Co-founder and European CEO of iris on shoddy boomerangs, learning from mistakes and the shape of an agency in the consultancy age
Advertising agencies all tell you that what they do is different. And of course they each offer something different to clients, but iris has been a bit of an outlier ever since six friends co-founded it in 1999 off the back of a very drunken evening in a London pub. From its involvement in product development to its early links to the world of management consultancy, it’s never felt like your average creative agency. Almost 19 years on, those friends are still the core of the agency, although they’re now leading a network with 15 offices around the world from São Paulo to Seoul and over 1,000 employees.
A few months on from the agency’s rebrand and new proposition ‘For the Forward’, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Steve Bell, one of those six co-founders and European CEO.
LBB> What were you like as a kid? I read that you wanted to be a gymnast!
SB> To be honest, I was a pretty normal kid. I worked really hard at school, hung around with my mates on BMXs and played footy at the park. All standard stuff for a kid growing up in Sussex.
I guess the thing that wasn’t standard was that I was an international gymnast. I was in the England squad for gymnastics. My dad played for Arsenal for six years in the ‘60s, from the age of 17 to 23, so I think there was an expectation that I was going to be an international footballer. It was quite an unusual path for me to go down. But I loved it. Travelling around Europe, competing for the country. It was a big passion of mine. A big part of my growing up.
LBB> What are your first memories about advertising? When did you start taking an interest in it?
SB> In a strange way I was always interested in marketing, although I never realised it was marketing. When I was eight a friend of mine and I set up a boomerang business. We cut boomerangs out of plyboard and sold them for a pound. We produced our own flyers, went to the local photocopying centre and door dropped all these flyers. In the first day we sold about 30 boomerangs.
The problem was, the boomerangs didn’t actually come back. It was a flawed business model because the product didn’t work. We had a lot of disgruntled parents knocking on the door of my parents’ house, asking for their money back. When I look back, in effect, I was creating a business and marketing that business to create demand for shoddy boomerangs.
The moment that I realised advertising was really interesting for me was a campaign back in the ‘70s for McDonald’s Big Mac. Basically you had to list the ingredients in a Big Mac. The whole country was walking around saying ‘two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun’ as quickly as they could. It was a good example for me of how marketing or advertising seeped into culture. Everybody was talking about it. But at the time it didn’t feel like marketing.
LBB> When did you that turn into thinking you could make a career of it?
SB> My dad went on to be the Managing Director of Duracell batteries. He always said to me that marketing would be an interesting career. I think he looked at the marketing director of Duracell and saw that he got involved in new product development and advertising campaigns and pricing strategy.
I went to university and studied business and marketing. When I left, I had a real desire to work as an account handler within the agency world. So I applied for the standard grad schemes of the top marketing and ad agencies. And I went through the ranks of Arc, or Leo Burnett, which they’re now part of.
For the first 12 months of working at Arc, it was almost a mission of mine to be the first in and the last out. I wanted to prove to everybody that they’d made the right decision taking me on. I was so hungry to learn, I’d say yes to absolutely everything. It was almost an obsession to go through the ranks and prove my worth, learn and be a really good, progressive account handler. I progressed pretty quickly and learned a huge amount, but more importantly I met the people who turned out to be the founding partners of iris. So the nucleus met through the first agency we all worked at.
LBB> Can you describe the time when you founded iris? What were your motivations and feelings?
SB> I remember it really clearly. All the founders worked together. I think it was 1998 or 1999. We had a great year within the agency. We all had our end of year review. We sat down with our bosses and we all met in the local agency pub at the end. We hadn’t even talked about iris at the time, but we were a really tight group of account handlers, creatives and planners.
We were fed up with the mediocrity, bureaucracy and politics of working within a big global network. We wanted to do amazing work, enjoy ourselves, and the culture in the agency wasn’t allowing us to do that.
We stayed in the pub and blew our entire bonus pot for the previous year on that one night. The more drunk we were getting, the more excited we were getting about setting up our own agency. There had to be an easier, better way. We were collectively falling out of love with the industry that we worked so hard to get into and we wanted to fall back in love with it.
