2-27: "Owned By No One - Part 1" - Nils Leonard, Alex Goat, Mohan Ramaswamy, & Spencer Baim

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"Owned By No One - Part 1"

I’m just back from the Cannes Lions festival of creativity and recorded some podcasts while I was there. This is the first of them.

In this conversation I’m joined in the Vice Penthouse overlooking the Croisette in Cannes by three people who have previously been guests on ‘Fearless’ - Nils Leonard of Uncommon, Alex Goat of Livity and Mohan Ramaswamy of Work & Co. And by Spencer Baim, who is the Chief Brand Officer of Vice Media.

And this episode is called “Owned By No One - Part 1”.


Takeaways on the Power of Independence

  • “I think the power of being independent is your ability to make decisions and be with the very best people who you genuinely count on.” - Alex Goat

  • “Speed. Speed, we move so damn fast every single week. And you have to, or you just can't succeed.” - Spencer Baim

  • “Truth. I think you can look someone in the eye and tell the 100% truth.” - Nils Leonard

  • “I think that we don't have to be focused on short-term decision making.” - Mohan Ramaswamy


"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 2-26: "The Legacy Builder" - Josh Wyatt

Hi. I’m Charles Day. And this is ‘Fearless’.

I’m just back from the Cannes Lions festival of creativity and recorded some podcasts while I was there. This is the first of them. The topic is the idea of Nils Leonard - founder of Uncommon and a guest on ‘Fearless’ a couple of years ago.

“There's a trick of our game, which is growth and scale. And we're taught that growth is good, we're taught that lots of people is good. And what happens is, you end up hiring and hiring and hiring, and then you make bad decisions to keep those people. You are... you sort of have your arm up your back, and you're kind of like, "Shit, well if we don't work with this client I hate, doing work I don't want to make, we're gonna have to let these people go," and it's a trick. And I think that's something you can't control if you're not independent, really.”

Creativity requires risk and uncertainty. Two attributes that the business world has developed powerful resistance to. Want to try something new? In a publicly traded company, you’ve got to convince the c-suite, the board, the analysts and the shareholders. That’s a lot of institutional antibodies.

What then of the flip side of ownership? When you own the company yourself? Does that more easily produce the conditions in which creativity and innovation can thrive?

In this conversation I’m joined in the Vice Penthouse overlooking the Croisette in Cannes by three people who have previously been guests on ‘Fearless’ - Nils Leonard, Alex Goat of Livity and Mohan Ramaswamy of Work and Co. And by Spencer Baim, who is the Chief Brand Officer of Vice media.

And this episode is called “Owned By No One - Part 1”.

Charles:

Welcome to a live edition of Fearless. From the Cannes Croisette. We are in the Vice lounge. I've actually got four guests with me today, three of whom are in fact, returning guests to the podcast. We have Mohan Ramaswamy from Work & Co.

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Hi Charles. Thanks for having me.

Charles:

Voice identification. Thank you. Nils Leonard from Uncommon.

Nils Leonard:

Hello.

Charles:

Come on. You can do better than that.

Nils Leonard:

Hi Charles!

Charles:

Alex Goat from Livity.

Alex Goat:

Hello.

Charles:

Welcome back. And then we have a new guest, and Alex is going to pass the microphone to Spencer Baim from Vice.

Spencer Baim:

Hello. Thank you for having me.

Charles:

Thank you for being here. The title of this episode is in fact 'Owned By No One', which is a piece of inspired branding by an inspired brander, Nils Leonard, who met with me in London and said, "I've got this really interesting idea. Let's have a conversation around that." So, we're doing that. Nils, what does Owned by No One mean to you?

Nils Leonard:

I got to a thing where I was listening to everyone wang on a Cannes, and a lot of them were all talking about the declining state of the industry and oh my God how it's all going wrong, and what are we gonna do to combat, you know, the classic stuff. And it dawned on me that very little conversation was from the stand point of someone who was free to do what they wanted. It was all about the fact that they had to hit certain margins, it was all about the fact they were running global networks, it was all about, you know, "what are gonna do with this problem we have?" That they've inherited, that they've made for themselves. And it's a really rare and lovely privilege, and I'm trying to find those right now, in the middle of running a start-up, to be able to go, "Actually hang on a minute", there's some choices we can make, I've never worked at an independent genuinely before, that are really powerful, that are sort of answers to the future of our industry, or if I'm being optimistic, a way through it.

So it just dawned on me, and weirdly, independents, despite everyone going "Yay!" There's very few of them right now in Cannes, particularly the presence in Cannes and the noise in Cannes around independents is tiny. And so that's sort of where I was coming from.

Charles:

And you've lived the reality on the other side, right? You were, what, chairman? And what was your esteemed title?

Nils Leonard:

Yeah, oh God, some ridiculous... Chief Creative Officer and Creative Chairman of Grey London... which was, you know, 550 people at that point. Big agency...

Charles:

And on a practical basis, from your perspective, how were you restricted?

Nils Leonard:

Well if you run a good company, you kid yourself it's yours, I think?

Charles:

Yeah, that's true.

Nils Leonard:

I think you do. I think you go, look, "It's ours, and we're all in it, and we're..." and I did that with Grey apart from two times a year when they would say, "Oh by the way, how's that 20% going?" And also, "You can't hire that person," and I would be like, "Oh, okay.” And there were simple things where you go... I would get ahead some things, because you know your gut is saying just act on that. And you can't. And you suddenly realize you're tethered.

