Episode 158

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Remember when it sounded crazy to remote employees scattered all over the country?  Or even crazier, in multiple countries? The truth is today, it’s becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Many agencies are choosing a hybrid approach, with a central office and staff in a brick and mortar location, but also with remote full-time and part-time workers. Some agencies are going all-in on remote work, ditching the central office and becoming, in the words of my podcast guest for this episode, “location-agnostic.”

I am intrigued by this, to say the least. I worked for and built businesses in an era when you went where the work was, whether you loved that particular center of commerce or not. But our business is changing, and the agency owners I work with are shifting into this new normal as well.

I had some big questions about becoming totally location-agnostic. How do you develop a strong culture when you all work in different places? How do the clients feel about it? How do you do the collaborative work that agencies are known for when you are scattered all over?

My guest on this episode is Brendon Craigie, co-founder and managing partner at Tyto PR. Tyto is a pan-European company with a fully location-agnostic staff.

Is building a healthy and happy work culture possible with an all-remote team? Brendon is finding the answer to that is a resounding “yes!” But there is more to his company than a remote workforce. They are intentionally flat, hiring well-seasoned creative “black belts” rather than having junior-level staff as worker bees. They are finding this to be a business model that’s rewarding to clients as well as the firm itself.

In his role, Brendon leads the agency and is heavily involved in counseling clients on strategic and creative matters. As an experienced global CEO, he also enjoys working closely with other CEOs on broader business and communications strategies.

Prior to launching Tyto, Brendon was the global CEO of Hotwire. As part of Hotwire’s founding team, he rose through the ranks to become CEO, and during his six-year tenure in the position he doubled the company’s size and repositioned it into a top 50 global challenger brand. Brendon’s achievements were recognized through multiple awards.

Brendon has worked across Europe, Asia, and the U.S. with a host of global names including Cisco, Microsoft, and Google. During his career, Brendon has helped to devise strategies and support campaigns for high-growth companies entering Europe to grow their brands and business. These campaigns often extended several years and included several early-stage companies, such as GoPro and BlackBerry, that have become multibillion-dollar successes, while others achieved the exits they desired.

 

 

What You Will Learn About in This Episode:

  • The virtues of being a location-agnostic company
  • The logistics and financial implications of an all-remote workforce
  • Creating a culture in a virtual agency
  • Building a flat organization with seasoned, high-level, customer-facing staff
  • When you meet with colleagues, how to meet with a purpose
  • How to bring the best ideas forward through a “creative sprint” process
  • When and how a virtual workforce can get together in the real world – preferably for a mix of work and play
  • A cost/benefit analysis of having a staff of seasoned professionals
  • How to angle for that non-contested pitch to your ideal clients
  • Baking insight and research into the way you do business and how you get new business.

The Golden Nuggets:

“All the things you do to build a culture in a standard office, can be done in a location-agnostic environment as well.” – @brendoncraigie Click To Tweet “Having this team of people that come from different places, who are coming at things from different perspectives, brings more creativity to our clients.” – @brendoncraigie Click To Tweet “Because we have this seasoned group of professionals that have worked in agencies and know what they're doing, we never end up with a terrible idea or strategy.” – @brendoncraigie Click To Tweet “With an all-remote staff, the tradeoff of higher travel costs is more than offset by the savings in office infrastructure.” – @brendoncraigie Click To Tweet

 

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Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build a Better Agency podcast, presented by HubSpot. We’ll show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody, Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better agency. Today I want to talk about a lot of different things with my guest. Brendon Craigie is from the UK, you’ll hear it in his accent immediately. But he’s worked globally for most of his career and I’ll have him tell you a little bit more about some of the agencies that he’s worked at. He’s worked for huge, large agencies and just in this last year or so in October of 2017 he left an agency and started his own. And he’s got some really interesting ideas for the agency that he’s building. It’s really a pan-Asian agency working globally across Europe and Asia and into the U.S. as well in a new way of thinking about PR. And they’ve got some really interesting structure around their agency so we’re going to dig into all of that.

What I’m hoping to talk to him about is a variety of things. One, he’s been pretty vocal about his opinion of how PR is changing and how he wanted to build a different kind of PR agency, which by the way, is applicable to you if you are a traditional agency, a marketing agency, a digital shop, it doesn’t matter, his ideas are still applicable to all of us. But I think that there’ll be some interesting conversation around that.

