Horse’s Mouth: Rufus Chuter and Kris Hadley, Together

L-R: Rufus Chuter and and Kris Hadley

On launching Together

CHUTER: We were lucky that when we started we had some great foundation clients and the first few months have really been about delivering as best we can for those guys. We’re not in a massive hurry to grow for the sake of growth. We’re really enjoying the change and getting to work much closer with clients. We’re getting to do the kind of work that motivates us.

HADLEY: We had that latent desire to go out on our own and it’s been really satisfying to see some of those initiatives and ideas turn into the real world. We’re four months in now and we’ve had a really positive start. If anything, breaking for Christmas may have felt like a bit of a hamstring at the time. We were fortunate to have a lot of great conversations start to emerge at the end of last year and they are continuing this year.

On creating the right culture

HADLEY: There were some really practical things we wanted to bring to the business, like we’re both highly passionate about health and wellbeing, so we’ve been able to set up our own health and wellbeing programme. We’ve been able to get a few of our core initiatives away already this year. It’s been pretty powerful being able to realise some of those ambitions.

We’ve created a Fitbit tracker challenge to make sure we can keep ourselves moving. We know from our past experiences it’s a pretty tough industry and there’s a lot of pressure on talent. And we’re trying to do our little bit to create a culture that really puts our people first. Our Fitbit challenge is a way to inspire the team with the classic ‘team away’ at the end of the year.

On finding a balance

HADLEY: The reputation of the industry precedes itself when it comes to work/life balance. It’s a high pressure, intense industry as a whole. I think the pressure we are under to deal with the way the industry’s changing is pretty tough as well. We both really value the people part of the equation and we want to make sure we can take the opportunity to design our business around it. We have nothing stopping us from doing that from day one. So why shouldn’t we? We’ve made sure we’ve built a business with that as a core foundational aspect of what we do.

CHUTER: Aside from attracting the best talent and keeping them here, we work really closely with clients in partnership. We’re not a meat grinder, so our model relies on smart, happy people working closely with smart, happy people. We have no ambition to create a big machine of a business that spits out a commodity product.

On leading the charge

CHUTER: One of the reasons we wanted to start Together, aside from meeting what we felt were changing market needs, was also addressing some of the industry challenges head-on. I don’t think it’s a case of calling out individual agencies or holding groups. There’s a bit of research out from the UK about how talent in advertising and media agencies is experiencing increasing levels of burnout. It’s an issue for the industry.

In our industry we’re selling talent, brilliant people. We have to protect, nurture and develop great people as well as create environments great people want to work in and they feel are genuinely rewarding.

On constantly evolving

HADLEY: We’ve learnt a lot since starting Together. I come out of a specialist skill set — my career has been spent in digital and data. I’ve really enjoyed how much learning I’ve gone through, with learning how to commercially setting up a business. But beyond that too, working closer from a strategic-lead point-of-view as well — partnering with Rufus has helped reignite my passions for what we do.

CHUTER: We’re lucky we’ve both run reasonably big teams, so our understanding of the commercial has always been pretty sound. But when it’s your business, then your attention becomes heightened on those things. We’ve learnt how to put the right foundations down now for long-term success.

I think back to this time last year, where I probably spent 20 percent of my time talking to clients and solving client business problems, and as much as 80 percent of my time managing team and working on the operational side of the business. Now we’re touching everything. A lot of people have said to us, “Oh so you’re booking press again!” There’s not too much of that but the reality of running a small business is you are far more hands-on. That’s rewarding in its own way and you relearn skills that had probably been a little dormant, which is great.

On working with a different business model

CHUTER: Before starting Together we did a fair amount of talking across the industry, particularly with senior marketers, to better understand what modern marketers’ needs were.

One of the themes of our model is integration, as clients want joined-up thinking that can run all the way through their customer journey. I always question the validity of agencies like performance media agencies which just exist to serve one bit of a customer journey because modern marketing needs connected thinking.

Secondly we know the importance of agility. So many clients are moving to project-based working models and the way the relationship structure worked made that really hard.

The third big area for us is transparency and trust – particularly in media. The level of understanding across the marketing community about how media agencies make money and how that whole model works is relatively low. And yet there’s definitely an awakening – which is fantastic – for a growing demand of total transparency in that ecosystem.

Our model has been really well received and that’s reflected in the nature of some of the new business conversations we’ve had.

On brains over brawn

CHUTER: Somebody said: “We’re moving from a brawn era to a brains era”. It’s particularly true in media. Media used to be defined by scale and brawn, and buying power. Technology is radically changing that dynamic so actually brain power enabled by technology is the thing delivering competitive advantage.

HADLEY: That brawns to brains idea also reflects some of the conversations we’ve been having with marketers and clients, they’re probably being far more creative in what they’re looking at us to assist them with as well. That’s not classically thinking of us as a media agency per se – they want someone to be able to spar with and break down the status quo.

On looking at international trends

HADLEY: When starting Together, we didn’t look at any specific agencies for how we wanted to run it, but rather we had a macro view of the industry as a whole. I think now there’s key themes around that, that weren’t motivating us specifically but they all tied into what we wanted to do.

CHUTER: I think there were definitely themes from other markets we’ve picked up on. In the UK, you’ve seen the resurgence on the independent communication planning agency and the other bit of the jigsaw is the rise of the consultancies. What that tells us is marketers and businesses are looking for partners who can help them grow without the media transaction needing to be the thing that they’re buying. There probably wasn’t a single agency we pointed at and said we wanted to be like them, but we did collect themes from other markets and that’s what Together reflects.

On working with clients

HADLEY: There isn’t a set of clients we like to work with. Essentially the opportunity to work with good people is priceless and we’ve all learned that. It doesn’t matter 

what side of a coin you’re on across the course of a career. Clients that share or align on a vision of what great work equals are fantastic. Those that want to break the status quo as well, and we don’t have a higher degree of qualification than that. I know it’s a bit organic but actually, that’s still very much a human industry and that’s the beauty of starting your own business: being able to meet and work with clients who fit those three qualifiers.

CHUTER: A common theme of the people who talk to us is interest in value creation, not just cost reduction. That’s particularly true in media where sometimes the two can be confused. We’re very clear that if people are looking for a media partner to buy their media the cheapest of anyone in the market then we’re not the right people to talk to.

On giving advice to the next generation

HADLEY: For people starting out in the industry, a big part of it is being really adaptive and having a growth mindset. I think we are changing so much that we have to be able to adapt. For us, we adapt to some of the bigger global themes that we see within our industry and building a business. But even as individuals, it is a path of continued learning.

CHUTER: There’s a power in being a generalist. If you’re starting out in the industry today, I’d say touch as many different disciplines as you can, get as broad a view on communications as possible. Don’t be afraid to build specialism somewhere – but keep a broad perspective. I think increasingly that’s what marketers need. Get involved in different things, stay curious and experience as much as possible rather than staying in a niche.

If my children were going into the industry right now I’d say get experience in as much as possible. The industry at the moment is still relatively siloed, so I’d say get experience in a bunch of different ones because consolidation is happening and it’s going to increase. The convergence between these disciplines is going to increase.

On the year ahead

CHUTER: Our goal for 2019 is to do work we’re proud of with people we enjoy working with. If we can turn around at Christmas and say we’ve had 12 months where we’ve got to do as much of that as we can, then that’s great. We’re lucky, already we’ve been involved in work we can be proud of.

This article was originally published in the 2019 Agency NZ Marketing issue. 

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