Episode Two, Choosing an Agency Podcast

Published on June 29, 2021 by Climbing Trees

Listen to the second instalment of the Choosing an Agency podcast.

Josh Akapo is the Co-Founder of Archtype a design consultancy creating impactful and purposeful moments in culture for artists, brands and movements. He has created award winning work for clients such as Lovebox Festival, Stormzy, Converse, UCL and Mental Health Foundation all while studying part-time.

Episode 2 of Choosing An Agency covers Josh’s love of music, barriers such as racism and classism which the industry needs to overcome and his experiences of setting up an agency amidst a global pandemic.

Episode two transcript

Alex: Hello, and welcome to choosing an agency. My name is Alex and I’m here to talk about how to select the right agency to grow your business, giving you the inside line on things to look out for the next time you need external support. I’ll be interviewing industry figures from all manner of backgrounds to get hints and tips on the things to consider when choosing an agency. Today, I’m joined by Josh Akapo from Archtype. Hi, Josh.

Josh: Hello Alex, how are you? 

Alex: Yes, not bad. Thank you. Not bad. So, for people that are just meeting me for the first time, could you share a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Josh: So first of all, thank you for having me. And secondly, I’m a co-founder of a creative agency called Archtype and Archtype moves at the pace of culture in merch design and digital, more design and digital since the pandemic has started. Our thing is, we create impactful moments, impactful and purposeful moments in culture for artists, brands, movements, and more. I also am a researcher and strategist for Hype Collective Communications and Marketing Director for Joined Up Thinking, and students still. That’s an interesting part.

Alex: So, other than that you’re not up to much. You’ve worked with some fantastic organisations, people, and brands. 

Josh: Yeah, I always forget to mention that part in my intro because I’m always like, okay, just squeeze in the stuff you do and then the brands can come in later. But I’ve worked with some great brands: LoveBox Festival, Stormzy NHS Blood and Transplant, Mental Health Foundation, Converse.

Alex: Excellent. So, Josh to get a better feel for who you are, if you could invite four people past or present to a meal, who would they be?

Josh: This is going to be interesting because they’re almost all going to be musicians. So, the first one would definitely be Whitney Houston, because I need to meet her. It’s so sad. Her passing was so sad, and her voice is just so good, so she needs to be in a slot for this dinner. I would probably then have to say Brandy. Brandy’s alive though and still an amazing vocalist, one of my favourite vocalists. Now this is where it gets tricky, to throw in someone who’s not a musician who I would love to have met or spoken to. Actually, one of them would be my grandmother, who I actually haven’t met on my dad’s side. So, she passed when I was two but from everything that my dad has told me about her, she sounds like somebody I would have absolutely loved to have met. So, she is also on there.

Alex: Absolutely. That kind of thing is quite magical. And a few people have said about family members and that kind of thing. That’d be awesome. I never met my grandfather and so likewise, it’d be awesome to meet him because I think genetically, I’m probably quite close to him in terms of looks and personality as well.

Josh: Yeah. And then we got one more slot. I’m going to say Jimi Hendrix. I actually do want to meet him. He’s just such an interesting guy with a mind that’s mad.

Alex: So, my dad told a story once about being in the lift in a hotel in Amsterdam with Jimi Hendrix before he was famous.

Josh: Before he was famous?

Alex: So, my dad passed away 15 years ago so I don’t know – I can’t dig into anything now. But yes. 

Josh: Wow. 

Alex: How do you think your grandmother will get on with the other three?

Josh: With Whitney, probably very well. With brandy, I mean the thing with Brandy is – Brandy and Whitney would get on along well because they knew each other when she was alive. And then I mean, who can’t get along with Jimi Hendrix? That’s my thing. I don’t know that. So, sure I’d hope that everybody would be able to get along.

Alex: So, in terms of the agency world, what’s your experience of that?

Josh: I’ve been in marketing and advertising for about six years, going on seven years now. Since I was about 16, I’ve been doing social media marketing for various different things. Started off a lot smaller, a lot more unknown sort of people, brands, and things and then it sort of grew into where I am now. I’d say the first three years, I had absolutely no idea what an agency was. My only experience of an agency was like a traditional working agency. I.e. – you go there, fill out a form, and then they tempt you at various places. That’s all I knew an agency to be. I had absolutely no idea there was a whole world in which people were making hundreds of thousands to literally millions of pounds, running creative campaigns, doing strategy planning, that whole bit of having so many niches. I only found that out when I met one of my industry friends, but I met her at a networking event. Shannie Mears – she runs the creative agency, The Elephant Room and I met her when she was just starting The Elephant Room. And I was like, oh, so what is this then? How does this work? I had no idea what this thing was, I didn’t know it existed. I was still doing a computer science degree at the time and she sort of took me on a work shadowing day around the time they were just starting out, so they hadn’t even got an office yet. They were just ideating, like sort of things that they could do to drive new business and stuff. Then we were talking about the whole creative industries in that sector, and I was like, whoa, this is mad. How does one do this? So from there I got connected to a few more people in the industry, a few more, I guess, people who had been in agencies or run an agency, gone to networking events. Met people from like a bunch of different agencies, big agencies, small agencies. Then I joined Hype Collective and that one came about through Shannie. I was chasing her to reply to an email and Simon, the founder of Hype Collective, happened to find my Twitter thread where I was like, semi-passive aggressively bugging Shannie to reply to me. And then Simon was like, what your students and young people? We need something, something, something so we had a meeting, then had another meeting. Then, all of a sudden, I’m working at Hype and I was like, oh my gosh – wow, I get to be in an agency and I’m only in second year of uni and I get to do all this cool stuff. Oh, my gosh. And that was when agency roles really started for me. 