He also, their agency is what they call location-agnostic, many of you would call that a virtual agency. And I want to dig into how they made the decision to go that way from the very beginning, and now several months into the experiment how it’s working and how they are creating culture and continuity in an agency where no one is in the same place at the same time on a daily basis. So we have lots to talk about with Brendon and I think you’re going to find the conversation very applicable to you, very useful and my hope is very practical. So let’s just get started. All right, without further ado, I want to welcome Brendon Craigie to the podcast. Brendon, thanks for joining us.

Brendon Craigie:

It’s a pleasure. Glad to be here.

Drew McLellan:

Tell everybody a little bit about your background and how you came to be in the role that you’re in today.

Brendon Craigie:

Yeah, well, I mean, I guess winding back to the beginning I studied politics. I was heavily involved in student newspapers, organizing events on campuses and things. And so I thought to myself what could I do from a career perspective which would allow me to bring those passions for influencing people into my career and I decided public relations was the route for me. And then I started off working for a large global agency called Weber Shandwick. Was there for about 18 months and then the founder of the division I was working on which was focused on technology left to start a new agency which was called Hotwire. And I was young and bold and didn’t really have any fear and so I thought the idea of joining a startup sounded like a really brilliant idea.

Drew McLellan:

Of course.

Brendon Craigie:

And so I joined this startup agency and I was one of the first five employees. And from that point I stayed with that agency for 17 years and saw it go from a few people to being 250 people spanning across continental Europe, Australia, and the U.S. And for the final six years of my time with the agency I was the global CEO, so I run a global agency. And majority of my time I was based out of Europe but traveling internationally but for the last two years I was working out of New York and San Francisco. I’ve got quite a broad international perspective on public relations and growing an international agency.

And then 18 months or so I’m about to turn 40. In the businesses I was the CEO of, I was not the owner of, I was reporting to a public holding company and I just thought I wanted to create something new, I wanted to create something fresh. And I was really drawn to the idea of starting with a blank sheet of paper and thinking about how I could take everything I’d learned and create something completely different. And so in October of 2017 I founded a new agency called Tyto which is a pan-European agency focused on the colliding worlds of technology, science, and innovation. And yeah, we’re just over six months in, we’ve got 14 employees, a bunch of clients and it’s going really well.

Drew McLellan:

How does it feel? I mean, 20 years ago you were part of a startup and now 20 years now you’re not only part of a startup but it’s your startup so the financial implications obviously are different. What did you take with you from the first experience you had, a kid right out of school joining an agency, how did you apply that learning to what you’re doing today? What were some of the rules for yourself or were some of the, I want to remember these lessons as you were launching your new agency?

Brendon Craigie:

Well, I mean, I think in a startup environment, I think it is all about the hustle, the energy.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah.

Brendon Craigie:

But I guess really I think there’s two things to building a successful agency from the early days. One, I think you need to have a clear sense of your own vision and purpose and what you’re trying to do, and that needs to make sense to more people than yourself otherwise it’s not really going to be very successful. It needs to be something that’s going to resonate with people. But then you need a lot of hustle and passion and you’ve got to be out there networking, meeting people, telling people the story. So I think it’s that combination of having a clear proposition and strategy which is differentiated, but then having the energy and the enthusiasm to back it up.

Drew McLellan:

I know you said that the focus of the new agency or the DNA of the new agency is this mix of technology and science and innovation. Talk to us a little bit about… Because I think a lot of agencies are wrestling with what is the place of all of that inside their agency especially if they’re a traditional agency they’ve been around for a long time. How do you wrap your work in and around all of that?

Brendon Craigie:

Well, I mean, I think as you go through your career certain expressions stay with you. And I think that one of those expressions that stuck with me over the years is that people hire specialists they don’t hire generalists-

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Brendon Craigie:

… From a sector perspective. And so that’s why we’re rooted in a specialism. But I think what I learnt from my last agency is if you pin your self to a very specific area then it can potentially be limiting…

Drew McLellan:

Especially as crazy as the world is today with all the change and speed of change, yeah.

