A lot of people have a lot of gripes with our industry. “The client/agency relationship is broken”… “I’ve not left on time for six months”… “that meeting I was in was completely pointless”.
Some people just moan. Others do something about it. Amelia Torode definitely falls into the latter category.
One of the smartest (and nicest) strategists in the industry, Amelia founded The Fawnbrake Collective because she believed there was a better way of doing things.
She believed there’s a better way to work with clients. A better way to come up with ideas. A better way to fit work around your family (not fit family around your work).
In our chat, which takes place after a morning of meetings and before Amelia picks her kids up from school, we discuss the frustrations that led to the formation of The Fawnbrake Collective.
We also talk about what she learnt working for some of the biggest and best agencies in the world — from Berlin Cameron and OgilvyOne in the US, to Naked and VCCP in the UK — as well as what she looks for in a strategist, why no-one really cares about your career as much as you do, and a whole lot more.
Amelia’s perspective is inspiring. And while she reiterates to me that The Fawnbrake Collective is not an agency, I still think there’s a lot that agencies can learn from it.
Part one: Playing politics, tackling a WPP Fellowship and the industry’s quest for the top table…
Do you remember the first time you really fucked up in your career?
Oh God, what a horrible first question! All of us make mistakes, but it’s how you learn and how you move on. I think that whole ‘fail fast’ thing is a bit misleading, it’s actually ‘fail forward’. And I suppose as long as you don’t make the same mistakes again, then I think that’s fine.
Early on I think I sometimes misjudged the people ‘who really mattered’. I made the mistake of relying on other people to tell my story about the work I was doing. Being burnt by that helped me realise that I needed to tell my own story.
What sparked that change?
Jeremy Bullmore was my mentor when I was a WPP fellow, and he said to me ‘nobody cares about your career as much as you do’, and it’s really true. You can’t rely on other people batting for you. It’s not HR’s job, it’s not your line manager’s job — you need to actively manage what you want to do. You assume that if you’re good at your job and you do good work, people know that you did it. But sometimes people are really busy, there are 20 grads all doing great work, and you need to say: ‘I did this and I’m really proud of it.’
So I imagine the WPP fellows scheme was a pretty brilliant way to get educated in advertising?
It was amazing. It was the brainchild of Jeremy and Martin (Sorrell). And their insight was that clients train graduates far better than agencies do. So if you went to British Airways as a grad, you’d spend time with logistics, you’d spend time checking people in, you’d spend time in marketing, you’d spend time on an aeroplane, and at the end of it you’d be really well rounded. You’d understand the business and you’d understand all the elements of it.
Yet you come into the creative industry and you’re simply ‘an adman’, or ‘a PR’, or ‘a techie’. And WPP’s perspective was that we do ourselves a disservice with that. The whole insight back then was three years, three different disciplines, and if you wanted to, three different countries. And that was just amazing.
So what did you cover?
My first year was in advertising at JWT, but whilst I was there I was getting very excited about the internet — it was 1997 — so I spent a lot of time in the basement with the IT guys asking them questions and reading a lot about digital. My second year was at Mindshare, half of which was spent doing classic media and the other half doing digital media, and by that point I was completely hooked.
My final year was then in the States working at Ogilvy Interactive, and at the end of those three years it meant I understood about brands, media and technology, and how you connect them. To have had that start was such a help.
Was it very different working in US agencies compared to ones in the UK?
Yeah. I started working in the States in 1999, which was the peak of the dot-com boom, and Ogilvy couldn’t hire people fast enough. We were literally having people sit in corridors. There were weird pop-up desks everywhere. But I guess the thing that really interested me in America was how many people owned shares. There was a whole culture of investing — people would come in in the morning and everybody, from the grads to the management, would check their share portfolio. Everybody had money invested in brands. So the conversations we would all have were as much business-orientated as they were marketing-focused.
On the subject of ‘business v brand’, what’s your take on how agencies have tried to transition to become ‘partners who sit at the top table’, rather than just ‘doing your advertising’?
Firstly, having spent time properly embedding into clients in the past year, I can tell you that if you don’t understand the business bit, then just understanding marketing really well will never get you to the top table. There’s always that balance. There are elements of ‘magic’ that agency people have, but the whole ‘we want to be at the top table’ strikes me as naïve. No-one has the right to be anywhere. If you’re good and have an impact then you’ll be invited in, but it can’t just be because of the industry they’re in.
