Lessons in leadership: Agency Founder, Richard Perry
Richard shares his insights on building an award-winning agency and the importance of a strong network.
Richard Perry is partner of Founded - the agency "for brands with a commercial agenda". He spoke to Emma Love about how he made it in the creative industry.
Richard started his career at Gyro as a junior in 1995 and left the agency as COO in 2012; a true mailroom to boardroom story. He then went on to launch creative agency, Founded, with Richard Mabbott in 2012. They were the MAA’s Breakthrough Agency in 2015 and bought by iris in April 2016.
Hi Richard. Tell us - how did you break into the creative industry?
Back in the 1994 I made a video CV – it was pretty embarrassing but it was good enough to help me land a dozen interviews at the big advertising agencies and four job offers. I was about to go ahead when, by complete chance really, I met a couple of people who were running a tiny agency called Gyro. They really needed an account executive and I really liked them. The idea of going straight into the deep end and learning on the job was really compelling. I had just spent four years at uni so I wanted to get on with my career.
What happened next?
I was lucky because I got on really well with my boss and Gyro grew quickly – from four people to well over 650 - which presented constant opportunities for me to grow too. By the time we sold Gyro in 2008 I was COO and that was great but I had started to miss being on the floor, talking to clients.
It finally felt like the right time to start up Founded with Richard in 2012. We’d been talking about it for a while and finally launching from zero was a refreshing moment. I remember walking in from Waterloo with Rich on our first day, sitting at our rented desks and saying to each other ‘right, let’s make some phone calls". We didn’t have a business plan. That came later. We just knew we wanted to do good work.
What are you most proud of since launching Founded?
Winning P&O Cruises was a humbling moment. P&O took a big leap of faith to leave RKCR/Y&R for us – a relative unknown at the time - and it was humbling that a client would go on that journey with us. It made us hugely respectful of them and gave us an overwhelming pressure not to let them down. So the TV ad that aired on the Coronation Street slot on Christmas Day 2014 was a big moment for us. It wasn’t just because of the work and the results - which were exceptional - it was big because the client had completely believed in us. That was pretty cool.
Our intern scheme, Founded U, is something else I’m really proud of. So far we’ve helped over 30 people break into the industry and some have gone on to some brilliant roles. If we’ve had even a tiny part in helping them on their way, then that’s very rewarding to me. I’m a firm believer in Kevin Spacey’s ethos of "sending the elevator back down" if you’re doing well.
And of course the rest of the founders at Founded are massively talented and unbelievably hard working – it’s not easy starting an agency from scratch and we’d be nowhere without the guys – that’s why each and every employee is a shareholder of Founded – they thoroughly deserve it.
What nuggets of career advice can you share to people coming up the ranks?
Do not underestimate the importance of your network. The importance of talking to people. The importance of never closing doors. If you’re going to decline something, decline it with respect. The industry is pretty small so little things like that make a difference long term.
Respect is a big thing for us. Respect for the work, for each other, for the client. Especially for the client. Your clients are busy. They’re not waiting for your call. If they disagree with you, reflect. You might not agree but you must respect their feedback and make sure you understand it before you go charging in. If you value this, your clients will value you more.
Be positively naïve. Have a go. Don’t wait to be fed. You’re in the creative industry for a reason so say what you think, put that recommendation forward. Sometimes it’s better to seek forgiveness, not permission.
Play by grown up rules. Take responsibility for your own actions.
And for people in leadership roles – what’s important?
You need to be able to listen. Always be aware of what’s happening around you in the agency. Think about if everyone is alright, if you’re supporting your people and whether you’re leading from the front. And do it with humility.
Always keep the client agenda high on the list. Don’t let your board meetings be solely focused on the numbers. You should never stop talking about the work. That’s why we’re all here, right?
And never underestimate the power of positive culture. Agency culture can be immensely powerful when you’re working with the right people who all share the same ethos. It helps to be as honest as you can with your team.
Finally, try not to impose your own vision of success onto everyone else. We’re all different.
What are the key challenges you feel are facing agencies?
Well, it’s a crowded market. There’s almost no more room for another agency on the creative scene but there’s always room for a good place to work. If you can create the right culture, you can attract the right talent and do great work. Then you’ll start to make a name for yourself.
Agencies need to know what they’re good at and stick to it. If you can get under the hood of that then you’re probably onto something.
How do you know you’re doing a good job?
That’s a tough question for me as I always think that I can or should be doing better – it’s a chip on my shoulder that serves me well.
I get a buzz when I genuinely see people in my team advancing. It’s a big deal. To watch people achieving – a pitch win, a promotion, a great email from a client, whatever it might be – to me that’s massive.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking about launching their own agency?
Don’t rush it. It’s not a race. (That’s actually the advice my business partner gives me – he’s a lot more patient than I am).
Take your time finding the right people to launch with – really, really good people who you’re immensely comfortable with on a personal and professional level. If you set up with the wrong people and end up falling out, it’s probably game over.
Don’t be surprised if people suck their teeth and say "you know launching your own business is risky, right? You’ve got a mortgage" etc. You need to be pretty resolute right from the start. What’s the worst that’s going to happen?
And when you’ve decided to do it, get your head down and get on with it.