Brendon Craigie:

Exactly and then I guess… That’s why we didn’t go for tech specifically. But I think the other reason why we didn’t just go for the tech is that we think the world has changed and technology is, everyone is a technology company. Innovation is the mantra of any business and science is integral to technology and that technology is the application of science. And so we really wanted something that was a little bit broader. It helped that my co-founder came from a science comms background. And so yes, we want it to be a specialist but we wanted to just have a slightly different take on things.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So the agency, I know you’ve been writing about a lot and I’ve been reading your take on PR agencies of old versus PR agencies today. Talk to us a little bit about your view of how does one, because this is what you’re doing right now, how does one build a PR agency for the modern age and how is it different and how do you position it differently than the old school PR?

Brendon Craigie:

Yeah, I mean, I think we haven’t written it but we actually started writing a book about PR and a lot of the thinking that was going to go into that book actually then went into the agency. And I think what we came away from that review of public relations and the discussions around it was that on one hand there seems to be this general feeling that is PR dead, there’s a lot of discussion around that. And then at the same time reputation has never been more important.

And I think that sometimes people think about different… I think sometimes people get caught up in the semantics of the different ways that people communicate rather than actually thinking about the big picture. I think the big picture is that PR is about helping companies to build and manage and evolve their reputations. And so from our perspective we thought PR isn’t dead. But then I think in terms of communicating in the modern age that you do need a broader set of skills through which you then look to build and manage reputation.

And so, yes, I guess we’ve really looked at what does PR mean in the modern world. And I think it’s about… Yeah, it’s about helping companies to develop their story and then tell their story and then influence the people that matter. And I think that whole area of who is influential in the world today is interesting. It’s quite common if you’re walking or working in agencies today for people to be a little bit down on the media, a little bit down on media relations, treat it as a commodity. They see it as a commodity product. But we think that the media is highly influential and that the media aspects of public relations is very important.

But we want it to look at that within a wider context. So one of the first thing that we did was in the buildup to launching our agency is we did our own little bit of proprietary research where we were looking at the 500 most influential people in technology. And we cast a really wide net so we weren’t limiting it specifically to journalists, but we’re looking at broad business influences. And then we created an objective methodology for evaluating influence which included social media influencing, included profile and presence at conferences, media profile, the domain authority of blogs and so we look to influence in the widest possible sense.

And as a consequence of that we ended up with these 500 influential people. About 150 of them are journalists but 350 of them were just broader influencers. And I think that bit of research in a way ties back to this conversation about public relations in that it’s about helping your clients to influence agendas, be positioned as thought leaders but in order to do that I can’t overlook the media but you need to think a little bit more widely than just the traditional media.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, I think that’s one of the biggest changes, is that it used to be where you had your media list of the reporters and editors of the X number of publications that had influence in your space and if you’ve got a story and some of those, you could check the box and you were done. But now the people who tell the stories are much broader and they’re not as defined by their title anymore, now it’s… You’re right, I think you have to do more investigating to figure out who are the influencers. You create relationships with them, and it’s not as clean as just pitching a story anymore.

Brendon Craigie:

No.

Drew McLellan:

Because now some influencers want to get paid. Reporters obviously can’t get paid. You’ve got all kinds of different things so I think in some ways the PR world is, A, more relevant but, B, more complicated than it used to be.

Brendon Craigie:

Yeah, absolutely. And I think it’s having some rigor around that. I think it’s fine to have your Rolodex of influences in journalists, what we really wanted to do is to put a little bit of science around how we determined who was and wasn’t influential and not limited to one particular metric but actually look at a broader sense of what it means to be influential.

Drew McLellan:

The list of metrics you talked about, some of them were… What their role was in the industry some of it was about their presence in key shows and events.

Brendon Craigie:

Right, yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Some of it was their authorship of thought leadership material and the domain strength of their own personal media channels. What were some of the other things that-

Brendon Craigie:

Well, the strength of their individual networks, so how connected were they on LinkedIn, how connected were they through social media, how widely were they written about, how prominent were they in the media? So a real a mix of everything that you can possibly objectively determine.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Recently you wrote a piece about some of the things that you think a lot of PR agencies are clinging to from the past that perhaps they need to shed like the idea of filling their ranks. I know one of the goals you and your agency was to fill your staff with people who had communications black belts, I guess.

