Building a business: Agency growth stories

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

Katy Leeson, MD, Social Chain

Most agencies are striving for growth, and, for pretty much all within the industry, it can be challenging. The Future Factory has delved into some of the most interesting agencies to unpick their unique growth journey.

Alex Sibille, founder of The Future Factory interviews Katy Leeson, managing director of Social Chain – the social media specialists founded and staffed entirely by millennials and growing at a phenomenal pace.

Happiness meetings, lunchtime yoga and time out for passion projects, it’s all part of keeping the creativity flowing at this agency.

Alex Sibille: At just five years old and with offices in three countries, Social Chain has really taken the world by storm. You oversee the team of 120 in Manchester. How do you and the founders make it work?

Katy Leeson: Steve, Dom and I are all very different in terms of how we think and the approaches we take, which means that we get more out of our sessions together. Off the back of that I’ve built a leadership team who know more about certain areas than I do, because you just can’t do it on your own. It’s important to not be afraid of hiring people who are better than you. Because ultimately you need those people to make it work.

AS: How do you keep sane in the madness of running such a fast paced agency?

KL: We have team yoga twice a week at midday. When I’m trying to solve problems I just need a bit of time not thinking about it. I can usually solve problems after I’ve had a bit of mind release. Having to come up with creative ideas all the time, it’s important to allow all of the team mental breathing space to elevate their ideas.

AS: You’re a team made up entirely of millennials. That must come with some unique challenges?

KL: What I see here is a group of people extremely passionate about what they do, and because we’ve focused on social, we benefit from having a younger workforce. They understand social better than I ever could, and I’m not even that old. Social is constantly changing, and our team are living it so they couldn’t be better positioned. The younger team members have never not had Instagram. They live and breathe it. That’s a massive benefit.

AS: Tell me one thing you love about your role?

KL: Making sure that everyone feels valued and happy. Making sure we’re getting the most out of people. I think my best moments have been when people come to me with new ideas and we’ve been able to implement them. My goal is to continue that. Making Social Chain a place where people can develop their careers in different ways and not have to leave to find what they want to do in life.

AS: So many agencies dream of growing their agency that way, but it’s easier said than done.

KL: The most valuable thing you can do is take a couple of hours out of the day to speak to people. Our team also have regular happiness meetings so that we can identify pretty quickly if someone is feeling they have an itch they need to scratch. Someone might come to me and say that this is the direction they want to go in in their career, and most of the time (not always) we can find a solution that fits both parties. It might not be exactly what they want, but it will help them get there eventually.

AS: And if their ideas just don’t fit with the business’s plans?

KL: We give people time out if they need it to go and do passion projects, which is something that really helps with personal objectives. One person went off and made their own beauty podcast which made it into the top 10, another wrote and animated a children’s book.

AS: You worked in a much more traditional agency before. What differences have you noticed?

KL: We’re a lot more open about mental health to previous places I’ve worked. We’ve got a director of happiness and people. Her role is to make sure that everyone is happy and enjoying their work life balance, but also making sure the team have the mental health support they need and access to counsellors if necessary.

AS: This is all overwhelmingly positive. What has been a learning curve for you as the agency has grown?

KL: A big challenge was being mindful not to over process a really creative culture. As you grow, you obviously need processes in place to make sure everything runs smoothly as possible but one of the things we’ve had to learn is to not over process and stifle the culture. It’s a fine balance.

AS: Ooh, as a control freak that sounds scary.

KL: Me too. So this doesn’t come naturally, but I’ve learnt to let go and let things ride and that gets the best out of the processes that we have.

AS: Is there anything unique you do to attract new clients?

KL: We have a WhatsApp group which I think is quite unique for an agency. Subscribers can join and you get a daily message with the top news from social and the wider marketing world. We’ve got over 1,000 subscribers. The team have also produced a podcast which has just gone live (Social Minds).

AS: You guys have nailed many things that so many agencies strive to. What’s your secret?

KL: The agency was founded by two university drop outs who have never been exposed to how any other agency is run which is a massive benefit. There is no indoctrination to how an agency ‘should’ be, so we can do it our own way which is very exciting.

Alex Sibille, founder of The Future Factory

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