S01E01 – Jon Wilkins

From founding iconic agency Naked, to his current role as Chairman of Karmarama, Jon Wilkins, has blazed a real trail through the advertising world over the last 20+ years. Jon joins hosts Brendon and Zoe to talk about his diverse experience in the world of media, advertising and comms – sharing his views on tech, culture, creativity and the ever-evolving agency landscape.

In this first episode of Without Borders you’ll discover what business leaders can learn from Gareth Southgate; why being clever isn’t enough to be successful in the world of marketing and media; what it takes to build a winning agency culture and why there’s probably a better way of doing just about everything in the agency landscape.

Transcript:

Zoe Clark: Hi, I’m Zoe Clark and welcome to the Without Borders Podcast. In this episode, Brendon and I are speaking to Jon Wilkins, the chairman of creative agency, Karmarama.

Brendon Craigie: Hi, yes. I’m Brendon Craigie and in this episode, we’re gonna hear what business leaders can learn from England manager Gareth Southgate. We’re gonna find out why being clever isn’t enough to be successful in the world of marketing and media. And finally, we’re going to understand what it takes to build a winning agency culture.

Jon Wilkins: I’ve got a snagging list of stuff.

Zoe Clark: Oh right, yeah.

Jon Wilkins: And I’m just so not a real man.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Zoe Clark: See, Brendon is a starter finisher.

Jon Wilkins: Of course.

Brendon Craigie: But that involves commissioning someone else to do things.

Jon Wilkins: What’s that app? There is an app somebody told me the other day where if you’ve got, oh, my blinds don’t work-

Brendon Craigie: Right, yeah.

Jon Wilkins: You post it and then there’s-

Brendon Craigie: There’s one for tradesmen, isn’t there?

Jon Wilkins: Yeah. Do you remember what it’s called?

Brendon Craigie: No.

Jon Wilkins: No.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: Somebody was telling me about it the other day. They’re like, “Oh, you’ve got to use this. It’s brilliant.” You just post your silly-

Brendon Craigie: Your job, yeah.

Jon Wilkins: Silly problem and then people kind of bid for it. They go, “I’ll turn up for 40 quid.”

Zoe Clark: A bit like TaskRabbit, that kind of thing.

Jon Wilkins: TaskRabbit, yes. I’ve just got to do that or I’ve got to get a boyfriend. A strong man.

Zoe Clark: A strapping handyman one.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: Platonic.

Brendon Craigie: Yes, yeah.

Jon Wilkins: Just he can come around and have pizza with me.

Brendon Craigie: Everyone needs a handyman, don’t they?

Jon Wilkins: Yeah.

Zoe Clark: I actually laid our kitchen floor as well as doing the bath.

Brendon Craigie: Did you?

Zoe Clark: Yeah, I loved it.

Brendon Craigie: Did it stay down?

Zoe Clark: Yeah.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: That’s amazing. Did you glue it with Gorilla Glue?

Zoe Clark: Spray glue, actually. It was a bit of an improv job. The funniest bit was buying the liner. The kitchen was only small, but bought the liner from a carpet shop down the road. Thought I was doing really well, bought the liner, then realized I was driving a mini and had to get it home, 12 foot roll of [inaudible 00:02:02] in a mini.

Jon Wilkins: Problem.

Zoe Clark: Yeah. Carpet man thought I was mad, but I did it. It’s great.

Jon Wilkins: Yes.

Zoe Clark: Great. Okay, alright. Let’s kick off with question one. So Jon, thanks so much for joining us.

Jon Wilkins: It’s quite a pleasure.

Zoe Clark: How is life at Karmarama?

Jon Wilkins: Karmarama, yeah.

Zoe Clark: Not Karmacora.

Jon Wilkins: No, not Karmacora. No, it’s great. It’s a job, it helps me pay the bills, the mortgage, the maintenance on my children, school fees. Yeah, it’s really good. I’m glad to have one.

Zoe Clark: Something tells me that given your career and everything that you’ve done in the past that it might be a bit more than just a job for you. Are you hiding your passions under the microphone?

Jon Wilkins: It’s an industry that I love that’s treated me really well and it’s a company that stands for something, which I find easier to turn up for than a company that doesn’t. No, it’s been really good to me. It’s been nearly five years now. So it’s gone quite quickly.

Zoe Clark: Indeed.

Brendon Craigie: Looking back when you were studying, did you always see yourself going into a world of media and comms and marketing?

Jon Wilkins: I think probably like everybody, when I was in secondary school they did those career profiling things I think when you’re about 15.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: And mine said I should be a social worker, which I actually took very seriously. I thought, blimey, that’s my calling. I remember it was a multiple choice questionnaire and then when I did my degree, I did social science, which did include a course of social work. I thought, blimey, this really is a calling.

Jon Wilkins: Then when I got later career advice they said, “You’re probably a bit too silly to be a social worker,” which was a really flummoxing point in my decision making process. So I then pivoted, as they say nowadays, and decided I was gonna be a journalist [inaudible 00:03:47] I liked English. And I guess that was the stepping off point into the world of media through a desire to be a journalist.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: Yeah.

Zoe Clark: Do you remember what you got advised to be at school, Brendon? Mine was a florist.

Brendon Craigie: I think at one-

Jon Wilkins: That’s quite demeaning.

