Episode 4: Marketing needs a new operating system

She’s been dubbed by Campaign magazine as a genuine trailblazer, whose “blend of refreshing honesty and practical insight is genuinely inspiring”. Two years on, Amelia Torode shows no sign of slowing down. She now just does it differently.

With a career track record that reads like the who’s who of the marketing agency world, Torode has spent more than two decades honing her skills across London and New York at the helm of the likes of Ogilvy Interactive, MindShare, VCCP, Naked Communications and TBWA.

Having taken some time out of the industry though, she admits there was relatively little beckoning her back. “I looked at the structure and a couple of things hit me. The first was that the majority of marketing and creative organisations that I looked at were structured in a 20th Century way — and struggling painfully to adapt to the 21st Century,” Torode explained.

Always an exponent of finding new models of creative working, she launched The Fawnbrake Collective along with Sera Miller — a new operating system for brands based on the premise that “smart talent wants to work with others, not for others”. According to Torode, theirs is a brand that’s building its value in social capital as much as financial capital, using hashtags like #KarmaNotKickbacks and working with a variety of clients — from enterprise to not-for-profit.

“The issue is that most clients want to work faster and flatter,” said Torode. “And if you try to take away structures that are getting in the way of doing the work, you’re going to get faster work, cheaper work and better work.”

“What we deliberately did with Fawnbrake is to set out to try and take away those points of friction. So, we’ve got no headquarters, no office because actually what we found is if you have the space people feel compelled to get there and like they need to be there at nine o’clock and then stay late.”

Tune in to this episode of Get Simple to learn from one of global marketing’s bravest leaders as she discusses what’s wrong with the agency status quo, how new models of thinking and working could reshape marketing and why now is the time to embrace this change.

[expand title=”Read the full transcript“]

Speaker key
MC Mark Choueke
AT Amelia Torode

This episode of Get Simple is brought to you by Simple – the intelligent marketing platform.

Hello and welcome to Get Simple, a podcast that aims to help marketers claw back the cost of complexity.

Each episode we hear stories from the marketing and tech leaders reshaping the way we do marketing – as the battle for time, money and resources increases.

I’m your host, Mark Choueke, founder of Rebeltech and former editor of Marketing Week.

Amelia Torode is, according to Campaign magazine, a genuine trailblazer, whose “blend of refreshing honesty and practical insight is genuinely inspiring.”

Amelia has spent 20 years in London and New York working for some iconic agencies such as Ogilvy Interactive, MindShare, VCCP, Naked Communications and TBWA but says she’s never stopped learning.

A fearless exponent of finding new models of creative working, last year along with Sera Miller she launched The Fawnbrake Collective — a new operating system for brands based on the premise that “smart talent wants to work with others, not for others”…

AT Everyone would always joke, you know, we’re trying to change the engine while the aeroplane’s still flying. And I’d be like, yes, wow, that’s what we’re trying to do. And then you sort of go that’s a recipe for disaster like the idea that you’re flying a plane and trying to change the engine, you’re all going to die. That ends in a plane crash and nobody lives.

MC The Drum wrote earlier this year about marketers suffering stress from what is now a truly ‘always-on’ culture – do you think there’s a need to focus particularly on mental health issues within marketing? And what about burnout – is that something you come across a lot?

AT I mean, I’ve seen lots of people struggling. I’m not sure whether marketing’s different from other areas. I mean, I think you talk to, you know, junior doctors and teachers and black cab drivers. I think, you know, everybody is being rocked by technological change and I think uncertainty is there for everyone.

So, I guess I’m not convinced that it’s harder or worse for a marketeer. What I do think is marketing is in the front line for a lot. And I think it is really… I think it can be very difficult for marketeers because you have to show ROI and you have to show effectiveness for everything.

AT Listen, undoubtedly the job has got harder; the money that you’ve got to do it with is more scrutinised and the time periods have got shorter. And, you know, it’s not an easy time to be in marketing and I think you can feel overwhelmed hugely quickly. I don’t know, I don’t think it’s worse than any other industry but that, I mean, that’s just my opinion

MC What you’ve experienced firsthand, how dire is the need for a new model of marketing operations?

AT I think it’s hugely dire I mean it’s certainly got to a point that I guess the beginning of last year for me when I’d had a bit of time out of the industry. And I looked at the structure and I think actually having that time on the outside allows you to get real clarity on what’s wrong. And I think there a couple of things that hit me. I think that the first was that the majority of marketing organisations and I guess creative organisations that I looked at were structured in a 20th Century way and struggling painfully to adapt to the 21st Century and most of them failing.

MC Tell me what’s different about the Fawnbrake Collective?

