Agency growth stories: Dimi Albers of Dept on acquisitions and prioritising people not numbers

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In their Agency Growth Stories series, The Future Factory interview some of the most interesting and successful agencies operating right now, to unpick and share what makes them so unique, and the learnings that have fuelled their growth.

The Future Factory speak to Dimi Albers, CEO of Dept, to find out why he thinks intuition is so important.

This week The Future Factory met with Dimi Albers, CEO of Dept to chat about the pros and cons of leading by gut feel, moving at pace, and cementing relationships with parties.

Dept is the biggest agency you might not yet have heard of. At just three years old, it has grown from 750 people a year ago, to 1,300 people in thirteen countries today, working for brands including Bose, Netflix and Samsung.

These guys are enviably cool, don’t take business too seriously, and are achieving astonishing expansion.

FF: I don’t know if anyone has emulated the growth that you have done?!

Dimi Albers: Yeah they say it's unique. Although for us, it's almost normal.

Within the next four or five years, we want to be a global top ten agency that is well-regarded in all the lists, from the Gartner quadrant to the big award shows.

What percentage of your clients work with Dept offices in more than one country?

At the moment, about 65% (ish) of clients work with different core capabilities, and then I would say around 20% (ish) of our clients work with teams across borders.

Considering the speed of your growth, that level of client development is very impressive! Is there anything specific you do to encourage clients to buy more services?

What we do is basically help our clients to get the best results out of digital, make sure their brand is as strong as it can be, and get the best sales. If you do it from that mindset then you can see gaps in what clients are doing. We might be doing their digital platform, and we see that their digital marketing is not up to par, so we show the client how they can do it better. And then often, they say that they're interested and it goes from there.

You make it sound so simple! I suppose it’s about pro-actively having those conversations. Most of your growth has been via acquisitions, which I’ve always felt to be a risky way of growing. What’s your approach?

It’s just like with a good party - it starts at the door. When we talk to agencies about the possibility of joining Dept, we have to make sure that they are the right people to share our culture. Whereas a lot of people who do acquisitions look at the numbers, we actually look at people. Of course, you have to have healthy growth and a nice profit, but the main thing we spend our time on is the people and the clients. Do we connect with them? Are we working towards the same goals for our clients? Do we share the same goals in life? Because if that is the case then a lot of things become easier.

It's certainly easier to analyse numbers! How do you identify a potentially good fit when it comes to people?

Early in the process we’ll have a day where we bring three to six people from the prospective agency to our HQ in Amsterdam. This is still before anything becomes official. We spend the morning talking about the impact they are making for their clients, finding out about the way they work and what makes them tick before spending the afternoon on the numbers part.

So, after this session, it's easy to know if you’ve found people you can work with; our clues are people who could be our friends who have us laughing half the time. If things become serious and complicated, that isn't really our thing.

How do you go about integrating new agencies into the Dept family?

We’ve become quite experienced with on-boarding new agencies so we have a clear programme for it. The simple version is, an agency joins and we’ll do an induction day - a day where we have people from other Dept locations come into their office to run a Q&A and show them all the work. We might also do a few fun games to really get to know them. Then there’s a 100-day program where we make sure our client teams align, the financial systems are okay, that people are connected to Slack and Facebook Workplace; all those kind of things. It’s a combination of making sure that everything is client-first and having a really strong program from a cultural perspective.

I’ve noticed that when a new agency joins Dept they don’t rebrand immediately. Why is that?

That’s right. They normally do it around four to eight months after joining us. But there isn’t a strict plan, we wait until the founders say, okay it’s probably time.

Is there a reason why they don't do it straight away?

The main reason is client-related. Clients have to feel comfortable with it and we have to show them that it adds value. So they join us and we immediately help them with the capabilities we have across Dept. Once the clients can feel and literally see that we’re adding value as a whole, then it’s logical to rebrand.

Then, from the people perspective, you want them to have a soft landing, wait until they have met and worked together with colleagues from other teams so that it’s logical for them to become a part of Dept.

What advice could you give to someone else considering acquiring another agency? When doesn’t it go well or work smoothly?

It might sounds a bit obvious but for agency founders, selling their business is a major process, not unlike their kid going to school or university. So that means that from our perspective we need to be very understanding and empathetic. One of the ways it has gone wrong in the past is when we have taken things for granted how serious a decision this is for them.

Secondly, you have to be able to work together on clients. If we go into a new market with a specialist agency and we have trouble cross-selling their services, we are not working together. If our people aren't working with theirs, there's never going to be a genuine connection between the businesses and they're unlikely to enjoy the benefits of being part of something bigger. That’s where it can get a bit bumpy.

Sometimes our Dutch culture can be a bit tough for people to get. We are very open and direct but also can be a bit blunt and harsh. We tend not to overthink things, so if we see an opportunity and we feel that it is going to work, then we go for it. I still think that being really fast is really good, but we also need to make sure that everyone embraces the steps we take.

These things get harder the bigger you get right?

We might appear quite big, but if you were to work with us or walk around an office, it feels very much like a local agency. We're informal, open and super client-centric. If someone wants to talk to me, they can just walk up. We don’t have separate offices. Otherwise, you become this big corporate machine and that's exactly what we don’t want to be.

It’s a balancing act when you get bigger. We are always discussing whether something is good; whether a decision makes us better or whether it's too corporate-led.

What else do you do to keep the good vibes?

Simple things. Our office for one was designed by an interior design duo that had never designed an office before - and they haven't designed an office since. They only design hotels and restaurants. Although these are both spaces that people want to visit to have a memorable experience. When you walk into our office, it feels like a place you want to be in. Clients love it and like working here. It's important to take care of the place where we all spend so many hours and to focus on how it can make people happy.

We also run a yearly festival here in Amsterdam with roughly 2,500 attendants including Dept's clients and employees. After the festival is over, all the clients go home but we take our Dept-sters and pile them onto buses to head on to a weekend retreat so that we can have two more days together - to spend building our culture and sharing goals for the upcoming year.

You mentioned Dept being client centric, but it actually sounds ultra people centric, and fun at that. We can’t wait to see what you manage to achieve in the next few years - Good luck!

Alex Sibille, Co-founder at The Future Factory.

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