Zoe Clark: Isn’t it? Let’s hope career advice has changed a little bit.

Brendon Craigie: I can’t remember what advice. I think at one point I wanted to be a pilot, but probably did most boys at some point. I quite liked the idea of being prime minister as well at one point.

Jon Wilkins: There’s still a potential opening.

Zoe Clark: Exactly, right?

Brendon Craigie: Yeah, and then I think my ambition slowly faded away and I decided actually PR sounded like a good road to go down.

Jon Wilkins: It’s definitely PR, marketing, advertising, whatever we call it, it’s definitely a fallback. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anybody going through their teens and education going, “Gee, you know what I desperately want to be? A marketer/advertiser/PR.” I think you gotta be interested in culture and people. It helps if you have a reasonable command of the language of choice in the market that you work in.

Jon Wilkins: I think it’s a fun environment. A lot of us sort of fall into it because it’s a sort of mashup of fun, kind of creative. You can’t really train for it, although I’m sure now there are vocational degrees, but certainly being of an older ilk, there was not a vocational degree at my time.

Zoe Clark: Absolutely.

Brendon Craigie: Looking back, I think for me it was about a university having the sense of wanting to change the world, which obviously involves having an impact and influence on people.

Jon Wilkins: That’s true.

Brendon Craigie: Then, as I say, the ambition to change the world fades away and then you take those raw skills and apply them to-

Jon Wilkins: Well, you’ve changed some things, but actually that reminds me. I wanted to be a journalist on World In Action, if you remember.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: I don’t know whether that show’s still going, but it was Grenada Television show and it really did try and change the world through TV journalism. I saw a job advert in The Guardian for Grenada Television and it was for a researcher. I thought researcher into journalism, it’s probably a stepping stone. So I turned up, I did the interview, somehow by complete fluke I got the job.

Jon Wilkins: And on my first day when I turned up they said, “Oh no, no, you’re not doing program research, you’re doing marketing research.” I was like, “Oh shit.” Damn. Is it too late? Then I thought, well, at least it’s a job. You come out with X thousand pounds worth of debt and that was literally the strange move into what we do now, I guess.

Zoe Clark: Yeah, absolutely. Because when you look at those early pieces of your career, it ultimately led to you becoming head of strategy at an ad agency, BMP, at really quite an early age.

Jon Wilkins: Yeah.

Zoe Clark: When you look back on that time, what kind of people or experiences stand out to you as being particularly formative?

Jon Wilkins: I think it’s a very fun sociable environment, media and advertising. I think you can, my observation would be I’m quite clever but I’m not really clever. I think master being sociable is definitely, you can make up for a few IQ points in our game by just being naturally gregarious and fun to work with. So when I think through my early career, it was definitely going the extra mile to help people, being sociable, meeting lots of people, asking lots of inquisitive questions.

Jon Wilkins: Then I think always … If anybody said, “Oh, there’s something new we’re thinking about doing,” always being the first to raise your hand. I know that sounds a little bit patronizing as advice, but I do speakers for schools things where you go in to talk to 16-year-olds. The one thing you can say about our industry is it’s in a constant state of flux and there will always be new areas of mastery, new problems, new issues.

Jon Wilkins: I think you’ve probably got two types of people. You’ve got the people who go, “Oh shit, well hopefully my bit will be alright for a while.” I’m naturally conservative. They like the mastery of something. Then you obviously go, “I’m not that good at anything, but I’ll give anything a go.” I was definitely in the latter camp in terms of just being more experimental enough, trying new things, and I would always give that as advice.

Jon Wilkins: If you can psychologically, if you want to go into an industry like ours, you’ve got to level the [inaudible 00:08:09] a lot.

Brendon Craigie: Do you think that’s like … If you think about all the people that you’ve worked with through the years, do you think that often it isn’t the brightest people that are successful, that actually it’s the people that make the most of their talents and have those sort of social skills that you mentioned?

Jon Wilkins: Yeah, 100% it’s not the brightest. I would say a lot of energy is one thing and not everybody wants to commit energy to work, which I totally comprehend, but I think if you want to succeed, you have to do a little bit more. That would be one. I think definitely an interest in new stuff, I think, is a definite characteristics of people who succeed because the industry changes so much. And then the enhanced sociability I think is a new skill, actually.

Jon Wilkins: I think probably going back 20, 30 years, you can be quite a didactic leader. You could be more of a military leader. We’re going this way, follow me. Whereas I think actually with partly new generations that are a bit more collaborative maybe in essence or a little bit more kind of asking the why questions, kind of go that way, why should I follow you? That desire to be a little bit more collaborative and sociable, I think, is quite important.

Zoe Clark: Yeah. And do you think those things are as true for you now as they were back then when you were starting out?

Jon Wilkins: Yeah. Oh, 100%.

Zoe Clark: Yeah?

Jon Wilkins: Yeah. I think actually your innate skills as opposed to your learned skills are the ones that stick with you and drive you forward. So I’m one of the older people in the office now. I’m 51 years old and I know more about contemporary music and art than any of the art school kids. I don’t take any pride in that, but it’s just my natural inquisitive nature and my desire and thirst for new stuff.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah, yeah.

Jon Wilkins: You can’t make people do that, but if people ask you for suggestions on how to be successful, that’s one, I think, trait that’s worth following maybe.

