Who Wot Why’s Client Partner on spotting a good suit, ambitious plans and donating his name to a snooty advertising mascot
When Who Wot Why burst onto the scene, they surprised the industry by being three creative guys doing a damn good job of running a business – while also producing some damn good work. Eventually founders Sean Thompson, Ben Walker and Matt Gooden along with Operations Director Marissa Jennings decided that it was time to bring a properly good suit on board. Well. We say suit, but you’re more likely to find Charles Faircloth in his cycling gear. Charles joined the merry crew when the agency won Sky Bet and since then the agency has been romping ahead with a flexible business model that’s very much built for the complicated and fast-changing world of 2018.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Charles.
LBB> So, I was researching you and I found a character in an American wine ad that came out last year called Charles Faircloth. I don’t know if you’ve seen it…?
CF> I have, I can tell you about that. When I was first at Crispin, my line manager was a fantastic guy called Steve Erich. He subsequently opened an agency on the West Coast of the US. They were working with a wine producer on a campaign and they wanted a ridiculous, pompous-sounding name. Steve and his guys wrote to me and said, ‘We’re suggesting a number of names to the CEO, are you happy for us to suggest yours?’ I said ‘yeah’, and I ended up having to sign away the rights to my name, almost! So, the guys sent me copies of it and I was delighted!
It’s also quite a weird spelling of the name – most people would spell it Fairclough. I got no benefit from it, but I was very happy for them to use it. It was quite funny. It’s obviously what happens to you when you have a silly English name.
LBB> And the other big news that happened to you in the past year, was that you joined Who Wot Why. You knew the guys from when you were at CP+B London. Why was it the right time for you to move there and what was it about what Matt and Ben and Sean were doing that excited you?
CF> You’re absolutely right, I worked with Matt and Ben for about three or four years and I always held them in high regard and hugely enjoyed my time working with them. I think the reality is that I did some of the work that I’m most proud of with them, whether it’s Paddy Power or Turkish Airlines or Hotels.com. It was a period of great stuff that I was really proud of and they were instrumental as ECDs there.
Even when the guys had left, I always kept the dialogue open and occasionally touched base. When they started Who Wot Why, it was something that I thought was very interesting and unusual. It had a distinct position in the market.
I think, to your question about why it was the right time, Crispin had itself gone through a period of transformation in terms of changes in the business, both in the UK and in North America. It felt like a new phase was about to happen. I was chatting with the guys and they were excited about winning a big piece of business, Sky Bet, and they were wondering if I could play a role with them on it as I’d worked with them on Paddy Power historically. I guess it was a perfect storm of being really excited about what they were doing, having been really inspired by them from past experiences and it felt like the right time after seven or so years to make the next step.
LBB> When they launched it was three creatives also running the business side of things, which is fairly unusual. What was that like coming into?
CF> I think it was far less shambolic than I might have anticipated! The guys had partnered with some good financial people and have a very good head of operations here. What I thought would be a huge task didn’t play out that way at all. The guys had done a good job of managing the business and having very grown-up conversations with the clients.
LBB> Throughout your career you’ve worked at some amazing agencies but they’ve all been really big, global brands like CP+B, JWT, WCRS… So coming into this independent, family-run agency, what’s that change been like?
CF> Funnily enough when I first joined CP+B in 2006 there were literally two of us in London, who were initially based there for Burger King. It felt very small, so coming into a smaller set up felt very familiar. And because I knew Matt and Ben so well, it felt very natural. The dynamics of the small group have run very smoothly. There isn’t the in-fighting of bigger operations – you don’t have different agendas and siloed parts of the business. It’s just a small number of people in a room trying to solve problems and that works incredibly smoothly.
LBB> One of the philosophies of Who Wot Why is that to do the 1% of work that makes a real impact, you have to be prepared to break one rule. How do you get clients to the point where they’re comfortable breaking rules?
CF> That is very interesting because we don’t think you have to break that one rule through the communications itself or the message. It could be that the client is already breaking the rule and we are communicating that. For sake of argument, giffgaff, by saying their customers are free to leave, are breaking a rule for the category. We’re not having to hand hold them at all, they are coming to us with that mentality.
With other clients it might be trickier if we’re encouraging them to break a rule in communication. Sometimes it might not be the message, it can be the channel they select, the audience they’re choosing to say it to. It isn’t always as radical as going out and doing something completely counter to the category. It can be more nuanced than that.
LBB> In terms of the clients, it seems to be quite a nice group. Of them, I only really know the giffgaff crew personally, but is there a specific mentality that you look for when deciding that you’re going to approach or pitch to a potential client? Do you think there something that they all have in common?
CF> I do, but I don’t think it’s been purposeful; I don’t think we’ve set an agenda in terms of looking for a certain behaviour or position in the market. I would say that the spirit of entrepreneurialism is rife in every business we work with. That could mean that we’re working directly with the entrepreneur who set up the business, but I think about Sky Bet, which has an incredibly entrepreneurial spirit in terms of the autonomy that’s given to the members of staff and the attitude of the company. They’re one of the biggest betting operations in the country but even something of that scale can have that spirit. I think that’s why we get on well. It’s the unifying characteristic of our clients.
LBB> In terms of your ambitions for Who Wot Why this year, are you going to be pitching on new stuff?
