It’s an unusually warm and sunny morning in Glasgow as I enter Café Gandolfi. It’s one of the Merchant City’s more famous hangouts where the handcrafted wooden tables seem to blend seamlessly into the restaurant’s wooden walls. Surrounded by the scent of Gandolfi’s renowned coffee and highland fayre, I feel instantly at ease as I sit down.
I’m here to meet Pete Martin, an industry stalwart on both sides of the pond. In 2016, he unexpectedly quit the agency he founded, The Gate. Now, many are eagerly anticipating the inception of a new Martin-run venture. His shock departure came after a change in outlook on life. He put this down partly to discontent with the traditional agency model, and partly to an eye-opening trip to Sri Lanka where his late father had been stationed with the RAF in WWII.
Last time The Drum spoke to Martin, he explained why he felt the need for holistic change within the industry: “We do need a mind shift in marketing. In terms of 21st century business philosophy, agencies are being left behind. So, the time is right for a breakthrough model in creative communications. We need to match rapid, low-investment ideation with reliable predictors of consumer behaviour and purchasing, share of category and profitability. So, what next? Let’s wait and see. As my pal professor Phil Hanlon used to say, ‘The future is emergent.’”
This rings completely true as Martin enters the café. After ordering a couple of coffees, he sits down and begins to tell me about his new venture Always Be: the an end-to-end content, activation and customer experience consultancy.
Now up and running, Always Be is run by Martin and a crack team of respected industry names. Working out of a modest Leith office, they also have bases in London and Cologne as well as in the Scottish capital. A somewhat impressive feat for such a new venture. Martin jokes “I’ve never actually been to Cologne, but I’ve heard its lovely this time of year!” Always Be put the customer firmly at the forefront of their model, with their tag line “what matters to customers must be what matters to you.” This stresses the need for the client company to reach their audience as “humanly” as possibly.
Essentially, Always Be are attempting to completely reverse the traditional agency model which Martin and his colleagues know only too well. Customer experience takes precedence over conventional agency wisdom or traditional marketing plans. “It’s strange, but also liberating to build something from the bottom in the way that we want it built, rather than conforming to an existing agency and its model,” says Martin.
Content, film, activation and, primarily, customer experience are the company’s areas of expertise. With specialists in these disciplines on hand at Always Be, the aim is to offer clients with the seemingly unique end-to-end consultancy. Impressively, Martin tells me the company has already taken on two major international jobs, one in Scandinavia.
Due to the traditional agency model being “past its sell-by date” as Martin puts it, his new venture seems set to take a similarly radical approach to its own structure. “As Always Be moves away from the traditional way of thinking about people, we felt the internal structure had to match this. So we’re implementing a system called Holacracy. It’s a new management approach, which is all about self-determination. The practices come from the tech world. It was invented after businesses began to realise that the traditional pyramid structure no longer works in many cases. Often, there are blurred lines between departments as technology and society in general move with the times.”
Martin goes on to tell me that this teal organisation’ approach is growing in popularity globally. The core concept is that staff are self-organised around “domains” which make them almost completely responsible for their own actions. “With the caveat that you must consult anyone who may be affected, you have freedom to make any decision you want,” he explains, “But you are responsible for the outcome. “Is that not a big risk, especially with such a young company?” I ask. “I guess in some ways it is. But it allows creativity to flow more freely and effectively, I think. I like it! And it seems to have worked so far” he grins.
The decision to take this approach in starting Always Be came after Martin read Frederic Laloux’s “Reinventing Organisations”. The academic gives the small example of how radical trust worked in the case of French engineering firm, FAVI. The company had a tool shed which was kept under lock and key. Employees used to have to get permission from their superiors to access the tools. While this seems like a sensible idea in theory, it proved time consuming. In reality, employees were more likely to rebel and steal the tools.
So FAVI decided to change their ruling and leave the tool shed open throughout the day. Employees could take equipment when needed without waiting on the nod from higher powers. It saved time and built goodwill. Amazingly, nothing was stolen after the change. Employees generally felt more valued, trusted and able to work more independently. “In essence, that’s what I’m trying to achieve,” explained Martin. “Radical trust that extends from our team to clients to customers.” So far it seems like he is doing just that.