Brendon Craigie: I think one of the things that I like about our profession is it does draw a lot of younger people into it.

Jon Wilkins: Yeah.

Brendon Craigie: And it seems to have that knock on effect to you personally in terms of I think it does keep you young.

Jon Wilkins: Keeps you young, yeah.

Brendon Craigie: Like being surrounded by young people, new ideas, new thinking. Do you get that?

Jon Wilkins: 100% agree. It’s probably like children keep you young but they exhaust you.

Brendon Craigie: Yes.

Jon Wilkins: The workplace intellectually keeps you young because you want to be part of something. If you stand on the edges and you don’t involve yourself in changes in culture, then you’re gonna go by the wayside. I think also communication and advertising, marketing, branding, whatever we’re talking about, you are really reflecting culture and in some cases, you’re copying or adopting culture. Very rarely, you’re leading it, but I think getting off the pace is not a good place to be.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: You know, so.

Brendon Craigie: Thinking about your … I guess you’ve done a load of incredible exciting stuff over the years. How would you characterize the current environment? Is this a particularly innovative environment? Is it a stale environment? How do you think from a media and marketing perspective?

Jon Wilkins: I think it’s never been more polarized. I’m very careful because everybody always uses, “It’s never been more this and that,” and things are moving faster and all those cliches that just rattle your brain. But I think the polarization is very interesting because I think at the one hand, you’ve got a lot of change, which is involving automation, and technology, and robotics, and there’s a lot of I guess arguably human de-skilling taking place.

Jon Wilkins: At the other hand, we are absolutely living in the land of opportunity where you can have a vision and you can create that vision and deliver it for the cost that you could’ve done 10 years ago. Actually through technology, you can scale that ambition quickly. So it really is, it’s diametric. I was saying the other day at a conference, there’s a utopian future and then there’s a dystopian future. They’re just different sides to the same coin.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Zoe Clark: Absolutely. That’s something you’re working on a bit at the moment, isn’t it, in your project? The battle of extremes. You want to tell us a little bit more about that?

Jon Wilkins: That’s actually more of a personal thing in that we can all see in our day jobs the positives of technology. I think it’s healthy to also stare down the negatives, to be honest, because I think if you’re gonna master anything or at least learn from it, you need to be aware of the limitations of the problems attached. I guess what I was really talking about with that, which is more about a societal level, a lot of the things that we take for granted in our lives now are undeniably leading to problems.

Jon Wilkins: People don’t sit around a table like we are and discuss diametric opposite opinions. And then people tend to just go, “Well, I don’t agree with you,” and then run off with people who share their views and then get angrier and angrier. That’s the most obvious one, but there’s actually a multitude of I guess divisions that are emerging. My interest is really that I think the people who are driving that change, whether they’re platforms, they’re media owners, or indeed the consultants or whatever we would call ourselves.

Jon Wilkins: We almost have a duty to try and work out how to resolve these things, so how to use a lot of these technologies for the better for society. I don’t think any of us, especially once you’ve [inaudible 00:13:53] none of us really want to leave the place and seem much of a mess as we move onto the next platform life.

Brendon Craigie: I think what you were saying about how you have these very polarized opinions and often, it’s very easy just to retreat into your own area. So much of life today is all about your personal experience, whether it’s your Spotify list or what you choose to watch on TV. All of those things are wonderful in the sense you can watch what you want, listen to what you want whenever you want. In some ways, they also unpick any sense of a collective experience.

Jon Wilkins: No, I agree. Also, I think progress in the analog era was a lot about social collision and just mashups of culture and feeling uncomfortable and then learning to borrow from different things. That’s why the reasons I love London is that it is this melting pot of cultures and people and backgrounds. Because we all live so close to each other, we literally bump into each other every day whereas I think technology means that you don’t really have to do that.

Brendon Craigie: No.

Jon Wilkins: You don’t have to put the world’s [inaudible 00:15:04] in the pub like people used to on a Friday night. And you don’t have to necessarily meet people in forums that maybe historically you would have quite happily taken head on and tried to resolve. I think it’s more about, I think what I was thinking with that, which isn’t really that bigger thought, was that a lot of the technologies are kind of challenging us, that we should be thinking about the application of precisely the same technology to bring us together.

Jon Wilkins: I think there’s a certain belief probably where people feel, “Well, that’s just happening. There’s nothing we can do about it.” Actually, it’s lazy journalism. You’re in PR, but every weekend I read about these terrible divisions of opinion and how technology is making us lonely and blah, blah, blah, and how it’s not serving us and our experiences are getting worse. All this sort of stuff and nobody’s kind of going, “Yeah, we all flipping know that. So what are we gonna do?”

Jon Wilkins: Where do you kind of go, “Well, there has to be something focusing on how to make this better for all of us.” I guess it’s the frustrating thing. It’s probably a bit like, I’ve never been out so many times now where friends of mine have gone, “I really think I might have to go into politics. It’s coming from, just suddenly people are kind of going, “I used to just trust and leave these people to do it and now it’s really pissing me off.”

Brendon Craigie: Which is probably a good thing, isn’t it? It’s only through that frustration that we get people motivated.

Jon Wilkins: Yeah, I think so.

