The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.
Agency growth stories: Riding the highs and lows of agency life with Frank
Despite leading an agency at the top of its game for almost 20 years, the managing partners at Frank are surprisingly humble, and don’t take it for granted when new business opportunities come their way.
In an interview conducted by The Future Factory, Andrew Bloch and Alex Grier share why running an agency is never as simple as it should be, their approach to talent retention, and why they don’t worry about the hype that other agencies put out about themselves.
The Future Factory: Tell me how and when Frank started.
Andrew Bloch: My early career was at Lynne Franks PR, which was later acquired by Ketchum. Graham Goodkind was Lynne Franks' managing director and when Ketchum bought Lynne Franks, he decided it wasn't for him. A couple of years later, he approached me and asked if I fancied setting up an agency with him. I declined as I was 26 and I wasn't ready. I thought I needed a few more years' worth of experience. But he said: 'look, you're never ready,' which was so wise and really resonated.
We set up Frank together in 2000, with the idea of being an open, honest and no bullshit agency. Alex joined in 2005 from Shine when we were still super small and had only 12 people in-house.
TFF: And then in 2007, Frank was acquired by Enero...?
Andrew Bloch: We never planned to sell the agency, but the opportunity came up... and here we are 12 years later!
TFF: That’s extremely unusual!
Andrew Bloch: Enero's a brilliant partner and a really good bunch of people. I genuinely think we're quite like-minded and are similarly passionate about the work we're doing. It's not just about building a business.
We're lucky. Someone once told me how important it is not to lose that emotional connection with your baby once it's been acquired. Enero has definitely allowed us to do this. It may own a majority stake in Frank, but emotionally, we still feel like we own it.
Enero bought the agency because it loved our spirit, our vibe, our work and our people. It realised the importance of nurturing all that to keep the agency growing so internally, it doesn't feel like anything's changed.
TFF: Are the future goals and ambitions of the agency set by you or Enero?
Andrew Bloch: We set our ambitions and our targets; we push ourselves pretty hard. You have to, you’ve always got to assume there's someone out there who's trying to eat your lunch.
TFF: 19 years in, you clearly still love what you do. What’s your secret?
Andrew Bloch: We genuinely still get a buzz from what we do. We're not doing it for any other reason other than that we love it. We still have massive ambitions for Frank and don't feel we've achieved our potential yet. People always say, 'oh, you must be so proud' and although I am, I always feel that there's so much more to do.
It’s a constant challenge and we’re forever learning. It would be great to be sat here in a pair of slippers smoking a pipe, watching the money roll in, but that's not how it works. We're continuously responding to clients and meeting briefs.
We're also quite competitive. With every hungry agency that emerges, we're kept increasingly on our toes. Likewise, we're beginning to chase the big ones down.
TFF: Do you keep an eye on your competitors?
Alex Grier: Yes I like to know who's on the pitch list. It motivates me... Andrew doesn’t care too much about it.
Andrew Bloch: On our best days, we can beat anyone in the world and on our worst, we can lose to the shittiest sloppiest agency out there. You can get obsessed with other people's agency showreels and the story that they're telling, but if you go behind the scenes, you’d realise everyone’s a fucking shambles.
TFF: Are there any more plans for international expansion?
Andrew Bloch: Not currently. If the right opportunity presents itself and we can make it work, then we might, but it would be talent-led.
Manc Frank started because a brilliant guy worked here in London but hated the city. When he relocated to Manchester, we didn’t want to lose him from the business so he opened up the office for us.
If one of our employees turned around tomorrow and said, 'I want to go back to Bristol because that's my love', we would think about how we could accommodate them and whether there's something worth setting up in Bristol, because of them, not because of our draw to the city.
The diversity of creative thinking we’ve seen from having a Manchester office has been one of the biggest benefits we've seen. It was accidental, if I'm honest. We didn't set up for that reason, but outside of the London bubble, you get such different attitudes, different opinions on people, culture and society.
TFF: There’s always such a good vibe when you step into any of your offices.
Andrew Bloch: We try and create an environment that encourages people to be themselves. You don't have to conform. It's not about acting a certain way, we're just a bunch of individuals that have taken feedback on board, who love, respect and admire each other and allow us to be ourselves. If they're a quiet introvert, we don't ask them to be loud and annoying. If they're loud and annoying, we don't ask them to be quieter. We just let people flourish and be their best self, which sounds a bit wanky, but it's the truth.
TFF: What about retention? That’s a challenge for all agencies.
Andrew Bloch: We are really lucky. We have some brilliant people here, and if you look around the industry, in great agencies, you’ll probably find someone from Frank.
But of course we lose talent too. We do our absolute best to keep the people that we think have potential and can do well. We don't try and keep people here just for an easy life. You always have to differentiate what is a short term headache and what is a long term opportunity. If we think that someone has a real career here, we will absolutely fight tooth and nail to enable that opportunity.
It's our job and responsibility to spot talent and make it work for both sides. But it doesn't always work. There's not a 100% success record. But I think people know we try and run the agency like a meritocracy. So if you are good enough and you want it, you will get the opportunities. You have to look after and nurture that very best talent. Of course that doesn't mean you don't look after everyone else.
TFF: We all want a meritocracy in principle, but how do you manage the fall out when people get leapfrogged?
