As an agency leader, it's easy to take the brunt of the problems and bottle everything up, which can be so detrimental to your business and personal life. The Drum Network think differently. Agency leaders should be collaborating and helping each other, as everyone has an experience to share that could help others. The Drum Network’s Leadership Lunch series will be webinar episodes dedicated to exploring how to deal with the trials and tribulations of an agency leader. The first Leadership Lunch was with Ian Finch, the co-founder of Mando.
Ian launched Mando along with his business partner Matt Johnson eighteen years ago in Liverpool and kicked off a successful business with clients such as Pets at Home, TalkTalk Business, Rolls Royce, Microsoft Business and other not-for-profit local businesse. Matt Johnson left the business a few years ago and Ian has stepped up to be the face of the agency; accelerating the agency’s growth in London and overseas. He was named Agency Leader of the Year at The Drum Network Awards in 2015.
Ten in ten
Nickname? Finchy, Leonardo da finchy
If you could be doing any other job, what would it be? I have a habit of converting my hobbies into commercial ventures so I would probably be running a travel company or hotel chain.
What does your best friend do? He runs a charity which helps orphans
If you could be anyone else in the world who would you be? Jack Johnson, he surfs and plays music globally, he has totally nailed it.
If you were Prime Minister of the UK what law would you pass? I would create a tax for whinging- hopefully it would stop the constant negative culture of bringing the mood down all the time in Britain.
What is your worst habit? I seem to go off topic and fidget a lot whilst I do it.
What car do you drive? C plus
If you sold out for £10million tomorrow, what would be your first purchase? Well, I love holidays, I would get a whopper holiday or a holiday home.
What is your most treasured possession? My 1972 Slimline Fender Telecaster
When you launched Mando 18 years ago, what were you aiming to achieve with the business?
It all started as ‘Webshed’; a few friends, Matt buying modems for 20 quid, Jeff installing them with a one-page website charging 60 quid. We were all at university together. I had a job lined up at IBM, but I just couldn’t do it. I had to turn it down which then meant I was out of favour with the university and they said they wouldn’t help me find another job, I was out on my own. Then Matt and Geoff suggested I ran the office of Webshed- a business plan was conceived. We really just figured it all out as we went along as we were very young and still in university.
Who was your first client?
We were in a tiny office in a run-down part of Liverpool in the late nineties, with no money- just a couple of student loans- and there were no websites at the time. So we started in the Yellow Pages, we charged £250 for a ten-page website, hosting was actually £500 and so we got that wrong.
Our first client was ‘Phat Fones’ he wanted to sell Nokia banana phones- we did a one-page website and we created our portfolio based on this one-page website. The most notable client we brought in was 9 months down the line and it was the first competitive pitch we won; for the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation. It was a 120 page website, we coded the whole thing and finished at 5.45am. At 6am Cliff Richard came on the BBC to promote it, the webpage popped up; I went to sleep, our IT director passed out. We were born. We had a national brand- Matt and I loved it and wanted to carry on. Geoff got a job at the BBC as a camera man and is loving life. That was our first year.
How did you move the business on with clients and other people?
There were three of us to begin with, when I went back to uni I took on a lot of coding and we took on a creative director. It was great to get someone to come on board and worry about the creative and product side of things and we could then focus on the business issues. His inclusion upped our game in terms of our output. At the time we won a pitch with Mersey Television, we got to the gig to do Brookside and Hollyoaks, from this work we won an Interactive Bafta nomination-; Sony PlayStation saw this and gave the PlayStation campaign to us. We hit 22 staff in the third year, the fourth year we hit 32 staff.
How did you manage such rapid growth?
At the time it was a wild west industry; there were no standards, no courses, no real expectations, however we could get graduates in and teach them flash. We had low salaries, which are laughable now, so it was a very, very different world. I wouldn’t want to do it now, aged 40.
What did you learn about yourself as a leader in those early days?
You become more self-aware as you go. I was nominated by Ernst and Young for the Young Entrepreneur of the Year award and I was on the front covers of magazines. I took a lot of this for granted; I had no idea what made us special. I look back now and I think ‘Why wouldn’t you give me half a million pound investment?’ There is probably a natural charisma I had which I didn’t appreciate.