Brendon Craigie: We’ve got this thing that we’re percolating on around tech wars. So the idea is that if you look back 10, 15 years ago, most people probably wouldn’t have any idea of who some of the CEOs are of some of the big tech companies. So tech companies have, in the past, everything they did seemed to be good, sort of changing the world. Pretty much had license to do what they want, but now because so much of our lives is influenced, or controlled by technology, the leaders are now very much correctly in the spotlight and they probably under more scrutiny than any sort of business leaders have been in the past.

Brendon Craigie: It creates this quite interesting thing we call in the tech wars where there’s a lot of dissatisfaction and angst about what technology companies are enabling. It’s almost like it feels like it comes as a bit of a shock to a lot of these leaders of technology companies, that they’re suddenly thrust in the spotlight and if you’re at Facebook, suddenly you’ve got this duty of care of this responsibility which you never even dreamt you ever would, you know? It’s create this interesting environment where there’s this war going on at play but it’s not really a war that anyone’s really probably …

Jon Wilkins: I read our interview with Steve Wozniak, you know the co-founder of Apple and he said his theory on the tech wars was that his generation of digital entrepreneurs, the ones that came out flower power and really the 70s west coast environment, they were all anti-Vietnam, anti-nuclear war, but they were incredibly political. A lot of them felt that technology could solve the world’s ills. The founders of the internet certainly felt that and they also felt that if they didn’t do something about it something really bad might happen.

Jon Wilkins: Then you move forward I guess 20 years to the 90s and the entrepreneurs of the 90s who are now leading the world effectively, and they didn’t have that. They lived through 20 years and most of them were in their 20s or early 30s so they lived through the majority of their life in the most peaceful time ever in the history of mankind where there really weren’t that many negatives when you think about it and there certainly wasn’t the imminent threat of Armageddon.

Jon Wilkins: As a result, they started utilizing technology to create better experiences but relatively shallow in their ambitions. Now, it doesn’t mean they haven’t provided amazing services, just to be clear on this, but they certainly weren’t of a mindset where they felt this incredible sense of responsibility for the planet’s wellbeing. Then obviously, they’ve ridden this phenomenal success. Now they’re woke because they’ve had to be. It’s not like they’ve had a conscious built into the way they operate.

Jon Wilkins: He said he thought that was an interesting … Why is Bill Gates the largest charitable donor ever in the history of humankind? These people were just built differently and they really felt a sense of responsibility. For every interview we now see with the new leaders, you can always see the shock on their faces.

Brendon Craigie: They’re really uncomfortable in that position, aren’t they?

Jon Wilkins: Really uncomfortable with it, yeah. I think it is, I think they will find this conscious, but it’s because it wasn’t built into the way they operated or the way they built their businesses.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: I just thought that was quite interesting. [crosstalk 00:20:22]

Zoe Clark: I was over in San Francisco recently meeting a few tech companies over there. The one sense I got is how much, not necessarily the people who were working out those particularly big firms or those big leaders, but all the people associated with the industry and really inside that bubble, just being so aware of how much navel gazing there is and how just totally isolate themselves in this bubble outside of what the rest mainstream America might be up to. It’s all a bit of a shock, I think.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: Interesting.

Zoe Clark: Shall I bring us back slightly on track to the Without Borders theme of this podcast a little bit? Of course, one of the ethoses, is that the right word? Is that the plural?

Jon Wilkins: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Zoe Clark: That we try and live by at Tyto of course is international work and working Without Borders in that way. Of course, that’s something you’ve got quite a lot of experience of as well, John. So just wondering, thinking back to your time at Naked and setting up different offices in different places around the world, what were some of the challenges that you were facing at that time and how is it different now? How did you overcome them? Tell us a bit about that.

Jon Wilkins: Well it wasn’t as difficult as people said it was gonna be. I think what we found is a recruitment brand was we identified a human truth of working that resonated in every market. Our positioning, we said we were looking for brilliant misfits, people who felt that the current structure of marketing and communications didn’t work for them. So we attacked a talent vertical that exists in Tokyo, and it exists in New York, and it exists in Mumbai. That was one thing.

Jon Wilkins: I think the second thing, the only legislative challenge is we’re setting up an enterprise. I think probably what we found was people were more similar than they were different. So again, a lot of mythology around working environments. I think if you are very domestic in any market in the world, you cherish and love highlighting the differences in your market. Oh, your offer will never work in this market because we do things differently here.

Jon Wilkins: You can take that angle, but what we found is you can equally take the angle that actually, there is a lot of symmetry both in terms of consumer behavior, in terms of the way companies and brands are built. I still walk into this the whole time. I did a presentation the other day to a big female retailer regionally strong in Holland. They said, “The thing is you just would not understand how conservative these types of women are in their shopping habits.” Obviously, it was a client saying that so you listen and you take it on board and you think about it.

Jon Wilkins: Then not being in your heart of hearts though, you know that they are responding the same way as every other under pressure family leader with maybe a slightly tight budget, maybe scared of the same thing. So people are more the same than they are different. So I’ve got to say it’s the best learning experience I’ve ever been through, but it also isn’t as difficult as people make out.

Brendon Craigie: No.