There's another unsaid thing, which is really scary, which I'd love to speak to very briefly, which is... There's a trick of our game, which is growth and scale. And we're taught that growth is good, we're taught that lots of people is good. And what happens is, you end up hiring and hiring and hiring, and then you make bad decisions to keep those people. You are... you sort of have your arm up your back, and you're kind of like, "Shit, well if we don't work with this client I hate, doing work I don't want to make, we're gonna have to let these people go," and it's a trick. And I think that's something you can't control if you're not independent, really.

Charles:

And how many...? You now own your own business, you have two other partners?

Nils Leonard:

Yes, yeah that's right. Natalie Grahame and Lucy Jameson are my co-founders.

Charles:

And you're all owners of the company?

Nils Leonard:

Yep.

Charles:

And how has your decision making changed? How... Uncommon is how old now?

Nils Leonard:

It's 19 months old, 45 people, Carcamol... No we just bear that in mind, every choice we make, we bear that in mind. And we meet clients and we've said no more than we've said yes, we genuinely have, I never thought I'd say that. And it's protected everything, from the culture to the standard of work, to our people. And I think that's something you can only genuinely do if you're in control of it, if you're not reporting to anybody.

Charles:

Do the three of you make decisions together?

Nils Leonard:

Yeah.

Charles:

All of them?

Nils Leonard:

Yeah, yeah.

Charles:

Yeah? Everything?

Nils Leonard:

Yeah, pretty fast, quite messy, sometimes an argument. Lucy Jameson.

Charles:

So, Mohan, you are a partner at Work & Co.

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Yup.

Charles:

You have how many partners?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

So I have 13 other partners. It's a little bit of a different decision making process. I think the last time we talked, one of the things we had spoken a lot around... a federated decision making process, as much as anything. And I think that's continued to evolve as we've scaled, where there are certain partners who are more responsible for certain things, and I think we're a consensus oriented organization. But we now have enough trust and experience with each other that there are certain lanes that people just take a lead on, whether that's recruiting or finance or any operational part of the business, or how we're thinking about growth. But ultimately I think a lot of that is us having some meetings and actually talking through things together, and forming that final plan that we then execute on, as much as anything.

Charles:

So you're not so much owned by no one as owned by everyone, is that it?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I was actually going to say that, you stole my line!

Charles:

Sorry, we can edit that.

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Sometimes it feels like we're owned by everyone, but actually, honestly, that's been the joy in starting the company in a lot of ways. Because we've been able to get to a place where everyone has a voice, but it's our voices in terms of shaping what our path looks like. We don't have the same pressures from a quarterly cycle standpoint, or something, where we have to make short term decisions just to hit a margin for a quarter. Instead we can hire ahead of the curve, or pass on a project that we weren't particularly excited about, or think about what the long term career path is for someone who may or... may be a great fit for the company and rise into leadership or who, you know, I think it makes sense for them to figure out the next opportunity. I think we can look at all of those things pretty independently.

Charles:

And your background, you were saying, is you have typically arrived at companies when they were independent, followed at some point thereafter by them becoming not independent.

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Yeah, so the first two agencies that I worked for, ended up being purchased by traditional holding companies, different ones. Shortly after I, a couple of years after in the first case, and a couple of weeks after in the second case, where you could see the transition happening but honestly, in the beginning it was just more focus on growth, I would say, from both of those agencies' standpoints, and pressure there internally, than even the holding companies changing the model. So I think that some of it is just exactly what Nils was saying, where it's like you have these 2 times, 4 times a year, where you have numbers to hit, which them re-frames what your narrative is for every quarter. How you think about hiring, can I close this project in this short-term window, even though I don't have the staff for it? And that creates like this perpetual cycle.

Charles:

Alex, your background is, you have worked at a company that was owned by a holding company...

Alex Goat:

For 2 years out of 18 years, yeah. And that was enough for me.

Charles:

So 16 years... So 16 years you have worked for a company that either was owned by somebody or now owned by you?

Alex Goat:

Yeah.

Charles:

Talk to us about what's the difference been? Why only 2 of the years, the 16 years?

Alex Goat:

For all of the reasons that everyone's just said and more. I think for me, like, as I say, growing up in a larger agency but still independent, and now running one, the decision making process is exactly why you do that. All of those things which you actually hold dear. And when you're running a business like ours, which is driven by impact not by growth, you have to make really difficult decisions, and we couldn't do that if we were part of someone who was trying to benchmark us against the same kind of businesses, because we're just fundamentally not.

So for me, like, it literally makes me feel, coming out to Cannes, in that same way, I... Exactly the same, I feel like our voice is not heard as independent businesses. And I have no desire to be the biggest I want us to be the best and I know in our lane we are absolutely the best and that is something that you have to hold true to, I think, when you're trying to do something differently in the world.

Charles:

Do you think if you weren't independent you'd be able to be the best?

Alex Goat:

If we weren't independent we what? There's a double negative in there.

Charles:

Does independence... All right, too early at Cannes and too late in the week.

Alex Goat:

It's too early for a double negative, sorry Charles.

Charles:

Does being independent allow you to be the best?

Alex Goat:

Yes.

Charles:

Because?

Alex Goat:

Because we'd, I mean we don't have to be the same thing that were two weeks ago, if we don't want to, we don't have to take a client if we don't want to. In a similar way... I say no to 70% of the work that comes into our business. That could never, ever happen if you have someone else asking you that question, "Why not?" And "Why won't you take that piece of work?" Which, fundamentally doesn't stay true to your values, no one wants to work on, is not going to give you good return on investment, nothing about that, you have to take it because you're trying to feed a beast. And for me that is something that I just not something that I ever want to do.