AT Okay, so, I think there are a couple of really key models. I mean, I guess, the thing that struck me last year was that the way that most companies make money is layered and longer. And I guess by that I mean that if you’re putting together a scope of work and you look at FT equivalent so full time equivalencies.

The way that really you have to make money at the moment is more layers and longer then you can make money. The issue is that I think that most clients want to work faster and flatter. And I think that if you try to take away structures that I think are getting in the way of doing the work I think you’re going to get faster work, cheaper work and better work.

MC Cynically would you object to the suggestion that Fawnbrake is a company built around what you want as a lifestyle and is that good?

AT Well, so, I think there are two things. So I think the first thing is going back to your question about what’s structurally different about Fawnbrake. So, I guess I try to think about all those points of friction and pain that I thought were getting in the way of work. And I think one is just the organisational structure and design of most companies I think are wrong. I think the way that talent is harnessed is wrong. I think the mentality that you have to sort of quote unquote own talent is wrong.

I think it’s exactly like music you don’t need to own the CD you just need to access it on Spotify and it’s the same with talent. And I think what we deliberately did with Fawnbrake is to set out to try and take away those points of friction. So, we’ve got no headquarters, we’ve got no office because actually what we found is if you have the space people feel compelled to get there and they kind of feel like they need to be there at nine o’clock or nine thirty and then stay late.

AT We don’t use email so we’ve completely banned email so that there’s no, none of this desperate responding and catching emails and missing things.

MC Do you use Slack instead or…?

AT Yes it’s all Slack based which is perfect for us.

MC Does it solve the problem?

AT It certainly has, it certainly has. And we don’t have any employees so there’s myself and Sarah who is my co-founder. But what we have is a very flat collective of independent freelancers. But actually interestingly and I hadn’t sort of predicted this, a collective of lots of small independent companies and studios and small businesses not in London but around the UK and increasingly around the world.

AT I guess, the good thing about Slack is that you can set up your different statuses which actually you should be looking at and we do. So, actually we look and we see very quickly whether somebody’s available and working. I think the biggest thing though is the idea about curated conversations. So I guess the thing that we love about Slack is that it enables us to find stuff quickly and you know what you’re talking about whereas with email you kind of drown in it. So, it has really worked and changed I think the way that people work.

MC Let’s talk about the practicalities of using a network of freelancers. For instance, doesn’t the briefing process become something of a nightmare?

AT Yes, so, well, first of all I think the word freelancer is a really old fashioned word which I don’t use. I mean, I tend to think of them as independent entrepreneurs. I think the people who… And they’re small business owners. They may just be the small businesses themselves. But I think actually the people that we work with are highly motivated, really focused self starters.
And I think… I mean, yes, so, we do a number of things. When we work on a client we write into the contract that they give us space. So, essentially for the duration of the project we embed into a client, so we…

MC That’s amazing.

AT Well, just… And it’s so simple it’s, like, so, we were working with a brilliant Fintech start up called Tandem and we had a war room in their office. So, everything’s up on the wall, Ricky, who’s the founder comes in and looks at the Post-it talks it through. And at the end of each day when we go… It just makes so much sense.

MC So, they give you physical space?

AT They give us physical space.

MC Do they give you space as well, space to breath, time?

AT Not much time.

MC And I wonder do clients genuinely believe and lean in to… A new OS which means I get to live my life too. And by the way do you when the inevitable Friday night client call comes in do you get to practice?

AT So, let’s go to the first… The first question was do clients care about a new operating system. No, the clients care about working differently though and working faster and smarter and being part of the process. So, I think the clients that we talk to are so fed up with the way that it works and it just… The layers, the bureaucracy, the time, the egos it’s just… It’s not producing the work; it’s not fun for anyone it’s not an enjoyable process.

So, I don’t think they know or care about a new operating system for brands. I don’t think they know and care about lifestyle. What I do think they know and care about and they can understand is it feels like for a, sort of, sprint period of time you’re part of their team. And I think they can look at the results and hopefully it feels… It looks different.

MC So, tell me this has Fawnbrake worked for you in terms of you having time and space to figure out the other parts of your life that are as important as work?

AT So, I think what’s been interesting about starting a business that’s deliberately set out to be, sort of, flatter and different is… I mean, with risk of using a, you know, it has allowed me to take back control which is I don’t think I work less.

MC Have you turned it into a chant yet?

AT I haven’t yet but it probably is a hashtag. But I do think I work differently and I feel… So, I’m very happy if I’m not… I mean, I’m old now so if I don’t go out on a Saturday night I’m very happy to work because I like the work. But I do want to go for a swim in the morning because I had a New Year’s resolution to all year round swim in our local lido so I do that. And I do want to be able to… I’m a trustee on a children’s charity and I want to spend some more time with them. So, it’s allowed me to have more control over the way that I work.

