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UK Digital Agency Census: how we’ve made our reputation work for us

The Drum’s Digital Agency Census, released in stages this month, has revealed a treasure trove of findings about the most respected agencies in the UK, as voted for by their own rivals. Here, Daniel Gilbert, chief executive officer of Brainlabs – voted the best agency in the country by its digital advertising peers – discusses the staff policies and client work that earned that reputation.

Although the agency landscape is always changing (especially after a transformative year like 2020), there’s one thing that remains a constant: as a services business, the agency model relies on serving the best interests of its people and its clients.

So, the question agency leaders need to ask themselves every day is: what makes the best partner for clients, and the best workplace for people?

Test, learn, earn, and repeat

Our approach to marketing is led by experimentation. We’re always thinking about big ideas to transform our clients’ businesses, and testing our hypotheses out. Whatever the outcome, with the right measurement framework we learn from what we’ve tested, and feed that back into our strategy to keep delivering commercial impact.

This way of working built is into our teams and the work we do with clients. We test and learn in all our services, in a constant pattern of rolling out new ideas and initiatives and observing the results.

I believe this is the only way you can run truly innovative, and therefore competitive, digital marketing. It’s also the only way to grow as an agency: to push boundaries, make the improbable happen, and exceed clients’ expectations.

This mindset allows us to partner with clients completely flexibly according to their needs. We’re not stuck in a particular model according to the in-housing dichotomy. Marketing trends and advertiser needs are always changing and agencies have to adapt to that.

It’s a completely decentralised and data-driven decision-making process that keeps our ways of working future-proofed.

Be hands-on with workplace culture

This adaptability applies not just to our client work, but to our workplace culture too.

Many companies understand the importance of workplace culture, but their approach to it is mostly hands-off. They set their mission and values, and say: “Job’s done”. They see the rest of it as an organic development, or an accumulation of decisions and behaviors over time.

Brainlabs’ continued success story is rooted in our company culture, and specifically in the way that we’re deliberate about cultivating it.

When circumstances demand it, that can mean we have to reset our values from scratch.

In early 2020, we acquired Hanapin Marketing and Distilled, and spread our global footprint wide. Soon after, we entered the age of forced remote working, which affected the 60% of our team that wasn’t already working remotely. Many of us, including me, strongly felt the loss of in-office interactions.

So, we redefined the meaning of our culture and introduced a new set of values in the form of a handbook for everyone (including leadership) to hold themselves accountable to.

This introduced a new chapter in our bounce-back from Covid-19, reaffirming who we are and what we’re trying to build.

There’s a tendency to underestimate the importance of cultural transformation in technical evolution, but according to Harvard Business Review, the biggest barrier in becoming a data-driven company is not a technical one, but cultural.

You can’t evolve as a business if you’re stuck in old ways. Refocusing your culture allows you to assess what’s truly important to your business, what has changed over time, and what you’re willing to drop (à la Marie Kondo).

Any company culture that’s managed well should be expected to change over time.

Support employees on their growth journey

If your agency’s DNA is rooted in a growth mindset and adaptability, then you’re well positioned to support your employees the way they need to be supported.

Of course, diversity, equity and inclusion are at the heart of this – and not just a ‘nice-to-have’ luxury for when business is going well. With Brainlabs doubling in size in 2020, it was more important than ever to support employees with all their unique circumstances, whether it be caring responsibilities or mental health. Even during this pandemic, we’ve continued reinforcing our D&I processes, such as with a recent launch of nameless and CV-less applications for entry-level roles.

We attract (and retain) the best talent because we prioritize the stuff that really matters: creating a sense of belonging and opportunity for our teams, providing unmatched opportunities for building a career in digital, and always maintaining a sense of fun at work.

Ultimately, the reason Brainlabs is so successful is because we have a remarkable bunch of people who have a shared set of principles and values.

Our own growth parallels the growth journey of individual employees, and this is what perpetuates our collective success.

Be the best agency for both clients and employees

The pandemic was not a reason to stop in our tracks. Instead, we saw it as an opportunity for growth. After all, it’s when we face our biggest tests that we learn the most.

We kept our momentum going by hiring world-beating talent, refreshing our company culture, expanding our service offering, and gaining new clients all over the world.

So, how can agencies be the best for both clients and employees?

The way we answer that question is by never, ever ceasing to test things across all areas of the business (from marketing strategy to progression policies), and enabling ourselves to adapt based on what we learn.

It’s a simple, but winning, formula.

Learn more about The Drum’s UK Digital Agency Census 2021 and sign up for future updates here.