Charles:

When it comes to hiring people, do you find people reticent or in any way concerned about the fact you're not owned by a large conglomerate, do they worry about the stability?

Alex Goat:

Interestingly, at a junior level, no. But I've just, I've been looking for quite a long time for a specific role at a leadership level. And I had two offers out with people, and at the last minute, they both said, "You're small, you're independent. I'm the main breadwinner in my family, as a woman, I'm actually gonna go somewhere big.” So I... I hadn't actually considered that before, and that's also okay, because you have to be okay, with the kind of business that we are. And so that was the right decision for them and for us. But at the time, I was like... If I had the backing of all of these people behind me, maybe that would be easier, but that was not... That was the right decision, I think.

Charles:

So it actually becomes a pretty powerful filter of "we need the right mindset", right?

Alex Goat:

Yeah.

Charles:

"We need people of a certain level of self-confidence as much as anything else, to work in here."

Alex Goat:

Yeah. And I have the people around me that enable us to do that, and they are the right people who want to work in that kind of organization.

Charles:

Yeah, totally. If you would pass that to Spencer, thank you very much.

So, Spencer, you're at Vice?

Spencer Baim:

Yes.

Charles:

Which is an independent company, although you do have shareholders. What's your decision making structure? How does you ownership structure affect how you make decisions?

Spencer Baim:

It doesn't affect the way we make... I mean if it did, it would certainly hold us back. We've had to move at the move at the speed of light, seemingly, on a weekly basis to get where we are. I think, I'm convinced that, the very idea of being independent is embedded in our DNA and has allowed us to be a challenger brand, has allowed us to challenge the conventions of others, to get us to where we got to. And I think without that position, we would have had nothing to push against. We wouldn't have been able to grow so fast. And being independent has allowed to grow so fast, because we can make decisions on the fly. And we do, daily.

Charles:

So there are things that you are investing in all the time that somebody who's looking at quarterly earnings reports would have no, or less, willingness to support.

Spencer Baim:

Yes, exactly. We have to try, we have to fail, we have to move fast. Otherwise we will fail. We have to move quick.

Charles:

Are there any drawbacks that you've found that not having access to the kind of capital, for instance, that a giant conglomerate can provide?

Spencer Baim:

We have access to... I think there... I mean, we have not been owned, I have not worked for a company that's been owned by anyone. But I assume maybe there might be some structural things that actually are advantageous, I don't know, that we haven't had in the past that we're now putting into place. We have more rigor and systems around what we're doing since Nancy joined us, Nancy Dubuc, and maybe that would have come earlier, but I do think ultimately it's being to our advantage.

Charles:

So in that case that's an internal dynamic that has caused the need for the imposition for structure and process, rather than an external force saying "You need to do that".

Spencer Baim:

Yeah, exactly.

Charles:

There's self awareness and self recognition.

Spencer Baim:

Exactly, the... we grew so fast, because of the way we work, and because of the fact we've ridden the waves of the internet, and the changes in the trends, that we've got to a point where the systems weren't in place and now... we are, they've been demanded on us. I mean, yeah, we've put them into place.

Charles:

So Nils, if we can bring this conversation full circle... There are some benefits to being owned by other people, in that there are people who've done this before, right? I mean, part of owning your own business is this journey of exploration, I've owned my own business. You figure, we... my wife is sitting in the audience, she and I did this fantastic thing, within the first six months of opening our own business, we got busy quite quickly, our business manager came to us and said "I'm overwhelmed, there's too much for me to do, what should I prioritize?" And we said, "oh, don't worry about sending out invoices for a while, that just sounds like a busy thing." And three months later we ran out of money, because we hadn't sent out invoices for two months. Right, now that's a hard lesson to learn. If we'd been owned by somebody, they might have said, "you should probably have cashflow coming in the door."

Nils Leonard:

I don't want to confuse being owned by someone with running a business well. So I know that sounds incredibly cruel, but seriously, I don't. You know, there's, the real reason is... there are advantages to being owned by someone, for sure. You have a safety net, there's a weird air of confidence. I think your thing about hiring people is really interesting; there's a body language that we exude, which I don't want to exude, which we do, which is, "it could all fucking die tomorrow". And we don't want to do that. No matter how successful you are, we all wear it, right? When it's your business, you're like, "dude, it could all die." So you're sat in front of that senior person, you're saying "I want you to make a leap, I want you to come with me", and they're like, "Why is he so fucking nervous?" Because even though it's going incredibly well and you've got whatever clients, and you've got your year sorted, you know you're three phone calls from it just dying. And that, you... And so I kind of go, a bit of me goes, yeah there are advantages to being owned, and it's about where you're at. You've got to learn, you know? I needed to learn. I couldn't have done it without my time at Gray, 100%, and I'm very grateful for the trust in the people that I had around me. But when you're ready you're absolutely ready, and I don't think there are enough people that are ready. And just to speak to that thing about Cannes, which is why aren't independent voices... well, because we don't have money! Okay? Let's just cut to the fucking chase. Cannes is big, Cannes is being bought. Right? Let's just say it. Which is, you know, yeah, have you got £150,000 to enter awards? No! I wish I did, I know that game, I've been there. And it's not, I'm not resentful, I just go "That's the way it is." So the reason our independent voices aren't being heard is because we don't have enough money to take a stage at the Palaise, and have that conversation. Genuinely, I think the independent companies in the world right now are making more interesting work, are challenging the industry more than ever before, and the, you know, the opinions are more interesting. But the money doesn't follow, so... sorry that wasn't even your question, I kind of just...