At The Fawnbrake Collective, the way our model works is that when we start working with a client they agree to give us a space. So the agency pops up and embeds in. And when you’re actually there with a client it’s totally different. You’re seeing sign-up numbers and you’re seeing customer care going on. It’s not all about ‘the brand’ and ‘the great outdoor campaign’ that you’re working on. They’re important, sure, but you realise it doesn’t take up a huge amount of the client’s time.
Part two: The personable side of planning, the birth of The Fawnbrake Collective and what really pisses clients off…
Do you need to have a close relationship with a client to be a good planner?
Well I’d say I like working with clients. I guess I’m quite extroverted and I like asking the questions and talking to people. And I do think you need to be in a client’s pocket to understand their business. But I guess I’ve always felt slightly fraudulent about calling myself a planner, because I always thought that planners were those who spent years coming through the advertising world and had been on all the planning courses etc.
So I guess I should say to be a good ‘strategist’ rather than good ‘planner’?
When I started at JWT I was a suit, then I’d always done ‘strategy’, but I remember coming back from the States and I had about ten years’ experience, including the WPP Fellowship and time at Naked, and agencies I was speaking to were saying ‘you’ve done all this strategy work, but it’s digital strategy and comms planning. In terms of pure planning, we want someone who’s done ten years of pure advertising planning — why would we hire you?’
I didn’t get any of the jobs. And I thought ‘this is where I see brands going and that’s why you need someone different’. So huge credit to VCCP, I remember at that time they totally understood what I was trying to talk about. And they took the job spec they had for a traditional planner and ripped it up. Ian (Priest) and Dale (Gall) said ‘there’ll be a better person to be a planner on ING Direct, but you could do something else for us instead.’ Whereas every agency I’d spoken to before was saying ‘but we just need a planner on Weetabix’.
These frustrations you’ve talked about so far — is that ultimately why The Fawnbrake Collective came about?
I think I got to a point where it struck me that the way that really good people wanted to work — and I think importantly the way that clients wanted to work — weren’t being met by the current structures. One of the analogies I started to think about was that big agencies were working a bit like the Fat Duck at Bray, where you get told ‘this is what you’re going to eat, here are the 12 courses on a set menu, here’s the wine that we recommend with each course’. And it’s great. But it costs you a fortune and dinner takes 8 hours.
That’s right for some people. But if I think about how Yo! Sushi works…the quality’s still good. It’s not Roka but it’s still good. And you say “I’d like a bit of that…That one’s more expensive because it’s better quality but I like it…I didn’t think I’d want that but it looks tempting…” And actually agencies could work like that. Agencies need to make their services simpler to buy. Sometimes they need to be more like Yo! Sushi.
And it was clear to you that most agencies didn’t want that?
The structures didn’t allow it. Clients were getting pissed off with it. They were frustrated with things like the ‘pitch and switch’. They’d look into the eyes of people in the pitch and buy their thinking, appoint them and then never see them again.
I looked at the way that scopes are put together, and agencies are incentivised if something takes longer. Clients want something faster and flatter — and I had a hypothesis that they’d be prepared to pay for it.
If you think about a pitch, you get a load of people in a room, you work really fucking hard, and you get somewhere by the end of the day. And actually from a strategy perspective, you may kick the tyres for a bit, but nine times out of ten where you were early on was probably right. You can always sharpen it, but directionally you can get somewhere fast.
And more transparent too, considering you’re often working out of a client’s office?
I remember we were doing a big project with Tandem, who are a big competitor to Monzo, Everything was up on the wall and suddenly the CEO wandered in. We were supposed to have a big presentation to him the following Wednesday, but he saw everything. At the time I was like ‘for fuck sake’, but actually because he’d seen it all and read all the post-its, the meeting didn’t turn into a reveal, it turned into a conversation about the thoughts he liked.
How did you make sure The Fawnbrake Collective was built to reflect your way of thinking?
First we tried to think about how we created the right structure. If your starting point is that clients want to work differently and people want to work differently, then you have to look at what’s desired and take the pain points and friction out of it.
We did a load of ‘what ifs’. Firstly we looked at physical space. Having an agency office costs you a huge amount of money, and you feel like you need to be there. Because if you’re not then it’s a waste of money. And if you’re not there, then where are you? So we asked ‘what if we didn’t have a physical space?’
