Going global: agency growth stories

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The we are Social team.

In a continuing series, The Future Factory delves into some of the most interesting agencies to unpick their unique growth journey.

This week Alex Sibille, founder of The Future Factory interviews Jim Coleman, UK CEO of We Are Social. The agency recently turned ten years old and now spans 13 countries and a global team of 750.

Jim shares the agency’s strategy for creating an endless pipeline of new business and why regular team holidays and using Facebook at work are vital for nurturing the agency’s culture.

How big was the business when you joined two years in?

We were 20 people in the UK, 1 in France, 2 in Australia, and a month after I joined we had 3 in Milan.

So small, but already international?

The intention from Robin and Nathan was always to grow quickly.

Sandrine, who runs our Paris office, was the third employee in the UK. She worked in the UK for a year and then wanted to go back to Paris to set up We Are Social in Paris. Nathan is Australian and had a friend in Sydney who had just left his job, and he wanted to set up the office over there. And so the global network began!

Is your focus & ambition still grow, grow, grow?

For many years we were doubling in size every year, for the last three years the London team has grown more slowly. We’re 160 people, and probably grew by 15 people last year.

What’s been your approach to new business to feed all those minds and mouths?

Most of our business has come direct to us. Our approach has been laying the groundwork for people to consider us first through events, thought leadership and having great client relationships - that means clients stay with us and come back to us when they move roles.

The problem we’ve had is trying to choose the right types of business and also know how to handle the amount of pitches we’ve got, in the right way. In the past we’ve taken on too many, so we had a couple of years of poor pitch win rates. Last year we got it right and chose a very select few but bigger ones. When we came back from Christmas we already had eight pitches lined up for January. All new clients.

Well that is of course the best problem to have. Is it all down to the agency name?

We used to be first in the search rankings. Not anymore actually. But it really helped having that name!

A lot of our new business has been coming inbound because we’ve put loads of time into running events. We’re in a small industry, people move around, and it’s just about getting people through the door and having them leave with a positive impression.

We hold lots of events where the attendees are relatively junior, and that’s fine because they are going to be the people in a few years who are the decision makers. The more people who come here, who know about us, think about us as the experts in this area, meet our people - that all adds to a consideration - and that I think has been fueling our endless new business pipeline.

What sort of new business numbers are you doing?

Last year our turnover was about £21m and we had a new business target of £1.5m. We did £2.5m in the end but £1m of that was organic growth.

We see less organic growth now, because many of our clients have grown to their optimum size. Adidas started as a £30k project in 2010 and is now is a significantly bigger account.

Your largest accounts pretty much all started small and you grew them. What’s your secret for successfully growing and retaining clients?

Our approach is be nice, don’t pretend you know it all and do good work. And trying not to do things in the same way as many of the traditional agencies. We were built for the changing world of social from the ground up, so we’ve looked at approaching things in a new way with each evolution in this space.

Easier said than done, especially at this size, no?

We hire really, really carefully. I used to be involved in all hires up to 100 people. From receptionist, through to my next in line. And that was really important. I think even last year we did something in the region of 400-500 interviews. And I think we hired about 50 people in total.

Some would say that’s very inefficient. It used to drive people mad. They’d take someone all the way through to the last stage interview and I’d say no.

But in a way, I would still really like to be involved, because when we’ve got it wrong it causes huge disruption in the agency. I’d rather the team just dealt with the fact that they don’t have that extra person for a bit longer, rather than just throw someone in there who isn’t right.

Is there a We Are Social type?

There is! We go on a company wide ski trip every year. There will be 380 people in March. It’s lovely chaos! When we started it we were 20 people. We take people there from all over the world and people feel like they’re from the same business.

I know lots of people who work in other traditional agencies. There are quite a lot of big egos. There are people who think they are better than other people. We don’t have that. We are a very open, collaborative, equal, fair, meritocratic company.

How has that culture spread globally?

We’ve worked pretty hard at that. Since we were small, all of the MDs from the different offices go away twice a year on a summit somewhere in the world. It’s a mix of talking about what’s going on in everyone’s business, and hanging out and sharing issues and problems.

We all get on. We all really enjoy spending time together. We’ve all got different problems in different markets. And spending that time and investing the money to bring everyone together has definitely made us all feel that we’re doing the same thing or have the same mentality. I think that’s what has bound us as a business.

How is taking out that sort of time away from the day to day challenging?

When we were all smaller, it was more difficult. And now the smaller offices who are 30-40 people do find it tricky. But the time we spend there pays back in knowing the person who picks up the phone when you’ve got a challenge, or you’ll know the challenges they’ve faced and you can turn to them for their experience if the same happens to you.

We do the same with the Leadership team here too. There’s 24 of us in the London leadership. The idea is we’ve all got to work together, get along with each other, so the more time we spend getting to know each other, the more sympathetic we are towards each other and the different views and opinions we each have. As a result we enjoy working together and enjoy spending time together.

Your big focus on spending time outside of work together, does it work for staff retention?

It worked really well, until we were about 80 people. Our retention rate was unbelievable, somewhere like 2% turnover. Some of that was because there was a share scheme in the early days, but mainly because we were a new type of agency, a startup and we hired some brilliant people. So there was an amazing momentum of the same people working together, knowing each other (and there was a huge social side of things).

As we got to 80-100 it started to become more difficult, but throughout the whole time we’ve invested in making sure people spend time together. We give money for different departments to go out for lunch with each other every month. People get to take out their new team members for breakfast. We do buddy coffees. We probably allocate a couple of grand per person on making sure they are integrated and doing things together outside of the pressure of the work things they need to do. The ski trip is an extension of that to connect our global offices.

Aside from these trips, how do the global teams share expertise?

We use Workplace by Facebook for comms across our international offices. It’s amazing and immensely powerful for a global business.

If any of our clients say, what’s going on with Tik Tok, for example, I could ask the network to see if anyone has done any work already on this in another part of the globe. Undoubtedly, someone on there will have the most up-to-date information. Someone last week asked this question and one of our Australia team shared this great deck with all the facts, so immediately now, everyone across our global teams have a brilliant presentation on Tik Tok. And people can comment about their experiences “yes we’ve tried this, this is how it worked out”. It’s super useful.

So where are the challenges?

In the UK, it’s finding people! When we were small, the best people found us. We still have lots of people applying, but finding really good people is hard. It’s a constant gripe.

What happens now, certainly at a senior level, is if we meet somebody and they’re right and we just know that we’ll be a better business with them than without, we’ll try and make them a job.

What’s one of the things We Are Social are focused on at the moment?

While we don’t have a problem with gender equality (50% of our global board are female and 50-55% of our London departments are female) we struggle with racial diversity and social mobility. That’s an industry wide problem. We’re trying to do what we can and we’re already seeing an improvement. It’s a problem from when people leave school, so we’re speaking in schools and talking to people about the opportunities. Yes, you can earn a living doing social media for Audi or Adidas. It’s a real job!

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