Alex: And there is a time when you join an agency – because agencies are at different paces, different trajectories – and to join an exciting agency that’s on a rapid growth trajectory and you’re seeing everything that’s going on, how people are responding to different situations and opportunities that are thrown up, it can be quite an intoxicating atmosphere to work in.

Josh: It can. I have definitely seen that, and I’ve seen it at a few other creative companies. I will not name names, because I’ll give them a chance to grow and to be better. But at Hype Collective, it was actually the opposite because I think Simon and the creative director, Paul – because when I joined, it was actually only the two of them, and then me. And then the team built up slowly after that. We had student ambassadors and things like that but in terms of head office, I think it was just us three. Yeah, for a decent period of time. So, I remember one thing that they kept drumming in was that, okay, how can we do all this cool stuff, exciting stuff, grow, scale, all that stuff – but by doing as little work as possible. Little work as possible, not meaning being lazy, but meaning prioritising rest and prioritising self-care and not working yourself to the bone like other agencies do. And that was where I learned, wow, so I don’t have to be working 25 eight to be a CEO or to be a founder of a company or to have a successful business. Because I saw them, they were pulling their clients like it was nobody’s business, their success rate was mad, and it still is to be honest. Success rate was mad, case studies are great, all that kind of thing. And I’m just sitting here thinking, wow, so I really don’t have to just be doing the most to be a company founder because Simon would go off at like 5:30pm. He’d goes to the gym, and then he’d go home, and he’d chill. And I was like, oh, so this is the life then. It wasn’t necessarily something he had to make a conscious decision to do, and he’d blocked off all this time and before he was doing all this running around. No, he’s lived a pretty chill life. I mean, definitely worked hard when he’s working but outside of that he’s calm. Same thing with Paul. I think that taught me that, okay, agency world does not have to be the biggest backbreaker at all. So, then when I ended up starting my own agency Archtype, while still working at Hype Collective, these guys were like, oh, yeah, Josh don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Then I realised that, oh, so I can actually work at this agency, kind of part time at my agency Archtype. I can kind of do things here and there and so long as my account management is really, really good I can take the afternoon off and walk in the park when it’s sunny or I can go for a beer at 4pm instead of having to stay on my laptop too late, things like that. So, the agency life is sort of turned around and not been a toxic hellhole, but a lot of times it can be for others.

Alex: Absolutely. That makes sense. So, I think there’s a tendency sometimes in the agency world too, there’s like almost hustle porn where you have to be working from four o’clock in the morning till midnight and doing all kinds of crazy stuff. think that can be a very unhealthy narrative to listen to, especially when you’re starting out. I think there are times when you might have to put in a shift to get project over the line and get done but for that to be the door default – I think there’s probably something fundamentally wrong in the business

Josh: Exactly that. I was listening to a podcast the other day actually and I think they said something interesting. It was something along the lines of, it was just a business owner talking about their journey and she said, oh, now all of a sudden, I’ve got more clients. I’m making more money. I’m doing all this stuff, but I work less hours than I used to, or I leave on time or I’m not constantly in the shop 25 eight or this this kind of thing. And then she literally asked herself, what was I doing before? When I would sleep at this shop, when I wouldn’t leave, when I would constantly – what was I doing keep myself busy? It came down to the fact that she was just working really, really, really hard, but not necessarily prioritising the things that would keep her going because oftentimes, as you said, like hustle porn is a real thing. It absolutely is a real thing. Everybody glorifies it, it’s really scary. It’s like, oh, you see the guys on LinkedIn. Oh, I’m waking up at like 3am or they’re sending emails at 2:15am, I never sleep because I don’t need to sleep. I’ll sleep when I’m dead, that whole bit. And then, when the pandemic hit, everyone was like, oh, need to re strategise, have new business, consolidate current business. Growth, growth – yeah, upwards charts that always look like that. It was just really toxic. At the same time, you’re like, if you do all of that, and then you burn out, you’re not going to be able to do anything else after that. 

Alex: Absolutely. I think there are times where I think it’s okay to put in a shift and go above and beyond, but then there are times where you actually need to back right off and actually all the normal day to day stuff in terms of prioritising your life rather than just sort of work, work and being in the agency. 

Josh: Absolutely. 

Alex: Coming into the agency world Josh, what are some of the barriers you’ve had in terms of entry?

