In the Agency Growth Stories series, The Future Factory interview some of the most interesting agencies operating right now to unpick and share what makes them so unique and successful.
This week The Future Factory interviews Gary Wheeldon and Steve Strickland, founders of PR agency Talker Tailor Trouble Maker.
These two have managed to create an agency which is simultaneously the most eccentric and non-conformist I have ever met, whilst also being the most mature and respectful.
A truly progressive agency when it comes to both work and play.
Now this isn’t radical but it is lovely. Am I right that you provide breakfast and lunch every day for your team?
Yes. When you start an agency, you’re not necessarily able to give the benefits you might expect in a larger agency, like private healthcare, so you do end up thinking where are the ways that we could win out, and breakfast and lunch is one of those benefits that people really appreciate. Especially towards the end of the month!
In terms of ‘perks’ we also offer Babylon Healthcare and work from home Wednesday.
The work from home Wednesdays is absolutely about working from home but it is also about giving flexibility to people, so we try and encourage that they use that day for house admin as well, so if they need to go to the doctor, try and do it on a Wednesday as everyone is working from home.
So you aren’t super strict about people clocking 8-10 hours work on a Wednesday?
No. Invariably what happens is people work more intensely in certain parts of that Wednesday. I can only talk about my own productivity, but I think when there aren’t regular interruptions, you tend to get more done.
But that does give you the flexibility to say, I’m going to take the dog for a walk, or I’m going to pick the kids up from school, or I’m going to get a dentist appointment that afternoon.
I think there’s always that feeling in an agency that you don’t want to be leaving your team at 3pm on a Tuesday to go to the dentist because you feel that everyone is going to give you the sly eye and give you a bad rep. Anything we can do to minimise that and make this feel more collaborative is a good thing.
We committed to ourselves that we would only ever start from a position of trust, and that if people go into a job, it’s to succeed, not to fail.
That attitude must breed a fantastic atmosphere.
We say to all of our new starters, if you stay for six months or six years, it’s totally up to you, but you have to succeed in what you’re doing, and you have to progress and when you leave, people have to be gutted. If no one is gutted you’re going, you’ve wasted your time. And that’s your choice. If you want to be underproductive, you are only harming yourself.
We’re very honest with people that this might not be your job for life, but while you’re here, make it count.
Where does the strong agency ethos stem from?
The only reason we’ve designed our business the way we have, is because we’ve worked in other agencies so we know what we don’t like.
A tiny example is whenever we’re attending an awards ceremony we pay for our teams’ outfits. I remember being at Weber and having to hire a tux and it cost me a lot of money.
As two gay men in the industry, having felt under represented or not respected at various points in our careers, that does give you a bit of fight about you. And that fight needs to come out at your own agency, not at someone else’s. We approach everything with the mindset of “what would no one else do?” Everything is about upstaging the status quo.
Does that carry through into client work too?
Absolutely. A lot of clients come to us and say “I’m looking forward to seeing the trouble making”.
Every client I used to see at Freuds would say “we want disruption.” We do exactly what we say on the tin.
Tell us about how you lead your team to deliver such a different output.
For starters we haven’t recruited from the same pool as every other agency.
When most PR agencies are made up of white, middle class girls, they’re going to be coming up with the same ideas for their clients. But so many clients are looking for a campaign to appeal to a world of people, so we feel that being a truly diverse agency genuinely benefits our business and our clients. And it’s an education for everyone in the agency. It’s not enriching for me as an individual to spend my working life sitting in a white bubble.
You’re quite passionate and pro-active about diversity.
Until equality exists, you have to proactively hire, and search harder for those individuals.
Other agencies who are saying they’re struggling to attract diverse talent, need to look outside of their normal recruitment channels! So you can talk about diversity being a problem but you have to change something about what you’re doing to get different people walking through the door. I have to say it’s much better than it’s ever been, and the big agencies are employing diversity officers and are trying to change.
We work with the Taylor Bennett Foundation which has been a brilliant channel to get our voice out there in a different community and a different world. The fact that we are genuinely different has been the biggest tool for attracting a diverse team. One of our team said that she was attracted to us because when she looked on our Instagram, she could see people like herself.
On to new business. What has worked well for you, beyond the strong brand voice?
We did what every new business does and we went for low hanging fruit. We actively went out and re-established relationships. We’ve each got 20 years previous experience so we have a good network.
You have to be front of mind, so we focus on that. In January we made and sent out our own Tequila to go against Dry January. We also made tea-bagging mugs last year. When someone needs an agency and wants to see something different, we want them to think, why don’t we give those guys at Talker Tailor a call.
You don’t mind being controversial do you?!
We’re in an industry where clients want fame, so causing a stir works.
In terms of marketing, award wins help too and the phone does ring off the back of them. I hate the process and it all feels a bit money making, but they do convert into clients.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to set up and grow their own agency?
Don’t do it alone! You need a partner in crime. For us that has meant a richer product. We don’t have the same skills.
But also, we got investment when we started, and I would advise it’s a good route to go down. When you start you either have staff twiddling their thumbs waiting for the first client win, or you win a client and you have no one to deliver the work.
We put all of our investment into people to sit there twiddling their thumbs. We never thought we were at risk of not winning business. We were offering something different and we’re good sales people. So we started with a team of people. We wouldn’t have been able to do that without investment. And we were freed up to market the business and focus on new business.
Or of course if you move with a client, but that didn’t happen in our case.
What’s next for Talker Tailor Trouble Maker?
Global domination. And continuing to do the opposite to the rest of the industry.