Agency growth stories: keeping the energy ten years in

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In the Agency Growth Stories series, The Future Factory interviews 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 fueled their growth.

This week The Future Factory interviewed Hot Pickle founding partner Rupert Pick to understand where the passion, inspiration, and energy spring from when you’re 10 years deep into a business.

Future Factory: You guys are the experts at creating retail experiences for non-retail brands, and you’ve just turned 10 years old! Congratulations! I’d love to know if there are any lessons you‘ve learnt - the hard way - that might be useful to other agency owners?

Hot Pickle: One of my key learnings was that you shouldn’t wait to hire people. Historically we’ve waited for the work and frankly collapsed until we hired someone. So hire for growth would be my advice. If you’ve got an inkling of some work, or you just feel there's an opportunity, go and hire someone. And then if they're any good, they’ll go and make work.

I’ve also learnt that it’s the job of the business owner to be the energy in the business. You need to be inspiring people and bringing the excitement and enthusiasm. If you’re not, no one is going to be. It’s easy to get lazy and wander in, sit down, get your work done and then go home. But I’ve realised that if I don't come in here, walk around, say hello, and be excited every day, even if I’m having the shittest day with personal things, then how the hell can I expect anyone else to lift the tone.

FF: People with great energy are priceless to a business!

HP: Yes! Invaluable.

FF: What keeps you motivated and energised when you're 10 years into a business?

HP: The only way to keep it interesting is to keep pushing yourself. So I'm trying to set up a different part of the business at the moment, throwing myself into an area where I really don’t know very much. I’m probably pretending to know more than I actually do, scaring myself a bit. And that's quite a good thing.

So I think that's the first thing - to feel like work is a challenge. When you first start running a business everything is a challenge, whereas running the business at this level feels pretty safe. So you’ve got to find your new challenge.

I’ve also set up a group with three other agencies which is pretty helpful. If I want to moan then that’s my outlet. We’re four founders who are all of similar age, similar length of business, similar size teams and turnover, and similar values. We meet every two months over dinner and there’s a genuine desire to support each other.

FF: I saw you recently ran an event together for clients and prospects. Do you do much marketing to promote Hot Pickle?

HP: We do very little, but I suppose it depends how you define marketing? I view going out and just networking as agency marketing - arguably the most effective type! We do enter the classic awards but not many. I'm a bit cynical about awards now because you just look at the amount of people who have awards, and having been a client, I'm not sure I paid any attention to that at all.

FF: When you were a client, how did you go about finding new agencies?

HP: I would either ask for recommendations from someone who managed a roster, so procurement for example. I’d go to them as the first point of call. Or I’d scour the trade magazines.

FF: I suppose awards feed into those.

HP: Yeah, they do, but I preferred actually looking at work, or editorial coverage, as opposed to agencies’ self-promotion.

HP: Tell me how you keep your team engaged and inspired?

HP: Once a month I organise a speaker to come here to talk to the team about anything that's not marketing.

When I was at What If! part of their creative process was to involve ‘naive experts’ in most projects. For example, we did a project for plasters and went to see a boxing corner man, a 'cut man'. He had really interesting insights into how you stop bleeding, which had nothing to do with making plasters. In fact he’d never used a plaster in his life. But it helped us to think laterally.

I learnt that you learn so much more from people who are not in your world so then I applied that to our business. And also, four or five years into the business, we didn't have a training budget, but one thing we did have was a network of very interesting people.

We've had anaesthetists talking about customer experience. We’ve had an army major come in and show us his head-cam footage from when he was under gunfire in Helmand Province. It was a Monday morning, so that was a light hearted start to the week! He then talked about how he managed rapid decision making under pressure.

We’ve also had perfumiers talking about the power of the senses.

Whenever I meet anyone interesting on my weekend I always ask “will you come and speak at our company meeting?” We always make a charity donation in exchange for their time.

FF: How do you guys find staff retention?

HP: I think it is really hard for agencies of our size.

FF: How many people are you?

HP: We’re 24 people. So the challenge is that you’ve potentially got a glass ceiling. The founders are not about to go anywhere, therefore growth becomes essential to creating opportunities for the team as well as keeping things interesting for us.

We do the usual things such as trying to pay people well and giving bonuses, but I think the most important thing is creating a positive culture. Trying to be flexible and understanding of people's personal lives. Trying not to work people crazy hard.

To be honest, I think spontaneous appreciation is the most valuable thing. Like buying lunch for people every so often, or leaving a handwritten note mentioning something specific they've done, for no reason other than just to recognize them. Those things make a difference.

What else do we do? We gift everyone a haircut on their birthday.

FF: What has been your most successful route to attracting or winning new clients?

HP: When we look at our biggest clients they’ve come from two sources:

The Future Factory is one. You guys reached out to Diageo on our behalf. The contact was exactly the right level, very senior and looking at the space that we play in. It started with a smaller project. We got on really well with her, and its led to even more business with them.

Then also referrals and business from our wider network.

FF: Having a big network is great, but what do you do to keep present in those people's minds?

HP: I’m quite active on LinkedIn, I do a lot of sending stuff, calling, going out for dinner…

With the people that are closer into my network I try and primarily be a good friend, and it's not just to try and get work from them. It's if I'm in touch with these people, there's a good chance that when they need to look at new agencies, maybe they’ll think about us.

We're also lucky that we create experiences that we can invite people to. I think that's the biggest advantage of our channel. I can say “do you want to come and have an ice cream at the Magnum store” Or last month we were at Goodwood for three days. You've then got a non-salesy, non-businessy kind of environment where you can show your work off.

FF: And you guys have exceptionally cool work to show off!

HP: I’ve thought of one last thing. Try and celebrate! In this agency world, it can be like a roller coaster. It’s easy to win work and just get straight into it. Now every Friday, the drinks trolley comes around, and we do stop.

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