Josh: This is a question. Well, I’d say many, but some of them I haven’t even noticed, and some of them haven’t looked like barriers. I think one really important one, which I was talking about before, was – actually it doesn’t sound like a barrier to entry at all. If I say this now it’s going to sound like, oh well, isn’t that convenient? It’s the fact that I’ve not actually been able to get opportunities with an agency based on merit alone. It’s actually really annoying and since we’re all told that we live in a meritocracy, since we’re all told hard work gets you results, since we’re all told going to uni – that’s what people sell you mainly – or doing an apprenticeship or doing an internship or getting stuck here and doing all of this great work will get you opportunities. And for me, that is not what got me opportunities at all. That is not what it did. It doesn’t matter who I worked with. By the time I finished sixth form I had literally done a really groundbreaking project, that won an award by the way, for LoveBox Festival and Stormzy. We designed their entire merch campaign; we sold the merch. It was like a mad successful event; it was a youth event – ITV covered it. It was great but that didn’t get me a job. What got me a job was networking and who I knew. This isn’t me saying, oh, I came from this background where I knew everybody, my dad put me in this – but no. It wasn’t that. It was just I made a lot of efforts, knowing a lot of people, networking. My goodness, can I swear on this, please? Networking my fucking arse off just to get through this entire thing. And it was difficult. I was applying for jobs, applying for jobs. My CV was longer than anything else. Everyone in agency world was telling me, wow Josh, you’re really doing great things, wow, you’re really going far. And I’d get results back and I’d never get feedback or just be like, oh sorry, we’ve gone for someone else with X, Y, Z experience here and I’m like, what more experience do you need at this point? I’ve shown you I can deliver campaigns, I’ve shown you I can account manage, I’ve shown you I can strategize, I’ve shown you I can do creative. There was a time I was literally graphic designing and web designing and illustrating that, all at the same time. It was a mad thing, as well as strategizing and doing research and it was a whole thing. I was doing all of this stuff, putting all this output but I couldn’t get another job and then I had to ask myself, why? Why couldn’t I? And it is unfortunately because of race, and because of class-ish as well. I say class-ish, because I’m not really working class, but I’m also not really middle class. I don’t know quite roughly on that scale, somewhere in between. But yeah, race and class and what people’s perceptions are of you and age as well because I’ve been a student this whole time. People often act as though when you’re a student that’s the only thing you can do, as if universities don’t give us ample time to do everything else. I mean, I could be a high functioning alcoholic if I wanted to be as a student, as most are. I would have the time for that, but I chose to do creative industry stuff. It’s fine but apparently employers and things think that part-time work doesn’t get done from younger people or something. I don’t know. I don’t know what that’s about but definitely race. Definitely the industry has a diversity problem and inclusion problem and equity problem. And class – we are so middle class as a marketing industry even, like, almost every founder is – I go on people’s LinkedIn. And when people are foolish enough to preach about working hard to get where they are, and then they leave their private school on their LinkedIn page. I always find that hilarious because I always see, I always check and I’m like, ah, so you had money. That’s nice but I didn’t – so what now? What am I supposed to do?

Alex: I think you’re probably right. I think I always struggle to talk on these kinds of issues, because the last thing anyone needs to hear on diversity is the thing of a middle aged, middle class white person. That’s what I am. So, there’s not much else I can do about it. But I think it’s, you know, we’ve been going through this process as an agency when we’ve been going through the B Corp process. And part of that is we’ve then started thinking about diversity. We’re based out in a little quaint Essex village where there’s like little old ladies with those buggies, and it’s not a diverse area. So, in terms of our team, our team is not diverse at all. So, I’ve had to do some existential soul searching, thinking, well I don’t believe I’m racist but then am I unconsciously biased? Have I just been so brought up in a sort of very white middle class sort of network, that I don’t actually realise how biased I am? So, I’ve had to go through that sort of process and think, well, why is it that the team that I’ve got – why are they, are they just following in my footprint? Have I just subconsciously been thinking about recruiting people that are like me, because I feel more comfortable with people that come from a similar background as me? As in, it’s totally not a front of mind thing where I’ve sort of thought, I’m only going to employ white people. I have employed people from different ethnic backgrounds for myself in the past but currently, that’s where the team is. So, what I’ve had to then do is look at our processes and our systems, and I think that just by talking about this they suffer a little bit on the spot. But where we are now, on the careers page, we’re going to get live on the website and take out people’s identifying features. So, no name, no location, none of that kind of stuff. So, we interview based on, we only invite people to interview based on what their CV shows.

Josh: Yeah.

Alex: But then behind that sits this whole thing about, if you’re from a middle-class family, your parents are probably going to be able to pay for you to do math class. If, when you’re passing A-level, if you’re from a working-class family, your family can just be struggling to put food on the table. So, then if you’ve got those two CVs as an employer, and you’re looking for one for a middle-class background, one from a working-class background, based on that, if you’ve got the same salary you’re going to deploy as a business owner, you’re probably going to do the – it’s really tricky. It’s a tough call to make and so I think from that, we’re then doing this thing where we’re looking for a certain tier of role, advertise in a different geographical area because something that lockdown has taught us guys is that basically the team is working really well without coming to an office. And I’ve always been quite traditional, wanting to get people in working in the same office, that kind of thing. So, we can recruit without that historical geographical limitation that we’ve put on and look to try and onboard people based on giving them an opportunity and a break in the industry, for a paid for and agreed sort of length of time.

Josh: Yeah.

Alex: It is tricky because I’ve got a small business, there’s 10 of us, we’re not going to change a whole industry. But as a business owner, you can only affect what you can do and try and then talk about it and lead by example, I guess.