Charles:

No, no, no...

Nils Leonard:

But you know, I... yeah, I feel quite passionate about that. Which is if I'd heard, even way back at Grey, from more people who were doing this, about, not just about the work, you know, we've made this amazing thing, but about the business, about their freedom. There's an insight we've landed on at Uncommon which is, you know, true to every company, I think. Which is, "Are you dependent on people less ambitious that you to make your dreams come true?" And I was honestly, like, loads of huzzah. Loads of huzzah. And that's why you should start a company, that's what being independent is about.

Charles:

And when you sat down and decided to start Uncommon, did you sit down and decide, this is what success would look like? Did you get...

Nils Leonard:

Yes, 100%.

Charles:

What does it look like?

Nils Leonard:

I think you have to, I've always believed this, I think you must force yourself to picture it. I'm just not one of those people that can go, "We've just started a thing and..." success for us was genuinely creating brands that we thought mattered, it was putting brands into the world that we think are going to make a positive difference. It was being a company that the real world might know about. You know, someone once asked me a question, how do I go from being a... you know, that was in a pitch. And the client, I won't say who, was like, "how do we go from a brand that sell people crap, to being a brand that people wish existed?" And I was like, that's an insane question, I killed myself on that pitch. The truth is how do we, how do we, right, we're all at Cannes. No one in the real world knows our names. Part from you, at Vice. No but I mean it, I mean, who in the real world knows fucking Saatchi or Widen? Nobody. And so you go, well, that's something that needs addressing, I think.

Charles:

Do you, as you look at your progress so far...

Charles:

What do you think? What have you learned about being independent that you didn't know two years ago?

Nils Leonard:

Couple of things. Some of the myths they say that sound like rhetoric from startup people are true, which is when you say no, every decision you make, everything you do is something you don't do. So every decision you make impacts genuinely on your future. So the stuff we said no to very early, we had a client come in, I won't say who, massive west coast client. I was like, oh my fucking God, if we win those guys, it's like amazing. And it was hell. And they asked us to do terrible work and we were fighting within two weeks and I was like, guys, we've got to just back out of it. We can't do this. And we pulled out. The best thing we ever did because it taught us everything about what we started for. And that lesson and being able to prove that to your people is everything, is everything.

Alex Goat:

I was going to say because I think that proving it to your people, we did exactly the same thing. I pulled us out of the biggest picture we've ever done four days before we were going to pitch because I knew we were never going to win it. They didn't want to do any work that was interesting. It was for an alcohol brand and they like, our whole method is about collaborating with youth inaudible 00:01:05] and you can't even have anyone on set that's under 25 so it literally didn't live up to any single part of what we did.

The best thing about it was the number of people, every single person separately in my business came up and said I'm really fucking glad we did that. Thank you for pulling us out of that because that is not the kind of work we want to make and I feel like I would do that once a year for like for my own leadership and it was weird. I was like, even if we should have done that, it's actually a really great thing for people to know that I hold true to the values of the business and I will let them do the kind of work they really want to make and that is, I say it's like a lesson. I was like, I'm just going to turn something down that maybe we should do for our own finances.

Nils Leonard:

I fucking love this. Sorry to jump back here, but I love this. The other learning I've learned is people don't, it's not about money.So when they come to work for a start-up, they're like, yeah, you've got to get them the money. Right, but it's not about money. They've got to look you in your eye and go, are you going to do that thing you said you were going to do? Is this what we're about? You know? We had a meeting the other day where I was like, okay, it's really, really busy. We've got lots of stuff going on, but I promise if we wake up and we're working with a client like that, that's what people want and you go, okay, that's really different.

Spencer Baim:

You say, Vice is a consumer facing brand as well. And within this, you said within that there is the idea of being independent. So it's on almost every decision that we make, even with a client, there's an expectation that we should come at it from a slightly different spot or we're letting our audience down. I think it's kind of, it's wrapped and kind of built into the very essence of it. Yeah.

Charles:

So Alex, to pick up on Nils' point, when you said when you set up Livity, did you have that kind of intention? Did you have that kind of definition about what success looks like to you?

Alex Goat:

Well, I'm not one of the founders, so I've been there for long enough. I'm now a shareholder there. I've run it for eight years now, but there was a really clear vision and that was an experiment. Like can you use 18 years ago? Can you use all of the millions of marketing dollars to actually try and change young people's lives? And I think we've held true to that. The narrative around that, it's changed slightly, the way that we articulate our mission has changed. But what we do has not changed at all. Like that is still our mission and it's really, really clear and it runs through every single thing that we do and every decision that we make.

Charles:

So to your point, that mission was so well articulated that was something that you were drawn to and that you had wanted to take forward.

Alex Goat:

Yeah.

Charles:

So Mohan, why did you join Work & Co? What was it about that group of people that said, this is something I want to be part of?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think when we started we were very purposeful in terms of what we were trying to do. And the first thing was to be a place where the world's best product designers and developers wanted to actually create digital products and experiences. So that was the first order kind of solve. It's like, how do we make this a company that attracts talent? I think the second thing that we really wanted to focus on were; in our space, there aren't a lot of agencies that really just have a narrower vision in terms of the type of work that they take on.

So for us that was like building digital products and services. So how do we become the preeminent company in that space? And we've operated, I would say just with both of those principles in mind and that's led to growth and profits and happy clients and happy people and all of that. But I think that order is really important where there's a continued emphasis on people and why do you want to work here? Is it the right types of projects that we can actually take on? Are we true to the values that we espouse? Are we focused on building products at scale that have a positive impact on consumers or business people's lives? And that's kind of the lens we've looked at everything from the start.

