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A 15 year recipe for business success

By Fran Brosan, Chairman

15 years ago this week the three of us started our own business - Omobono. A creative agency named after the patron saint of business, and focused on business brands. We started it in a basement. With a dog. It wasn’t long before we realised that the dog had to go, and that we needed to be brave, believe in the business and move into some proper offices.

15 years later we have over 70 people, in 4 ‘proper’ offices on 2 continents: Cambridge, Bristol, London and Chicago. I’m glad to say that dogs still turn up in the office occasionally, but no longer as permanent residents.

Is there a recipe for success? I’d say find the right partners, hire the right people, look after your customers as well as you can, and keep flexible. Of course we’ve made mistakes, taken wrong turns and got into bed with the wrong people too. But mostly you learn from that (once you’ve picked yourself up off the floor).

Flexibility is absolutely at the heart of it. In September 2001 the planes flew into the Twin Towers. We watched the TV in horror as the buildings collapsed, wondering whether the world would ever recover. We’ve been through at least one financial recession and the collapse of the oil price but as much as anything it’s the changing technology landscape that we’ve battled with. Apple also launched iTunes in 2001 and since then everything we take as normal today has happened. Smart phones, tablets, social media, marketing automation, media fragmentation. In 15 years there’s been an absolute and total shift in the way that marketing is transacted.

It’s funny now, looking back on it, but somewhere along the line (2003? 2004?) before the marketing world’s centre of gravity shifted to digital I can remember wondering whether there was ever going to be anything new in our world, or whether we’d be churning out the same old activity plan forever. I shouldn’t have worried. Shortly after that I seriously questioned whether, as someone brought up on the world of TV, press and posters, I was ever going to be able to get my head around ‘new media’. How times have changed.

Our industry continues to move at an incredible pace. But despite the death knells being tolled for creativity (being killed by technology) I believe that creativity is in fact the thing that’s kept the agency world alive. And will continue to be. It remains the elusive thing that clients want but can’t produce easily themselves. Omobono’s What Works Where in B2B Digital Marketing research in 2015 showed that ‘Creating cut through’ was marketers’ biggest challenge in this digital age. And it continues to be what clients come to us for. Clearing out my inbox at the beginning of this week I came across our 2015 feedback document from the RAR (Recommended Agency Register). Yes, our average score for creativity was 88.6 out of 100 and yes we had some wonderful comments; Excellent creativity, and a wonderful process used to arrive at final outcomes.

Thank you whoever said that (quotes are anonymous). But this quote I also loved, as I think it typifies our best client relationships. “Omobono occupies a very special place in our agency portfolio. While they are not our “agency of record” on brand strategy — they are arguably always shaping that strategy on the many, many projects we ask them to do. They are a killer combination of strategy + execution. I could not do my job without them. There is also a respect for [the company] and what we do that feels great.”

If someone had told me 15 years ago that a senior marketer from what can only be described as one of the biggest and most successful businesses on the planet would write this about Omobono would I have been surprised? Hell yes. Not that we didn’t think we could do it, but that we have. The difference is that the first ‘we’ was 3 people. The second ‘we’ is all 70 of our staff. That’s who has really done it. We (3) just started it.

P.S. No dogs were hurt in the writing of this article.

Chris’ view – hire people better than you.

Fifteen years (and a few months ago) Ben and I were having conversations about leaving the agency we both worked at to set up our own gig. We knew we’d be stronger as a trio with Fran too. The problem was that she was our boss (some would say in many ways she still is!). So the dilemma was if we asked and she said yes, fine. If she said no, we were probably fired.

In the event, the conversation naturally occurred on our way to a client meeting. We got in the lift at the ground floor representing one agency. We got out on the 7th floor as part of another. Well, almost. It took a whole length of time to get the wheels in motion.

Coming up with a name for the business was a challenge. From Abraxus (sounds like a covers trio in a working man’s club), to Fifth Business (another company in Scotland), name after name was suggested and dismissed. Then after too much red wine and too much time on my hands, I was surfing on the Catholic saints’ website. The rest is history. Including Fran’s immortal quote We’re calling it Omobono over my dead body!

The truth is that we had no idea of the journey ahead when we started. We knew we could do the job but had no idea how to build and nurture a company. So we learnt on the job.

We’ve changed the company as we’ve gone along. Perhaps more importantly, the company has changed us. It’s hard to be objective but I think we were very different people 15 years ago. We are probably a bit wiser and have more perspective now. We realised pretty quickly that our business is only as good as the people we hire, not the talents of the owners. And we’ve been lucky to hire great people. That’s the true secret of Omobono.

Although every day brings new opportunities and challenges, 15 years feels like a milestone. But like all milestones, it’s just a marker on the journey.

Ben’s view – culture eats strategy for breakfast

I think I was 12 when we set the company up and was extremely chuffed when Chris and Fran announced that they had decided I should be MD. I took this as acknowledgement that my special powers had been noticed. I quickly discovered that really my role was Head of Bins. I applied myself and realised that a company can succeed on (no, not empty bins) the basis of strong culture. People with much larger brains than me use phrases like culture is the long term source of competitive differentiation

15 years has shown me this to be true. Hire people better than you and then build culture like it’s a party. We ask ourselves almost every day whether we’re doing not just the right thing, but the best thing for our people. Make it fun. Reward people. Acknowledge people. Notice people. Develop people. The most satisfying aspect of running the company is seeing people you love doing work you’re proud of. Best of all we have never lost the gang culture. We’re all in it together. We work for some unbelievably huge brands and we deliver by always working together.

Culture translates naturally into commitment. Commitment from everyone to go beyond what’s expected and to deliver something to our clients that is exceptional. I put culture down to almost everything we’ve achieved.

We have a long way to go and right now we are thinking hard how we take our culture beyond our offices in the UK and USA; it’s not just the work we deliver, but the way we deliver it.

I’d like to mark the milestone by saying a huge thank you to the clients and colleagues who make every day full of inspiration and satisfaction.

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