Josh: See, that is so important. And I think the process you’ve done by going through a B Corp and not even just that, because many companies can go through a B Corp process successfully and still not actually change anything. It’s the unlearning part, it’s the assessing well, am I actually part of the problem part? It’s not just – this is everybody’s issue. It really is. It’s not just for white people to say, oh, okay, am I the problem? Everybody is harboring something. There are 7 billion people on the planet. We are one out of 7 billion plus and there is in a small business 10, 15, 20 out of 7 billion plus. There are global systems at play that have been around for literal millennia that are causing this. It’s no joke. It’s not something that, because a lot of people in many industries, not just creative or just marketing, not just digital. Many industries are sitting around at panels or sitting on zoom calls going, oh, what can we do to fix diversity inclusion? Oh, I I think we need to start solutionising and I think we’ve had enough cha, and they all say stuff like that, and it makes them feel good. But there’s no actual tangible work and unfortunately, these systems are not playing around the same way we’re playing around. These systems are going very and I’m saying systems – I’m not a conspiracy theorist or anything, there’s more than enough facts out there, academia literature to read. If I actually explain what’s going on, we have a capitalism that is inherently causing class divide, we have white supremacy that is going on, or if you want to call it racism to pacify it a little bit, I mean, but the general overarching thing is white supremacy. And racism is a function of that. We have homophobia, we have misogyny, patriarchy, we have so many different things that are at play here and we’ve all been born into this world with the system. So of course, by dint of us merely being here breathing, we’re going to be a part of the problem. Everybody, whether you’re black, or white, or Asian, or whatever, like, the only reason why me as a black person can now probably – it’s easier for me to see those things, it’s just because I’ve had to experience this as a black person. Or as someone who’s not had a lot of money growing up and even then, I say that loosely, because even by the way I speak – I don’t really know what my accent’s doing right now – but I went to a grammar school in Kent. I’m not exactly working class of the most working class. I even – I can’t call myself working class, that’d be intellectually dishonest. My parents own a house. That’s not traditionally working class in the UK. That’s not how class works here but economically, but I probably could – based on assets, based on generational wealth and all that stuff, call us working class, but not really, like we did a lot of middle-class things too. And my class privilege is absolutely there. There is a social status that I sit in professionally, that doesn’t let me mingle with people who actually create the culture that I then go and ship off to brands. So, if I don’t actively go out of my way to connect with the black people on estates, or the black people who actually can’t get out of these situations that are, who are, regardless of that –  creating culture, who are really informing the stuff that we go out and put on ads or the stuff that we go out and put in people’s faces via Google, via TV, different things like that. If I can’t involve them in that process, then I’m as much of a problem as the white guy, middle class guy in his big agency who doesn’t hire black people. The whole point is, we’re all supposed to be unlearning this stuff.

Alex: I read something the other day – with 7 billion people on the planet it’s unlikely that you as one person, and I say you as in me or you or anyone has everything right. And so, we’re all therefore, fundamentally at some point wrong. I think there needs to be the ability for people to look at their position in life and on things and their worldview on things. And to do so in a way that is non defensive, and is a little bit open minded. I think it’s a positive thing, but you can only do what you can do as one person.

Josh: Absolutely, absolutely. And it’s humbling to know that we can only do what we can do as one person, because oftentimes we either have the complex of we don’t accept within ourselves that we can be wrong, as we’ve outlined, and accepting that we don’t know everything. And getting that we don’t know anything is probably the best place to start from with stuff like this, because –

Alex: Then you’re teachable –  

Josh: Absolutely, because then you’re teachable. Some somebody is always going to teach somebody; we teach people in the same way people teach us. So, we have to start off from a place of not knowing anything, and then just telling people based off our experiences or based off things that we observe and based off things that have been widely observed, i.e., studies, i.e., data, i.e., qualitative analysis, things like that. And that’s how we lead off and then also by doing what’s right. We know that people suffering, people being put in positions where they’re not able to, you know, live a decent life, things like just being impoverished from childhood, being discriminated against in the workplace racially – all these things that affect people negatively. We know what’s right. So, it’s about that part – leading with the good intentions and leading with the, okay, how can I be a part of the solution and then also, not trying to be well, I’m going to save everybody, because that doesn’t work like that. The whole Savior complex. A lot of people have that when they first start getting involved in social causes, purposeful causes, things like that. They have the whole, oh well, I can be the change, I want to lead an army. We don’t need leaders. We actually don’t. We need everybody to play their part and that’s about it. 

Alex: Absolutely and I think that’s where I’ve got to with it all. Because if I can try and fairly provide opportunity to people, regardless of who they are, that opportunity’s then based on – if they then have an opportunity – it’s then to a certain degree, if they get a lot of support and encouragement and nurturing, it’s up to them to make of that opportunity what they can do. A lot of that is based on attitude, that attitude can be learned and coached and encouraged. So –

Josh: Yes.

Alex: So, you started your agency in 2020. Great year to start it man!

Josh: I thought that in January 2020, I was literally like, new decade. Yeah, let’s go new agency.  I was raring to go. This was honestly, this was like the first time ever internally -for clients, we’re always on time. But like, internally, this was the first time ever that we’d got our act together and actually, like, relaunched to the timeline that we set for ourselves. Usually, we give ourselves like a bunch of leeway but this time we were on it. So, we clearly wanted this. And we came in January – 6th of January 2020 was when we launched, and it was literally on top of the year. So, I was like, yeah, yeah, let’s go. Yeah, agency. This was around the time when they were already murmurs of Coronavirus and I was like, yeah, and none of us – well, a few people – but I will say there are people who will, who will, and rightly so can say I told you so. And the scientists in China are those people – they can say, I told you so, because they did really release the genome early and I’ll give them that credit. And also, some people here as well were like, guys, guys, guys, guys, pandemic, guys. We’ve been warning you, but I wasn’t one of those people. I was like, oh yeah, whatever until March. Then March, I started to fix up and then I was – and also February, March, I was seeing how government were handling it. And then because of where I am politically, I was like, oh okay, so if these guys are doing that, then I need to be doing the opposite. And then I started to think, Okay, so – and I was living in Madrid at the time, so it was a whole thing, right, running an agency in the UK, living in Madrid, and there’s a whole pandemic going on. So yeah, long story short, it came to March, we were locked down. I said, oh, if this doesn’t end soon, then our entire live events merch thing – what’s going to happen to that? Then we kind of said, don’t worry, we’ll be back for summer, summer came, summer went, it didn’t come back. It was the scariest moment ever, because all of our work up to that point had been merch based or design based or working with an event base – or something like that, literally all of it. Or artist based or something that required a live event to really make the bulk of their income but we’re basically like an accessory agency – that sounds really bad – but like an accessory agency, like a niche built-on sort of service. That’s basically what we were with merch and there was so much money to be made in 2019, and in the first three months of 2020, but then –  

Alex: Absolutely. 