Matt left the business in 2013 and you took on the position as front man, you became the ‘Mando Man’- how did you take on the responsibility and what challenges did you face?
I had a lot of experience selling within account management roles. Matt was the face of the business and I wrapped my operational role around that. From a public facing perspective that ability wasn’t there. Matt had built a network over 10 years organically and it’s hard to match that. Our non-exec at the time said ‘you are the most anonymous person in digital’- it was a sobering thought. How could I try and advance the next two years, something which Matt had done in 10 years? I can’t troll around meeting everyone individually, so it was then that I decided to join things like Podge, BIMA and the Drum Network. It was trial and error and it took a lot of legwork to make friends in agency land. It was hard as I didn’t have that external role that Matt had. Having a network really works as a way of earning clients through recommendations, however, only a founder or leader can do this. Founder stuff is sharing knowledge and stories and learning and collaboration happens.
Looking at yourself now as a leader; what are your strengths?
I’m seldom stuck, I’m a natural problem solver. I’m quite creative and having done almost all operational roles within the business really helps internally. We have always tried to be ego free and politics free, we try hard to be open and transparent, with partners and clients. I have done well in making that part of our culture. There isn’t too much of a dance. I lead with straight facts and people appreciate that.
What are your weaknesses?
I like opening up ideas, polishing them at the end, but the bit in the middle I tend to leave as interesting. I’m not good at managing the in between stage. The challenges I face are delegating the delivery. The flitting around can leave a mixed message and as a manager you have to regularly check in and communicate and sometimes that doesn’t happen as much as it should.
As a leader of Mando, what keeps you busy?
Ambassadorship: Building out customer relationships and the external face of Mando is a hands on role. For example, you can be out with clients until 2am in the morning and then there is an operational meeting at 8am the next morning; the schedule has to calm down and I need to try and manage a ‘not-to-do’ list.
Culture: I want to focus on our culture and senior team, so that it reflects our culture, DNA and rebrand.
Expansion: I am focusing on expanding down to London, we are at a good stage of our growth right now.
What’s left of that acceleration?
Typically, you have a big load of deals in March and then a post March hangover in April as people have their new budgets and have gone to town. All clients have projects they want to go for. Investing in relationships with other agencies is bearing a lot of fruit, we are getting a lot of referrals and post rebrand we are positioning a more differentiated place in the market. It’s really exciting and a real validation of our journey.
What do you think the next biggest challenges are facing agencies in the next 3 years?
For UK only agencies; more and more agencies are going global and that acceptance of global players means if you’re not careful you can be squeezed by day rates coming from India and other places, and the talent shortage means you haven’t got the experience for the going day rates. Some of these rates are tripling too.
We all have a lot of work to do with universities and responsibilities to create our open centres of excellence to accelerate the talent.
A lot of large consultants are buying agencies and we come up a lot against large consultancies. Collaborate or die, is my motto.
If we were to have this conversation in 3 years’ time, what would you want Mando to look like?
That would be EBIT of 1 million and to be fully established. I would like to have at least half of the staff base of Liverpool in London. I would like us to be exploring other areas of the world and expanding our global footprint.
Looking at other agency leaders, who do you admire?
Nat Gross from Amaze. I admired how she handled things when it all went horrible; off her own back, she met partners to turn Amaze around and transformed it. She is involved in BIMA too, she knows no limits and has admirable ambition. Her attitude resonates with me. She has respect for her team and runs a very good business open to sharing it.
Looking back over the last 18 years, what has been your biggest challenge?
The business challenge: The recession saw the dilution of propositions, that was the biggest challenge that we are trying to rectify.
The Ian challenge: I have quite humble origins which is definitely a cultural backdrop. The Finches have never had arrogance so I always underestimate how good I am. I defer to others’ opinions a lot; however, I think I’m right about a lot of stuff – you should go with your gut feeling. It’s a rite of passage and an odyssey for me- knowing your strengths is important.
For more information on the Leadership Lunch series, visit The Drum Network events page.