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 lessons that have fuelled their growth.
This week The Future Factory caught up with Trevor Cairns, chief executive of Manchester-based creative agency Love – one of the biggest and certainly hottest agencies in the city.
Cairns discusses the importance of not just having a growth plan but why you must really take action when reality doesn’t play ball. He also shared his opinion on why it’s actually a good thing when clients move on, and why agency positioning is absolutely critical.
The Future Factory: You’ve been at Love for about seven years now. What attracted you to the agency?
Trevor Cairns: I was actually a client of the agency.
I was at Nike for 13 years before Love, which is where I came across the agency, and specifically Dave Palmer who‘s the executive creative director and Founder.
When Nike sold Umbro in 2012 (where I was chief marketing officer at the time), Dave asked me to think about coming on board. It was a fairly easy decision because I knew the reputation of the agency, I had bought their work, I knew the standards there, and I knew a lot of the people. It just felt like joining a group of mates. At the time I didn‘t know what the business situation was, but I assumed we could make it an amazing business as well as an amazing creative studio. So that was why I came across.
TFF: How big was the team when you joined?
TC: We were probably around 30 people when I started. We‘re 65 at the current time.
TFF: How has your day to day changed whilst we’re all working from home?
TC: Ironically there‘s probably more consistency to my day now. Under normal circumstances, there‘s no such thing as a typical day. Each day is a combination of dealing with people, the financials, new business, current projects, planning and strategy, that type of stuff. I normally work in quite an ad hoc way and just catch up with the team when we can, when we‘re in the office together. Now there’s a bit more structure, with the same meetings happening at the same time each week.
I also think working from home frees up some time because you become less involved in every conversation. So it‘s been good from that sense, enabling me do some things that maybe wouldn‘t normally happen, like thinking about our own IP creation.
TFF: Lockdown fatigue is definitely looming for some. How are you keeping the team motivated?
TC: Increased communication is definitely part of that. Plus we‘re still trying to maintain some of the social aspects we would normally do, like Friday drinks. Although it becomes quite difficult when you‘re 40 or 50 people on a Zoom call, all with a glass of wine or beer and trying to talk at once!
Culture is one of the foundations of Love so trying to maintain that is probably the biggest issue I have through this whole process.
TFF: Love have grown beyond the size of a family agency where culture just happens, so how do you nurture your agency culture under normal circumstances?
TC: Culture is tough to maintain as you grow and add new people, so we put a lot of emphasis on who we bring in. The senior team are all still involved in recruitment, even down to the junior level. And then we probably put as big an emphasis on the social-side of the agency as the work-side.
We have weekly drinks, quarterly all agency get-togethers (half-focused on work and half on lighter things). And then we take the team away every summer and Christmas for a couple of days.
TFF: We love a team getaway! Where do you go?
TC: The summer one tends to be outdoor focused. Last year we went to Snowdonia and climbed the mountain. Well, some people made it to the top and others ditched it and sat by a lake with a few cans. And then the same at Christmas, which is always a different city. So there‘s an extra four days of just socializing together. Lois the sort of agency where everyone gets on. When you go to the bar, it doesn‘t matter who you‘re with or who you‘re next to, it‘s just always good fun.
TFF: How important is agency marketing and building an agency brand in your opinion?
TC: This is a highly competitive sector and there‘s a real lack of differentiation out there as well. There are many, many people doing the same thing. So I think the marketing piece is absolutely critical.
If you try and project forward to the future, after this pandemic, there‘s going to be increasing price pressure on agencies, so leveraging your brand is only going to get more important.
For me it‘s really about your positioning and how you can talk to a client about why you can help, rather than talking to a client about what you do.
I also think it’s a case of either be world class or be cheap. Getting stuck in the middle is not the place to be. I‘d much rather be defending my prices than be defending the standard of my work. The middle it‘s really homogenized which is why the marketing piece and the positioning piece are really critical to me. You’ve got to get out of the middle.
TFF: Very good point. What has worked well for the agency in terms of attracting and winning new clients?
TC: Although it‘s a strange thing to say, clients moving on is always a good thing.
It‘s a good thing that you expand into a different company or category if they take you with them. It‘s also a good sign of your creative health if they take you with them.
There are also times you strike gold just by being out there. You never really know when you do some of these events or activities, if it is ever going to pay off, but it‘s often not an immediate thing. In my experience it‘s six months, nine months or a year down the line that those things actually payback. You need a lot of luck too.
TFF: What advice would you give to someone else leading and growing an agency?
TC: My advice would be have a plan, which sounds incredibly obvious, but I‘ve sat in a lot of webinars and different chats recently, and it‘s amazing how many people don't have a detailed plan for what they‘re trying to achieve. That should include knowing your key financials and the ratios that you need to be hitting. And responding quickly when you‘re not.
A lot of people may say they have those metrics in place, but when they‘re not hitting them, they aren‘t actually doing anything about it. You've got to move quickly and make some hard decisions about how you‘re going to get back on track.
An old sales director at Nike once said to me that he may get fired, but he’d never get fired for not having a plan. That‘s stuck with me.
TFF: What has been your biggest mistake?
TC: My biggest mistake was assuming that loyalty is a two-way process. For many years we had an exclusivity agreement with a client in a specific sector. We turned down numerous approaches from every other brand in the category over five or six years, so multitudes of opportunities. We wanted to be very loyal to them and had assumed that would be reciprocated. Then a couple of years ago with no notice we were taken off that piece of business. A third of our revenue disappeared overnight. We had a lot of expertise in that particular category but had turned down every other competitor because of that exclusivity agreement.
My learning would be that those exclusivity agreements are a threat, not an opportunity. You think you‘re guaranteeing revenue but there's no way of knowing how the loyalty is going to play out if one or two of your key clients move on, which is what happened to us.
And you know how the saying goes, one‘s an expert, two’s a conflict, but three is a specialism.
TFF: So you don‘t agree to any exclusivity contracts with clients?
TC: There‘s always a negotiation to be had, but we‘ll never get in a situation again where we can‘t work with anyone else in a sector that we have expert knowledge in.
TFF: What have you found to be the difference between running a business client-side v agency-side?
TC: It’s a lot more ‘to the wire‘. Agencies outwardly look like well-oiled machines, but behind that they‘re up against deadlines and late nights and, well, it‘s not quite as polished as you want it to be!
Whereas client-side you‘re planned out a lot more and you know where you're going.
Agency-side is a lot more hand to mouth. it‘s harder to plan, and much more unpredictable. We‘re totally project based so therefore forecasting is really difficult.
TFF: I suppose that must be why so many agencies don‘t have a plan, because too often they go off-track! Aside from the current hurdle, are your plans to continue growing the agency?
TC: I think growth is critical to your mindset. Once you start thinking that you're not going to grow anymore you will lose the competitive mindset you need in this industry.
TFF: I totally agree. I’ve always been told that if you’re not growing, you’re shrinking – those are the only two states of a business.
How do you personally keep sane and motivated to keep on driving that growth?
TC: This year I‘ve gone down to a four day week, just to try and have a bit more mind space. I‘m finding that I'm able to manage the job okay in the four days, and the days aren‘t necessarily getting longer, so I feel better for that.
The main thing I‘ve always done is go with my gut and instinct. And anytime I‘ve gone against it, it‘s probably backfired. So that‘s my golden rule.
Alex Sibille, owner and managing director, The Future Factory