Jon Wilkins: I don’t know whether you think-

Brendon Craigie: No, I agree. I think yeah, by working internationally and working with other people, I think just on a human level, the things that I most enjoyed about it is just relating to people and realizing that actually, it doesn’t matter whether they’re in Paris, Munich, Sydney. That on a basic human level, we’re all pretty similar to each other to say we might have a slightly different preference in cuisine, but not necessarily. But yeah, that’s I think what’s quite enlightening about it.

Jon Wilkins: Yeah, and the barriers that people put up can normally be overcome through time. One of the vestiges of being part of building an international business is a friend in every port. Actually, bizarrely, even though I left Naked a long time ago now, you know I still feel an incredible sense of privilege that there probably aren’t many cities of interest in the world where I can’t turn up and just hang with people who I really get on with.

Jon Wilkins: That’s all because we’ve overcome, as I say that, and their clients and partners and people who work with me and for me. You realize that there’s a lot that glues us all together. It’s interesting when you look at the macro level, people talk about globalization is this spooky negative force that is driving immigrants around the world where it’s actually like everything we’re talking about today really. There’s absolutely the opposite, which is it actually helps you realize that we’re all pretty damn similar.

Zoe Clark: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: All want the same things.

Brendon Craigie: I think that appreciation of what’s available around the world, both from a fun perspective but also from challenges that need tackling is quite something that I think is good to get your head around. One of the benefits that I always thought with traveling with my kids is just I really want them to grow up thinking the world is a small place, thinking that actually, you know what? If you want to go and work in New York or if you want to go and work in … It’s not a scary thing.

Jon Wilkins: I totally agree. I was talking to another dad this morning who’s a very senior global marketer. He had just taken his children to Tokyo and it’s one of my favorite cities and it’s quite discombobulating and feels very different in some ways. But we were talking about their ridiculous commitment to humanity and the innate kindness that bonds that country together. He was saying how a lot of their behaviors, his children could translate.

Jon Wilkins: They didn’t speak the language, but they could see these acts that were just kind of looked quite strange if you saw somebody doing it in Germany or in London. The most famous one recently was probably when they tidied up every football stadium after they’d played in the World Cup. On the one hand, people who aren’t used to their culture go, “Well, that is really odd,” and then you kind of go, “Actually, it’s really bloody lovely.”

Brendon Craigie: Amazing, yeah.

Jon Wilkins: It’s amazing that they do that, but I’ve seen at a societal level, I’ve been to Japan 30 or 40 times and again, it’s the privilege of travel as well, being able to appreciate, I guess, the first few times you realize that people are quite similar and then you get interested in the nuance of their culture and then genuinely, I personally have stolen little behaviors from every country I’ve been to to kind of become this more global citizen and to try and help my children to never get-

Brendon Craigie: Yeah, yeah.

Jon Wilkins: Or I hoped would be a very small planet and a small world. Let’s keep our fingers cross that that does become true.

Zoe Clark: I think we need to do a separate Japan podcast, please.

Jon Wilkins: Love to do that.

Zoe Clark: I used to live and work there.

Jon Wilkins: It’s one of the most amazing places. Yeah.

Zoe Clark: Amazing.

Jon Wilkins: Yeah.

Brendon Craigie: Oh sorry, I was gonna, just going back to the story around Naked and how you had this very clear identity that people really bought into. How quickly did you find that you formed that identity from the beginning and then did it evolve or did it, was it something that just sort of galvanized and then you ran with it?

Brendon Craigie: I have this feeling that a lot of companies, I go think about a company that I was involved with before and the company that we’re creating now. Is the how you set yourself up over the first couple years sort of defined you and then you run with it? What do you think?

Jon Wilkins: I absolutely agree with that. I think from day one with Naked, we decided to practice what we preach, which is to create a brand. We thought, well it’d be more interesting putting our names above the door to create a brand. We found a name that described the objectivity and I guess the transparency that we wanted to give over.

Jon Wilkins: The second thing was our character, which is ultimately formed by the fusion of the founders. But what we realized very quickly was that we were kind of an empty play versus a market. I think a lot of startups benefit from that mentality because it’s much easier in some ways to define what you’re against rather than make that what you’re for.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: But we did very, very, very quickly get right the DNA of the type of company we were, the type of people that we appealed to. A lot of it was very tongue in cheek. We had a lot of fun. We created an anatomy of a Naked-

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: And we bought mannequins for the office and we drew on the, you gotta have a big heart. Literally, you’ve got balls of steel, stuff like that. It was quite fun. Actually, bizarrely, we were very … It’s funny. A lot of talk now about diversity and we were incredibly diverse as a company both in terms of ethnicity but also in terms of sexuality way ahead of our time. We said from the start, every employer at Naked is 20% gay, which was a big call, right?

Zoe Clark: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: I remember one of our very first parties, we married everybody. We went and hired a church and we did a same sex marriage where we made everybody of any sexual persuasion marry someone of the same sex and have dinner with them. It was just that inclusive nature which was deep tongue in cheek, but we worked so hard on the culture of the company. I agree with you. I think day one you possibly don’t know it, but you get there very quickly. I think then it’s about writing stuff down because I think the problem we’ve found is founders tend to do stuff very naturally.

Jon Wilkins: I remember when we opened our second and third, I think we ended up with 16 offices. Every new office somebody added, which was great because we wanted people to add to our culture, but every new market where we weren’t present, we realized we needed to encode both the practice of what we did, the personalities we were trying to engender, the behaviors we wanted to support. That’s something, that’s why I went to Karmarama as well because they stand for something as well.

