Who are the industry's biggest boundary pushers, the ones who have really made a difference? And who do they most admire?
In this series, produced in association with The Trade Desk, we invite the industry’s leading lights to interview and be interviewed. Each instalment sees a boundary pusher interviewing one of their peers – who then nominates their own interviewee in turn.
In the previous instalment, Neil Christie, managing director of Weiden + Kennedy chose the7stars founder, Jenny Biggam as his boundary pusher. Jenny tells him how Facebook calls her a lurker, that she hates anything to do with finance and it’s all about the team…
How did you start in the industry?
Completely and utterly by mistake. I didn’t know such a thing existed. I was keen not to do any further education after A-levels and didn’t fancy going to university. The careers adviser at school told me the only two industries that would accept me without a degree were advertising or retail. I swiftly wrote letters to both retailers and advertising agencies and ended up in the latter… by sheer fluke.
What are the bits about running an agency that you enjoy and which don’t you like?
I enjoy people and building the team here, as well as working with clients and new business. But, I get dragged kicking and screaming into any meetings that concern finance – because there are certain things that you have to do when running a business like dealing with office moves and landlords that has very little to do with media and advertising… those meetings aren’t the favourite part of my day.
What is it you like about new business?
I enjoy pitching and learning about new markets. The whole team often gets thrown into learning about a whole new category of a business sector that they didn’t know about. You pull together a team that isn’t used to working together on a day-to-day basis and that, in itself, is great because you’re creating a different environment. The best thing about a pitch is that it has a beginning, a middle and an end, which is really nice – especially as other parts of the job tend to be more organic. On the media side, new business has become more complex and as a result, the pitch process is much longer – at least three or four months. But the fun is still there.
Do you think of yourself as a boundary pusher?
Yes, increasingly I do. When I first set the7stars up, people said it was a brave thing to do, but at the time it didn’t feel brave because if it hadn’t worked out, I’d have been able to get another job. But, as we grew, there was a time when the salary bill was quite scary compared with the amount of revenue we could see coming in. We’ve become the biggest independent media agency relatively quickly, so I do see us as pushing boundaries and challenging the big networks – it’s quite a thing to know we can challenge huge, global corporations with very deep pockets and a lot of influence in the client community and even win sometimes.
Why do you think there are relatively few media independents still?
I don’t know – it’s something we’ve talked about every year since we started. Compared with the creative industry, there are certain barriers around entry to media. There’s still a real belief that you need a certain scale to be able to negotiate.
We’ve never believed that and it’s always been the hardest thing to convince our clients that we can negotiate without scale. Ultimately, media owners don’t want the market to be constricted to two or three buying points. The ability to buy has never been a challenge but it has sometimes been difficult to explain that you can do it without leverage and scale behind you.
What are the other benefits of being an independent agency?
Some of the best fun we have is because we are independent and we don’t have anyone else making up the rules for us. We’re well known for being a good employer, providing outstanding training and opportunities – and that’s something we take seriously.
A few years ago we decided we’d pay a profit-share bonus and created a blog for people to share internally what they’d spent it on, so it’s a celebration of our collective success. The whole agency then votes for the most creative way someone’s spent their bonus – the winner gets their bonus doubled. It’s great because we can do things like that and make decisions that affect the business that will work for us. Being independent has allowed us to be a much more innovative employer.
We want to create a good, fun place where people can have great careers and enjoy themselves. And I’m a massive believer that, as a media agency, the only way we win is by having the best team in the room. So no marketing director can look at our showreel or see the communications strategy or know how well we buy unless they’re currently working with us on a day-to-day basis.
It’s just about the talent in the room that makes the difference between good, bad and indifferent in media.
All the things we do – no fixed holiday allowance, flexible hours, no job titles – have massive pros and some cons. With the holiday allowance – some people feel a bit shy about taking holidays – we actually sit down with them and encourage them to take holiday.
We genuinely don’t count holidays. I believe if you trust people and treat them with respect and give them autonomy, it will be repaid hugely.
Our purpose is to create stuff that we are collectively proud of – but equally we just want to create a culture that’s unique. The definition of doing well is not equivalent to that in a corporate world. People have more grounded careers here. You’re not just here to buy media – you’re also here to build the business.
