23 years on, the co-founders of Iris aren’t going anywhere soon

By Sam Anderson | Editor, The Drum Network

Iris

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Iris article

July 5, 2022 | 7 min read

Still thought of by many in the industry as a kinda-sorta-indie, global marketing agency Iris has been a part of network Cheil (owned by Korean behemoth Samsung) since 2014. We sat down with the trio that has steered the agency from its inception to talk growth, autonomy and why they’re “quite comfortable with being misunderstood.”

There’s a founding story behind the launch of many marketing agencies. A young, ambitious group from a network agency gets itchy feet and slinks off, perhaps with a client or two in hand. You won’t often find those founding stories on the About Me section of the new agency’s website because, naturally, the old network might be a little aggrieved itself to lose both staff and clients.

Happily, when we sit down with three of marketing agency Iris’s brain trust, their own version of this story happened 23 years ago – so they’re a little more forthcoming.

As with any historical development, there were push and pull factors.

Push: the trio was at IMP London (now part of Arc Worldwide, a Publicis agency), handling the Ericsson mobile phones account. They were disgruntled with their current agency. At large organizations, chairman Ian Millner tells us, “there’s a lot of taking people for granted. In a people-based industry, a passion-based industry, you’ve got to look at what your people are doing and do right by them. Otherwise, why wouldn’t and why shouldn’t a young person use their skills to set up a business?” Meanwhile, IMP was going through a network incorporation, causing a level of “stagnation” that encouraged ambitious minds to wander.

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Pull: their contact at Ericsson had become disgruntled with the agency too, outsourcing creative to a boutique shop while retaining IMP to handle the account. Once those account handlers started to walk past their own internal teams to cross the street and work with the boutique, Iris’s London chief exec Claire Humphris tells us, “you start to see how easy it becomes to do things differently. The conversation escalated very quickly to, ‘why on earth am I paying big agency fees to IMP for a team of people who could set up shop with this creative director, and I’ll have my own agency built around me?’”

Then comes synthesis. “For all three of us, there had to be a way to create something where you do look after your people; you do look after your clients; you’re meritocratic; you can enjoy it,” says global chief exec Steve Bell. “Where you don’t feel as though you’re paying back to some fat cat in New York, who doesn’t really care about your business.”

Thus Iris was born, with the three (and three more co-founders who have since left), all under 30, gradually leaving IMP over the course of a year, under the cover of stories that Bell doesn’t sugar-coat: “We had to bareface lie to them for a period of time – we’d all told stories around what we were going to do, and none of those stories were true because we were squirreled off in Covent Garden, creating an agency brand, winning clients and growing the business. When that did come out, we weren’t top of the Christmas card list from IMP.”

No regrets

Following initial investment from an angel investor (stumping up £50,000 on which Humphris says she later recouped a “tidy profit”), Iris’s growth was bootstrapped for the first few years before an M&A spree toward the end of the 00s. The trio’s own consternation from their IMP days was useful to building a cohesive agency, particularly when acquisitions start to make stability harder to maintain. “The essence of an agency, regardless of how big or complicated or clever or talented or famous it is, is trust, pride and camaraderie,” says Millner. “We stick together, and that really matters.”

For the trio in particular, “we’ve got such a connection to that it’s very difficult to explain,” says Bell. Other partners, he says, have stepped away “because they didn’t want to be part of a big global network, but that’s cool. It was always important that we didn’t work for Iris, we allowed Iris to work for us.”

That network has been built both by Iris’s own M&A activity and by Cheil’s acquisition of Iris back in 2014. It says something that the trio is still around, years after their earnouts from that deal have matured. It also says something about their business philosophy. Bell says: “A big part of our journey has been driven by having a lot of partners with equity, which helped us attract a certain sort of people. It’s also been about rewarding people as they develop and come up through the ranks.”

The acquisition, then, was a payday not just for the trio but for other partners they’d brought in along the way. “The strategy that we took around equity was dilution,” continues Bell. “Every time we gave equity to somebody within the business, it was dilution from the founders. That absolutely was the right thing to do. We’ve got no regrets at all.”

But it’s not just that the trio might not have become quite as rich from the acquisition as you might imagine. There’s still lots to do, they tell us. “We’re still young, we’re still really ambitious, we still want to do amazing stuff for amazing clients,” says Bell. “Do you do that within an agency that you’ve helped create, and built a culture that you’re proud of? Or do you start again or go work for somebody else? ... We’ve still got loads of gas in the tank.”

One step ahead

It’s the Iris brand that they’re most proud of, they say. It’s no accident that when they did sell, they did so to a network that would commit to maintaining that brand within what Millner calls a “pretty decentralized network” (he is himself chief exec at Cheil Connec+), with space for innovation and self-determination. “We’ve always been pioneers; we’ve always been ahead of the market,” he says. “We’ve always struggled, though, to capitalize on that and gain reputation. I think the industry generally doesn’t fully understand us and, and in some ways, fails to see our quality and our role.”

Even for one of agencyland’s great success stories, a bit of underdog mentality can go a long way. “I’m quite comfortable with being misunderstood,” says Humphris. “It means that you’re doing things that are a bit different; you’re doing things before anybody else; you’re doing things that people don’t really understand because they haven’t seen them before. We always used to think that it was a bad thing to be misunderstood, but I’m starting to come around to the idea that it just means we’re getting it right, because we’re one step ahead.”

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