Ilk 20: The Long Read.
It’s quite surreal writing a retrospective of ilk, especially when a) we’re still going strong and b) when it’s still, as always, far more important to be looking forward1. But then again, what’s the point of turning 20 if you can’t wallow in the past just a little?
Well, interestingly enough, the process of writing this never felt like wallowing. Firstly, because wallowing sounds too wistful, too nostalgic and too pessimistic. And secondly, because the peaks and troughs that this business has experienced down the years still feel so directly relevant today. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise, but it reminded me of just how much ilk’s contemporary identity and attitude has been shaped by what’s gone before.
Without doubt, there’ve been far more ups than downs (and long may that continue). But by the same token, it’s clear to me that it’s the downs that have been the most revealing. They’ve shown me things about the company, about business, and about myself that I might not otherwise have noticed. They’ve also taught some harsh lessons and dealt a few painful moments, but it’s strange to realise that in terms of pure impact, this business’ ‘bad bits’ are also probably our best bits.
So, as you’ve probably realised, this story is no two-decade highlights reel, but just an individual perspective of an agency, and a business growing up.
1 Just so the whole thing doesn’t disappear while you are looking the other way.
The nod & the handshake.
With sweaty palms and a heartbeat bashing out a military tattoo in my chest, I explained to the Managing Director of Norbert Dentressangle that I was going it alone. I’d be leaving the agency that I was working for, and that counted Norbert as a client, and starting up on my own. I’d got a business plan (sort of), an office (a back bedroom that could fit a desktop), and financial backing (a £350 a month Government ‘Entrepreneur Grant’) all ready to go. I just needed a client.
In hindsight I suspect that he knew he was getting a carefully-practiced spiel; that he might have sensed some mild poetic license being deployed. But perhaps he could also see – beneath the claims about offices and financial backing – that I was serious about the important bit. I really did want to make it happen. I really did think I could do it. Either way, the nod and handshake I got represented the dawn of Manifest’s first client.
Not that we even had a name yet.
Back bedrooms, Beaumont & Batley.
In some ways those early days were the easy bit. Not financially, obviously (like any start-up – scratch that, any business – we needed to be really careful about cash flow), but in terms of delivering our service. When a business is small, it’s easy(ish) to manage, because essentially you’re only managing yourself and a few others. I could keep track of accounts on the basis that I was probably working on them day-to-day, and use the bank of knowledge and experience gained from previous jobs. The difference was just that I could do things my way. Well,our way, anyway. Because after three months of going solo, I wasn’t solo anymore.
Shaun came on board as my business partner.
Having worked together at a previous agency, he brought the design skills to add to my comms background. He also brought a client (that made two!), and the very early stages of the idea that would stick around for the next twenty years. The notion that our big selling point – the reason that a company might just want to work with us rather than someone else – might be to suggest that creative and comms are inherently linked, and therefore more effective when considered together.
It was around then that I came up with the name we’d carry for the next 16 years: Manifest. Somehow it sounded right – in a turn-of-the-century agency sort of way. But with the two of us, suddenly the homespun back bedroom office wasn’t really workable, so we moved into more orthodox digs in the Batley tech centre. We were on our way! Bit by bit we started winning clients, and then we started hiring. When we left Batley after two years we’d grown to a staff of six, and the client roster included the likes of AirTours and a media buying company called SMRS. As it turned out, the latter company would play a major role in shaping our future. They were brilliant for us, but they nearly broke us all the same.
Crisis #1: more, more, too much, then less.
The problem, although it definitely didn’t seem like a problem at the time, was that they were giving us too much business. SMRS were growing massively and, as its creative agency, so were we. Obviously, that was a really good thing. But it also proved dangerous. Because of its rapid and relentless growth, at one stage SMRS suddenly provided nearly 70% of our total revenue. And while we knew this wasn’t ideal, we were in no position to turn down business, especially when the work spanned brands like Bank of Scotland and Nissan. Likewise, because we were so focused on delivering the work, nor did we have the resource (or, in all honesty, the foresight) to aggressively chase the new business we’d need to give the books a better balance. You can probably see where this is going.
With a sort of grim inevitability to the whole shebang, SRMS decided to bring everything in house. It was potentially a business-ending event; or Crisis #1 as I’ll call it. But while this crisis was undoubtedly a crisis, it also brought clarity. Breaking the news to the team2 I remember saying that we had good news and bad news… and on this occasion, both were the same. Though there was a definite strain of pig-headed optimism in that little speech, looking back it proved strangely true. To survive, or at the very least avoid painful reduncies within our still small and tight knit team, we needed more business. Actually, to be more specific, I needed to go and get new business. I wasn’t a PR Account Director any more, I was a business owner, and a new business, and setting up the sustainable and effective infrastructure required to generate it, was a responsibility that was mine. Shaun was head of creative, but I needed to get him the stuff to be creative about. It was a harsh lesson, but a vital one.