Josh: Yeah, it was really interesting. So, what ended up happening was a natural process of – the rent. Someone says, oh, you work really, really hard, and really, really smart when the rent is due and the rent was really due, it was really due in multiple places. So, we kind of just got our act together and started doing the design and digital part of the merch design and digital. We just forgot about merch for that period, we just said, okay, putting you to the side, we’d love to do merch again, but can’t, so putting you to the side, and then we focused on our design offerings and our digital offerings. It was really interesting, because we’re like social media content creation agency, but then we started actually posting it for people and I was like, this is not new, but this is new ish. Then it was all going well and we started to onboard some client clients and that’s where Mental Health Foundation came about, University of the Arts London came about where we were able to do the branding for the queer student awards. And then that’s where we started to become the real meaning of impactful moments in culture. We started to actually make impact, not just cool campaigns that made impact for brands or for light touch, culture thing but we started to make actual social purpose impact, we started to actually work on widening participation. We started to actually work with – I mean, we always work with marginalised groups – our core focus is black culture, but we were starting to properly be a part of the solution, and that was really great. I was just like, okay, so we’re in this position now, it might not pay as much as merch did, it might be a bit difficult to meander because that you’re always sort of, on the pulse of what’s going on and you’ve got to, constantly be on that, especially when you’re working with organisations like that. It’s honestly been the best past six months of the whole time and all that.

Alex: And I get the feeling economically there’s two sorts of periods where the tide’s coming in and the boat’s right, all rise up and then when the tide goes out, and it’s very often in the toughest of times that you learn the most. And it then places certain demands about your commercial ingenuity, to actually try and come up with some sort of plan. We saw that across loads of partner agencies, other agencies we know, clients, freelancers. You have to really start thinking on your feet to be able to then pivot to make sure that you, at the bare minimum, survive. Then when individual parts of the economy come back, which is the oddest thing, you know, at some point, events will come back, if you think about the pent up demand, when people have confidence that they go to events and go to events safely, then that whole merch area of your business will just flourish and come back never before because there’s a hunger, there’s a thirst for getting out into the world again, because we’ve been deprived of that for a period of time.

Josh: Absolutely, and I’m not even hoping for that. I’m well, yes, of course, I’m hoping for that but even more I’m already seeing it happening. I’m grateful that we’re in this position and we didn’t just sort of fold and take that take the hit almost as like a reflection on us. I know it’s really hard for business owners because your business is your baby and you’re running this show, and you’ve – it’s like we all feel like it’s us against the world. We’re doing this for our purpose, passion our drive, determination is all in there and then when a global thing like Coronavirus happens, it hits and it’s like, we can absorb this and it really goes to heart or we can absorb reflect, pivot, and then go. I’m so glad we did the latter because otherwise we would have just been on the floor praying.

Alex: I think there are so many people, regardless of whether they’re agency owners or not, over the pandemic that have had that sort of emotional roller coaster – 

Josh: Yeah.

Alex: Just in terms of circumstances. So, in terms of the podcast Josh, what we’re looking at doing is to try and get some useful guides and hints and tips for clients when they’re looking to select an agency as a partner. So, what advice would you give to clients about asking for pitches?

Josh: Pitches is always an interesting one because you’re always in that quandary of – how much spec work do I do and how much spec work is the client asking for? It’s funny, me and my creative director were just talking today, and we literally said, abolish speculative work because it’s just not worth it unless you’re paying for it. Because at the end of the day, if someone is pitching free for you, for a service for you that you get to sit through, reflect, and then select – they’re working for you. Even though you haven’t selected them to run through the whole project, they’ve still done some strategy. They’ve still done some thinking, they’ve still got to use their many, many years of experience that they’ve toiled for, to get you to a place where you’re in the position as a client to be like, yeah, like that or don’t like that and let’s move forward. They can’t just do that for free. That’s not how life works. If we’re sort of – I know I’m sounding like really like kind of facetious and sarcastic, but I’m saying it because clients also come to us facetiously and sarcastically, with these requests being like, oh, can you do this, this and this, this and this for free and then maybe we can think about onboarding you on a small budget? And I’m like, excuse me? No, no, no, that’s not how this works.

Alex: We have it where – there’s quite a common sort of movement from that guy. Is it Blair Enns? About the no pitch agenda where you literally don’t pitch. I think there’s an approach to when clients ask for pitches, if they’re asking for work free of charge, just say no because who goes into business to do work free of charge? I think it’s fair enough We’ve got some charity clients that we could work for, but I think commercial work, I think that’s just the antithesis of what you should be doing. And so, I think at that stage to get a paid for pitch opportunity, I think that’s okay to have a client who’s prepared to place some monetary value on your time and experience and expertise and learnings. So, you bring that to there- I think that’s a fair enough approach.

Josh: I completely agree with that, paying for pitches is no problem. I mean, it’s not like we don’t like the preliterate process of pitching, it’s actually fun. It’s fun to be able to do the research behind the thing, if it’s a big project, or just to be able to strategise and come up with a bit of ideas, and then to go to a client and say, hey, here’s what we think will be best for you. If they say no, they say no, they say, yes, they say, yes but the whole point is, there’s been a respect for the work, right? With free pitching there just isn’t that respect for the work because they can also then go on and take the same ideas, but with the cheaper agency, and that’s what usually ends up happening anyway.

Alex: And sometimes can do, and there’s various things that you can do – we’re part of a network of agencies called the Alliance of Independent Agencies, and they have a pitch protection thing. So, if you’re a creative agency – we’re not creative – and so if you’re a creative agency you can get that then registered and then you’re covered.  So, if the client takes that work and just does it anyway, you’ve got that protection.

