range of marketing agency business experts and former and current agency owners. For more information or to book a place at the conference, go to minetwork.me.

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