But we didn’t go under. If anything, it might have been the first time we really got our business head above water. We now saw the shape of our business. Putting the short-term financial hit to one side (though easier said than done at the time), we saw the imperative of having full oversight of both the business we were, and the business we wanted to be. And sliding into becoming reliant on a single client definitely wasn’t it. It wouldn’t happen again. We still wanted those big-billing clients on our books – and we have them today – but we realised we needed to understand and manage how we worked with them and how they might impact the diversity of what we did.
In the immediate aftermath (and to my massive relief), we won two clients; TSK and Target Express. We also invested in new business, hiring a telesales guy to work on a more formalised new business pipeline and get me those new business meetings. And while we narrowed our focus in terms of our identity and objectives as an agency, we consciously widened our skillset. PR was no longer just me, but a fledgling department; creative now had both designers and developers in the mix. By the end of what was a formative year, we found the accounts in good health. Even better, it felt like we really had a blueprint for the future. We knew what we were doing; we just had to keep doing it.
2 Just imagine a cross between the oratory of Obama, Martin Luther King and Winston Churchill.
Leeds, leads & glory.
And that’s broadly how it went for a few years. The client base expanded gradually, and so did the team. By now (2006ish) we were in Huddersfield (we’ll never forget you, Batley). The new office, which was actually our second in the city, was a sort of adapted Yorkshire stone house with the creative team in the back room, PR in the front, Shaun and I packed into a sort of box room near the kitchen, a surprisingly big, wood-beamed meeting room up in the eaves, and a sort of converted bathroom-cum-office-toilet in the middle, quickly notorious for its slightly temperamental locking mechanism.3
While there, our growth continued largely according to plan. Our staff increased by one or two people each year and by the time we left Huddersfield in 2011 (to set up in Leeds) we were up to 11. Even in an economy essentially frozen in the wake of 2008, things kept ticking over. But this was the calm before the storm. Perversely, while the broader economy was in recession, things started really happening for Manifest. And, although the combination of my memory and hindsight can often be a little dubious, I think it was all set in motion by a couple of key events.
Firstly, though we didn’t know it at the time, we won two influential bits of new business – BrewDog (you’ll have heard of them) and ABP (you probably won’t have). Both are still on the roster. Secondly, and very much in response to the economic climate, we started a new venture. We knew that London had stolen a march of the rest of the country in terms of economic recovery. So we decided we needed a presence there. It would be PR office initially, but with a natural dovetail with the creative team in the North.
Which more or less brings us, in a roundabout way, to the seeding of Crisis #2 (I mean, I wouldn’t have called it Crisis #1 if there wasn’t a second on the way). Compared with Crisis #1, this was much more of a slow burn. And like all major lows, it was thrown into stark relief by the preceding high. And a protracted, long and glorious high it was: almost three full years of winning new business, employing new talent and expanding our services.
In the South, London was taking off; our work with BrewDog just beginning to turn heads. In the North, BMF, Wienerberger, The Skills Show, Premier Training International and Northgate swelled the roster with large retained accounts. We won big at award ceremonies, and those awards brought more interest, more enquiries and more opportunities. We took charge of three regions of Barratt Developments’ nationwide PR operations; we rebranded Dunlop Adhesives; we began working with Bewley’s and Grumpy Mule coffee; we took control of Eutelsat’s European communications (sending us everywhere from Paris to Prague and every country between) and won major public sector contracts with the NHS. To deal with and deliver the work, we rapidly set up a dedicated account management department, as well as a resource for creative copy and strategy and – finally – an in-house production department. It was a hurricane few years both in terms of revenue and profile. Our staff topped out at 35, our revenue topped 2.6million. New territory.
3 There were incidents.
Crisis #2: growing pains, scary figures & home truths.
But to once again use the considerable (and totally annoying) benefit of hindsight, the growth proved too quick. While account management, copywriting, brand strategy and production were all natural and necessary next steps for the business, and while our creative and PR teams absolutely needed more resource, such was the immediacy of the demand that we simply didn’t have the structures in place to effectively keep tabs on the efficiency of our work. While the quality of our output remained high (still a source of pride to me!), and while the revenue rolled in, our margins were going the other way. We were working like the medium sized agency we had become, but still billing like the smaller agency we used to be. As a result, when we should have been making more money than ever before, suddenly we weren’t making any.