Then we looked at emails. We knew that emails were painful. So we asked: ‘what if we didn’t have emails?’
And then we looked at people management. Once you’re an employee of somebody, you need appraisals, you need much more admin, so we asked ‘what if we didn’t have any staff?’
Actually, there are plenty of great things about being in an agency. When an agency works they’re like pacers. That’s how marathon runners run — you have different people who help you speed up or slow down — and great agency departments work as pacers. You get better and sharper and faster.
So we knew we had to keep the centre as lean as possible — it’s literally just myself and my founder Sera, plus a virtual assistant called Anne who lives in Northumberland who we’ve never met. And then everyone else are Fawnbrakers, who are part of the ‘Collective’.
Part three: Identifying talent, enjoying success at VCCP and becoming a working mum…
So how do you become a Fawnbraker?
Funnily enough an email I had early on was asking if there was a test to get in. We thought about it and decided no. But then we’d say to each other “ah, but what if the people are shit!? What do we do!?”. From that discussion a structure started to build. The entity is called The Fawnbrake Collective, but what if there are two bits of it? One part is the ‘Collective’: open-to-all, independent, great for the freelance person who’s looking to be in a crew, who’s looking to be less lonely and looking for a community. We hold socials and we do field trips together, we do strat hacks and nightly hackathons for charity. Those are the ways we get to know each other and work together.
And then there’s Fawnbrake, which is the commercial consultancy. We create teams based out of the people in the Collective, who we’ve seen in the strat hacks and on field trips who would be right for the project.
It means our rationale is that for the people who are coming to us, it’s not all about transaction. There are other brilliant collectives who you join because the expectation is ‘work’, but The Fawnbrake Collective is a little different — and this may be naïve — in that it’s a social community as well as it being financial.
How do you go about ensuring you get the diversity required? How do you spread the word of The Fawnbrake Collective so it’s not the same type of people?
When you have socials and look around the faces, it’s actually more diverse than any agency — in terms of backgrounds, in terms of ethnicity and in terms of where they live. People are coming from all over the country to be part of a social. We haven’t gone out there with a specific diversity message, but because we’re not hiring or rejecting, and because it’s for people who don’t fit neatly into another box, it feels less cliquey and more of an open door.
What advice do you have for people who want to get the best out of The Fawnbrake Collective, or the industry as a whole?
I still think it’s the same advice I got given when I was applying. It’s curiosity. It’s having a passion for something. It’s being interested in people and business and culture and technology and how it all fits together. None of that has changed at all.
I’m actually really ashamed because I’ve never watched an episode of ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’. As a strategist, I should have done. You need to be good at ‘filter bubbling’. Online there are lots of people that I follow that I profoundly disagree with, so I feel like I avoid confirmation bias. But in the real world, with children and lots going on it’s quite hard to do that — and I’m conscious it’s something I need to do more of.
You’ve tended to work at agencies like VCCP when they’ve been in real hot patches — I’m sure not just by luck! What did you learn from seeing agencies riding the crest of waves and building momentum?
I’ve been in lots of agencies where it hasn’t worked too! VCCP was really special at the time because it was run by people who were massively entrepreneurial and actually quite non-traditional in terms of the types of people who run agencies. And they hired people like that too. Steve Vranakis was there from early on and he was massively ‘digital’ before most agencies were. He was so pivotal there. They were very forward thinking and open-minded at a time when some of the more ‘classical advertising agencies’ were more purist about advertising.
VCCP’s first client was O2, and probably half the work they did was retail and below-the-line — what traditional ad agencies saw as the ‘dirty stuff’ that nobody else wanted. They were really happy to do it — because they knew it wasn’t dirty stuff, it was brand. They saw it was brand response, not direct response.
And then something like comparethemarket.com comes along and suddenly the agency gets on every pitch list going…
Well actually then I had kids, and that was really hard. Having two little children together really close in age and an agency that was pitching like crazy — that just didn’t work. So I ended up doing 18 months working with Chris Satterthwaite, who was the CEO of Chime, in a group role. And actually that worked for me. Chris had a series of projects that he needed to be done by a certain time and didn’t care if I did them in my pyjamas on a Tuesday morning. Whereas agencies weren’t set up for that.
I guess that was my biggest wake up call — if you’ve got a six-month-old and a three-year-old, it would be quite nice to be home before 7 o’clock because they go to bed at 7 o’clock. Agency structures don’t work like that. Moving into a group role allowed me to do it, but it was the first real moment I realised that our industry’s way of working was broken.