Jon Wilkins: We worked on the DNA of that company and the culture of the company. To me, culture, purpose, whatever jargon phrase you want to use is way more important than the service you offer. I think that’s true of goods that we buy, and I think it’s true of agencies that we serve.

Zoe Clark: How do you go about doing that though? Because I think the challenge, obviously as a new business is just focusing on the business itself, right? Getting the numbers right.

Jon Wilkins: I think you have two things when you start a company. You have the service you offer and then you have the culture that you’re creating. I think probably problematically in the digital world, people are very focused on the service and the niche that they offer and they don’t always, some do, but they don’t always go, “Well actually, the culture is gonna be, probably with the services we’re gonna have to pivot increasingly with the digital world.” We’re gonna start somewhere and we’re gonna change along the way, but our culture can be our [inaudible 00:31:45] a bit of a cliché.

Zoe Clark: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: I think most people who start something have had, not everybody, but a lot have had a corporate experience. So they tend to know what they’re railing against. They tend to have seen the lack of liberty or the rules and regulations that exist. They tend to want to create a more free environment. What I would say is you can, there is a book to doing it. I haven’t written it, sadly.

Jon Wilkins: If I had more time I might do, but it is just about treating that as equal important to the service and writing down what the employee experience should be and the type of people you want to recruit. Once you’ve done that, it’s actually very liberating because I’ll tell you the one thing I’ve noticed is with both Naked and Karmarama, is when you find somebody with skills but lack of cultural appreciation, so we’ve done this loads of times over the years, they don’t stick.

Brendon Craigie: No.

Jon Wilkins: They come in and they go on.

Zoe Clark: Yep.

Jon Wilkins: The CV’s brilliant, the skills are amazing, but they’re just not a good cultural fit. And occasionally, you’ll see these people sneak through the net, but it’s amazing because that’s the definition of a strong culture, the people who work with you, love working there, and enjoy it more than other companies. Then the people who don’t fit that culture just bounce out. You know? So it’s good.

Brendon Craigie: I think it’s great to have a sense of confidence around that because it’s like we have got this remote model. We call it location agnostic. We don’t care where anyone works. They can be in Manchester, or Bristol, or London. And our big insight from having this business going for a year is that when everyone’s remote, no one feels remote.

Jon Wilkins: Yep.

Brendon Craigie: What it means is it creates a very unique opportunity for employees but it also creates a unique employee base for us. I sort of say probably nine out of 10 people are not right for Tyto because if they want to be in an office in central London every single day and they want to play that game, that’s totally cool, but they’re probably not the people that are gonna really appreciate the benefits of being able to work wherever they want. I’m quite comfortable with that because we’ll all quite happily take the one out of 10 people because we know that they’re gonna be-

Zoe Clark: That’s the right one.

Brendon Craigie: Super passionate and behind the brand.

Zoe Clark: Yeah.

Brendon Craigie: I think having that confidence in who you are-

Jon Wilkins: And what you’re not.

Brendon Craigie: And what you’re not is really, it’s great.

Jon Wilkins: It’s very liberating.

Brendon Craigie: It’s really empowering, yeah.

Zoe Clark: Jon, did you learn any harsh lessons along the way in that regard? Obviously, you’ve done a lot of things right and we talked about that but anything that went wrong? Any big mistakes that you’ve-

Jon Wilkins: Obviously way more went wrong than went right. I think when you feel that duty of care towards other entrepreneurs, I do a few non-exec-ing or advisory things with startup suppliers. I only talk about what goes wrong because actually, even though it’s nice to celebrate in the positive successes you’ve had, you don’t really learn from that. You learn from all the mistakes.

Jon Wilkins: So I honestly don’t know where to start on that. I’m very rarely stumped, but nearly every juncture we made mistakes. I think the thing is just to recognize it very quickly when you’re a nimble startup and just to put it behind you and dust yourself down and move on. The challenge when you get to medium sized businesses, you let these things fester too long. You have to go, “Right, we really cocked up there. What did we learn from it? Okay, we should never do X, Y, and Z again. Right, let’s just move on.”

Jon Wilkins: I don’t know. I think that’s partly to retain confidence but also, one thing about any startup business, or small business, or entrepreneurial run, you need momentum. Momentum isn’t always about financial growth, but it’s always about positivity.

Brendon Craigie: [inaudible 00:35:35]

Jon Wilkins: It’s all about, do we feel good about this?

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: So yeah, bad hirings, bad clients, bad business decisions. Probably the most famous one was meeting the two founders of Skype before they sold their business and John and I are going, “That’s never gonna work,” and turning them down as a client because we thought they were chances.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: But you know, everybody’s got tons of these stories, really. I think it really is what bonds you and makes you strong. I think also the other thing I would say about mistakes is I don’t think you have to painstakingly labor them. They don’t have to be mentioned, oh, do you remember when we cocked up?

Jon Wilkins: Because then it becomes part of your culture and your mythology. But I do think you can sweep them under the carpet and I have worked in companies where there’s been some terrible errors and people will externalize the blame and move on, and I think that’s not healthy either.

Brendon Craigie: No.