Josh: I did not know that. That’s amazing.

Alex: And especially for you guys in the creative industries, where you’re actually putting your heart and soul, like breathing something into existence, I think that kind of stuff is important. Because you can never, unless you get a really warm referral from a client that you trust but out of network contact that’s asking for free work, it’s just sort of like –

Josh: Yeah, absolutely. And this is again part of the thing with it, it’s again, that whole thing of the clients tell themselves that they’re picking the best agency for the job. But if we’re all going to warm contacts and if all of our leads are coming from warm contacts – I’ve had a few random cold leads that have turned into amazing things that haven’t actually asked me to pitch, because they’ve seen our work. They’ve seen our case studies, and they’re like, yeah, we’ll go with you. 

Alex: They have warmed themselves up because they really are interested in the actual work, you’re putting out there and the projects you’re doing.

Josh: Yes, 100%. And I respect that 100 – I respect that so much. But if we didn’t go through that process, where it was like, oh, okay, I’m a cold contact, just found out who you are, we have this brief for you, will you accept it, will you pitch? Then there’s got to be some understanding somewhere or some kind of payment, otherwise, it just looks like we’re doing a lot of work for free, because it’s not only the pitch right? You have the intro call with the potential lead, you have to sort of pick their brain about their problems and try and solutionise on that call. That’s free consultation, then you start receiving the brief of the pitch. Sometimes you even write the brief and sometimes people write briefs for free – it’s more work and then you actually get round to the pitch. And you’re doing all of this work, some people are doing like 100–200-page decks of research and strategy and creative executions, calling up people here and they’re trying to find out how does this creative look to you? That’s costing thousands of pounds and all for this thing that you might not win or even if you do win it, they might cancel on you because they can always do that. I’ve seen that happen at an agency before and I was honestly like, wow, you scaled for this. You did all of this stuff for this and all of a sudden, it’s just gone just like that and I was dumbfounded.

Alex: Yeah, you never know. So, when you’re getting an intro for a client, and they’re talking about projects, how important is it for clients to give you a budget? 

Josh: You know, before I would have actually said, it’s really important because budgets help us plan and we can put together – okay, this looks like this, this looks like that. This is what we can do for 10k. This is what we can do for 30k. Now, to be honest with you I don’t mind if clients don’t come to me with budgets anymore. Of course, I would still prefer a budget because it’s just really easy, but I honestly don’t mind. I think budgets were necessary for me when Archtype was almost a group of freelancers and that’s how it felt as an agency. We felt like a scrappy studio or a scrappy startup. Now, I still do have my imposter syndrome – like even being on this podcast talking as an agency founder. It’s mad to me. Completely mad that I’m giving tips and tricks to – 

Alex: I’m 46 right and I still feel like an imposter. I feel like I’m going to get found out and I’m sort of nearer to retirement and it still goes on so –

Josh: Literally that. It’s kind of a healthy feeling because it’s always humbling right, I guess. Yeah, but budgets? It was definitely a thing when my imposter syndrome was a lot more knocking at my door. But now that I’ve sort of settled into this, I don’t mind not having a budget from a client, because I know we have our rates and we have our costing so if you can afford it, great, if you can’t – let’s go back. I’s fine.

Alex: What we try and do is when we speak to clients is we talk- in the qualification process we try and find out what their range is. So, if they haven’t got a budget in mind, we need to know have you got 2000 pounds a month, 10,000 pounds a month, or 20,000 pounds a month? Because if there’s a 2000 pounds a month client and we pitch 10,000 pounds, there’s a disconnect instantly and so you need to find where their threshold is. If they haven’t got the appetite or the confidence to spend one figure. then we need to dial them down to another. 

Josh: The confidence is really it isn’t it? it’s completely understandable from the client’s side, I’m not just saying half the stuff to just be mean to clients. 100% I understand the hierarchy in-house is mad, the lack of freedom in-house is mad, the amount of budget restraints can be mad especially when you’re working with a government body or in a charity or in an organisation that just has a lot of blue. I said blue tape? Red tape rather. That whole bit when you’re in that environment, it’s really, really hard to have confidence in spending any money because it’s almost like, wow, I have all this budget to manage but I don’t know where to put it. I need results. I need results now. And especially given the current climate, we’re in a pandemic, money’s shortening, budgets have been cut – especially marketing budgets, they’re always the first to get cut. Fair enough, I get it. But at the same time, when you’re honest as a client, we can be honest as an agency and that’s the best thing, honesty, and communication.

Alex: So, for a client, what are the signs that an agency is a good fit?