Part four: The need for impact over hours, improving wellbeing and the curious case of networking…
You wanted a different way of working so you created The Fawnbrake Collective. But how can existing agencies improve their approach?
By realising it’s about impact not hours. Work on deliverables. Agencies have to get smarter at understanding at the start of the week what the things are that need to be done, and by the end of the week asking how they have moved on.
First of all that means getting rid of all the pointless meetings, politics, rounds of amends etc. You can do it. The Fawnbrake Collective isn’t an agency, but if I was to go back and actually work at an agency again — what we think of being an agency with an office space and employees — I would like to try and put something in where you say ‘group meetings are between 10 and 3’. Our ‘office hours’ are between 10 and 3. I’d be radically transparent on a Monday, so everybody would have to post up their weeks to-do list, and then on a Friday you’d post up whether you’d done it or not. I would ‘traffic light’ the tasks so people could work together to help each other deliver.
I’m old-fashioned enough and realistic enough to know that meetings do have a different impact when you’re all in a room, but knowing how much waste goes on, you can do them between 10 and 3.
And that’s something that applies to everyone in the agency?…
Yeah, it’s not just about people with kids. Maybe you’re training for an Iron Man or want to go for a swim in the morning to clear your head. It should be very possible to say, “that’s our office hours”.
Do we do enough to cultivate employee health and wellbeing — for an industry based on creative thinking, do we do enough to get your mind right?
Well I mentioned going for a swim — I had this resolution to take up Cold Water Swimming. I live really near Brockwell Lido and I’d seen these mental people swim when it was snowing. But they all looked so happy. Their eyes shone. So I started in May, when it was warm, and the summer was so glorious that I wanted to go every day. And then you get to the point when the water gets to 10 degrees, and then 8 and then 5, and you’re starting to take it seriously. But actually it’s really doable, and actually it’s been life changing in giving me a fresh outlook. I didn’t know I needed it. We should be actively encouraging and accommodating things like this.
So on fuelling the mind, who do you learn from?
Jeremy Bullmore would be one. Every speech he’s written, everything he writes, how he treats people, is all right up there. Jon Steel, who was my boss at Berlin Cameron, too. In my opinion he’s hands-down the best planner I’ve ever worked with. He just understands how to tell stories in pitches. But there’s been loads of people on the way though — Shelly Lazarus, Mandy Pooler and Jane Ostler at WPP, Chris Satterthwaite, Ian Priest and the team during my time at Chime… I could go on.
Do you read ‘advertising’ books?
I do. I have a bit of a thing that most of them could just be a long article. Lots of times I read them and think ‘this didn’t need to be a full book’. I get what you’re saying, and it doesn’t have to be 50,000 words.
You write a lot of great articles and have a great presence online — is that something you’re conscious of? And have you ever been conscious of managing your own personal brand?
‘Personal brand’ sounds horrible. Someone once told me ‘you’re very well networked’ and it made me feel uncomfortable. I go to stuff, I like meeting and talking with people. But I’m not doing that to network, I’m doing that to learn.
I’ve had a couple of times in my career where people have told me that I’m ‘talking at to many things’. I used to blog a lot because I could put something out there and the discussions that you’d have from it were just brilliant. You could learn so much and connect with brilliant people that you’d never have met otherwise. I don’t think about a ‘personal brand’ and I don’t feel opinionated, but I guess I am. I actually quite like arguing if it’s framed as a discussion and means sharing points of view. That’s what the industry is — it’s not a science. What you think about Coca-Cola is your perspective. Share it. The most boring person in any meeting is the one without an opinion.
Finally then, what would you say has been the proudest career moment?
I think launching a business. There’s loads of ideas and campaigns I’ve loved and I’m proud of people I’ve hired who may not have neatly fitted elsewhere but have gone on to be bloody superstars. But trying to start something and not just throw rocks is hard. I remember writing a piece about The Fawnbrake Collective being ‘born of frustration but conceived in love’. It’s because I was massively frustrated, but I do love what I do. And I love our industry.
So I hope The Fawnbrake Collective is a commercial success, but I also hope it gives other people the courage to say ‘I’m going to bring my thinking forward’. And actually, it’s so much scarier to think about starting something than it is to do it. If that inspires other people to go and start stuff, that would be amazing.
Artwork by Guy Sexty