Speaking to Dimi Albers, Dept’s CEO, he shares the pros and cons of leading by gut feel, moving at pace, and cementing relationships with parties.
These guys are enviably cool, don’t take business too seriously, and are achieving astonishing expansion.
TFF: I don’t know if anyone has emulated the growth that you have done?!
Yeah they say its unique. Although for us it almost becomes normal-ish.
Within the next four or five years, we want to be a global top ten agency who is well regarded in all the lists, from the Gartner quadrant to the big awards shows.
TFF: What percentage of your clients work with Dept offices in more than one country?
At the moment, about 65%-ish of clients work with different core capabilities, and then I would say around 20%-ish of our clients work with teams across different borders.
TFF: Considering the speed of your growth, that level of client development is very impressive!
Is there anything specific you do to encourage clients to buy more services?
What we do is basically help our clients to get the best results out of digital, make sure their brand is as strong as it can be, and get the best sales. If you do it from that mindset then you can see gaps in what clients are doing. We might be doing their digital platform, and we see that their digital marketing is not up to par, so we show the client, you can do this and this better. And then they say, hey I’m interested in that, and it goes from there.
TFF: You make it sound so simple! I suppose it’s about pro-actively having those conversations.
Most of your growth has been via acquisitions, which I’ve always felt to be a risky way of growing. What’s your approach?
It’s just like with a good party – it starts at the door! When we are talking to agencies to possibly join Dept, we make sure that they are the right people who share our culture. Whereas a lot of people who do acquisitions look at the numbers, we actually look at people. Of course, you have to have healthy growth and a nice profit, but the main thing we spend our time on is the people and the clients. Do we connect with them? Are we working towards the same goals for our clients? Do we share the same goals in life? Because if that is the case then a lot of things become easier.
TFF: It’s certainly easier to analyse numbers! How do you identify a potentially good fit when it comes to people?
Early in the process, we’ll have a day where we bring 3-6 people from the agency to our HQ in Amsterdam. This is still before anything gets official. We spend the morning on the impact they are making for their clients, the way they work, what makes them tick etc., and then the afternoon on the numbers part.
So, after this session, you’ve either found new friends and realised you laughed half of the time, or things became very serious and complicated. The second bucket is not really our thing.
TFF: How do you go about integrating new agencies into the Dept family?
We’ve become quite experienced with onboarding new agencies so we have a clear programme for it. The simple version is, an agency joins and we’ll do an induction day – a day where we have people from other Dept locations come into their office, run a Q&A, show them all the work, do a few fun games, and really get to know them. Then there’s a 100-day program where we make sure our client teams align, the financial systems are okay, that people are connected to Slack and Facebook Workplace, all those kind of things. It’s a combination of making sure that everything is client-first and having a really strong program from a cultural perspective.
TFF: I’ve noticed that when a new agency joins Dept they don’t rebrand immediately. Why is that?
That’s right. They normally do it somewhere 4-8 months after they join us. But there isn’t a strict plan, we wait until the founders say, okay it’s probably time.
TFF: Is there a reason why don’t they do it straight away?
The main reason is client-related. Clients have to feel comfortable with it and we have to show them that it adds value. So they join us and we immediately help them with the capabilities we have across Dept. Once the clients can feel and literally see we’re adding value as a whole, then it’s logical to rebrand.
Then, from the people perspective, you want them to have a soft landing, wait until they have met and worked together with colleagues from other teams and then it’s very logical for them to also become Dept.
TFF: What advice could you give to someone else considering acquiring another agency? When doesn’t it go well or work smoothly?
It maybe sounds a bit weird, but for the people who have founded an agency, selling their business is a major event, akin to your kid going to school or university. So that means that from our perspective we need to have understanding and empathy. One of the ways it has gone wrong in the past is when we have taken things for granted – taken for granted how heavy this is.
Secondly, it doesn’t go well if you’re not able to work together on clients. So if for instance we go into a new market with a very specialist agency and we have trouble cross selling their services, we are not working together. If our people are not working together then we’re never going to get a connection and they won’t get the benefits of being part of something bigger. So I think that’s where it can be a bit bumpy.
We’ve also found that there are a few traits in our Dutch culture which are tough for people from other cultures to work with. We are very open and direct but can be a bit blunt and harsh sometimes. We tend not to overthink things, so if we see an opportunity and we feel that it is going to work, then we go for it. I still think that being really fast is really good, but we also need to make sure that everyone embraces the steps we take.
TFF: These things get harder the bigger you get right?
We might appear quite big, but if you were to work with us or walk around an office, it feels like a very local agency. Informal, open and super client centric. If someone wants to talk to me they can just walk up – we don’t have separate offices. Otherwise, you become this corporate thing and the corporate thing is everything that we don’t want to be.
So I think it’s a balancing act when you get bigger. We are always discussing whether something is good, does it make us better, or does it make us too corporate.
TFF: What else do you do to keep the good vibes?
Simple things. For instance, the office has been designed by an interior design duo that had never designed an office, and have never designed an office again since. They only design hotels and restaurants, which are places that people want to go to. So if you walk into our office, it feels like a place you want to be. Clients come in, they like it, they work here. I think that taking care of that place, where we spend all of those hours, is a smart thing to do because it makes people happy.
Another example; once a year we have a big festival here in Amsterdam. It’s roughly 2,500 people, both clients and people from Dept. At the end of the festival, all of the clients go home, the Depsters get into buses, and we go to our weekender location where we have two days with the team, to build our culture and share goals for the upcoming year.
TFF: You mentioned Dept being client centric, but it actually sounds ultra people centric, and fun at that!
We can’t wait to see what you manage to achieve in the next few years. Good luck!