And yes people do get frustrated about not having a job title. But we don’t want people to compete internally. Our culture does self-select, and for some people our way of doing things doesn’t work. We want people who want a rounded career, and want to be entrepreneurial.
Is it harder to find good people?
We do a big graduate recruitment programme – in fact we have two cycles a year – we also take on school leavers. A lot of our talent is ‘home grown’. They started with us and have stayed on.
But, as an industry we need to do more. Grad salaries are too low and that worries me. Digital, SEO and data people are harder to attract – they have no real reason to come to an agency. As an industry we need to address that.
What are the benefits of working with an independent?
There are two things – that we are independent but more than that, it was our decision from day one to work with our clients in a completely transparent way. We get paid by our clients, not by media owners or ad-tech companies. That means we can make decisions on the media side that are completely in the client’s interests. So, if we’re recommending something it’s because we’ve done the numbers – we’ve had a look and it works for our clients. It’s not because media owners are offering a kick-back. That’s the policy we’ve chosen from day one. I don’t think you can have that transparency within the big networks because that isn’t their business model.
There’s nothing wrong with asking media owners for additional commissions. It’s when you’re not disclosing that to the advertiser that it becomes a conflict of interest. When you’re being paid to give strategic advice to an advertiser, inherently there is a conflict of interest if you’re earning money based on those decisions. It’s hard on the clients as they have to figure out if it’s a genuine recommendation or one based on other factors.
Do you think clients have enough understanding of the complexities of media?
Most of the clients we work with spend a lot of time making sure they’re up to speed with those complexities. But I feel it is part of the media agency’s role to make sure any of the recommendations they do make to advertisers are in their client’s interests, not their own.
Do you think it’s all about effectiveness rather than efficiency now?
It’s moving more towards effectiveness now. One of the growing parts of our business is the data and evaluation team. Clients are demanding far more sophisticated answers in terms of what’s driving their marketing effectiveness and that tends to be the remit of the media agency not the creative agency. I see an increased sophistication in our own measurement and I see clients are demanding a more holistic view of how effective their marketing is.
Programmatic changes the whole buying-planning metric – do you select the channels or do you go straight to audience, using the audience-first approach? Programmatic challenges how media agencies do things but here at the7stars we are massively ahead of the curve. There’s no question that other media channels beyond digital are moving towards programmatic.
Do you think as agencies converge there’s a greater overlap in roles?
Our perspective on that is that we are not a ‘land grabby’ agency – internally we have a single P&L target, so nobody will say: "I need to sell ‘content’ to that line." We focus on growing the top line through pitching new business and servicing clients. We’re not focussed on getting more revenue out of that client – we don’t do the cross- or up-sell.
What was it that prompted you to start your own agency?
Frustration with the status quo, the big agency model, and sensing there was an opportunity to create a slightly different business model that included top level service and transparency.
We’d never sell – we love being independent. In fact this year we’re going to launch another independent media agency called The Bountiful Cow. The reason behind this is the structure and culture we’ve developed here is what makes us unique, so we don’t have job titles or departments – just teams. We get together in our top two rooms every single week, so we can share information. We’re up to 160 people now, so if we kept growing we wouldn’t be able to do that anymore.
We’re hiring externally for the Bountiful Cow – so starting from scratch. No staff or clients will move across and the proposition has changed since the7stars was founded 11 years ago. The focus will be on digital, with their planning process starting with analysing the client’s digital footprint. They’ll be taking a much more technical perspective, which will appeal to a slightly different set of advertisers. It’s due to open in November.
Which media channels could you personally not do without?
I could not do without most of the social-media channels – Facebook has told me I’m a bit of a lurker. I like the shareability of social media and radio. I’m not a big TV watcher – but Autumn schedules are coming up, so we’ll see.
What gets you up in the morning?
Everything to do with the team – creating a different culture, learning, progress, and getting our employees to push themselves.
And what keeps you awake at night?
We are lucky and unique as an agency – our business is very well spread, which is great, but it is very hard work. I feel I need to be personally engaged with every client.
Anything you know now, that you wish you’d known then?
Creating a distinctive proposition, being a good employer, and transparency. Transparency was our main principle from the start. We have learnt, that having been in our fourth office in 10 years, you need to plan for success as well as failure.
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