Brendon Craigie:

Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Talk a little bit about that in contrast to, I think based on what you wrote what I think is you’re saying is a lot of PR shops are filling their ranks with what I call junior woodchucks, super young people who don’t have a lot of experience.

Brendon Craigie:

Yeah. Yeah, and I mean, with these types of things it’s very hard sometimes to separate your own personal interest and passion with what’s necessarily the right thing to do. But from my perspective having run a large agency I wanted to be surrounded by people that could challenge me and that could create this virtuous circle of people with experience that could challenge each other into doing the very best possible work.

And so I think some of that, making the argument for that is I think if you look at the traditional agency model agencies are structured around pyramids, you have a few senior people at the top, lots of junior people at the bottom. In London, for instance, an account executive who might have a couple years experience will be charged out £100 an hour. If you annualize that over the year they’ll be expected to build clients about £120,000 a year and those individuals are probably been paid £20,000 a year. So you have a situation where clients are paying a £20,000 a year resource, £120,000 a year. And from a client perspective that doesn’t seem to be good value.

Drew McLellan:

It certainly gives impetus to the argument of why so many clients are creating their own in-house departments.

Brendon Craigie:

Yeah, I think that’s a very good point, yeah. And so we’ve just gone down a very different approach. We’re looking to hire people that have perfected and honed their skills and want to work in environment where they can be practitioners rather than managers. And so, yeah, it’s just creates a very different type of dynamic. I think that for people going through the traditional agency career ladder, they get to account manager or account director and they’re increasingly forced down the route of becoming managers and in the process they stop learning. From a communications perspective the learning dries up. They learn from being in a management perspective but that’s not necessarily the path that everyone wants to go down.

And so we’ve got quite a niche profile of the person that we’re looking for, which is people that really enjoy what they do. They want to continue to perfect their skills and they want to become these communications black belts rather than become managers. And so, yeah, it’s a different approach. It works well for us it might not be right for everyone, but I think what it means is that we’ve got a team of people that are operating at the very highest possible level. The lowest common denominator in our team is still someone with a tremendous amount of experience and skills and it just creates a really dynamic environment.

Drew McLellan:

As I’m listening to you I’m thinking about a couple of things. One, one of the reasons why agencies are structured and as you call it the pyramid model is because the economics of that are the agencies may have to pay their top tier people, obviously a larger salary and not everybody’s billable all of the time. And so one of the economics is if my more junior people are the workhorses in terms of billable hours, they then support some of the higher level people being sometimes billable, sometimes not billable, maybe they’re more involved in the development of other things. I’m curious, how does it economically work for you? If everybody is more of a senior level person, how are you finding economics of that so far?

Brendon Craigie:

I think you obviously need to have an idea of what their value is and you need to have a clear understanding of what’s your business model in order to make those… The fact you’re paying people higher salaries, profitable, but that’s really just about ratios between what you charge and the cost of those individuals. I think we have a very lean model so we don’t have many operationals, well, we don’t have any operational support people because I think there’s so many cool technologies today to make those things easier. And I think also if you have a team of people who have a lot of experience, they’re self-managed, they require less of that support structure-

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely, I agree.

Brendon Craigie:

… In order to support them. We have a slightly different model in that we’re location-agnostic and we don’t have an office. So when you… I guess really what we did is that we had this vision that we wanted to be the perfect partner to our clients. And what we wanted to do was to really double down on the things that we thought made a difference to our clients and talent is obviously one, and really stripped away the things that we don’t think make a difference. And so like you say, a lot of those top heavy agency structures, a lot of those roles are really, they’re not client-facing roles, they’re not roles that make a difference to clients. They’re there to keep the machine running, and I think our model just requires less of that infrastructure to be successful.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Well, do you think that the model that you’re building now, do you think that that limits you in terms of size? Can you be a 200-person agency in the model you’re building or… And I know that may not be your goal at all. I’m just thinking as I’m listening to you talk and I’m thinking, “Okay, if everybody is at a senior level and so basically you’re a very flat organization, then-

Brendon Craigie:

I mean…

Drew McLellan:

Does that put any limits on growth, do you think?

Brendon Craigie:

I think it potentially puts limits on growth in maybe potentially in particular geographies but initially we’re focusing on Europe so we’re looking to build a pan-European team that works as one across borders which we can maybe talk a little bit