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‘Saying no can be more important than yes’: how Rocketmill expanded with no burnout

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By Dani Gibson | Senior Writer

July 25, 2022 | 7 min read

Ahead of The Drum Awards for Agency Business later this year, we caught up with Rocketmill, which won the Independent Agency of the Year (50-149 employees) in 2021.

From humble beginnings in the beach town of Brighton by brothers Sam and Ben Garrity, digital marketing agency Rocketmill recently expanded its offering to London with plans afoot for additional offices in the UK over the next year. Its roster currently includes Peugeot Citroën, Kimberly-Clark, Dropbox, Tchibo Coffee and Freedom Finance.

Tom Byrne, the recently-appointed chief executive, catches up with The Drum on how business is going. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Rocketmill

RocketMill at Rocketfest

What have been some of Rocketmill’s biggest challenges since winning at The Drum Awards for Agency Business?

Talent in the market has been particularly difficult. We’re in a privileged position to have attrition that’s less than 10%, and our priority is the team and their happiness. But we have more demand than we have supply. The challenge is how to grow in a way that doesn’t put unfair levels of burden on those people to be working faster than they’re able and the consequential burnout. Rocketmill could have grown faster, but it would have put an unreasonable amount of pressure on the team.

People are subject to greater levels of anxiety, because of all the associated consequences of Covid. And there’s also this huge layer of FOMO that’s come from salary inflation. People are often being offered more money, particularly from in-house roles, and the trade-off there is that you don’t really get any career development. In-house, there’s not really anywhere to go, you just get paid a bit better. Our people acknowledge that it’s not a sensible career move, but it is FOMO in that you feel resentful that you are not being paid because your baseline has changed. And so your expectations have changed and that creates frustrations around fairness.

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What challenges are clients coming to you with?

Clients are moving toward a more strategic mentality. We’re inherently a performance business, and so often the conversation focuses on marginal improvement.

Inflation is a problem. The cost-of-living crisis is a problem, as is the potential impending recession. A lot of commerce companies are struggling with shipping costs from Asia, for example, and that requires long-term planning. From our perspective, that’s filtering through into client relationships, which is hugely beneficial because it fosters a deeper relationship. We have a clearer idea of not just their micro agenda, but their macro agenda. We tend to have more central conversations with clients that span everything from creative, right through to some execution, and then an iterative framework within that.

A lot of that’s coming from a shift from short-term value creation to longer-term that is ratified by EssenceMediaCom. The convergence between brand and performance is being driven by a shift in the timeline that clients seem to be working to. It’s a wholly positive thing for everyone, chief marketing officers included.

Describe Rocketmill’s agency culture.

Culture is created as much when you say no as when you say yes. And saying no to some big stuff this year has been quite formative for us. And no one ever shouts about the nos. We could have taken on these big clients, but we chose not to because we thought that it would be unfair on the team and cost us £200k a month in fees. That’s a weird thing to say, but what you say no to is more important than what you say yes to.

How has innovation led Rocketmill’s growth?

We have a structured, engineered approach to innovation. We create a lot of technology that helps support piecemeal individual problems. Over the last year, we’ve worked very hard to crystallize that into its own thing. And so we’ve created this platform called Octane, which helps our teams take away a lot of the boring routine tasks and makes their jobs more stimulating, but also gives a competitive advantage to clients. That’s formed more central components of our storytelling. There’s so much vapourware in the market that it is beneficial. And that’s continuing to use technology to amplify. It doubles down on the need for it to be informed by all perspectives.

We want to take a very surgical approach of ‘thinking fast, acting slow’ mentality. Come up with lots of ideas but needle them down. It’s that quote of “kill your babies,” editing out something that you love to make the story better. We do that a lot. We might think something is amazing, but if no one else thinks that then it is because we’re too close to it. That feeds back into a culture of openness. If you can wholly criticize someone without fear of upsetting them that’s a luxurious place to be.

What does the next year look like at Rocketmill?

Rocketmill is in a strong growth phase at the moment, and we will continue to temper it based on the team’s ability to accommodate change. But we want to encourage that change to move faster all the time. For now, we’re about 150 people, and over the next 12 months we would expect to double. And we have a strategic rollout plan in opening offices in Leeds, Bristol and Edinburgh over the next 18 months. Our medium-term ambition is to get to about 500 people in three years.

If we can provide people with a clear sense of purpose that goes beyond making money and investing in growth, this will only benefit us. We will never pay the most in the market because we want people to want to work for us and not because we pay the best in the market. We invest more in an individual than anyone else because we invest in our culture and making the industry better, and we invest in making the planet better. That takes time, money and distraction.

The entry deadline for The Drum Awards for Agency Business 2022 has now closed, but you can apply for an extension by contacting our awards team.

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