Zoe Clark: Yeah, good point. Okay.

Brendon Craigie: I wanted to [crosstalk 00:36:37] I know you’re a big fan of sports.

Jon Wilkins: Stuff, yeah.

Zoe Clark: Like?

Jon Wilkins: Yeah, like.

Brendon Craigie: As a boss and running a company and things, I often draw a lot of experience and even from-

Zoe Clark: Down to your analogies?

Brendon Craigie: From sport and managers and I think that there’s a lot of similarities with running a company and running a team.

Jon Wilkins: Absolutely.

Brendon Craigie: Do you draw anything from your-

Jon Wilkins: 100% all the time. I think leading in sport is probably the compression of leading in a business because it’s so … You’re dealing with ridiculous levels of athletic performance in a compressed environment that’s time condensed. So I think there’s huge amounts that we can learn from those leaders. Just [inaudible 00:37:30] last week I had, very lucky to have dinner with Gareth Southgate.

Zoe Clark: Oh wow.

Jon Wilkins: I know a lot about football and the current England team is the most average football team we’ve had probably in my lifetime with probably maybe one exception in Harry Kane. The rest of them are very average players, to be honest, on a global stage. The good players in the premier league, but hearing him talk, there was at least three or four things that were brilliant for any leader. For one, somebody said, “Why did you give Harry Kane the captain’s seat?” He said, “Well, I didn’t have any captains that I thought were gonna make the team.”

Jon Wilkins: He said, “Jordan Henderson was kept in Liverpool but I didn’t even think I was gonna play him.” But only Harry Kane thought he was world class. He said, “The only way I can make him world class is to make him captain.” Interesting psychology. Then he talked about the need to deal with individual psyches, which obviously they have psychological sport but he explained his role as manager was with they’re all star players, was to spend one-on-one time with all of them. He said to understand everything about their families, their backgrounds, their circumstances, anything that would motivate.

Jon Wilkins: Then he talked a lot about motivation saying, “You need a shared dream,” but you also need people respond to different things, which everybody knows, but some people like to be almost shouted at. Other people, if you do that, that’s the end of the day for them. They’re gonna run off in tears. I think in sport there’s a ridiculous amount that people in business can learn and I think they just do it innately often without any training. Another interesting thing Gareth Southgate said, he said he had managed two clubs and been kept in four before he was given any training at all in leadership.

Zoe Clark: Wow.

Jon Wilkins: So yeah, I think it’s a good place to learn.

Zoe Clark: How did you find yourself next to Gareth Southgate?

Jon Wilkins: Well again, one of the plus sides of digital transformation. I was at a Google summit and they clearly throw a bit of money at things like that. So he turned up and he actually said, because I was sort of saying, “You don’t need to do these things.” He said, “Well, I’m really obsessed with leadership.”

Jon Wilkins: He said, “When I saw the list of people who were at this summit,” he thought, I’m gonna learn something from these people. And just being able to, he could see clear as day the difference between business leadership and sports team leadership. They’re kind of one in the same thing. So he was keen to learn as well, which was interesting in its own right.

Zoe Clark: Was he wearing his waistcoat?

Jon Wilkins: He actually wasn’t, but he was incredibly dapper and he was much brighter and more erudite than anybody would give him credit for.

Zoe Clark: Interesting.

Jon Wilkins: He speaks quite well for a footballer.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: Or for a football coach, but you always think, well, that might just be a veneer for something, but no, he’s got depth and thoughtfulness. That’s why we did well.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: Yeah.

Zoe Clark: How about creativity as well? Obviously you are [inaudible 00:40:26] about a lot of things in life.

Jon Wilkins: Of course, yeah.

Zoe Clark: Where do you get your creativity from?

Jon Wilkins: Well no, I think it’s just a cultural interest in art and music and technology. I think to progress creativity, if your eyes and ears aren’t constantly open to what’s going on literally around you on the street, on the paintings, on the street art, in music, in film. If you can’t borrow from all of that, then you can’t keep contemporizing the way you think. I can’t remember who said this. I won’t even [inaudible 00:41:04] we are magpies. We steal and then we recreate and that’s the truth of creativity in that an original idea is just a blend of existing ideas reframed for another purpose.

Jon Wilkins: I think you have to keep on it. In fact, that is the difference to me between creativity and consultancy because I obviously now brush with a lot of consultants and they’re phenomenal people and professionals. They’re just wired a bit differently because I think if you’re a consultancy driven business, you’re driven by process and outcomes. If you’re a creative business, you’re driven by inputs and imagination. That really is the sort of cultural point where you don’t always see things exactly the same way. It makes it for an interesting collision.

Jon Wilkins: I’ve always felt in order to challenge myself, I’ve got to put all of these stimuluses into one place and just see what happens. I literally can’t even … Quite often I’ll just be scribbling shit or talking to the creatives. I don’t even know where it’s come from. And then you trace it back and go, “I’ve got it. It was that piece of street art I saw, or a poet I read,”-

Brendon Craigie: One of the things we’ve experimented with in the first year is our creative process in terms of how we come up with ideas, involves basically working on a brief and then putting a team of people on it and then saying go away for a day or two and sketch out your thought on how to approach this and present it back-

Zoe Clark: Individually.

Brendon Craigie: Individually.

Jon Wilkins: Yeah, great.

