Ian Millner is Co-Founder and Joint CEO of Iris Worldwide, a marketing, advertising and experiential agency. When Iris first started out the founders didn’t anticipate growing larger than their team of 30, 12 years on and they are a workforce of 1000 with offices from London to Singapore.
I was keen to interview Millner, he is one of a handful of CEOs in the agency space that started their career in new business, studying what he calls the “dark arts” for a couple of years before co-founding Iris.
To what do you attribute Iris’ growth?
We have always embraced change rather than letting ourselves be intimidated by it. Every time we’ve had the opportunity to transform or change we have. Obviously sometimes those things haven’t come off and it’s cost us money, but when I look over the last twelve years I realise a great many more ideas have come off than didn’t and that’s why we are where we are.
How has the discipline of new business changed since the agency opened its doors?
Today we need to have a multidimensional view of how we are attractive to the things that create value for our business: what the intermediaries do and say and think; what the press and talent community say about us; what printers, photographers, recruiters are saying about Iris. Our influence is a barometer of our ability to be successful. A big part of our new business strategy today is taken up by time invested in the audience that impacts our success.
The bottom line in new business is that no matter how big you are, or how cool you are, or how famous you are, most clients won’t have heard of you. Part of the problem in new business is that the dominant view is that it’s all process, a numbers game: “knock on enough doors” blah blah. It isn’t a sales process – it’s a listening game.
Do you take a strategic approach towards new business?
We have a model at Iris called “helping people buy“, it’s a simple framework that says between any customer and any purchase there are a set of steps someone needs to go through to make a decision – steps we need to preempt or overcome. If we are able to overcome these specific barriers we will be in a good position to be bought. This is the strategy and against that we do all the things that agencies do: direct mail, cold calling, PR, proactive ideas, events, IP building – all of which is focused on building momentum about Iris and what we stand for.
How do you differentiate yourselves from other agencies?
We have always wanted to be the agency of choice, opposed to the agency of record. “Ordinary is the enemy” is a personality statement that we use. It is a way for people to understand that we’re a certain type of company. We have a challenge that is typical for most agencies in that our positioning doesn’t say a clear benefit, we don’t just work in one specific discipline. Our diversity is our USP but our challenge is that diversity lacks credibility from a client’s perspective. The marketplace is oversaturated with agencies claiming meaningful differentiation. Today it matters less what an agency stands for and more what it can prove. So much of agency communication is superficial.
More and more we’re interested in advocacy and the impact that conversation has on a brand’s performance. We believe that conversations are as influential consumer-to-consumer as they are brand-to-consumer and so we’ve just completed a global study around the value conversations create, specifically what it is and how a brand can make and manage it in different categories.
Just being different isn’t all that, it’s sort of not the point. The client doesn’t care if you’re different, they care what you know, what you’re like and if you’re good.
How do you approach pitches?
You have to believe that you’ve been selected for a pitch list consciously. I find myself regularly saying, “We got on the pitch list because we’re Iris, and we will do this our way“. New business is binary, you have to win. The way our business grows is that we win something small and specialist and grow the business over time.
Do you use cold calling?
We do and it can work. However, having done new business for much of my life, I’m far more realistic than most agency founders on how long it can take to turn a cold conversation into a piece of business, realistically you’re looking at 9 to 18 months – it can’t be your only tactic. We wouldn’t have got to where we are today without a) being adventurous and entrepreneurial and b) taking a multidimensional view towards what it takes to find, win and grow new business.