Within 12 months of that night, we’d all left the agency and set up iris. It happened relatively quickly.
LBB> How would you describe the dynamic between the six founding partners? You've been a solid gang for quite a while now!
SB> So many people that I talk to about iris and the history find it amazing that after 19 years of operating and five years working together prior to setting up the agency, we’re still in it for the same reasons. And if I’m being honest, it’s down to the fact that we’re really good friends first and foremost. Our friendship is more important than anything else. We enjoy hanging out together and there are different people in different parts of the world now so we don’t get to see each other as much as we once did, but when we do we’ve got this united bond that brings us together. We know what we’ve been through, the sacrifices we’ve had to make and the challenges we’ve faced over the years. That’s something that no one will ever really understand.
The other thing is that we’re super honest with each other. The minute anyone starts getting ideas above their station they’re told pretty clearly that that’s not the culture of the agency. We’re the founders; we need to make sure that we stand by what we preach. That’s critical for us. But ultimately the friendship is what unites us and will be there in 20, 30 years time.
LBB> What have been the biggest evolutions that iris has gone through in that 19 years?
SB> There have been various chapters to the iris story. We started in ‘99 and for the first five or six years we grew extremely quickly - 20 to 30% year on year. That was amazing. We could attract brilliant talent, amazing clients.
Then we started focusing more on discipline diversification. Making sure that we weren’t having to do a just one certain part of the marketing mix. We were able to do the full delivery, whether that was advertising, retail and shopper, digital, CRM.
We then went on a journey of international expansion. We’d grown and diversified. We thought the natural next step was growing into multiple markets around the world.
We then lost our way for, I would say, 12 months. But more importantly we then realised that we were losing our way and reverted back to the founding principles that made us great in the first seven or eight years - it was around the work, the people, the clients and the culture. They were the things that made us a brilliant agency that was able to grow and attract talent.
The most recent chapter has been around making the most of our partnership with Cheil [who bought a significant stake in the agency in 2014, bringing iris into its network]. It’s been a really liberating and exciting move for the agency. As well as acquiring companies that can really deliver in areas outside of the standard marketing-communications mix, now we are continuing to expand geographically but, perhaps more interestingly, getting involved in areas that most agencies won’t get involved in - consultancy and pricing strategy and things like that.
LBB> How was the process of going international after seven years in London? You mention it didn’t go quite as smoothly as you’d hoped. What were the major lessons the agency learned from that?
SB> In the early days, our international expansion was born from client requests. So our founding client [Sony Ericsson] said they’d like us to be in New York and Singapore, so we set up those agencies to be able to deliver for them. It was great because it had minimal risk. We were doing brilliant work, making some money in those offices.
After a few years of modest international growth we won a £10 million interest-free loan from the Bank of Scotland [in an entrepreneurship competition] and our egos began to take over. The most important word there is the word ‘loan’. You need to pay those back.
So we went on a spending spree and expanded globally. We decided to have offices in so many different markets around the world. And flags on maps became more important than the quality of output or the quality of the staff we were employing. We grew far too quickly and we took our eye off the ball.
That was probably the making of the agency in a bizarre way. We learnt so many lessons in that 12- or 18-month period. It didn’t make the product any better, make us happier or create any more profit. So we went back to the basics. We closed some of those offices of low strategic and creative importance and focused on the key geographical hubs that our clients wanted to work with us in.
For me, the overriding lessons around international expansion are don’t do it in a hurry, stay true to your principles and take your clients on a journey with you. And because we’ve got back to those founding principles we now have 15 offices around the world - everywhere we need to be to deliver a true global footprint for the network.
LBB> How do you feel about the increasing presence of consultancies in the advertising sphere? I also feel that’s something that iris is a bit ahead of the curve on.
SB> We realised over ten years ago that if we could marry the skills of management consultancies with our strategic, brand and creative firepower, we would be unstoppable in the marketplace. So we always viewed management consultants as an interesting part that could add value to what classic creative agencies could do, probably a good seven or eight years before most of the management consultants started thinking about acquiring agencies.
