‘Advertising is a strange way to make a living,” muses Pete Martin, founder and strategy director at creative agency AlwaysBeContent.
A Perth native who cut his teeth at then-industry giant Rex and Stewart in the 1980s, Martin established his own creative venture in 2016 after ascertaining that the traditional marketing agency model was “broken”.
The time-honoured chain of command with its checks, balances and middle-managers is clunky, wasteful and outdated, says Martin, as he recalls the first day of his creative career, walking in to meet a colleague in a grey suit smoking a pipe – a scene which could have been taken out of Mad Men. The hierarchy and culture he has created in his own company is designed to be the opposite; slick, agile and efficient.
AlwaysBeContent is founded on the principles of a holacratic organisation: a self-organising team where individuals are empowered to make their own decisions. With clients including British Gas and Scottish Water, the dozen-strong company, which also has a presence in London and Germany, has carved out a significant reputation in the three years since its inception.
“We do more business with a smaller team than other agencies,” he says. “I don’t want to sound like one of those old-timers who always criticise the ad agency model, but it hasn’t really changed since the 50s and 60s. A lot of British businesses have these pyramidic structures which are something to do with the British class system, I think. You end up with people sitting around until someone tells them what to do. Because the world’s getting faster and decisions need to be made quicker it doesn’t really work if authority to act has to come up and down a chain.”
The need for change had been evident to Martin for some time prior to the launch of ABC, which he established with his wife, Lou Kiddier, and partners, Steve and Jen Kempster.
Born and raised in Perth, Martin’s mother was a local councillor and his father an electrician. Both were “obsessed with education” as a means of giving their children the best chance to progress in life. He attended St Andrews University to study English language and literature, which he jests, is “the most useless degree. I graduated knowing a lot about James Joyce and the Jacobean and not a lot about much else and I needed to make a living so I got a job in advertising out of luck, really.”
The Scottish advertising landscape
This role was with Glasgow-founded agency Rex Stewart, then the biggest advertising agency in Scotland with around 250 staff. It’s a sign of the times, says Martin, to consider that there are probably not much more than double that number working in the creative industry across Scotland nowadays. “One decent-sized agency in New York would have more staff than the Scottish total,” he estimates.
The changing seats of corporate decision making have driven creative budgets down south of the border as institutions such as Clydesdale Bank, TSB and Bank of Scotland have come under group ownership. “There’s the guts of five to ten million in marketing budget all run out of Scotland. There’ll be nothing like that kind of money spent by financial institutions in the Scottish market now.”
Martin progressed to become one half of a creative team (“essentially a guy who can’t draw coupled with a guy who can’t write”) and moved on to communications consultancy Baillie Marshall, which led marketing for big name accounts such as TSB. It wasn’t long before the hankering to start his own venture took hold and he and colleague Rob Morrice became founding partners of Smarts Advertising in 1990. The business enjoyed a decade of growth and the pair sold Smarts to Incepta, which later became Media Square, in 2000, while continuing to work for the new, enlarged group.
In 2003 Martin moved to New York as senior vice president and creative director of group agency The Gate NY. His task was to turn around the failing operation, which had been losing money in the wake of the 11 September attacks. “My experience in New York was not fun,” says Martin. “I’d always worked in agencies that were doing well and when we ran Smarts it was our baby, so what we said went. When I turned up in New York, I was an outsider. There was a lot of resistance to change.” Martin converted the division, which served Wall Street heavyweights Lehmans and Jefferies, “quite painfully” into the group’s most profitable office, but never fully adjusted to the American way of doing business, which he describes as perpetuating a “blame culture”.
This working environment may have added to his drive to create his own transparent, team-orientated culture. He was inspired by Turn The Ship Around! by L David Marquet, the autobiographical tale of a US Navy commander assigned to the worst performing submarine in the fleet. When the author inadvertently ordered the crew on the USS Santa Fe to carry out an unfeasible task, they promptly set about trying to accomplish his request – knowing it to be impossible – rather than challenging the command. Marquet realised the real reason that the Santa Fe was underperforming was that its crew was blindly following orders, without taking individual ownership. He implemented a regime to give workers the knowledge, control and responsibility to make their own decisions. Martin has emulated this with ABC.
“Most people prefer to make their own decisions as far as I can tell, but it’s not easy,” he says. “Some employees don’t quite believe you at first. The odd thing about the holacratic system is it is self-organised – the golden rule is that you have to make your own decision – but you also have to consult anyone who could be impacted by your decision. If they say no, you’re still allowed to go ahead and do it but you might have to take a step back and think about it more clearly.”
Has he ever felt this was a risk, diminishing responsibility by placing it in the hands of too many employees? “No. If you give someone a job and pay them to do it, why wouldn’t you trust them? If you don’t get to exercise your own judgement, how do you develop it? The old days of the creative department being divorced from the customer and not taking responsibility for their own stuff are over.”
In an increasingly attention-seeking world, Martin stresses that the key to success in marketing, in business and even in politics, is trust. A word which he feels corporations and governments treat “as if it is some magical, elusive thing. Trust is built on the frequency with which you initiate communication on subjects that are of interest to the listener. That’s it.”
Of course, building trust comes more easily in certain sectors than in others. As well as utilities, ABC’s portfolio spans financial institutions (Visa, The Co-operative Bank), hospitality (Park Inn by Radisson) and technology (Sony). For Martin, winning the British Gas account ranks among his biggest achievements, having replaced Ogilvy & Mather, founded by “father of advertising” David Ogilvy – Martin’s hero during his time “as a young ad man”.
In a more recent affirmation, Martin emerged as the Scottish winner of the creative industries prize at EY’s Great British Entrepreneur Awards earlier this month, and will go forward to the organisation’s UK-wide final in November.
He is keen to use his influence to promote the concept of responsible business, something he has also voiced in comment pieces for The Scotsman. He firmly believes that the function of government is caring for the wellbeing and health of the population, which includes providing financial security for its citizens.
“That would underpin your strategy as a government and dictate economic policy,” he says. “But that’s not what’s dictating the idea of leaving Europe. It’s got nothing to do with anything. The idea that that is going to drive the wellbeing and health and financial security of the population is lunacy.”
Martin says that despite “a few maverick businessmen” who support Brexit because they want de-regulation, he finds most businesses “believe in a fair and progressive society”. This is almost a note of caution for companies that have been ignoring, or perhaps simply forgetting, their social impact.
“What’s good for society is good for business,” he concludes. “All of the evidence around ESG [environmental social governance] is that businesses that invest in ESG do a lot better. You’re going to have to sacrifice short-term profit at some point for sustainability. That’s a serious question for every business. They’ll be finding out that if they haven’t invested in their relationship with customers and genuine support for their customers’ lives that trust is going to be in short supply and that’s going to show up in their returns.”