Andrew Bloch: We try and avoid people from comparing themselves to anyone else. When you look at what each person is bringing to the team, people aren't really comparable. Yes, there are certain skills that take you to a particular level. But then there's a lot of intangible stuff in this industry that adds value; from a creative spark, a strategic thought process, a love for data, an ability to sell an idea, great people skills, a love for social… the list goes on.
There's no such thing as the perfect communications person. You have to play to people's strengths. Their weaknesses can't be taken at face value either. Rather than say, 'you're not doing this, you need to be better at that,' you have to focus on what they're good at. If that means adapting their role slightly, or creating a completely new role within the agency, so be it. We've got Frankers who've been here for five or more years and have done two or three different roles, taking on new challenges, learning and adapting in each one.
TFF: There is more and more noise about flexible working. Do you guys offer it?
Alex Grier: We started doing flexible hours last year. I have four kids and there are days when it's nice to be able to have breakfast at home, take them to school and then get here for 10. There are people who like to do a gym class before work or just have a lie-in. Some people work much better later in the day. So we introduced core hours (10am-4pm) that people can work around.
That then evolved and we now have a full working from home policy. There's no limits to how often you can do it. But if Andrew says to me, 'I'm working from home' and I say, 'actually I could really do with you here,' then he'll come in and vice versa. That goes all the way through the agency.
We like to get people together in the office on a Monday to kick off the week. And likewise on a Friday to round off and celebrate the week. But otherwise the rest of the time is up to you how to make it work.
We've got some people here who religiously work one day a week work from home and love it because by 7am, they’re at their breakfast table in their pyjamas getting stuff done. Other people use it when they feel they need to. And there are some people who like coming in and having Frankers around them.
We've also made the office a space where you can be your most relaxed, because we believe that's when you do your best work. We want it to be a fun place to spend time.
TFF: Have there been any teething problems?
Andrew Bloch: No; there hasn't been any abuse of it. It's very cliché but if you treat people like grown-ups, they will behave like it.
And let's be honest, the best campaigns and creative ideas probably don't happen sat at your desk. They're when you're driving or in the shower.
TFF: What’s your process for monitoring client happiness?
Andrew Bloch: Interesting that you ask. At one point, we actually launched an app, the Frank Feedback app to allow clients to score us against five measures. It was really simple but they didn't use it. After speaking to them, they said that they preferred to have a chat, so that's what we do!
If you've got a gut feeling that the work isn't as good as it could be, but no one's saying anything, then you’ve got to have the balls to address it before they do, and say, 'look, I don't know how you feel, but I just don't think it's going as well as it could. Or that your team are responding.' It's all about breaking down the communication.
TFF: What have you found to be the main challenges or obstacles to growing the business?
Andrew Bloch: Running an agency is not difficult on paper. You grow an agency by winning new clients, growing existing clients and not losing clients. And as simple as that sounds, we've always found it incredibly challenging to do all three things really well at the same time.
I'd love to sit here and tell you there haven't been any failings, that it's been constant success. But actually in the first seven, eight, nine years of Frank, we didn't really have too many challenges; it was all quite easy. But then the ups and downs started to come and you just have to deal with it.
Alex Grier: Nothing comes easily, right? You've got to work for it. My mum always said, 'the world doesn’t owe you a living', and she was right! You get out what you put in. Sometimes you put in and you don't get out. You have to take the rough with the smooth. It doesn't always go our way.
If it was easy, we wouldn't still be sat here. But we keep coming back to it day after day. We’ve never quite managed to get all the plates spinning at the same time. When we're nailing new business and delivering brilliant work, something has slipped on the people side or we haven't quite done the business financially.
It does make me laugh when I read things about other agencies, like ‘oh we've had a 99% pitch success rate and we haven't lost a single client and we've had organic growth’. That's bollocks; no agency does that. That's agency life; it's all about how you cope and how well and fast you can get all those plates spinning. When one does drop and smash, it's about how quickly you pick it up and get the momentum going again.
I wish I could say we’re real masters of it, but I don't believe anyone is. Even the greatest agencies at their peak are still having challenges, or they could be doing things better. You do have to be resilient in this game, but I think that's why we're still doing it nearly 20 years in.
TFF: If you could share one lesson to someone embarking on growing an agency…?
Andrew Bloch: I always think you can't get too high on the highs or too low on the lows. You’re always going to beat yourself up about the last pitch you lost or the last thing you did wrong. But you can't, you’ve just got to pick yourself up and go again. And equally, we’ve had some pretty amazing highs this year that we've celebrated, but then we've come back into the office and got on with the next thing. It’s about cultivating that balance. Of course, we've had setbacks and failings along the way, but nothing has broken us.
I always think back to the day we sold the agency. We were in the lawyer's office and there was paperwork as long as a football pitch. I remember signing that deal and it was pretty life-changing. And then the lawyers said, 'come on, let's go to this champagne bar down the road.' And we said, 'no, we’ve got to pitch tomorrow morning' and we literally came straight back into the office and sat there until 10 o'clock at night working on that pitch.
TFF: As we wrap up 2019, what’s your plans for next year?
One of my highlights of last year was winning an ad pitch against one of the most famous ad agencies in the world. That reminds me of our potential. Next year, we're going to keep pushing the boundaries.
We've always said, 'if we’re focused on the work and we get the work right, the rest will follow.'
Have your say
Do you have a strong opinion on a topical industry issue? To submit a comment piece, please send a short summary of your idea to email@example.com. Views of writers are not necessarily those of The Drum.