When Lord Alan Sugar, the founder of Amstrad and former chairman of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club agreed to front the British version of The Apprentice on BBC One over a decade ago, he was to become one of the leading faces in business in the country but would also take on the mantle of guiding budding entrepreneurs and helping them establish their own businesses under his tutorship.
Over the years he has been involved in setting advertising themed challenges as part of the shows, one of the most popular weeks each series, and backed boutique digital marketing agency Climb Online’s founder Mark Wright when Sugar chose him to be the winner of the tenth series.
The Drum is speaking to Britain’s most prominent hirer-and-firer, Lord Sugar over the phone as he recovers from a knee operation which was ‘massive’ but he sounds in fine form and as the conversation progresses is very much that recognizably bullish persona but in good spirits nevertheless.
Sugar wants to help continue to grow the visibility of the agency, admitting during the conversation that he chose Wright after a comment made by Google’s European chief Matt Britton who was sitting next to him during the final presentation stage of the show, where Britton claimed he would hire Wright himself if he didn’t win. After years though, the business is still growing, and Sugar highlights how difficult it is proving for them to find enough digital talent to meet demand – a search that is currently underway still he underlines.
Sugar offers his views on how the advent of digital over the last decade has changed his views on advertising, certainly through traditional media methods.
“I have spent hundreds of millions of pounds advertising in my lifetime… talk about writing cheques. I’ve written chequebooks on advertising,” he states on just how much he has invested in advertising while growing his companies, including Amstrad. “What fascinates me now is the way advertising has changed… things like Google, Facebook and Instagram have taken the share away from the traditional media of newsprint and TV. Newsprint is going down the drain bit-by-bit because everything you want to hear about is on your mobile in seconds of it happening. And what’s the point of advertising in a national newspaper when you can get to millions of people using digital marketing by profiling the exact client you are after? It’s fantastic and it’s one of the phenomenons that I have seen in my business lifetime.”
However, the lack of staff and the competition to source the right talent, a well-known issue for all digital marketing businesses, is very much on his mind when it comes to developing Climb Online, which has expanded in recent years beyond the UK, including the opening of Manchester and Bristol offices to work with clients such as TikTok Be Wiser Insurance and Imagine Cruising.
He argues that the environment of work being developed by the major social media and digital giants is an impersonal one that attracts digital developing talent as a result, but that his business is one that aims to be more rewarding: “We need more and more staff, more and more experts, particularly on the coding side and software side. The trouble is, companies like Google or Microsoft, they create such an environment for people to work in. I often wonder if I was an employee of Google is actually knows I'm in work at the moment if you know what I mean. Is there a boss that I report to? How do you gauge what work I've been doing? And that is a kind of atmosphere which you can understand why it attracts a lot of people.”
Outside of digital advertising, Lord Sugar is talking to The Drum as part of its Leadership Lessons podcasts, a series of audio interviews with business leaders to discuss their experiences of leading major teams. During the conversation he offers insights on his own leadership process, admitting he doesn’t consider how he positions himself in leadership, saying that creating admiration is crucial, as well as building the respect of employees too.
He also talks about his admiration for business leaders such as the late industrialist Lord Albert Weinstock as a figure he has witnessed strong leadership and business acumen from.
“Rupert Murdoch, I think is another person that I admire tremendously simply because he's got a lot of balls. When he goes into things, he goes in full blast. So I tried to use the ethos of those people… you learn as you go along. One of the things that I learned about is that some of the employees that I have as the business grows and gets bigger, unfortunately, some of them get out of their depth. And then there's an art in making sure that you don't just dispose of people and say, I've finished with you. Find them another role that suits them and then you bring in someone that can pick that up. So I think there's a skill in that also in handling people and dealing with people.”
Listen to the full interview with Lord Sugar below or through The Drum’s Leadership Lessons section of the website.