On 3rd of May we helped member Lucy Mann to programme a panel exploring the value of 'marginal gains' to agency marketing and new business.

We have lots of conversations with agencies, studios and consultancies, connecting them with the brands within our community, and have often introduced them to Lucy Mann and her marketing maestros at Gunpoweder.

Lucy has considerable expertise across agency new business and marketing and, for more than 20 years, has helped creative companies build their new business capabilities – including some of our members, for whom she has hosted a number of roundtables. One of her more recent endeavours is founding the podcast series, Small Spark Theory, which explores the relevance of marginal gains theory small changes businesses can make to their sales and marketing processes to achieve better new business results.

On the evening 3rd of May, we assembled a panel event in partnership with Lucy for the inaugural Small Spark Theory Live at White City Place’s Westworks Studio, to discuss how small improvements to particular areas of the new business and marketing function can reap greater rewards.

Joining Lucy on the panel were:

Felix Velarde - Felix has been leading pioneering digital, creative and strategy companies and an agency group since 1994. Today he takes an advisory role as chairman, non-executive director and board advisor to several agencies, private equity firms, tech start-ups and cryptocurrency ICOs. His expertise in board management and emphasis on low-risk, fast-growth structures has made him an agency guru and master of strategy. 

Joanna Brassett - Joanna is the director and founder of the global innovation consultancy Studio INTO, whose core team has just five members. A wider, international satellite team fulfil Joanna’s mission of “creativity across borders.” Joanna is currently a contributor to MA Innovation Management and BA Product Design at Central Saint Martins, industry mentor on the London School of Economics Entrepreneurship program and Visiting Professor at Anhalt University of Applied Sciences, Department of Design, Dessau, Germany.

Sara Stark - Sara is Head of Marketing & Creative at Dishoom, where she has been since 2011: Sara has grown up with the much accoladed and multi-award winning restaurant chain, which has seen huge success and growth since its creation in 2010. Before this, two years as Brand and Creative Resources Executive at Cancer Research UK equipped her with experience on both sides of the agency-client divide.

Lucy opened the live recording of the podcast, now in its 16th episode, with a bit of context, explaining how Small Spark Theory was born out of an obsessions with “marginal gains” – what happens long-term when you make small changes. 18 months since the first recording, Lucy welcomed former contributors in the audience, such as Public Relations expert Tim Duncan from TDC PR, Redsetter’s Alex Blyth and Harry McCreanor and Ben Ingle from The Future Factory. 

The speakers

One such podcast contributor was Felix Velarde, on the panel, whose involvement in the fourth podcast made it, according to Lucy, the most popular so far. In Felix’s own words, his career started “completely by accident”, or “because nobody would give me a job":  he created one of the world’s first web design agencies in 1994. His unparalleled wealth of experience has earned him advisory roles at tech companies, agencies and, recently, on the board of a VR company. 

Lucy went on to introduce her second guest speaker, Joanna Brassett, whose background in both social sciences and product design directly inform what she does now: “translating brand values into three-dimensional objects.” Joanna’s agency "localise strategy at a global level" by having a satellite team of 80 individuals across 60 countries.

Magic strategy

Lucy asked the panelists how, if at all, strategy changes at different levels and stages. Felix, who has “experienced growth at all different levels” maintained that certain things remain a constant: “Web design. SEO. And ECRM [electronic customer relationship management].” He told the audience how it was only in 2008, with the industry plunged into recession (“the phones stopped ringing for the first time in my career – and that was scary”) that he was forced to really experiment with and identify effective and specific processes.

He found that, “it turns out that the process is all about doing small things a step at a time.” Joanna and Lucy were in agreement that the importance of processes cannot be underestimated, and that agency growth is what happens when effective processes are applied and adhered to long-term. Joanna told us that, through “playing the long game”, 70% of Studio INTO’s projects are currently from “cold outreach”, while 30% are from “warm contacts”. 

How do we manage growth?

