The relationships that matter in business
A view from Melissa Robertson

The relationships that matter in business

When you're looking into the business abyss, relationships suddenly become more important than ever, says Now's chief executive.

January. It’s a funny old month. An important one for us, because not only is it a new calendar year, it’s also a new financial year. I’ve been spending an indecent bit of time with the P&L. And it looks very, well, it looks quite… oh dear, how can I say this? It looks quite sparse! In that it’s all forecast in a diligent and organised way, but I don’t yet know where the vast majority of the income is going to come from.

When we first started the business back in 2011, over 90% of the business we won was retained. Accounts where we had agreed a monthly retainer, and all the running of that business, were included. So there was a degree of certainty – or at least visibility of where the money was coming from. 

The picture today is less than 40% retained, or agreed up front. Even some retained clients have switched to a partial "pay-as-you-go" model where a more basic retained agreement is topped up with project fees. And all the other income is a big, terrifying black hole of uncertainty. How the hell are we magically going to conjure up millions of pounds to keep our little band of brilliant and diligent people occupied, fulfilled and paid for, while also aiming to maintain an upwards business trajectory? 

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a sob story exclusive to Now. It’s the new normal for the vast majority of agencies out there. I can’t tell you how many agency heads with whom I have this exact conversation. I guess it’s just a little more visceral for independent agencies with no comfy network to rely on, or prop you up.

And so, once the cold sweat has passed, you start to think about who you know. And more importantly, who you like. Because when you’re looking into the abyss, relationships suddenly become more important than ever. This truth has, for several years, been at the heart of our creative strategy for one of our founding clients, BT Business. We talk about relationships being everything to business. And it couldn’t be more pertinent to us.          

I’ve been doing this for nearly 25 years, and so have my partners. You meet an awful lot of people in that time. Clients that were assistant brand managers become marketing directors and managing directors in that time. You’ve been through thick and thin with them. You know all their terrible experiences at work, the arseholes they’ve had to work for; you’ve shared that hideous overnight shoot where it belted down for ten solid hours (and the brilliant one where you get to go to Thailand!); you’ve seen them fall in love, get married, have kids (and/or pets). It’s more than transactional. They are more than just clients. 

We have built our business on doing great stuff for people who know and like us, where we’ve delivered so much more than what’s expected of us. Since we started, over 80% of our business has come from either people we already know, or from people who have been recommended to work with us. These are relationships that are based on respect and trust, forged by years of good work. These are the people who you keep in touch with because you want to spend time with them and do work for them. And they are the same people who come back and ask us to do more stuff in new guises, with different brands. 

So, yes, the spreadsheet with the gaps is daunting. But it’s also exciting. Which of the people I really like will we be working with this year? Who knows. But it’s going to be good. Bring it on. 

Melissa Robertson is the chief executive of Now