Close-Up: Bainsfair's battle to achieve Iris' bold ambitions

Iris' new chief has a lot on his plate if he is to fulfil the agency's desire to be the world's top independent, Matt Williams says.

Paul Bainsfair never intended becoming Iris' European chief executive. The former TBWA president had already tasted all that this industry had to taste through a successful advertising career. But after an approach by the agency last October, he was intrigued by its ambition to become the largest independent agency in the world by 2012.

Agencies are sometimes inclined to sweeping statements and hopeless goals. But Ian Millner, Iris' joint chief executive and founder, reckons theirs is a perfectly realistic one. "Our whole ambition is being driven by clients, who have asked us: 'Can your agency be in these places by this date?'" he says. "Providing we go into this knowing that we don't want it to become an exercise in 'dots on maps' or being 'Brits abroad' - being overpaid for doing relatively nothing - then we'll be successful in building Iris."

Bainsfair has clearly been persuaded. His intention, he says, is to "lend his experience to help expand the Iris network across Europe", as well as "putting forward my ideas on where Iris needs to focus creatively".

Bainsfair's is certainly a big-ticket appointment, and the clearest statement yet of Iris' confidence. Yet there's confusion in the industry at large about what sort of agency Iris actually is, where it positions itself. Millner is quite pleased to hear that others cannot place his agency. "The industry always seems keen to split what people do up into specific boxes, and that removes a lot of the power and value of what it is that we do, because what we do is create things for brands that, at their best, become a culture," he says.

Isn't the danger, though, that the agency is seen as a classic "jack of all trades, master of none"? Bainsfair says Iris' ability to work across all media is a reason why he was attracted to the agency in the first place. He believes that this attribute will be a key reason why the agency can grow at a time when all others are hastily arranging plan B.

"I know from experience that more and more clients are demanding agencies to do work for them in every touchpoint," he says. "Iris has invested in every area, and is therefore capable of delivering creativity with an ease and naturalness that some traditional ad networks are failing to match."

The other question-mark is over Iris' creative firepower. Does it have enough creative muscle to achieve all that it hopes? And, conversely, is there a danger the agency is so focused on growth, there's little regard for creative output?

This is an allegation that Millner greatly refutes. He refers to Shaun McIlrath, the executive creative director poached last year from Hurrell & Dawson, as "the best creative in the world for what it is that Iris does". He adds: "Iris is a cause, it's all about exposing the creative mediocrity that's in our business, so you need people to believe, in order to grow."

As well as persuading creative snobs that it has the right talent, Iris also needs to broaden its client base: its client list still appears to be dominated by Sony Ericsson and, lately, Adidas, which gives the agency a slightly lopsided base.

The agency's growth in 2009 will see another "ten to 12" offices open across the globe. Quite ambitious plans when you consider that before the turn of the year, Iris only had ten offices worldwide.

Millner counters any suggestion that Iris does not have the financial backbone to drive this strategy home. He points to a number of "unconventional" revenue streams that the agency is taking advantage of, including a £20 million cash injection from the Royal Bank of Scotland in July last year.

With Bainsfair now on the payroll, Millner is more confident than ever in his strategy for growth and appears willing to take the necessary risks, even in a recession. "We're thinking 'fuck it, let's go and win some business, let's go and hire a few good people, let's open a few more offices'," he says.

"As long as we are multifaceted in our approach, and if we keep the culture and key values across the globe that we had when we set Iris up, then we can be the agency that breaks the mould of 'command and control' that riddles most of the commercial and corporate networks that we have today. We will be the new way to run a network."

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