Charles:

So given that you're living in a world in which there is no external expectation, it is all internally driven in terms of who you are as a company and what you aspire to. How do you navigate that? Where does the pressure to make decisions come from?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think the pressure comes back to that mission to a certain extent where for us there was an implied value in skill because if you aren't at a certain size, you don't have that recognition. You're not going to get asked to do these products that actually with Apple or Facebook or Google or whomever, right? That actually impact millions of people's lives.

So there was some pressure inherently just on getting your name out there, launching some good work just so we would be able to be in those conversations. And I think, you know, we're still continuing to get to that point. We're now at about 300 people and six offices globally, which six years ago if you'd looked at me, I'd have said you were crazy. But we're still not quite there in terms of being a brand that everyone knows or recognizes in the category. So that's like continued ambition I would say.

Charles:

And what are the challenges you think you're going to have to overcome in order to get that?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I mean the most interesting part of being independent for us has been like how different your job is at various points along the way where when you're a five person company, you start, you kind of do everything whether that's pitching in for new business or changing the toilet paper rolls in the bathroom. You have to do it all.

I think then when you get to 30 or 100 and now 300 your job is fundamentally different where articulating a vision and helping people kind of see that you are who you say you are every day in terms of your actions is one of the most important things. And I think that's the continued area of focus for me personally.

Charles:

So, Nils, you're looking forward at the growth of Uncommon. Do you have clear and ambition in terms of how big you want to get? I mean, what is your ambition look like for this?

Nils Leonard:

Again, I force myself to have to think about that. I don't, it's not about scale and we've won loads of awards at Grey and what you do at big companies is you have a meeting every year where you say, this is what we're about this year. You know, and Grey for awhile it was like, oh we can do this, we can do that. We're gonna win awards.

We won two Grand Prix here, whatever a couple of years ago. Suddenly you're like, shit that's gone. What are we saying we're about? When I launched Uncommon, I was like, okay, actually I realized it was about the briefs. I want the most powerful and influential briefs. That's what I know where there, the Olympic torch, you know, whatever the U.S. president. I want the briefs that matter in the world. And that's a really interesting place to play because that's not about scale. That's just about what you mean to people. I think the ambulance is coming for me.

Alex Goat:

Can I? I think there is something that like with the two things that you both said, like there's three people on this panel that have talked about the impact they want to make in the world. And I've been on three panels so far this week with other people from mainly networked agencies and impact has not been mentioned once at all and we were sitting here as independent businesses and we're all talking about impact. And I think, I don't know, Vice does a lot in that space as well and it's just I think there's a clear correlation between businesses who are trying to do things differently and therefore want to retain their own control over themselves and those who are trying to do something different in the world. And other people sitting outside, look, what's that? Who are just look focused on something completely different. Like that for me is a really interesting part of this debate.

Spencer Baim:

Awesome. I'd say what's interesting about that and it's true for us, certainly I think for everyone here, is that if we're owned by anyone, we're actually there to serve our audience. And you know this next generation coming through, Generation Z, demands that there's purpose and impact built into everything that we do. So it's this shift in the kind of content that we make and the stories that we tell and you know, what we do on a daily basis.

Nils Leonard:

You know what I think is mental is, conversations here whatever. Let's not even talk about that for a second. Very few companies now wake up and look at their place in the world. No other place in the category of the industry, which is what we're going to do in the ad industry? What are we gonna do in the world? Look at the world right now. Look at the world. When you start a company, you have the power to impact on it. And I kind of go, there's so few people just go, that's our thing. You can't stumble into that. I don't think, you know, I think that's the biggest thing.

Charles:

So to pick this thing up, if you had to bet over the next five years on the impact, on the power of money versus the power of impact? People, which one do you think talent are going to be more drawn to?

Nils Leonard:

I can answer that question a different way up, which is talent are drawn to purpose and a vision. That's it. It's a fact. Someone, Robert Saville actually from Mother, he's brilliant. So I do lots of wanging on and whatever. And he said, "You know the difference between the things you say that are shit and the things that are good?" And I was like," Wow, go on then". And he said "The things you said that are shit are trying to impress clients." And he said, "The things you say are good, are trying to provoke the talent. They speak to talent." And I was like, fuck, okay, I'm going make my whole company do that. And honestly, that's about just, what do you want to wake up in the morning and get paid to do? That's all it is.

Charles:

Yeah. So I couldn't agree more with that. As we're sitting here looking out over the Bay of Canada and the surrounding-

Nils Leonard:

The pornographic room?

Charles:

Right, right. Surrounded thousands. So there's something like 16,000 registered delegates here this week. Right. There's at least that many more people who are here just because of the value of the networking of the event. The vast, vast, vast majority of those people work for companies that are owned by publicly traded companies. I think we would all agree, talent are drawn to companies that want to have an impact. Independent companies can focus on that. Publicly traded companies can't. Why are there so many people working for companies that are not trying to have an impact? And how do you change that dynamic?

Alex Goat:

I literally don't know. I mean it's... I don't know why you would do that. Like it is not something that is part of anything that I want to do with my day. I mean, I guess there is that there are not that many of us and we're not, lots of us are not that big. So there's not that much opportunity. Like we have an amazing, we have a huge amount of incoming talent as well as incoming clients to us which we were really lucky to do.

