Out to lunch with Boisdale Life and David Emin: Jenny Biggam

Media Week's David Emin invites an industry heavyweight out to lunch at one of the Boisdales restaurants. His lunch guest this week is Jenny Biggam, the co-founder of the7stars, now the UK's largest independent media agency, which has averaged 30% growth in each of the past three years.

of

Your starter for 10

(although, just for today, it's 7)

In Revelations, Chapters one to three, the 7 Stars are mentioned four times, however there are other 7s in Revelations such as The 7 Lampstands or The 7 Spirits or The 7 Churches but you went with the7Stars. Why was that?

It was nothing to do with that. We were having a chat about potentially setting up an agency and Gareth Jones came up with the bright idea that if we do it we should call it the 7 Stars after the pub that we were in.

Mark Jarvis said "That’s a ridiculous name", so I challenged him that in the next 24 hours he should come up with something better".

And did he?

No, he didn’t, so we went with the name the7stars.

So, it wasn't because there were seven of you?

No. People always assumed that there were seven of us and we were arrogant to call ourselves stars.  

How many of there were you in the beginning?

Originally there were three of us, but in the early days a girl called Natalie Kelly wrote to us just after we had started and said she loved what we were trying to do and asked if could she join us. It was fortunate as I suddenly realised that I had just started a business with two people who couldn't type, print, or work out how the kettle worked.

Who owns the company?

Myself, Mark Jarvis, Gareth Jones and a few others. The shares are in fact split between 7 people who all work for the7stars

So there are 7 of you? Ha. I hadn’t really thought of it that way.

Have you ever had trouble with people phoning up and trying to book a table for lunch, thinking you were the 7 Stars public house?

Yes. That happened a number of times. Liam Mullins normally fields those calls.

I guess it was fortunate you were in a pub called The 7 Stars. Had it been called The Fighting Cocks would you have gone with that as a name?

Possibly… there are times when that would have been quite apt.

The Nobody Inn?

No. That's never the case. There is always someone in.

The Landlady of the 7 Stars is someone called Roxy Beaujolais. Did she offer you any advice when you first started?

No, but Roxy Beaujolais also owns a second pub called The Bountiful Cow so if we ever set up a second agency we will have to go with that name.

Are you Happy?

Yes.

If you weren’t Happy, which one of the 7 Dwarfs would you have been?

I'm definitely Happy, but we have definitely got a Dopey in the agency. And now I think of it, there may be a Grumpy.

Of the 7 Deadly sins which do you hate the most?

From a work perspective I'd say Greed. It doesn’t pay to be greedy in media.

You've obviously not been out to lunch with Lawson Muncaster.

If Jarvo is Yul Bryner, and Gareth Jones is James Coburn, would Liam Mullins be Steve McQueen?

No, He is definitely Bashful from the 7 Dwarfs.

If you had 7 days holiday left to take, would you prefer to lie on a beach or be taken up the Alpine pass?

Well anyone that's been skiing with me would know the answer to that, including you, as you've been skiing with me a number of time, its lying on a beach. I'm a very reluctant skier.

Main Course

You established the agency in 2005. If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

I think you need to plan for every eventuality. We have just moved into our fourth office in 10 years and had we thought longer term and planned for success we’d have said go for the bigger office sooner I guess.

Did you ever think that in 10 years you’d have billings of £147 million and 109 people working for you?

When we first set up we looked at agencies such as Walker Media (now Blue449) and BLM and they were the ones that we respected and wanted to be like.

We thought we would get to here but I don't think we thought that the consolidation of some of the bigger agencies would continue as it has done, and that’s impacted on the whole market.

Also, when you write a business plan when you first set up, you can imagine the clients that you will get, and the type of business that you will be, but what you can’t picture is the type of team that you will build up along the way.

I don't think I could have foreseen the energy that we have as an agency. I still get excited at the passion and energy that comes from all the people we have employed, the majority of whom I didn't know 10 years ago.

You've been successful in winning awards for being the best small business to work for. How come?

People and culture have been very important to us. We always thought that when it came to buying and planning media, that the bigger agencies had a "one size fits all approach" and probably put too much of their resource into servicing the big global clients compared to their smaller clients.

We spent a lot of time creating a different way of working and structuring our team according to the clients that they are working on.

In fact, we probably spend more time working on our People and Culture ethos and coming up with ideas to make it the best possible place to work as much as anything else.

So, what’s the most innovative thing that you've brought in that most demonstrates why you’re different from other agencies from a staff perspective?

Some of it is as much the things that we don’t do as much as the things that we do?

Is it true that no member of staff has to book in annual leave?

Well they do book it in with their team so that their work is covered off but they can take as few or as many days off as they want. We don't count them.

How did that come about?

When we first set up we didn’t think between the four of us that we needed to have holiday forms. As we’ve grown we never bothered introducing them. Although we were one of the first companies to do this it wasn't a conscious decision, we just fell into it.

And nobody has a job title? No. Although it's only ever the trade press that ask what our job titles are.

What’s yours?

I don't have one.

Do you have an office?

I don't even have a desk. We hot desk now.

The new offices are great but why didn't you put the reception on the 7th floor?

Actually Dino had the idea that we should rename every floor the 7th floor and as you got out the lift it would say 7. Unfortunately the landlord wasn't as taken with this idea as we were.

It's obviously a great place to work. On your website it says that you are currently hiring across all departments. How big can you grow?

The way that we have planned the business is that we do an annual business plan and work out how big we want to grow. It's not always about winning new business.

It could be that we want to grow the data part of our business, or we might decide that winning industry awards this year is important- we are incredibly lucky in that we can set our own targets.

Do you always agree with your partners?

No. It wouldn't be natural to always agree on everything, but what we try and do is have a culture where everyone’s voice is always heard.

What's been the one thing that you're most proud of?

The quality of people, and who we have attracted to come and work for us at every level.

And the hardest?

When it's your own agency the highs are much higher and the lows are much lower. Anything that happens you take personally.

'You don't do agency deals' - What's your view on this?

Before the7stars I worked at two very large agency and they had agency deals. My view is that they work, but only for a minority of clients. If you're a client spending less than £50 million a year in the UK I doubt you're really benefitting from these deals. Plus in media, it's not always price that the important point.

We definitely pride ourselves with having better relationships with media owners by being less adversarial and having more partnerships. And at the end of the day we are in a privileged position by being able to trade and not focus on what deal we have in place with a particular media owner.

The last three years you have been nominated for Media Agency of the Year but keep narrowly missing out. Why do you think that is?

Possibly because we are judged by media owners and still thought of as quite small.

Last year Maxus had just won L'Oreal and had 200% growth and were judge quite rightly to be agency of the year. 

We genuinely are very happy to be shortlisted. If, as an independent we can be judged to be one of the top five agencies in the UK, that’s a massive achievement for our team.

Dessert

Looking ahead, where will the7stars be in the next five years?

I think the futures massively rosy for us. We are now a properly established business, and I think the market needs strong independents.

So, still independent?

Yes. We have built up our credentials by staying independent.

Pick a whine?

Easy to say but from an industry perspective it would be the lack of transparency and how certain media agencies are killing the industry with this "kick-back" culture.

Leave a Tip?

Don't ever take yourself too seriously, and enjoy working in this business.

The meal

Starter: Jenny had the super salad and David had the asparagus
Main course: Jenny had Haggis. David had Linguine of Devonshire crab
Drink: Bois Blanc
Dessert: Both had the Eton Mess

If you have the appetite to enjoy the same lunch as David and Lawson go to www.boisdale.co.uk For more information on Boisdale Media and events go to www.boisdalelife.com

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