Horse’s Mouth: Martin Yeoman and Jamie Hitchcock

It was April last year Martin Yeoman and Jamie Hitchcock announced their departure from Assignment Group to start their own agency The Enthusiasts. They’ve since gone on to pick up project work for Ti Ora tea from JDE (formerly Brew Group), 2degrees, 1Above and Al Brown’s Fresh Catch, and clients including 3 Wise Men and Goodman Fielder. Earlier this year, they sat down with NZ Marketing to reflect on the year that’s been and how their history in the industry is carving their future.

Going it alone

JAMIE: Martin and I had been at Assignment for seven years which is a healthy amount of time at an agency, and I’ve come from my own agency [Josh & Jamie] which we sold to Assignment pretty early on. I wasn’t necessarily 100 percent sure on selling to Assignment because it was so early and I remember Peter Cullinane, who is one of the original founders of Assignment, asking ‘what’s the problem?’. I told him ‘the hardest decision was leaving the big agency world and going out to start on your own and then to sell it really quickly and lose control’. He said: “don’t worry about that, you can do another agency any time.” 

MARTIN: I remember Jamie saying, ‘you’ll never work harder and never sleep better’ and that’s been true of the year, which is really satisfying. It’s hard work but you go to work knowing you have achieved something and you wake up with an appetite to get more done the next day.

On a having a broad range on the books

JAMIE: We have a really good range of clients and there are some really small ones. We’ve got involved in start-ups and up to big clients. But they all have that common thing that they are enthusiastic.

Retail clients, FMCG clients, tourism clients, clients in finance and start-ups, there’s a wicked range of interesting stuff happening and it doesn’t feel like we are being pigeonholed into one thing. There’s lots of interesting variety we are working on every day.

Goodman Fielder was a big appointment for us, it’s fantastic brands and people, and that gave us a lot of confidence. We knew we had other guys who had already put their hands up to come and work with us but to have that anchor client was great. Within that, you can look at it as five or six clients within their own right; Vogel’s, Molenberg, Freya’s, Nature’s Fresh. They are established brands, they are iconic brands and they have amazing stories to tell. For us to be awarded that was great.

History matters

MARTIN: I think without a doubt, every client is someone we’ve worked with in the past, whether that’s through Assignment or previous agencies or they’ve gone on to different client organisations. Something that is really true is they know us, we know them, so you get on the same wavelength really quickly.

Building your foundations

MARTIN: Starting your own business starts the day you enter this industry. It’s about building your personal reputation which then becomes an asset you can build your business on. Remember the junior client in your next meeting will one day be a decision maker. Give them your respect and they’ll remember. What we’re finding is, clients today are buying talent, people they can trust to do a really critical job well, not the name above the door.

On gut instincts

JAMIE: We’ve learned to trust our guts. We were, for a little while, by ourselves and obviously now with a bigger team there are more people to collaborate and talk with. You have to move quickly and trust that your combined couple of decades experience is more often than not the right way to go. The decisions you make, you have to live with them, but it feels good to be match fit and trust your gut and just go for it.

MARTIN: We are more sure of our recommendations. Often when you are answerable to someone else you tend to second guess. We don’t do that, we are really clear on our recommendations. On top of that, we do take it more personally because the buck stops with us.

We are 100 percent accountable for recommendations so we’ve always emphasised progress over process. Every day, we don’t get paid unless we are moving something on and creating progress. 

On going it alone and broadening skillsets

MARTIN: The thing we realised early on was that we really had to broaden our skillsets. We’ve worked in big places and we’ve had a lot of people around us, I saw the world as a strategist and Jamie as a writer, and there are other people to fill in the gaps.

It forced us to be more of a generalist and to widen the way we look at problems. When you don’t have people to do everything, you end up doing more.

On prioritising growth

JAMIE: A good learning for us it to not try do the things you simply aren’t good at. A lot of the finance stuff we’ve outsourced, just making sure we are spending the time on what we should spending the time on to grow the business.

I also think there are some things you can worry about, like having the biggest, flashiest office and all of that sort of stuff, but because we hit the ground running, we were actually more focused on just getting stuck into the work.

So a lot of that other stuff that maybe some people spend a lot of time, money and effort on, we just don’t worry too much about.

On the ideal number

MARTIN: We’ve been really clear with our clients and said our goal isn’t to be big. That’s not success for us. Our goal is to be seriously good and both are different things. It’s not about building an army, it’s about being influential.