I think some people don't, I don't mean...this sounds, I don't mean people don't know any better, but I do think some people also really enjoy that, enjoy the security. They enjoy the fact that they can come out to Cannes with five of them and have a massive villa. I'm literally sharing a studio flat with my strategy director. Literally I woke up this morning, I was like "Oh@1 Hello Katie." Because that is what we do if we want to come out here. Some people really enjoy the safety and security of something bigger and that is also okay, I think. But it's not something that is to me.

Charles:

Mohan, do you think clients are drawn to companies or risk averse to companies that are independent? Does it have an impact on the kind of clients that want to work with you?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think initially when we were a little bit smaller there was a little bit more conversation around, well, how much time will you have for this project? Like what's your area focus? How can you run a business as well as work on this? At this point it's actually a strong selling point for us as much as anything, which is we can focus on this project, we don't have to worry about anything else. We know that if things get hard, we're willing to make an investment because this is a partnership and it's something we want to have long term. And most of our client relationships are very long term at this point because we've been through battles with them and we've shown that we'll be loyal and be less worried about the margin for a one month or two month window.

So I think that that kind of operational flexibility builds these deeper relationships and additional trust. And then, I mean I think for most independent companies, word of mouth and referrals from clients or your networks are the hugest source of business, right? So once you treat people correctly, I think that starts to propagate a little bit more in the industry and just leads to better and more good work.

Charles:

Do all of you pay competitively with the marketplace? Is that ever an issue? Does independence mean that you are looking for people that you can get for the kind of salary that you can afford? I mean to pick up on Alex's point, there's a real economic impact, right, of working for a big company.

Spencer Baim:

I think, also thinking about my career, throughout my whole career I worked at companies that actually paid me less, but I had the ability to do the best work of my life. And I think it does come down to, there are some kind of individuals that get a real kick out of that. I want to make the most of every day, look back on a Friday and say what did I do this week? And there are others that are in it for other reasons. And I think Vice, you know, we do pay competitively, but the reason to come to Vice is for doing the best work of your life. And that might mean that if you're 25 you could make more money elsewhere, but my advice would be not to and do the best work of your life and eventually you can make the money of course. But that's not the reason to come to work every day.

Charles:

Nils. What about you?

Nils Leonard:

You know, we pay competitively. What it forces you to do is there are no passengers, none. There is no one in Uncommon. There was no one in any meeting that doesn't have a active, powerful point to make. And that's a really healthy exercise, I think. We pay the same as everyone else, if I'm honest. That's kind of why they work for us. You're absolutely right. They will come for that purpose and that vision, but we will pay just as much as anybody else. But really the truth is there's this ferocity to looking at every day with the people that you have and going, are they all absolutely killing it? And I really hope we don't lose that. I hope the scale doesn't change that.

Charles:

So do you interview differently now than you did at Grey?

Nils Leonard:

100%.

Charles:

Tell us how?

Nils Leonard:

I mean it. It's real. LOL. No, I mean, I would sit at Grey and I would say the same stuff and I would fucking feel it and then go back to my desk and get an email from whoever and have to take the client that I don't like, who we're going to make terrible work. But I was going to hide while we won Lions for a spray for Volvo. You know, being really honest, right?

So I now interview people and go; Christ. Okay. And I look them in the eye and say, listen, it's just us. There's a wonderful, if you want it, there's a wonderful thing, which is, it's just us. Like this room of people, what is it? 20 people in this room? You're like, okay, it's just us, that's all it is. There's no myth. There's no backroom, there's no one else doing it. It's just us. Are you up for that? And you find out very, very quickly whether the people want to be accountable and own their stuff. And those people are incredible, I think.

Charles:

How often do you find people who say they don't want that?

Nils Leonard:

Quite a bit.

Charles:

Really?

Nils Leonard:

Yeah, quite a bit. You see it and it's not, and I think it's so hard, like you know, they're not, it's so easy to go, oh god, you know, whatever. But it's scary. You're on your own, man. This is you, this is you, let's go. You know, it's fucking scary. And if you don't know your stuff and you're making that leap, I respect if you don't want to do that. Some are very exposed. Standards are very high. We're super clear about that. There's nowhere to hide in a start-up, I don't think. Yeah.

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Yeah. I think that comfort with ambiguity is one of the things we try to find as much as anything through that process. Because when you're at a larger company, you can find a little niche that you're kind of working on for a long period of time. And we're asking people to be generalists. We're asking people to be comfortable, kind of doing something they've never done before on a project or think in a slightly different way. And if they don't want to do that, that's great. Like there are lots of jobs that you can find where you can be in a narrower role and do very successfully and continue to grow your career. But for us, I think the single most important trait is being able to kind of be fluid and agile and understand that you don't have all the answers, but you're excited to kind of figure it out along the way.

Nils Leonard:

Yeah, I think that's true.

Charles:

The dynamics that's clearly at play. I mean you started the conversation we're talking about with money right? Money talks. One of the realities of the advertising marketing communications industry is that the business model is terrible, right? All these companies are selling time, they're selling hours, and I've been saying it for years that the way that this industry is run is the equivalent of pricing up Picasso based on how long it took him to paint it.

Really, who gives a shit? It doesn't matter. It's the impact it has on the world. So, the holding companies are stuck of a problem of their own making. When they separated the media from the creative side, they decided that clearly over lunch, you can imagine three people going to [inaudible]. You know what? Let's spin that off, we'll make more money, how should we charge for creative, oh I don't know, charge by the hour. Right, it'd probably happen with about that much thought.

And now the entire industry is stuck with this model. Do you guys follow the same model? Are you selling time or are you selling value?

Alex Goat:

We haven't done anything in terms of a rate card in four years, we've charged by output, and we charge by deliverable. We're value based pricing for our clients now.