In 2008 we acquired a management consultancy called Concise. We realised that their skills could allow us to sit on the top table with the clients to develop business strategy rather than implementing marketing strategy.
We’ve been benefitting from this for the last ten years. And iris Concise are in huge growth, in high demand, working across probably 80% of our clients, because they can see the benefits they deliver.
The success of Concise has meant that we’ve continued to look at other types of consultancy to acquire. We acquired a data agency called Datalytics because the power of data is critical in today’s marketplace. And more recently we’ve acquired Pricing Solutions, a pricing consultancy.
LBB> It must be a benefit too that your more traditional creative talent has learnt to work with the harder business side of the industry. I’m sure that’s something that a lot of these new consultancy-creative pairings are currently grappling with.
SB> Yes. For the first two years of the Concise acquisition it was difficult to truly understand each other because we were very different. We got into the industry for different reasons. There were those that got into it for an idealistic creative solution and people who got into it for business solutions.
But after about 18 months there was a moment where we began to understand each other. And it was my job to make sure the consulting side and the creative side of the business understood each other. It’s not an easy thing. You have to be culturally ready for that because there are different forces at play. But as soon as we started working on business together, the creatives realised they could get a huge amount of insight from working with people who understood how their work was affecting individuals, how data could be used to segment an audience in a way they hadn’t thought of before. On the face of it, you’ve got chalk and cheese, but it doesn’t feel like that now at iris. It’s a natural blend and we rely on each other.
LBB> What have you recently been most proud to work on? And what was it that specifically made it work?
SB> I’m proud of so much of the work that we produce as a network. I guess there are two that stand out to me. The first is the work we do for adidas. We’re adidas’s agency of record, globally, for football. One of the most exciting things we’ve done recently is for a product called adidas GLITCH. We’ve been working with adidas around developing the whole concept. It’s not ‘classic advertising’ and it’s difficult to say what type of work it is because it blends data analytics, creative, product development, design work and social to create something that’s never been done before in the world of football marketing. It’s a really exciting project that delivers against our proposition as an agency of ‘For the Forward’.
The second piece is more of a classic piece of communication. It’s my personal favourite in the 19 years I’ve been at iris. It’s the campaign we’ve developed for Jeep for the Super Bowl. It won the Super Bowl Clio award. And you know the competition and budgets that are put behind Super Bowl ads in the US. It’s the simplicity of the insight and the beauty of the execution, something I think is so rare. I never get bored watching it. I think it’s a beautiful piece of communication.
LBB> And what are your main aims for the coming months and years? Any areas you're specifically looking to grow in or improve on?
SB> We’re 19 years old now. And it honestly feels like we’re just getting going. We’re finding our place in the marketplace, our clients are understanding what we’re doing. We’re winning some amazing clients and the quality of the output we’re creating is better than ever.
We’ve just rebranded iris for the first time with a new logo and website and all the rest of it. But if I’m honest that’s not going to change anything. What is going to change and what excites and inspires me for the future is our proposition: ‘For the Forward’. That’s what we’re all about as an agency network. We’re here to help clients find their competitive advantage in the face of change and disruption.
We want to work with clients that realise that maintaining the status quo is a dangerous thing to do. You can’t just do what you’ve done before because there will be somebody else out there who will be willing to take risks in a way you weren’t.
LBB> What do you when you're not at work? Any hobbies or obsessions that take up your spare time?
SB> I love sport. It’s a brilliant way for me to try and switch off or refocus around the pressures we face within the industry. I’ve got three sons who are sport mad, so most of my weekend is spent standing on the side of a football pitch, rugby pitch or hockey pitch watching them play their sports. I still play football myself, or try to play central midfield for our local village vets team (I think over 37 is classified as a vet). I really enjoy playing golf as well. And spending time with my wife. So that is how I try and re-energise. It’s tough but it is the best job in the world. I’m so lucky to enjoy what I do in my home life and my work life.