We’ve thought carefully about size and we think 10 to 15 people is the ideal number and it means you can take on really big clients and really big projects, but still be working on the work and not managing. We’ve done both in our careers and think that the most value we can offer is being in the work doing, rather than managing. 

On being an ‘unblocker’

JAMIE: You look at the great creators like Peter Cullinane and Nick Worthington, who we’ve been lucky enough to work with, at their heart, they still love doing. Everyone, including us, has managed people but the true passion lies in why they entered the business in the first place and that’s doing the work. I think that’s a really beautiful thing. We had a client give us a compliment, calling us the great ‘unblockers’ and we reckon you can only do that by doing. You have to be in the game, you have to be in the trenches.

On having experience to call on

MARTIN: The great ‘unblockers’—we hear that in different ways. I think what that means is, we have clients who come to us where other people haven’t been able to solve something, or it’s a particularly tricky problem. That’s where experience counts and being able to navigate a way through it.

I think it also comes down to a relationship between a creative and a strategist. It’s quite an unusual and unique thing, but it’s something that I think is the most important relationship in communications—being able to find clarity strategically and creatively through a problem is where we have built our reputation.

On building momentum

MARTIN: The challenge when you start hiring people is that it’s another level of commitment. It’s one thing being two of us, but to take on other people you need to be sure of what you are doing and where you are going. I guess we always knew we were fine on the strategy and creative side of things, but the making is really important. It’s the bit that can be easily overlooked but it’s where client relations make or break and we knew that wasn’t our strength.

JAMIE: It felt nice a few months after we started to have a Christmas party and be able to go to Waiheke for lunch with six people and have the conversation going beyond just two people. It was really fantastic. It had an obvious sense of building a momentum, creating a team.

On collaboration

MARTIN: We can’t do everything and we don’t know everything. We’ve got a good strategic and creative overview but we need to be able to tap into a variety of specialist talent.

If you look at any project these days, it has so many moving parts—it’s just the world we live in, in terms of media fragmentation. With so many opportunities you do need those experts.

Beyond that, you need people that challenge your point of view. Creativity is about finding a fresh angle and a fresh insight so you need people to come in and challenge you. Working with great people who are experts in their eld is really energising. You get a real thrill out of it and it’s also how we continue to learn. 

On being resourceful with resources

JAMIE: Because we have been in the industry a while, we know a lot of people who are freelancing now and there’s an increasing and burgeoning whanau that we can call on. We can plug into people as we need them and as their skills dictate what the brief is. It’s not an overhead we have to carry but it’s one of those tools we can o er clients as they need it.

On modern client demands

MARTIN: Internationally you are seeing fragmentation of client-agency relationships and that’s certainly happening here.

We are seeing more clients wanting to work on a project basis, which we like. If you do a good job on a project, you get the next one, so it keeps you match fit. They also want to pick and chose the right talent for the right project so it doesn’t mean you are going to get every project. They’ll say: ‘this skillset is better put to use on this project rather than be beholden to one organisation and one approach’.

A changing industry

MARTIN: We’re interested to see what role management consultancies play this year. They’ve made some big strides into marketing services internationally and I think it was in an Adage report of top 10 holding companies, four of those were management consultancies: Deloitte, Accenture, IBM and PwC.

And you look at Australia and Accenture’s acquisition of The Monkeys, there are some serious players over there so it will be interesting to see what happens here.

There are also issues around digital measurement that have been massive in the US. They haven’t really surfaced here to the same extent, but I think we’ll see more of that this year. We’ll see some debate around that.

On having enthusiasm

MARTIN: There’s a great Charles Eames quote that we’ve always really loved which is: ‘Take your pleasure seriously.’ We think that’s a really brilliant motto to live by.

More fundamentally perhaps, when we think about all the great work we’ve been involved with over the years, you look around the table at who was there and they were all people who brought enthusiasm, passion and commitment to a project. So whether that’s client, whether that’s agency, whether that’s partners, that’s the attitude we are trying to bottle, distil and surround ourselves with.

On maintaining energy levels

JAMIE: Keeping nimble on things keeps the energy up. A lot of times, the enthusiasm for a project dies because people come in and out of it; there are too many moving parts. But if you keep a small, tight team of people who are enthusiastic from the start and we do our bit to keep that enthusiasm up by responding quickly, correctly and in the same way, then the whole thing benefits.

Consumers really see when brands are having fun and are really match fit and they see when brands are labouring. They are not silly. I reckon that our job is to make sure the consumer gets that enthusiasm as well. 

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