For a while, the sheer volume of work hid that core issue. But the 2015/16 financial year laid things bare, and Crisis Number #2 had grown teeth and claws. Having just moved into our brand new (and much more expensive) office at Leeds Dock, we made a loss for the first time. And a big one at that. Six figures. Which is six too many for a small or medium size business like ours. But again, just like Crisis #1, such painful lessons proved painfully important. And what Shaun and I had learned first time round truly paid dividends here. After SMRS left way back in the day, we’d made a conscious effort to ensure the business remained cash rich; a sort of fiscal suspension system to help us absorb any further bumps along the way. It meant forgoing the solid gold toilet seats we’d both always dreamed of, but it meant that when the loss rolled in at the end of that financial year, the business could handle it.
But nevertheless, there was still much to sort out. Although we weren’t necessarily getting everything wrong, we clearly weren’t getting the big things right. And like before, we needed to step back and work out whether the vision still matched our reality. Clearly, losses weren’t part of the plan, but were we doing the right sort of work, with the right sort of client, in the right way? There were meetings with staff across the agency (sometimes long, sometimes intense) with an aim of working through those big questions. In the end, the answer was a resounding ‘sort of’ to all three. This is the type of conclusion that would make for a crap police procedural4 I know, but experience has shown me that binaries that adhere to right and wrong and profit and loss are about as common as unicorns5. There wasn’t one thing we’d been doing badly. But perhaps we weren’t doing enough really well. There was a general sense that, in the thrill of launching new services and winning new business, we’d forgotten what we were particularly good at. We’d responded to briefs and won work without necessarily asking ourselves if it was ‘our sort’ of work. I can see how this might sound too vague and woolly to ring true, but it is. In fact, deciding and decoding what ‘our sort’ of work looked like helped re-establish our identity as a company. And it’s an understanding of that identity that, perhaps above all else, can help keep the train on the track in times of pressure.
So we got leaner. We stopped going for everything. We stopped trying to get bigger. We wanted to rebalance the finances, but we wanted to treat growth as a means rather than an objective. Up until this point, new business automatically meant more people. But now our new business was vetted with purpose and scrutiny. Does it suit our skillset? Can we do this better than anybody else? Will it make people excited to work on it? And, perhaps most of all, do we have the resources to deliver it? If the answer was yes to all four, we’d be all in.
4 or long article?
5 Financial or otherwise
A new brand, natural change & just a trace of nostalgia.
So we emerged out of Crisis#2, blinking and stretching into the light, as a different version of ourselves. Manifest 2.0. Or, as it turned out, ilk. By stressful coincidence6 all of this coincided with a full rebrand. We agreed to sell Manifest London, which in the five years since its launch had grown into its own thriving agency and brand. And with that sale came a need to change our name. But the timing (despite the stress) was oddly apt. Our tough year was to be our last as Manifest – so the first of our ‘ilk’ years could be one of change and recovery. It was a strange sort of symbolism, but one that we hoped could be part of a general upswing in our fortunes (and finances).
Our objective in that following year was consciously modest: to break even. To stem the tide, steady the ship, stay afloat and turn the tanker around. Any lame nautical metaphor you fancy, really. But just as we got the business back on an even keel, it was complicated by another major change. Shaun, with whom I’d navigated this business with from the beginning, wanted to try something new. There were no hard feelings – he’d put 18 years into building the business with me and had more than earnt the right to go in another direction – but it was still a deeply strange thought that he wouldn’t be there at his desk any more, or overseeing creative projects, or chucking nuggets of Barnsley-hewn wisdom about the place. Even more so that I wouldn’t have a business partner to rely on for counsel here and there.
But putting sentiment aside, the practical implication of his departure was a shared responsibility for us all to step up and fill that Shaun-shaped hole. And we did – we held good on our objective that year. Actually, we did better than that, posting a profit. It was our smallest profit for 12 years, but it was the most important one we’d ever achieved. It felt like a sort of vindication – as if our response to the times of crises might just have been the right one. The year after that – the one just gone and our twentieth year of business – we more than doubled that profit.
So it’s a happy, sail off into the sunset7 type ending. Except that it’s not an ending. And that to even remotely think it is would be to have learned absolutely nothing from our 20 years of business. It just doesn’t work like that. Our industry, like every other industry, is in a constant state of motion. And so must ilk be. Things change all the time. So, somewhere along the line, a crisis #3 will materialise. Not for a long while, I hope, but, sooner or later, it will happen. That’s just history’s lesson. But the thing is, because we’ll have at least 20 years of successes, failures, masterstrokes and mistakes in our back pockets when it does, we’ll be in better shape than ever before to face it down. In fact, to turn the clock all the way back to that first meeting in 1999, where it all started, and to tap back into the nerves, hopes and ambitions swirling in my head that day, I know I would have snapped your hand off for the chance.
6 At least, I think it was a coincidence.
7 Nautical metaphors are many and addictive.