The stories of Iris and Blue Glass may have begun 13 years apart, yet their experiences and mistakes in growth – welcome and painful in equal measure – highlight key lessons all ambitious marketing businesses need to learn.
Iris began life when six ad execs, all under the age of 30, broke away from Publicis Groupe in 1999. Not one of them had experience in running an agency, but they did have a big, glossy founding client in Sony Ericsson and a strong belief that culture should come before bureaucracy.
“It wasn’t about a few people getting rich,” said Steve Bell, Iris’ co-founder and European chief executive. “I think that’s one of the mistakes a few agencies make – two or three people getting all the equity. It was a group of like-minded individuals heading in the same direction that wanted to spend time with each other. At the time, that made us unique, almost untouchable in the marketplace.”
Attracted by this culture – and, of course, the work – clients began rolling in. It was, by all accounts, “going brilliantly”, remembered Bell – so Iris “had” to go global with a satellite in Singapore. At the same time, the agency unexpectedly won a £10m loan in an entrepreneurial competition.
“Looking back, it was the worst thing that could have happened to us,” said Bell. “We lost sight of what made us successful and we went on a bit of a spending spree.”
Growing pains included launching a string of operations in interesting yet risky places (including Russia and Indonesia), hiring too many expensive lawyers and promoting too many client leaders to create a top-heavy organisation.
“Everything was done in a hurry,” Bell recalled. “We were having to pedal so hard just to break even."
The nail in the coffin was the market crash of 2009, which was compacted with Iris’ own financial crisis. The agency found itself “hammered on debt repayments” and losing money through its new offices, while COI – its second-largest client – stopped spending altogether. The culture also began to collapse, and Iris’ “superstars” started to head elsewhere.
Three years later, in a corner of west London, Chelsea Blacker founded a SEO and content marketing agency alongside Kevin Gibbons. A smaller agency than Iris, the UK arm of Blue Glass launched without the big, glossy client or half a dozen Publicis co-founders. Yet constant growth saw it land on Deloitte’s 2017 ranking of the UK’s fastest growing technology companies just five years later.
Blue Glass’ first office was above a McDonald’s in Paddington Station. Blacker believes the bad smell, the freezing conditions and the overarching lack of glamour, were – in a strange way – key to her agency’s growth.
“Our first office represents who we are – scrappy, gritty and not interested in looking pretty,” she said. “It had space for eight people and cost us less that £1,000 a month. I see all of these fancy WeWork spaces, and all I can think is: ‘no-one in the history of the world has created great work for clients because they had a fucking felt wall’.
"[Unsophisticated offices] are what builds the grit that will get you through the next five years.”
Blacker characterises her agency’s growth strategy as long-term, and as a result has retained three clients, including Expedia, for the agency’s entire time in business. “We’ve don’t have anyone and we’ve never had anyone running new business,” she said. “We just try our best to do good work and as our clients mature, and improve within their internal in-house roles, they get bigger budgets and we grow with them.”
Like any company, Blue Glass’ growth did not propel in a straight line. Its US partner company “crashed and burned” within its first year in business, leaving the UK operation to pick up the pieces and deal with legacies such as “disgraceful” Glassdoor reviews and being blacklisted by PayPal.
Despite all the drama, Blacker is adamant that no part of her job has involved sacrifice. And she has advice to those who feel the opposite: get out.
“If you’re running a business and you’re not really into it, you should find someone else to manage it, or you should leave. Because you’re not actually doing anyone a favour … and everybody fucking knows you don’t care,” she said. “Save resource.”
Unbelievably, the team of six that launched Iris back in 1999 all found that they still cared – even with debt collectors on their backs. And slowly, they managed to turn the business around and learn to grow it in a post-recession landscape. Bell cites closing offices of low strategic importance, restructuring staff bonuses, reassessing the amount of senior staff and doubling the number of partners it worked with as crucial to getting Iris back to sustainable growth.
“If you have money to spend, don’t do it in a hurry, because you will make mistakes,” he summarised.
Recently Iris has found a partner in Cheil rather than the banks (“Banks are not really into relationships – they tell you they are but they’re not”), acquired a number of businesses and embarked on a rebranding exercise to create a cohesive brand. It also worked with staff to uncover a new statement of intent of its culture – ‘For the Forward’ – nearly 20 years since the agency first began.
As for Blue Glass’ culture?
“Developing the core values within our existing team was a really fun step in pushing us forward to clarify who we are,” said Blacker. “If you don’t have core values then you should definitely invest the time to uncover them."
She added: “There are consultancies who will help you with that but … I dunno. Just do it yourself. You are you, and if you’re running a business, you should be able to do it.”
Bell and Blacker were speaking at The Drum’s Agency Acceleration Day, sponsored by Mintel, Oracle Netsuite, Dataxu, Winmo, Brandrocket and Bold Content.