Josh: This is an interesting question. I feel like first and foremost, you need that assurance that your day-to-day contact or the person that you’re liaising with the new biz, or just whoever you’re talking to is a nice person. Some people are all about, okay, we can do this for you, we can do that for you, we can do all of this stuff. And then once you’re on there, within the first two weeks they’re already trying to upsell you and upsell you more services where everything’s sales, sales, sales, sales, sales, or you have some agencies where it’s like, selling everything. And then the accounts team is like, how am I supposed to do any of this? Or you have certain agencies that are more laid back in their approach to account management and things and your client that needs constant updates or vice versa. Then you have an agency who’s constantly providing updates and you’re like, wow, my inbox is too full for this, I don’t have time. It really is about, I’d say, building – attempting to build that rapport with an agency first. And the same way with agencies attempting to build rapport with a client first, and then seeing where things lead to because I mean, of course, we all trying to get in revenue. And we’re trying to get revenue quick, because we need it for our overheads and for our bottom lines. Absolutely. And the clients, of course, are trying to spend quickly because they have deadlines to meet, targets to reach, KPIs to achieve, absolutely. But that rapport is so important because you could pick the best agency in the world but if you don’t like your day-to-day contact, you are going to be stressed and that agency as a result will be stressed. You can pick the best creative in the world but if their communication skills or account management skills are poor, then what does the creative matter when you’re going on 16 rounds of feedback because one line in the brief wasn’t right? So, it really is about cementing that rapport- just communication, that level of honesty, first in an agency – and how to find that? I mean, I guess for me, I love a small agency. I love a medium sized agency, a big agency. I’m not really a big agency person. I will say I’ve worked with big agencies before, I’m not really a big agency person. I like a small to medium sized agency. I like a team where I can, say, walk into an office with them on a meeting or I can join a zoom call, and I recognise faces. I like an agency that’s not faceless, that’s not a subsidiary of this huge conglomerate or something. For me – and I’m saying this as client side on or Joined Up Thinking, because Joined Up Thinking is not an agency. We actually work with other agencies as well and we’ve worked with some great big agencies, but I also like the small ones. I really do. I like the small ones. because they often have this drive and determination and just this – there’s some levels of creativity that are unmatched by a big agency. Bigger agencies understand how to scale back things and how to be small C conservative with things. But small agencies? They’re always out for the win. I love that personally. Clients, I mean, if you’re a big client, it’s going to be really, really hard for you to take a bet on a small agency they’re small but I’d recommend it.

Alex: And that’s something no one ever got fired for – appointing a top ten network agency because it’s a risk-free decision. If you’re a marketing director, and you appoint a smaller independent you need to have real confidence that that independent is going to deliver on the brief so that your position is solid. You cannot afford for that to go wrong.

Josh: Absolutely, and that position is – I’ll just be quick – is really, really hard with that position, because everybody wants to make sure that their role is secure within their company. At the same time, I challenge senior leaders on client side to really understand that it is not a risk-free decision going with a top 10 agency because you’re creative. I’m speaking for the creative industries now. Your creative is the same still creative that I’ve been seeing for the past 10 years on ITV ad. I am tired, I don’t need to see that no more, like sometimes go with a more innovative option. And it may be safe. And you may be getting exactly the same returns year on year. But you can do better, you know you can do better.

Alex: So, with a close look at an agency, how important is that agency’s values? 

Josh: Oh, wow, I would like to think it’s of upmost importance.  I would honestly like to think it’s of the utmost importance. I know to me it is when I’m looking at agencies, when I’m looking to work with clients it’s of the utmost importance, like their values. But what I’m noticing now is a lot of people are scrambling to get values, and people don’t actually have them to begin with. So, it’s almost like that we’re working backwards and trying to think okay, well what values do I need for this campaign or for this thing, or for me to basically not be cancelled? If someone sees that something was wrong with the campaign, what values do I need to just mitigate that risk? When really it should be, sit down for a bit longer and just think about what values do you want to stand for. Just pick one or two and just make sure that in everything you’re just hitting those values. If an agency doesn’t match that, it’s okay – not everyone is the right fit. I think it should be of the utmost importance because  . 

Alex: Yeah. I think of values – so I’ve never been creative. So, I’ve taken fantastic creative work that other people have done and got that in like centre break for Coronation Street or in the early right hand page of the national newspaper. And there’s an approach to media planning and buying where – it’s an Italian phrase, I think it’s called combreo. I don’t know why I’m trying to quote Italian phrases, I’m from Essex but it’s with life. And so, what you try and do, so if a brand is fun and energetic, what you try and do is then make sure that the environment you’re in is fun, energetic as well. And so, there is a synergy between the creative and then the televisual or editorial environment, so that there’s a real sort of synergy. I think values are a very, very similar thing. So, if you’re a brand that stands for these sorts of values, then to work with agencies that demonstrate those values and make sure there’s a good footprint for you to then base the other sort of areas of the conversation we’ve discussed. So, for an agency in terms of industry accreditations, how important are they for a client do you think? 

Josh: These are interesting. As a small agency, I’m definitely looking to get some industry accreditation. Well, some more outside of just individual awards and things. I don’t see awards as accreditation as much although they do kind of double as both. Accreditation, because that’s something you work for and things like B Corp, I think that’s just – soon, I honestly think in the next 5-10 years it’s going to be a requirement as an agency to have that. I hope like things like that will be requirements because they’re brilliant, but then also accreditation in the actual services you provide so Chartered Institute of Marketing star, PR star – there’s so many others.

Alex: Absolutely. So, we’ve got them for Google ads and Bing. I think that accreditations display a certain approach that you’re taking to business and so with the whole B Corp thing, the process that we’ve been through is we’ve just found ourselves woefully lacking, not doing stuff we probably should have been doing. And so, in terms of our application, we’ve now pushed the stuff up to a basic standard that demonstrates that we’re placing equal importance on making profit, because we’re a profit-making business. And that’s what we’re going to do and make as much profit as possible, thank you very much. But then also make sure we’re not doing that at the detriment of our clients, staff, society, trying to make society a fairer place, and then the environment as well. Are all those external stakeholders treated equitably? 

Josh: Yeah.

Alex: So, in terms of agencies, what ones do you really admire in your space?