Charles:

Is that hard for you to convince them that that's the way you work?

Alex Goat:

No.

Charles:

Or do they just come to you and say, "We want what you've got, tell us how you price that."

Alex Goat:

Yeah, I think it's just easier. It's just, everyone has been in, I'm an account handler by trade, and the amount of time that you waste going, "Why do I need a senior account manager on that?" That's absolute bullshit, that's not for you to decide, that is for us to decide. And if it takes us three times as long to create the best output for you, that's our problem. And if we do it really efficiently, we do it really well because we're really, really good, that should be also to our benefit. And I mean the only clients we've ever had question it are financial services clients. And it's like, cool, that's fine. We will probably never get that kind of pricing away. But no, for us, I think people really, really value it. And we do something that's genuinely different. And so it's not comparable. And yeah, sometimes when they're like, "How much would this event or this thing cost me?" And it's like that's kind of, there is okay, there's benchmarks you have to create but when you'll talk about, when we genuinely talk about value, the good clients come along on that journey. And that is, yeah, it's a really good conversation. We should be able to have commercial conversations with clients and internally. But it should be based on something that is more than who have I got working on my account. That is boring!

Nils Leonard:

We started out with this thing which was, we're going to work with the world's best people to build on common grounds. By which we mean partner with people. But we're going to make them ourselves. And that was a big thing for us, that's our crux, which is, we go off and we pitch and when we pitch we go, "I've had this amazing idea for your brand, and ta-da!" And sometimes the client says yes, and that's wonderful. And sometimes they say no.

The biggest crime is we then leave that on the floor. And I'm like, hang on a minute, we make all these leaps with our best people. Fucking geniuses I work with. And we're like, this should exist in the world. Why am I waiting on you to tell me if I can make it? Why am I doing that? And so once you change that dynamic, you get in a room of people, they kind of go, "Christ." We've got clients who have rate cards. The truth is, they are engineered that way. We just say what money we think it's worth. And if they want to slot it into a time base thing, what we've ended up doing is working out that's fine. It's not how we work. You don't have four suits and a senior account director. It's irrelevant. But if that's how you want to charge it, it's fine, but it's worth this much. I think that independent spirit for us, that ability to go, "We don't need you. We're doing it anyway," gives us a real power.

Alex Goat:

I think that is it, you have to be brave enough to know that you have to stick by what it is that you say you're going to do and you have to be willing to walk away. And I think that is the scary bit. Because as you say, running a business, sometimes you're like, "I really need that!" You know, we do kind of need that money this month or something but as long as you know that you have done this and you are willing to walk away if it doesn't work then that is on us as leaders.

Nils Leonard:

Mohan, what about you guys?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think it's closer to what Nils was saying where we have an idea of what things should cost and we can use the deliverables or value-based model. To be totally honest, a lot of the large clients have pretty strict procurement departments and if they need a rate card-based structure that we've provided, we'll do it. For us, I think there are a lot of battles you can fight and we just haven't decided that that's the one that we care that much about. I'd rather make sure that we have the right team to do the work. Whether or not that's an investment on our end is not the client's problem. It's our way to figure it out and we can manage our business in a malleable enough way where we're doing well on these projects with our rate card.

Nils Leonard:

Spencer, what's your pricing structure? You must have various, variables, things to various degrees [crosstalk].

Spencer Baim:

It's different. We have an agency of virtue. But on the media side I was just thinking, it's often wrapped into a media buy. And again, back to what I said earlier, what's tricky for us or what's advantageous to us potentially is that whatever we make for a brand ends up one of our channels. And then whatever ends up on one of our channels impacts our brand. So we often, we work, we just work until it's great or at least until we think it's at the level of quality that we would accept onto Vice. So the model's like, in that sense it's just not, it's the more effort we put in, the better it's going to be for our audience, so we just keep pushing. We don't measure it by time.

Nils Leonard:

[crosstalk] So sick. I mean you're the one person on this panel that genuinely, they're dependent on you. Right? Let's be super clear, like you, yeah.

Spencer Baim:

The brands?

Nils Leonard:

Yeah. And the standard and the consistency and, you know, it's amazing.

Spencer Baim:

It's because we have an audience and we have a specific expertise and it's narrow. But it's very much-

Nils Leonard:

So to that question, a bit of me goes, I don't know where it's going but part of our thing about starting our own brands was I want an audience. I don't want to have to make one for Unilever. Yeah. That's what we need.

Spencer Baim:

I know. I often thought agencies need to be famous consumer brands now because, I feel that for a while but that is how the world works today. Someone follows you so your brand has to be as important to a client as it does for the person that's going to consume whatever you're going to make. And then wrapped into that, there's a deep expectation that what you're going to do is going to be great, or it starts to, it keeps you up.

Nils Leonard:

And nobody talks about themself less well than an agency, right? I mean indecipherable for the most part.

Spencer Baim:

And an agency often doesn't talk up the client, or the client's work. It does happen when there's an incredibly, in this, in some situations it does. But if you had fans-

Nils Leonard:

But if you go back, right? Sorry, if you go back to like Saatchi, what those guys understood is a rolling culture around art, around power. They were like, we're going to change your mind about shit and you're going to love us for it. And they were that brazen. And there's been very few people who've got that idea. I don't think that's the route now, at all but I do think they recognized, for a brief period of time, their role in the real world.

Spencer Baim:

Yeah. Labour's not working.

Nils Leonard:

It's nuts that we don't do that, right? You're like, that's the influence your brief, that's what I'm talking about which is you're on the receiving end of those briefs, they matter. You know, it's not sell some more cheese please, give us a 1% uplift. It's like, make a dent.

