In its 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 Tom Poynter, managing director at Tunbridge Wells based creative agency Southpaw.
Tom joined the agency 7 years ago and subsequently took the agency on an ambitious journey of renaming and building a strong brand. As well as revealing his learnings from running a regional agency after a long career in London, Tom shares how they’ve made the agency vision live and breathe at all levels.
The Future Factory: How have the Coronavirus enforced changes affected the Southpaw team?
Tom Poynter: I think we've gone through phases. Phase one was like “oh, this is a bit different” and lots of video calls - almost too much!
Then phase two we got into a rhythm which was okay, it felt alright. Our productivity was quite high, people were engaged and seemed happy.
I think phase three we've now got a blend of boredom and wanting to go back to what we knew before. We also definitely have some people who are anxious about returning or are thinking what working life means in the future.
TFF: And how has the business been affected?
TP: We were very fortunate to have had a number of new global pitch wins that landed just at the start of lockdown. So we haven't furloughed anyone. We haven't done salary reductions. We haven't done reduced working days. We're actually growing at the moment! But as you as you know, forecasts change every day. Whilst Q3 at the moment looks quite rosy it could change.
That said, we're not typically a business that cuts out weight quickly. We're not in London, so our access to talent is not as straightforward. What I have to weigh up is: Do I hold off for a quarter and have less productivity, but knowing that I've kept those people who are really experienced and really talented, so when the work comes back they're there, rather than letting them go and having to recruit in 3-4 months time?
TFF: Fingers crossed the positive trajectory continues!
What’s the history of the agency?
TP: When I joined it was just having its 43rd birthday. My predecessor had been there 25 years and I guess the biggest event that happened was in 2000 when the agency was bought by Hakuhodo, which is a top 10 global network from Japan.
When I walked in 7 years ago I could feel a lack of pride and energy in the agency. Within the first 9 months of being here I proposed to the leadership team that we rebrand.
I came from Iris, which whilst being a bit fragmented in places, knew it's identity. I could just feel this agency needed picking up and giving a good old shake. A new sense of purpose, a new direction and a new set of values.
Within 12 months we made a huge stride forward as a leadership team and we've never really looked back from that.
TFF: How important do you see agency brand to an agency’s success?
TP: I do think a clear brand definitely has a direct link to growth. I'm definitely convinced of that.
I've now not worked in a London agency for eight years. I'm up in London three times a week meeting all sorts of people (journalists, new business, other agency leaders) and whoever I see, they always say they love how our brand feels, our tone of voice and the content the agency generates. I'm not asking for that! But I'm definitely convinced that our brand identity and our distinctive assets definitely help us in an oversupplied market. You know, just raise our bar a bit, and increase our awareness and point of differentiation.
Proposition is also a critical part of brand identity, because prior to getting to our proposition of The Science of Emotion we were just an integrated agency. We were just a creative agency, and that's not good enough. That's not going to cut through.
TFF: You’re based in Tunbridge Wells in Kent. Do you feel you have to shout louder to get heard?
TP: Yes. Not being a London based business makes it harder to get embedded with the intermediaries, but we’ve made really good progress with some of these in particular over the last 12 months It feels like the briefs that the big 20 agencies don't want are the ones they give us.
And I think that's really unwarranted because if you look at our portfolio Brown-Forman, Diageo, Molson Coors, Coty - they're all global. Honda is pan-European - that's 30+ markets and in EuroTunnel we have a national travel brand. So yes we're not in London, we're regional, which I think is a very unjust classification, but we’re making really good inroads, changing perceptions and winning pitches against big London shops.
TFF: What’s something you’ve found challenging in growing the agency?
TP: Getting the agency vision piece right has taken me some time.
Previously I was basically writing the vision myself, and I realised I should have absolutely worked with the leadership team to co-author that, and absolutely brought the agency on board much, much earlier in its design.
A further mistake was we were writing a vision every year and so we didn't have enough time to activate it and make it a success.
We're now going with a three year plan. We've done a lot of work within the agency on making sure that people understand the vision and their role in getting us to deliver that vision. It's linked to their objectives as well so there's a lovely cascading effect from the agency vision, to department strategy, to individual objectives.
I'd love to think that if you were to call anyone in the agency and ask what the vision is, they would know. Whereas in previous years they wouldn't. It used to be more like “we want to win five new clients and we want to have these KPIs”. It was very outcome based rather than aspirational.
TFF: What’s the agency’s approach to new business?
TP: New business is not solely the new business team's responsibility. Put simply new business Is everyone's busness. They do a lot of work internally as well as externally. Internally we work to identify a list of golden clients we'd love to fall in bed with and develop contact strategies and content plans to engage with those brands and get higher up the awareness levels with individual brand directors and brand managers.
As most agencies do, we celebrate the people who have committed themselves with our values and goals in the previous quarter. Normally three to eight people get recognised each quarter. It’s not just a quick round of applause. We talk about their achievements and what they've done with the full agency.
TFF: That sounds great.
What have you found to be the agency's most successful routes to attracting and winning new clients?
TP: We took a decision about a year ago to take a marketing led approach to building our awareness. So, thought leadership, amplifying our content through different channels, (LinkedIn specifically, but also Instagram and others) SEO, paid search, and events.
We know there's quite a long tail of engagement. Up to nine months really before we get to a project discussion or a pitch opportunity.
I would like it to work harder and faster for obvious reasons but the positive sentiment it's creating in the agency, especially with the new business team proves we're on the right track.
TFF: What has been the biggest learning for you moving to a non-London agency?
TP: Access to talent was a real eye opener to me.
Over 60% of our agency talent have done big gigs in London agencies. People hit 30, they might have children or maybe planning to have children or just got married, and they start thinking about moving out of London. So I don't have any issue attracting people who are 30 or over. I actually don't have any issue hiring very young people because we have relationships with some key universities. So the top and bottom of recruitment isn't a problem.
It's the middle band that’s challenging. People who are 3-5 years in. You're basically trying to say to them: don't get on the train, save the fare, save the commute, get your work life balance back in check, work outside London. And people struggle to get their head around that. I think working from home the last eight weeks may shift people's perceptions for the better.
TFF: How do you keep yourself motivated?
TP: I don't go on mindfulness courses or listen to podcasts or read books that much. What inspires me is people. So while I've quite enjoyed the ability to have high productivity myself through Covid-19, I'm actually missing people. I thrive off people's development, people's energy, people's ideas. I'm missing those little huddles that you could just have that were really spontaneous in the office.
TFF: What are the agency’s growth goals for the next few years?
TP: M&A is becoming more interesting for us. We've just been building a strategy on where we think our needs are, how that will help us grow quicker, and how it will strengthen our neuro and behavioral science offer as well. Obviously Covid has put a pregnant pause on that, but I think that will be an interesting phase for us to go into next.
Alex Sibille is founder of The Future Factory.