MC It’s always nice when someone exactly the same age as you describes themselves in public as old, it’s always warming. So, what are you doing with your 20 more hours to impact, you’re swimming, you’re taking time out for other organisations. But the way you and Sarah are set up means it’s not in any way negatively affecting the work you’re able to do for your clients. And the business is making money. So, somebody somewhere has to look your way and go actually it could be like that for all of us.

AT Yes, I mean, I hope so, I mean, I guess you get to interesting questions around things like scale. So, the two questions that we always get asked because we’re about a year in is how many employees do you have and how are you going to scale. And it’s really interesting because actually the whole how many employees do you have…

MC Isn’t a thing for you.

AT I don’t know, I’m like, like, genuinely also but if we had a hundred people working for us making no money and not producing anything a hundred people doesn’t… It doesn’t mean anything. What you want to do is look at the clients who work on the projects you do. And then you get to a point and I guess it’s funny because you talked a bit about, you know, lifestyle brands.
And I suppose there’s a bit where I go if I don’t like the word freelancers maybe I like the word lifestyle brand which is maybe we should all be thinking about companies as a lifestyle which is how do you create a sustainable and healthy business that allows you to make money but also have a life. And maybe we should reclaim lifestyle brands so people don’t think of it being like, I don’t know, making jam. But actually you could make money but you could do it in a different kind of way. I don’t know how to make jam.

MC And how did you meet Sarah?

AT I met her at an organisation called the IPA which is the industry body for advertising. And we were judging something called the Excellence Diploma which is kind of like I don’t know it’s like a sort of MBA thing that the IPA do. And we were judging dissertations. And it was kind of funny which was half of the dissertations we’d literally to the sort of percentage point agreed completely. And the other half, stuff that I would have failed she gave dissertations to.

And we had this brilliant day where we started off in the morning profoundly agreeing going God this person is so smart. And then in the afternoon we just disagreed on everything. But we kind of had the most robust, tough, challenging sort of arguments and discussions and came away both of us thinking that we’d learned something. And I kind of think that actually I think it’s good to go into business with people that you don’t agree necessarily on everything with because otherwise I think you can kind of echo chamber yourself.

MC How do these new ways of thinking and operating translate into let’s say enterprise marketing or just other… In house marketing teams. Does the marketer on the other end of your great work feel like he or she is involved in a new marketing operating system for brands? Or is that just from your end and how you treat people and creative and strategy and insight and planning?

AT So, I hope that clients feel like they’re part of the team.

MC Would they recognise it as the same as or… But it seems to be quicker and smarter or do they feel like it’s a new OS?

AT That’s a very good question I hope that they do, certainly the feedback we’ve got has been that it feels different. I guess even things like… so everything’s there on Slack, everything’s open, everything’s transparent. So, all our clients are seeing all our conversations about that and are coming to things like that.

So, I mean, I don’t want to say it feels like a community but it kind of feels a bit more like a commercial community. And I think that’s good.

AT And I think the same questions are still there which is, you know, what’s my brand, where does it live, what platforms, what kind of content, how do I measure. I mean, they’re the same old questions, you know, you may be pulling on different insights and different technologies. But in that respect there’s a lot of stuff which hasn’t changed.

MC And do you want to change advertising the way it works or do you not care as long as Fawnbrake is doing well? Do you have an ambition to see this feeling of frustration with the old and experimentation with the new flood Charlotte Street [?] or?

AT So, I’d love to give people courage because I think most of the time there’s a bunch of entrepreneurial people who kind of want to do something but it feels scary. And so many people have come up to me and said, God, you’re so brave. And I’m like actually there’s nothing brave in it, it was just purely self interest which is I looked around and there wasn’t anywhere I wanted to work.

MC Coming to the end of the podcast, Amelia, we have three simple questions that we ask at the end for everyone. What’s your number one frustration with marketing right now?

AT I think I’m frustrated that marketing is everybody’s whipping boy. So, when it goes wrong it’s always marketing’s fault. And but I guess maybe that’s always been the way. But I do think that marketing ends up getting blamed for everything that goes wrong.

MC If you weren’t a marketer you would be a…?

AT Teacher.

MC Nice, and finally your most despised marketing buzzword and why?

AT Oh, God, there’s so many. I really dislike side hustle. I just think it just oozes just…

MC Smugness?

AT Oh, everything and also like a side hustle what does it even mean?

MC Thank you for your time, Amelia, it’s always a pleasure.

AT Thank you Mark.

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That’s all for this episode of Get Simple.

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I’ve been your host Mark Choueke, thanks for joining me.




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