How would you reinvent the digital agency?

Everything’s going to be Hall-right

“You’re going to have to do very well to beat me now.” I shouted confidently to Neilson at the other end of the table. Three minutes later, he had beaten me.

We were playing table tennis and I had been 10-5 up in a game to 11. Not my finest hour on the table, still, you can’t help but enjoy a bit of ping pong. Our battle ground was in the centre of an emerging creative hub of a new look Kings Cross. Soon to be home to Google HQ, Kings Cross is proving to be a popular spot for creatives and entrepreneurs, and was where Neilson Hall had chosen to locate his innovative new digital agency, Illuminate.

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Neilson has spent his time until recently working for some of the biggest digital agencies in the business and it seems he has taken all the positives and applied them to his own project. I wanted to know which learnings Neilson had taken forward and which aspects of digital agencies belonged firmly in the past. Over to Mr Hall.

What’s the big idea?

It all started because both John (the other founder) and I had moved from client side to a large agency background through which we learnt a lot and worked on some fantastic brands. This gave us insight into what the client wants and how agencies operate. Fundamentally, for me the agency model has become a little bit broken. I think it is just the nature of the landscape, with these massive ad agencies basically swallowing up all of the innovative startups and medium-sized businesses before they have a chance to grow.

Having seen this, Illuminate was founded on four basic principles:

1) Complete transparency for our clients when it comes to purchasing media. We let our clients see the whole inventory, see the publishers and see the data that will ultimately allow us to exceed ROI targets.

2) Cultivating a really clear culture of curiosity and innovation. So as much as 30% of all our staff’s time is taken up with learning and development.

3) Not being afraid to try things. A lot of our staff have their own side projects, like building technology, which if we use we give them equity for. But also the people that work for us have equity in the business as well, so they have an vested interest to try and make it work.

4) Truly partner with clients, rather than simply being another supplier. This means understanding their business and more importantly their vertical. A shared vision is key and we only want to work with clients that have the same passion, so if it’s not the right match we aren’t afraid to push back.

So all employees have equity, do you see a big change because of this?

Yes definitely, but it is not just about having equity in the company, it’s about having ownership of various different projects as well. This really encourages different members of staff to work together collaboratively for one final goal.

On a practical note, if someone leaves, do they still have equity?

Yes. It gets quite complicated, but essentially, if they leave the business and they are what is known as a ‘good leaver’ i.e. we haven’t sacked them, then they get to retain their equity in the company.

In a market saturated by large ad agencies, is there opportunity for new smaller agencies?

There is because we can be agile but you have to do it the right way.

It’s very difficult to combine great tech while delivering channel specific strategies, but it is possible. We made sure from the very beginning we had the right blend of people to deliver both.

You have to be selective. Push back the pitches and focus on delivering great work. Both clients and agencies should try to find a way to make this process far less time consuming.

Some small agencies aren’t given time to grow. They aquire clients and try to scale up quickly without having the correct infrastructure to take the next step in their evolution.

I hear you have taken a leaf out of Branson’s book and don’t monitor holiday.

There is no annual leave, people can have as much or as little holiday as they like, within reason. That works really well as people want to do right by the company, they own equity in it. If they need a break, they need a break, they can completely turn off.

What is the outcome so far?

It is still down to us to really push people to take holiday, which is a good thing as they are committed, but also people are a lot more relaxed because it is completely flexible working. People can come in when they want and go home when they want. It is really interesting as by half past 9 to 10 o’clock, everyone is in the office. It means people that don’t want to face the dreaded commute can stay in for half an hour and avoid it. It’s just about being flexible and rational about these sorts of things and not clock-watching.

If you scaled up, how would you avoid the pitfalls big agencies fall into?

I think it is difficult, but just because you grow doesn’t necessarily mean you have to fundamentally change your culture. You just have to have it so intrinsically embedded in everything you do that it’s impossible to shift. Things like our tech working groups to develop tools, the approach to holiday and equity and the fact that our team submerse themselves within clients doesn’t have to change.

We only recruit at an exec level because it’s important to have people with fresh ideas and open minds not clouded by the politics of working at a big agency or a big client. Though that may have to change as we grow and need more experience.

Our hierarchy is really, really flat as well. We have board meetings and things like that, but in our Monday agency meetings, everyone has a say. We all come down and we play table tennis a couple of lunchtimes every week.

That is another thing as well, there is a massive booze culture at agencies and but we try to ensure our external activities, the away evenings or away days, are actually focused on learning and development initiatives. If you want to go out and have a drink there is time to do that but all the things we try to do as a group are focused around a certain principle that is linked to our culture.

Have you found running an agency more or less stressful than working in one?

So much less stressful.

Even though you are in charge of people’s livelihoods?

Absolutely because it is me that’s in charge. I feel like I’ve got control. That’s important because before I felt like I could impact the direction of what was happening but now I get to fully dictate what happens and I feel more confident in doing that.

Epilogue

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This had been a fascinating chat with someone trying to reinvent the digital agency. Transparency, flexible working, flat hierarchies and high culture. However, the question we all want answering is, when I was 10-5 up against what some might call an inferior player. Had I let him win in order to secure a more genial interviewee? I guess we’ll never know.