TFF: I’ve heard you’re a very democratic agency when it comes to deciding which briefs to take on.
N&S: That’s right! We have a web app called the moral compass that we use for every single brief that comes into the agency.
We allow everyone to vote on briefs based on two questions: ‘to what extent does this brand want to have a positive impact on the world?’ and ‘to what extent will this project have a positive impact on the world?’. Everyone gets a chance to vote and depending on the result we decide whether to accept the brief
TFF: Wow. That’s really putting your money where your mouth is! Have you taken that approach since day one?
N&S: When we first started out, Ben and I used to make the decision of who we worked with based on the question: ‘would you feel guilty telling your friends down the pub that you’re working with this client?’. For us, that said a lot, because both of us were environmental scientists originally and really cared about that stuff. As the company grew it was harder to quantify, so it was important we had something like the moral compass in place to instil the same values in every member of staff.
TFF: As the business owner, how does it feel that the ultimate decision to accept or decline briefs has been taken away from you?
N&S: It’s meant that we’ve turned down a lot of work and big contacts that financially I would’ve rather taken on, but maintaining our brand and culture pays off in other ways.
TFF: What do clients make of all this? It must feel quite nice to turn the tables of power!
N&S: Having a strong culture and a clearly articulated reason for being means that the conversation with a client feels more like a partner conversation rather than being just one of ten agencies. When we go into new business meetings saying clearly who we are, why we have selected to pitch on this, why we want to work with you specifically as a company- I think that makes us much more compelling.
TFF: At what point of the new business process do you let potential clients know that you may reject some of their projects?
N&S: If we are having initial conversations we will say, ‘just to make you aware, we will need to vote on this’, and that’s quite interesting because brands then often send us all sorts of additional information about the impact their campaigns are having, which is another real added bonus of sticking to our guns.
TFF: Nice and Serious is now 10 years old. What tip would you give to someone else embarking on growing an agency?
N&S: I think too many businesses grow for growth’s sake. Very rarely does growing your business solve problems, it often ends up creating more. So first I think it’s about being super clear on why you want to grow. Only do it if you’re confident it will help you achieve your vision. Then you’ll need to bring your team along with you. More often than not, growth will put additional pressure on their plates, so it’s essential that they understand why you’re doing it and how it will benefit them in the long run.
TFF: If you were suddenly granted an investment of £10m, what would you do?
N&S: Good question! Often money and big investments can make companies sloppy as everyone just whacks up their salaries and forgets the hustle, which you get from being a smaller agency. I think what I would definitely do is expand geographically. We recently entered the New York market; I would like to put more investment behind that and grow the team there. It’s already going well but I would like to accelerate that. I guess having money behind you gives you the luxury to take risks.
TFF: Hell yeah! And lastly, Tom, what is the most important thing you do every day?
N&S: You know what, it’s probably the small conversations you have about personal life with the team. It’s sitting down with them over lunch, forgetting work and speaking to them about normal things and about life. That is probably the most important thing to do every day and it’s so easy to forget that. Just remembering that you’re working with a bunch of lovely people and that there are more important things in their life than work I think is really important.
TFF: You really are so nice (and serious).