Alex Goat:

It's obviously nowhere near on the scale of Vice but we have two audiences. We have our B-to-B audience, our clients, and we have a B-to-C audience. We've got a network of 6000 young people around the world who are part of our network and we have to make decisions. More of our decisions are made on what is the impact on that part of our audience, rather than on clients. And it makes life really much more complicated but in that exact space. Like for us, us to be able to build up that network is really, really important. And they will call bullshit on liberty. And they have done, and that's really important for us to learn. More so than clients ever would do. And as much as sometimes we make decisions based on is it great work for our people, it's like what does that say about us to our most important audience? We did a thing with the leadership team a year or so ago, we were talking about what is our value? And for us, the relationships that we have with young people are more important to us than the relationships we have with brands and as long as we keep that priority straight then we will continue to do the things that we want to do really way.

Nils Leonard:

[crosstalk] on Thursday, right?

Alex Goat:

Yes, absolutely.

Charles:

And those young people that are consuming your content want to work for you. And then it's a beautiful virtuous cycle.

Nils Leonard:

Mohan, who are you accountable to?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think it's a little different, where it's a little more focused probably on our employees first. Because again, if we're saying talent is the central thing that makes an agency successful. If they're happy with the work we're doing, we're proud of us sticking to our values, we're doing something right. I think clients are important but they're secondary to, is my team happy? Are we doing the best work we possibly can? Are we doing something challenging? Or impacting the world at scale? So those are the kinds of questions that I think we'd ask as much as anything.

Charles:

I'm conscious of the time, I'm conscious that you have to go in a couple of seconds. I want to ask a wrap-up question so you can give us the answer to this. What are you most afraid of in terms of being independent? What do you think is the biggest risk to that?

Alex Goat:

You made a very good point, you were only three calls away from total annihilation. And that is scary. For us, am I afraid? Am I afraid of that? No. Does it force me to make sure that we make the right decisions? Yes. Am I afraid that one day we'll be part of some big network? Yes. But that's okay because that's also my decision. That is probably my greatest fear, being part of someone average.

Charles:

What's your one takeaway about the power of being independent?

Alex Goat:

All of us here are very vocal leaders, I think the power of being independent is your ability to make decisions and be with the very best people who you genuinely count on. And I think that for me is, I rely so heavily on the people that are literally my peers in my network rather than anyone else and as long as they are the very best people that we can afford then that is a great place to be.

Charles:

Awesome. Spencer, what about you, what are you afraid of in terms of independence?

Spencer Baim:

I think independence is as much a state of mind as it is a business issue situation and we now have 3000 employees in 35 countries, we started with 40 people. And the fear is, and we always have to work at it every day is to make sure that people know that they are independent individuals who have to act the way an independent organization acts because size can anchor you down. And you have to be free to what you're saying earlier to push boundaries. And I worry the bigger you get, the harder it is to do. So that's something that we are now trying to create structure around so people can behave in a way that we know that is the essence to who we are.

Charles:

And what would be your one takeaway about the power of independence?

Spencer Baim:

Speed. Speed, we move so damn fast every single week. And you have to, or you just can't succeed.

Charles:

Nils, what about you? What are you afraid of?

Nils Leonard:

We've not made one bit of work yet that hasn't been us at our best, not one. We haven't taken on one client. Folding, doing that, making a bit where we go, "That's all right." Okay, let's just be honest, 60% of the work there we didn't talk about. You would eulogize the things that were wins but we genuinely are uncommon, we haven't got one piece of work we've made that we're not proud of dude, and that is insane. And I look at everybody every day and I go, "That's the fucking standard, man." And I love it so much. So I'm terrified that we'll make a piece of work that we're not proud of. That we'll fold, speed and time and stress and all that shit that creeps in will force us to do something that we shouldn't. That's my fear.

Charles:

And what's your one takeaway about the power?

Nils Leonard:

Truth. I think you can look someone in the eye and tell the 100% truth. So yeah, there's the freedom to say no and all that other crap but the truth it when I look a client or a person in the eye, I literally can speak from needing them not one bit. And just go, "This is what you should do. This is how you should matter. This is how it should work." And you don't have to take my advice but it's the fucking 100% truth. It's not based on a meeting I had with a media guy yesterday. It's not based on a strategy we've placed globally. It's just what we think you should do. And it's huge, I think. Right now that's huge.

Charles:

Yeah. Mohan? What's your great fear?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Losing our very sharp focus in terms of the work that we take on. And the nice thing is that we have some control over this but as you grow and you're at a certain scale, you want to make sure that your employees are doing good work, that they're happy and I don't want to be in a position where we have to broaden our aperture to do things that we aren't as excited about just because we have to. I mean I think it's kind of a play off of what everyone else is saying. So how do we be measured about growth enough while still capitalizing on the right market opportunities around our focus, is what keeps me up at night.

Charles:

And what's your one takeaway about the power of independence?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think that we don't have to be focused on short-term decision making. Yes, speed and a lot of other things that everyone's saying are great but to me it's that we can take a bet that the six-month or one-year horizon that you don't have the liberty to do if you are someone that's publicly owned.

Charles:

Thank you all for being here today. Great conversation. Nils, thanks for coming up with the idea. Really powerful.

Nils Leonard:

Thanks, I didn't know what it meant when I did it. Thanks, dude.

Charles:

Thanks so much.

Nils Leonard:

Thanks everyone.

Charles:

Thanks.

Spencer Baim:

Thank you.

Charles:

Thank you.