Josh: Oh, well, I mean, The Elephant Room, I mentioned them already. I love that agency. They’re a creative agency and the whole thing – they’re called The Elephant Room because of the elephant in the room. Their thing is diversity and inclusion and they’re not just your bog-standard diversity and inclusion agency, because I think there’s a few of those about that. But these guys are really about it. I remember they did a campaign with Uber and this is what really did it for me, because I’d already known them by this point, I’d actually worked in the agency as a contractor. So, it’s not like I had to warm up to them, but this really solidified it for me. There was a campaign they did with Uber, and they got somebody to be in this campaign. I think it was for LGBT history month or Pride Month, either of the two, I can’t remember exactly which one, but they were doing this campaign and all of a sudden, I hear this, contrary to Uber standpoint, in an Uber ad. And I’m like what? This person, I can’t remember who they were, but they were brilliant, brilliant, brilliant in the ad, and they were going at companies like Uber for lack of integrity, lack of support and this this kind of thing. If I can find it, I’ll actually send it to you. But that just told me that, okay, Uber would not have gone for this just innately, they would not have. So, The Elephant Room really made an effort to keep that in there and to find people who are going to challenge the status quo, and to pay them for their time for doing so, and that one was really like, okay, these guys are here to stay. These guys have really done it, they’ve thrown it out of the park- that one for me was really admirable. Another agency, ON ROAD, sort of a similar thing. They’re a research agency and they’re responsible for Nike’s presence in London. I will actually say that they are one of the single hands that are responsible for why Nike is so lauded in this city. Just beyond the shoes and the clothes and the lifestyle, they’ve really managed to tap into what London was doing creatively. Their ‘nothing beats a Londoner’ campaign, they did the entire research for that and it was so good. It was just so good. Another agency I admire, I must say Hype Collective and Hard Numbers. Those guys literally just taught me how to agency. So yeah, they’re up there.

Alex: Excellent. So, 2020 has seen a lot of change, Josh, and it’s forced a lot of the world to rethink about things. What ways do you think the agency environment has changed, and what do you think agencies can do to stay relevant and incorporate sort of larger sort of learnings out there in society?

Josh: I think this one is really interesting. As we discussed before, 2020 is a mad year and 2021 is looking the same, like the same kind of madness.

Alex: I think history’s just spinning off in a mad sort of trajectory.

Josh: Honestly, there must be a simulation out there where we’re actually enjoying life on a beach somewhere, you know. I think agency world has changed so much but also; it’s really clinging on to the stuff of old that isn’t necessarily beneficial. It’s almost like two halves, you’ve got the small, nimble agencies like ours that are like really trying to push the boat out and be better and do more things, for example, you’ve said yourself, you love an office, you love getting people in the office but you’re having to do more remote working, and you’re allowing your business to do that so that you can widen your talent pool. And actually, that is absolutely great.

Alex: I can just look back and think I was wrong because I’ve just been very traditional. I have probably been conservative with a small C and intentionally just based on that’s what I’ve always done. And then I always took a very dim view of people that wanted to work from home. So, I was like are you going to watch Jeremy Kyle and sit around in your pajamas? There’s probably an inherent lack of trust in terms of what I had with the staff and there was no reason for that – it was just based on some irrational notion. The team have just done exceptionally well in a really, really tough year. They’ve stood up, been accounted, and contributed to us sort of pushing on.

Josh: Honestly, we always surprise ourselves as business owners. It’s funny, we always hire our team and we’re like yes, I believe in you. And then we’re shocked when they deliver. We’re actually shocked when they deliver well and outside of our expectations. It’s a hilarious thing, but absolutely and that that sort of change is in really the right direction because the world is moving to a more remote, more virtual, more flexible base anyway, but the pandemic has definitely sped that up and yeah, agency world has changed in that regard. I know a few people have just left their offices by the wayside to save that overhead money. Or just having co working spaces or just paying less on rent by sharing with someone else or some things like that. I think that all comes down to, again as we discussed, right early on when I was talking about introduction into the agency life and general agency culture and hustle porn and that kind of stuff. All of this change that’s happening is coming down to centering the person first, whether it be the business owner, the agency founder, the senior leader, or the junior intern, the apprentice, the junior account staff, the mid-level staff. Whoever is centering the person first and ensuring that they’re in an optimal condition to deliver the work to be able to – because they everyone wants to work well. Everybody wants to work well. So, centering that personal growth, the centeredness and wholeness so that they can now go and deliver.

Alex: Absolutely. And I think when I first started working in the early 90s, there was a recession at the time so you just took whatever job you could take, and you just worked hard, and that was it. And the stuff that we talk about in terms of, you know, trying to create pathways for people, trying to create wellness for staff, looking after staff, training staff and those kinds of things. I think they probably were done but it was very much, you just kept your head down and you worked, and you made sure that you were a productive, economic unit. Anything above that you didn’t, you sort of just went to the pub and got drunk. You know, things have changed phenomenally in the intervening years. So, this has been great. Where can people find out more about you online?

Josh: Oh, yeah. Thanks. Thanks so much. This has been this has been a really, really lovely conversation. I’ve enjoyed – I’ve literally enjoyed every minute of it. And yeah, online so I am very atypical for an agency founder. I’m not on Twitter actually anymore. Too much news, too many opinions. I was like, no –

Alex: it got too much – 

Josh: Too much for me. So, now all I do is live vicariously through my business and it’s a bit more of a safe space for me. But yeah, my personal social media on Instagram, I am at Jale Kapo. So, that’s J, A, L, E, K, A, P, O and Archetype that’s archytpe.co.uk. That’s our thing, everything lowercase and that’s on Twitter and Instagram for Archetype. I mean, you’ll find all the links to everything that I do on my Instagram page but that’s that. That’s me.

Alex: Excellent. Perfect. Thanks for joining me today Josh. 

Josh: Thank you so much for having me.

Alex: Thanks for listening. If you found the conversation useful, please join me again next time for Choosing an Agency.

Choosing an Agency is available for you to download from all the usual podcast platforms or find out more, here: www.alexholliman.com