The heart of your company

The following blog is made up of the best bits of editorial, articles and blogs that I’ve come across in my 38 years of working life, 30 of which I spent as my own boss at a very successful Creative Agency.

I thank all those that have inspired me to make (and write!) my own observations on these subjects. I now want to switch my focus to helping the next generation find the success that I did, and hopefully avoid a few of the pitfalls I didn’t!

At the heart of a great strategy are company values. They are, quite simply, what make you who you are.

Values are not something that a marketer makes up, or something that sounds good to your employees. It’s what you live and breathe. In essence, it’s your ‘brand’.

They need to be nurtured and celebrated. They are the glue between your company’s teams and they’re also what your customers rely on when they interact with you.

Values need constant attention to ensure that nothing drifts or changes which could have a damaging effect, or even a terminal one.

When something does go wrong, it can be spectacularly bad news for businesses, with harmful effects for your customers, your employees and your stakeholders. The banking collapse of ten years ago is a prime example to take note of here.

Often values come second to profit - but they absolutely shouldn’t. The business culture in such countries as Japan, China and India is to have companies which are still based on the values of their founders. These are views which have been held for many years, which in turn build long-term value and longevity. By contrast, choosing to chase the profit instead leads to short-term gains at the expense of long-term prosperity.

I ran a successful creative marketing company for 28 years. There, I generated a culture based on my values. During my time at the agency, I must have turned over a total in the region of £35 million, whilst also offering employment to 40 people at a time along the way.

During those 28 years, I established a number of key values and practices:

• I never had contracts with clients - they could leave when they liked.
• My word was my bond.
• I always did what I said I was going to do.
• I tried my very best at all times for our clients.
• I treated their money as though it were my own.
• I nurtured a team that had the same focus as me.

I have also always held very strong values about supporting young people. Out of the team of 40, well over half had started their careers at Strawberry as either a graduate or an apprentice. I supported them with the belief that if they held the right attitudes and mindset, their skills would catch up soon enough.

If one left, I would take great pride in the knowledge that they had started their careers with us. It felt as though we were creating an army of advocates and ambassadors for the company. To this day, I’m still in touch with many of them.

We even set up a smaller sister company called StrawberryToo, that only employs first job graduates and apprentices. Needless to say, in the three years it has been operating it’s been a tremendous success.

Our culture was projected outside the organisation too:

• We supported local, business-focussed organisations - either with sponsorship or physical support.
• We supported charities and schools with cash, mentoring and pro bono work.
• We provided 48 weeks of work experience to secondary school students aged between 15 and 17.
We provide paid internships to graduates.

Did it work? Yes. Strawberry was and still is the largest agency to come out of Hull and East Yorkshire for 30 years. It’s grown in every year of its 28-year existence, and has made a profit every year (with the exception of 2007).

I’ve still got good relationships with most of the other great agencies in the area, a region in which we earned respect and a reputation in line with our values which are now ingrained.

Finally, as had long been planned, I handed over the business to two directors that had been with the company, one for over 20 years and the other for over 10. I felt that the culture I had developed in the team allowed this to happen seamlessly and left the new shareholders with the best possible opportunity to have the same success I had personally achieved.

I hope that Strawberry continues to be curated and nurtured for the next generation. If this happens then I’ll be absolutely delighted.

BusinessJonathan Leafe