Fast growth requires strategic handling, said Felix. It is important when going from an agency that feels like a “family circle” to “serious business” that core values and processes are “built in early.” Hiring is a huge part of this. Inevitably, as your business grows, you will not have time to do everything, and must reserve your resources and energy for “what you’re good at.” In order to do so, you have to hire specialists and “process people” who you can trust to run the business. A strong team and the art of effective delegation are among Felix’s magic ingredients.

Lucy went on to ask about client outreach. Joanna was clear on keeping it “multi-dimensional, having ongoing varied touchpoints” and communicating with the right tone of voice: “the right type of energy gets the right return.” Her policy is to engage in “ongoing conversations that keep communications open”, encourage faster responses over email and, where possible, face-to-face contact: “the best way to invest time and energy.”

Three-point approach

Felix offered his own three-point approach, starting with “having the right people” and “good financial reporting” – things that can be established early on. “Get yourself a good accountant, set small goals, break things down into tiny steps, look at growth on a monthly basis – entrepreneurs have a tendency to take on too much of a big project.”

His final point was the holy grail of marketing: “competitive differentiation”. This is a buzzword from the earliest days of marketing – how do you set yourself apart from the crowd? How do we assert our difference? For Felix, “it’s about looking at your work and what you enjoy doing.” While there is a tendency to want to accommodate the client as much as possible (“we all follow the money to some degree”), it’s important not to “be afraid of cutting off clients and saying ‘we do everything’”. In reality, a lack of specialism makes you too similar to your competitors, and having the confidence to “adopt and promote a specialism and strategy, incorporate it into your agency identity. You’ve got to be brave. Eliminate the competition, become an authority, stand for something.” Lucy interjected here with a favourite quote from a previous podcast: “stand for something and repeat it incessantly.”

Size doesn’t matter

Another question from the audience came from Neel Patel, who asked Joanna if, as a five-person team, Studio INTO position themselves as a larger agency?” According to Joanna, hiding how small you are as an agency is actually counter-intuitive; in a market that’s “all about people”, it’s encouraging to see the team featured on the website. In this post-digital disruption market, highly curated, specialised, core team with a strong, authentic portfolio doesn’t need to be “anonymous or defensive about size.” Felix agreed that both sides owe it to be honest, “frank about what they want” and “no massaging numbers”.

The client perspective

After a brief interval, we re-assembled for the second half of the podcast – a sit down with Dishoom’s Sara Stark. Lucy asked for some perspective on being on the client side of the client-agency relationship. She told us that, in terms of agency outreach, the cold calls she responds to are those that are “purposeful and personalised”. She added that the longevity of relationships depends on the quality of the briefing and onboarding sessions, the responsibility of the client to effectively transfer company culture and values, offer adequate materials and a mutual investment in the project from the outset. 

This kind of investment is only achievable through face-to-face contact; when asked about pitching, Sara was adamant that projects are dependent on chemistry and organic growth – competitive pitching is not Dishoom’s style as a client. In fact, Sara adds, “we probably over-brief”: a huge amount of detail goes into the Dishoom vision, “down to the 1940s typeface.” And what hasn’t worked? Sara recalls a disconnect and friction with an agency due to a difference in company size and working culture, again emphasising the importance of being realistic about your strengths and value as a team. “Don’t try to be all things to all people – zero in on what you do well and spend time articulating it.”

Wisdom

Prioritising “specialisation and differentiation” is in keeping with what Felix had preached in the first half. When pressed for more advice, Sara had tips from her own experience as well as that of her mentors. She touched upon “maintaining relationships with past clients”, “knowing your value as a smaller organisation,” and seeing failures as an opportunity to learn: “it’s ok to fail. It’s important to create a culture where failure is ok.” 

Her all-time inspiration was Robert Bean, the author of Winning In Your Own Way and branding guru, with whom she had the privilege of working on the branding of Dishoom: “he gets to the essence of brands and instils principles at the heart of them.” 

What did we learn?

The takeaways from the session were clear: building a strong team who share the same principles and vision is essential for the longevity of your agency. Setting small, achievable goals for regular and consistent growth is key to the success of your agency. Finally, establishing an agency identity, distinguished by a specific specialism and presenting yourselves with honesty and integrity will ensure long-lasting and high-quality client relationships.

All photography David Townhill.