CF> We got into the Campaign Top 10 of 2017 and we were absolutely delighted with that. This year we want to bring on more new business and it absolutely is a priority. But of course, managing our existing clients is also essential. We don’t want to scale in a way that would compromise those existing clients, but we are making a big push to bring in new business that would allow us to scale at a sensible rate. We’ve given ourselves ambitious targets for the next three to five years.
LBB> Another thing that I think is interesting about the set up of the agency and why it’s very relevant to what’s happening now is the way you work with partners. Instead of opening a bunch of departments you’ve got partners like Dark Energy, the London Strategy Unit that you can plug into when needs be. It speaks to a very modern way of running an agency or what an agency even is at a time when the behemoths are struggling to adapt. How are you finding that as a way to work?
CF> For us there’s a practical side to it. It allows us to pull in people who we know are talented and it means we can build a bigger community. It allows us to access expertise, whether it’s a production company or strategic thinking as and when necessary. We can be nimble but also cost efficient from a client perspective.
To date it’s worked very well. We’ve worked quite a bit with Bountiful Cow, in terms of comms planning. We’ve worked with Dark Energy in terms of production. Clients seem to react well because they can see the benefit of not having to pay on an ongoing basis for some of those third-party requirements. And we get on well because we have a good relationship with them.
I think, starting from scratch the way the guys did a year or so ago, it was a necessity to operate that way… but that necessity has proven itself to be incredibly fruitful.
LBB> So looking back at your own career, you joined WCRS as a graduate. Had you had wanted to join advertising for a while or was did you stumble across it and think ‘I fancy that!’
CF> I had always been interested in film and still am. Advertising struck me as a way to be close to the craft of filmmaking in some respects, but in a way that was commercial and probably one that’s more sustainable than the British film industry in the ‘90s, which had its ebbs and flows.
LBB> When you started out on the graduate scheme, how did you end up on the accounts side of the business?
CF> I think when I went to WCRS I always knew that that was always going to be the part of the business that I would be best suited for. I was always very committed to being an accounts handler of some description – I knew I wasn’t going to be a creative or a planner. I guess I was quite focused on it and as soon as you get into that and pursue that for a period of time that becomes self-fulfilling.
LBB> I think in this industry we talk a lot about creative talent, nurturing it, but less so about talent on the business side. When it comes to the account side, I’m curious to know what you think is the key to spotting someone with the potential to become a really great suit?
CF> I guess there’s a load of fundamentals. The clichés of account management people would be that they’re buttoned-down, have attention to detail, are massively organised, happy to set up meeting rooms and pour coffee. That gets you so far. At the junior level, these are all really important parts of the role. But over the past five or six years when I’ve been interviewing people, whether as an intern or group account director, I’ve been thinking ‘could you run this company one day?’ I think that has become the way I think about account management.
It’s got to be someone who has an ability to think bigger than the delivery and, increasingly, the role is about having grown-up conversations without strategists in the room. Senior clients expect you to be able to hold these conversations. So while there are a load of fundamentals that are critical to establishing yourself in the role, I think the macro, bigger-thinking and understanding of your clients business and brand, and the changing communication world are equally important.
And sometimes it comes down to a positive spirit, a sense that anything is possible, that they can make anything happen. That has a huge knock-on effect when the team is working hard and for long hours.
LBB> And I guess you’ve got to walk quite a delicate line, knowing which battles to fight. You get some creatives who understand the business problems a client is wrestling with and some who don’t. It’s about fighting for that idea versus this is not the hill to die on. It seems like quite a minefield…
CF> That’s certainly true, but my sense is that in the last decade of my working career, whether Who Wot Why or Crispins, is that the senior creatives will be involved in the same discussions, directly client-facing and hearing the problems of the business. I think because of that you get fewer internal issues, the ‘you should just push for this’ route.
You’ve got creatives understanding exactly what’s required for the business so they’re less likely to push for something that isn’t right for the business. And the client understands that the creative, the planner and the senior account handler all understand their business and are pushing for the right reasons. Having that dynamic with the client should make for an easier path to navigate, rather than the old model where you’d get more a sense of those internal arguments that you reference, that were much more prevalent a few years ago or in bigger agencies.
LBB> And what are your thoughts generally on where the industry’s heading? It’s an interesting time as there are people who are quite frustrated with the state of the industry and others who see a lot of opportunity. I was wondering what side of things you fall on?
CF> I would definitely be in the space of opportunity. I think that’s because of the nature of Who Wot Why and its ability to flex whatever comes across our radar, whether that’s making a film documentary as we did for Fabric or talking to a media owner who’s making a huge installation in London. It feels like an exciting time to be part of something so nimble.
I think the negative view of the future is fuelled by… feeling like you’re stuck in a rut. I feel the opposite of that. I feel like we could do anything that we think is a good creative challenge. I’m on the positive side of that. I know people are always going to be concerned about the role of the agency and how you’re going to be remunerated, and of course these things play on your mind, and it’s important to be conscious of those, but I think the bigger picture is that we are at an exciting place at an exciting time in the industry.
LBB> And rounding things up, outside of the world of Who Wot Why and work, what floats your boat?
CF> I am a big fan of cycling… which is probably a big cliché for a London ad person - but I like to think I was ahead of the curve on that! I like cycling with friends or the Grupetto, which is Oyster Catchers cycling club. I have three quite grown-up children who I try to spend plenty of time with. My other absolute passion is restaurants - and the more decadent the better. Probably another hideous advertising cliché but one I wholeheartedly believe in!