Brendon Craigie: As opposed to the traditional approach in the PR industry, at least, is to [inaudible 00:42:41] have a brainstorm. We’ve just found that’s been quite refreshing.

Jon Wilkins: There’s loads of techniques. I think creativity, it went from being a team-based approach to a group-based approach and I think you’ve now … Most creative companies have now got a hybrid model like you suggested where you might do some team thinking, you might do some individual thinking. At some point, you rally behind maybe what everybody feels is the best thought and then you go back into individual thinking.

Jon Wilkins: I think also another great technique is to project forwards to when your idea is in the domain of whoever you’re trying to reach and think about the response to that idea because the other absolute truth of the world we now live in is ideas don’t really stop and start now. I know it’s true of your discipline and it’s true of my discipline that we have to increasingly think about the idea when it’s in the hands of the audience.

Jon Wilkins: What are they gonna say about it? What are they gonna do with it? Are they going to [inaudible 00:43:48] share it? Are they gonna contribute to it? Are they gonna respond fervent, strongly to it? Are you trying to get something across that could have a negative reaction? How are you gonna then incorporate that in whatever’s next? I think yeah, building ideas is changing in a good way and it’s great to refresh that process.

Brendon Craigie: I was just wondering, thinking about obviously the journey you’ve been on and where you’re at now, thinking about the agency landscape, do you think there’s anything missing? If someone was to create a new agency, obviously I don’t want you to give away any of your future ideas.

Jon Wilkins: No, of course not.

Brendon Craigie: Do you think there’s, do you have a sense of what’s missing at the moment?

Jon Wilkins: I think it’s sort of, again, if there was a theme in my thinking when I was coming over here is there’s nothing missing and there’s everything missing in equal measure. As in if you drew the makeup, you’d go, “There’s too much of everything,” but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way of doing nearly everything.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: It goes back to the importance of culture, the importance of what you’re gonna do versus what you’re not gonna do. The world does not need another generalist practitioner agency in anything, definitely not. In fact, there needs to be significant shrinkage. But passionate bright people who say, “This used to be the way, and we don’t believe in that, we believe in this,” who can rally and recruit talent, can destroy and change every aspect to the agency landscape.

Jon Wilkins: I think if somebody’s looking for a niche or something that doesn’t exist, they’re wasting their time and it comes out the fuck uppery of our industry. What doesn’t really work very well and how could you serve that better? Then what your point of view would be and what cultural environment you’re gonna create.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Jon Wilkins: I think everything’s in play and nothing at the same time.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah, I know exactly [inaudible 00:45:49] I think like you say, if you go at something with a fresh purpose with a really amazing team that’s all united with a very strong culture, you can freshen things up just through that energy.

Jon Wilkins: Yeah, and it needs it. The industry needs it, is what creates momentum. Long live the startups that we need it.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Zoe Clark: Yeah. Going to the end of our little short podcast now, we do have one particular question which we’re gonna ask all our guests in this series, which is tying back again to the Without Borders theme. So you know that we’re location agnostic type agency, so just interested to know, if you could work in any location or any kind of office setup, what would it be? Or in other words, what is your desert island desk?

Jon Wilkins: Desert island desk. That’s a good point. Geographically, I’m untethered. I can’t think of anywhere particularly that I would like to work. But probably because I am very deep in the creative process, I would probably have some people with me, which I know [inaudible 00:47:01] as in that I definitely get off on riffing a bit like we’ve done and I need that to stimulate and progress my thinking. So I would probably have a desk somewhere, it doesn’t matter where it is, and then just if I could choose, I would rotate the four desks with three interesting thought provoking people.

Brendon Craigie: Different people.

Jon Wilkins: Different people and then do that for a bit and then replace them with another three, if I could really choose, just to keep making things move forward. Yeah. [crosstalk 00:47:35]

Brendon Craigie: Although we have our remote model, we have a co-working space.

Zoe Clark: A few spaces, yeah.

Brendon Craigie: People are in and out of London all the time and you can be in a big space with 100 other people and you can get the energy of 100 people or you can get a little cubicle and have four people in it, which is really dull. I think what we’ve tried to do is have the best of both worlds, mix it up.

Jon Wilkins: I think the 100 people is the mythology of the office, which you’ve nailed because even though it’s quite fun walking in, the truth is you don’t know everybody’s name. You don’t engage with everybody, but the bit I would miss, as I say, is just the energy of a small team where some diametrically opposed brains as well. I would hate to be with people like me. I like the transitioning of different thought processes.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah, brilliant.

Zoe Clark: Great.

Jon Wilkins: Good.

Zoe Clark: Thank you very much.

Brendon Craigie: Thank you, Jon.

Jon Wilkins: Pleasure. Thank you for your time.

Zoe Clark: Thanks for joining us.

Brendon Craigie: Alright, cheers.

Zoe Clark: Thanks for listening to Without Borders. If you like what you’ve heard, why not subscribe? If you want to find out more about Tyto and what we’re up to, you can find us at tytopr.com. That’s T-Y-T-O-P-R dot com.

Tyto brings you Without Borders, a regular dose of inspiration for passionate communicators, courageous creatives and entrepreneurial business brains. Expect candid chats with the wisest old hands, bleeding edge innovators and left field thinkers and doers.

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