Despite leading an agency at the top of its game for almost 20 years, the Managing Partners at Frank are surprisingly humble, and still don’t take it for granted when new business opportunities come to them.
In this interview 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: Of course I know the name, but please tell me briefly about how & when the agency started.
Andrew: My early career was at Lynne Franks PR who were acquired by Ketchum. Graham Goodkind, was the MD of Lynne Franks. When Ketchum bought Lynne Franks he decided it wasn’t for him. A couple of years later he came to me and said “fancy setting up an agency?” I said no. I was 26. I actually said I don’t think I’m ready yet. I could do with a couple more years. But he said look, you never feel ready. Which was correct and wise because you never feel fully ready.
So we set up Frank together in 2000, and the idea was to be open, honest and no bullshit.
Alex joined in 2005 from Shine when we were super small. 12 people.
TFF: And then in 2007 Frank was acquired by Enero.
We were never planning to sell the agency, but the opportunity came along. And we’re still sat here 12 years later!
TFF: That’s extremely unusual!
They’re a brilliant partner and they’re a really good bunch of people. Genuinely I think we’re quite like-minded and similar in that we’re passionate about the work we’re doing. It’s not just a business.
We’re lucky. Someone once said to me, it’s really important when you’re acquired that you don’t lose that emotional connection with your baby. And I think that’s what Enero have allowed us to do. So whilst they own a majority stake in Frank, emotionally, we still feel like we own it.
They bought an agency where they loved the spirit and the vibe and the work and the people and they realise that in order to nurture that and grow it, you want those people to not feel like anything’s changed.
TFF: Are the future goals and ambitions of the agency set by you or them?
They are our ambitions, our targets and 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?
Maybe we’re losers, but we genuinely still get a buzz from what we do. We’re not doing it for any other reason than we love it here. We both still have massive ambitions for Frank. There’s no way we’ve achieved our potential. People always say, “oh, you must be so proud”. No! I mean, yes, but no, because there’s so much more to do.
It’s still challenging and we’re still learning! I mean I wish it was easy. I wish I was sitting here in a pair of slippers smoking a pipe, just watching the money rolling in, but it doesn’t work like that. There are always new challenges because you’ve got people, you’ve got clients and you’ve got new briefs.
We’re also quite competitive. Those hungry agencies that are coming up, that keeps us on our toes. Likewise, the big ones that we’re chasing down.
TFF: Do you keep an eye on your competitors?
Alex: Yes I like to know who’s on the pitch list and it makes me more competitive. Andrew doesn’t care.
Andrew: Because on our best days we can beat anyone in the world and on our worst we can lose to the shittiest sloppiest agency that’s out there. You can get obsessed with other people’s agency showreels and the story that they’re telling the outside world, but if you could see their behind the scenes video, you’d realise everyone’s a fucking shambles.
TFF: Are there any more plans for international expansion?
We don’t have plans for another Frank office, but we don’t have plans not to have another Frank office. If the right opportunity presents itself and we can make it work, then we might, but it would be talent lead.
Manc Frank started because a brilliant guy working here loved Frank but hated London. He was miserable down here. And we didn’t want to lose him from the business.
If someone brilliant here tomorrow said, I want to go back to Bristol because that’s my love, we would think about how we could do something in Bristol, because of them, not because of Bristol.
The diversity of creative thinking we’ve seen from having a Manchester office is one of the biggest benefits we’ve seen. It was accidental, if I’m being honest – we didn’t set up for that reason – but outside of the London bubble you get different attitudes, different views on people, culture, society…
TFF: There’s always such a good vibe when you step into any of your offices.
We try and provide an environment which allows people to be themselves. So you don’t have to conform. It’s not about acting in a certain way, it’s just a bunch of individuals who we’ve taken on board, who we love and respect and admire and we allow them to be themselves. 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 a bit quieter. We just let people flourish and be their best self, which sounds a bit wanky, but it’s the reality.
TFF: What about retention. That’s a challenge for all agencies.
I think 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 a potential here and can do well and don’t try and keep people here 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 show them that opportunity.
It’s our job and responsibility to try and spot talent and find a way to make it work. 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?
We try and avoid people 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 a certain skills that get you to a particular level. But then there’s a lot of intangible stuff in this industry that adds value, 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. So you play to people’s strengths. Their weaknesses can’t be at a level where they’re detrimental to the running of a piece of business. But rather than saying you’re not doing this, you need to be better at that. Actually the skill is saying, you know what? You’re fucking amazing at this bit. Let’s really focus on this bit that you’re great at and you’ll be world class. And then if that means adapting their role, or creating a completely new role within the agency, so be it. We’ve got Frankers who’ve been here for 5+ years and have done 2-3 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: We started doing flexi 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 at 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) and people can work around that.
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 comes in, and vice versa, and 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 just to round off the week and celebrate. But otherwise the rest of the time it’s up to you how you 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. So we like to think it’s a fun place to spend time.
TFF: Have there been any teething problems?
There hasn’t been any abuse of it. It’s very cliché, but you know if you treat people like grownups, 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?
That’s interesting that you ask. At one point we actually launched an app. A Frank Feedback app that clients downloaded and scored us against five measures. It was really simple but clients didn’t adopt it. When we were talking to them they were like, we’d just much rather have a chat. So that’s what we do!
All the spreadsheets in the world can’t prove you’re doing a good job if the client doesn’t feel like you’re doing a good job. If you’ve got a gut feeling that it’s not quite 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 feel like it’s going as well as it could. Or I don’t feel like your team are responding. Let’s sit down and have a coffee.
TFF: What have you found to be the main challenges or obstacles to growing the business?
Running an agency is not difficult on paper. Basically 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. It’s been constant success. Actually 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: Nothing comes easy, right? You’ve got to work for it. My mum always used to tell me when I was growing up that the world doesn’t owe you a living, and she was right! You get out what you put in, and 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 it’s one of the things that keeps us coming back 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 we’re delivering some brilliant work, something has slipped on the people side or actually we’ve got an amazingly happy team but 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’. Bollocks. No agency does that. That is the agency world and it’s how you cope and how well and how fast you can get all those plates spinning and when one does drop and smash, 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 the peak of what they’re doing are still having challenges, or could be doing things better, or could be moving faster or are missing opportunities.
So yeah you do have to be resilient in this game, but I think that’s why we’re still doing it nearly 20 years in and still learning.
TFF: If you could share one lesson to someone embarking on growing an agency…?
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, and yes we celebrated, but then got back into the office and got on with the next thing. It’s about that balance and I think we’ve had some setbacks and failings along the way, but nothing that has broken us. You’ve got to brush yourself down and come back.
I always think back to the day we sold the agency. We were in the lawyers 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 were like, come on, let’s go to this champagne bar down the road. And we we’re like, 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 in the 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 shows me the potential of what we can achieve. So next year is about pushing the boundaries.
We’ve always said, if we’re focused on the work and we get the work right, the rest will follow.