Isobel founder Paul Houlding on selling food and managing talent
"I don't sit here worrying about the whole industry, I sit here worrying about us," says Paul Houlding, co-founder and chief executive of five-year old ad agency Isobel. "But we're relatively insulated. We don't have loans, we don't have an overdraft; we have cash in the bank. So a lot of the issues that are confronting a lot of small businesses are not necessarily affecting us at the moment. Innovating is key. You have to keep growing or you die."
Positive speaking from a man whose industry is beleaguered by the recession. According to figures compiled by the World Advertising Research Center (WARC) on behalf of the Advertising Association, spending on advertising in the final quarter of 2008 was 9.6 per cent lower than in the same period of the previous year. Colin Macleod, research director at WARC, says: "The fourth quarter was the worst of the year, and was tied in with the arrival of the recession. The quarter is comparable to the levels seen in the economic downturn of 1991."
Clients are cutting back on spend, confirms Houlding, because the prevailing attitude is what he describes as 'in anticipation of hard times'. People aren't quite sure what the future holds. Consequently, says Houlding, "you need to be delivering more, you need to be hungrier. There is money out there. Our agency is designed to be flexible, so we give clients payment options." If they want to work on a project basis, rather than pay a monthly retainer, so be it.
He certainly doesn't intend to let this recession adversely affect the entrepreneurial spirit that he and his co-founders have strived so hard to embed in the agency. Having worked at Saatchi & Saatchi, which he describes as the embodiment of entrepreneurialism, Houlding understands that great ideas drive business. In turn, he hires people that have a 'going for it' attitude. "We started this company to be exciting and entrepreneurial," says Houlding. "The key is employing the right talent in the first place. We have stringent criteria—we take a long time to employ. Once or twice we've hired the wrong people and it's a nightmare to live with."
Isobel turns over £4m and Houlding says that, while it's not all plain sailing, Isobel has an advantage-around 80 per cent of its clients, which include Bernard Matthews, Kettle Chips and Pizza Express, are in the food industry. "It's not a bad place to be because people still need to eat."
So if the recession doesn't keep him awake at night, what does? "The most difficult thing about running an agency is that, no matter how talented people are, they look to you to inspire them every day and sometimes it's a nightmare. You feel like shit, you've got 10 million problems on your plate, and somebody wants you to inspire them," says Houlding. "Managing talent is the most difficult thing as we have nothing else—we are ideas and people."
Posted 23 March 2009 : Director.co.uk