New Gen Bosses: Jonathan Emmins

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New gen bosses: Jonathan Emmins on how he went from handing out free yoghurts to working with the biggest brands. Read the original interview in Screen Shot, originally published December 13th 2019.

New gen bosses is a new series created to guide and inspire more people to go out there on their own, either as new business founders or freelancers. And what better way to do that than to ask the ones who already succeed at it? We want to know about big fuck-ups and even bigger successes, and the risky decisions they had to make along the way. We want to be the last little push you needed.

What pushed you to start on your own?

Creative frustration and a desire to do things better, even if we didn’t know how. As context, myself and a number of the partners at Amplify used to work at an early proto-experiential agency. There was a great camaraderie—in-spite of the leadership and management, who weren’t particularly nice to the team. Coming out of this kind of environment, we wanted to make a welcoming home for creative people and clients.

Work-wise, on a bad day we were giving away lukewarm yoghurt pots at train stations but on a good day, we were working with brands like Orange and PlayStation, trialling brand experience as a channel to drive communications, as opposed to just an activation. We saw that the 30-second TV spot was no longer the be all and end all and saw the opportunity to create ideas, campaigns and brand platforms that could work across multiple channels and be futureproof.

What was the very first thing you needed to do to set everything up?

Clients. Simple as that. Without business, you aren’t a business.

What was the riskiest decision you had to take?

I’m a very cautious and calculated risk-taker. I study the odds. As a creatively driven person, probably the greatest risk might be the briefs and work we’ve turned down, particularly at the times when we could have done with the money.

When I started the agency, I had three previous clients who, for various reasons, had encouraged me to set-up on my own. When I started, Neal Southwell, my now CFO, told me he had put all my forecast back 8 months. I thanked him but said I didn’t need it as I had client commitments. As it transpired I did need that buffer time—two of those clients took over 12 months to come on board, and one never did! At the time that was fairly stressful but it made me go out and broaden my client base and opportunities, which in turn made the business stronger. Also, as Neal points out, that first 8 to 12 months is what separates everyone from setting up their own businesses. Not everyone has the appetite or the stomach for it. I, for one, certainly doubted myself during that period and was lucky that him and Anton (our now CEO) believed in me when at times I didn’t.

What was a skill you didn’t foresee needing that you had to learn?

Public speaking. I’ve always been quietly confident but as a child painfully shy. I’m great in small group situations and even pitches but you end up speaking more publicly as your profile raises. Some people might already be a legend at this but what helped me was finding a way of matching my personal style to bigger audiences.

It’s sometimes difficult to remember not to be shy, as someone who runs a company. I remember hearing from a now friend and client that I was arrogant. From my point of view, I was shy and hadn’t been introduced. Her take was as someone running an agency she didn’t expect shyness from someone in my position. It was a fair point and a good lesson. The thought of being considered arrogant helped me quickly overcome my shyness.

At what moment did you realise that this was going to work out?

To begin with the majority of our clients we worked with were through existing relationships and word of mouth. People we had impressed along the way before setting up Amplify.

We were lucky. We were so busy pitching, creating and delivering work for clients to begin with that we had little time for our own brand beyond building a body of work. We didn’t even have a website until year three. My initial thought was you probably couldn’t do that now, but Uncommon—the amazing creative agency—only have a holding page and their contact details on their website and they don’t seem to be suffering a shortage of briefs!

Anyway, year three was a big moment in the office when we had a call from Honda asking us to pitch to launch the CRZ, a sporty, hybrid coupe. We had all always loved their ‘power of dreams’ philosophy and ended up being their ‘lifestyle communications agency’ off the back of it.

What did you spend your money on?

In many ways, I think you can quickly grow to the size of your fishbowl when it comes to money and end up spending whatever you have. I was lucky and never went without but I grew up in a house where money, at times, was an issue and put stress on my parents. Money doesn’t make you happy, but not having money certainly can make you unhappy. We’re seeing a lot of that now as the gap widens.

So, when I was younger I lived comfortably and modestly. I saved for the business and a house, which was more attainable in London then. My biggest indulgence has been art, seeking out new and interesting artists. For example, when I was in my early twenties, I picked up some Banksys when I was younger for between £50 and £150. With hindsight, I wish I had got a few more! But Banksy was just one of a number of artists that I liked and bought at the time. For the record, I like some of the other just as much, if not more, even if they are still relatively unknown in comparison.

What was your biggest fuck up?

Year two of Amplify, we were a month into running an ongoing ‘Meet the One’ campaign promoting the network and hero package for one of our bigger clients, Three. To showcase Amplify’s work we were chuffed to be asked to take the activation to their main office. Unfortunately, when the top brass looked down from their Maidenhead HQ all they saw was a logo for High School Musical 3 on the centre-piece of the activation, not the pure white ‘Three Bus’ they expected. The lazy customisation bus company couldn’t be arsed to paint over the previous campaign and figured we would never be able to get high enough to see the roof of the bus.

So, probably the best learning from this example would be to surround yourself with the best and most trusted partners and suppliers… cheapest price isn’t always the best value.

What was your biggest success?

Setting up the company right from the start, picking the right talent and team and staying true to that vision throughout. Amplify was founded as a home for creative home and clients—a group of mates wanting to push boundaries and do their best work.

Key to this is not only thinking you’re defined by the good work you do, but also the work you choose not to do. Having the integrity and ability to turn down the wrong kind of work is key. Oh, and we also just won Campaign’s ‘brand experience agency of the decade’, something that I’m really proud of.

What do you know now that you didn’t know then?

Time is the most precious commodity. Think wisely about how you spend it. Making time for people and building relationships is so important. That’s when amazing things happen. However, so is understanding when things are becoming a distraction. As a leadership team, we do so much in a lot of areas—and the one question we all ask ourselves to focus is ‘will this make Amplify stronger?’

What are three tips you would give someone who wants to start on their own?

One: Do it for the passion and the purpose, not the money.

Always remember why you set-up in the first place. You need to be commercial and in command of your numbers, but from what I’ve seen if you just chase the pound signs or get greedy it never seems to work. There have been plenty of times when we have walked away from lucrative jobs that would have taken us away from our path. Walk away from anything that’s a distraction. It’s easy to quickly become the antithesis of what you set up to be.

Two: Be exciting but consistent.

We love that Amplify is leading from the front creatively and always pushing into new areas. We’re equally proud that we’re seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’. The phrase ‘the idea is only as good as the execution’ is a phrase you’ll often hear from us. It represents the yin and yang of the business—The Studio and the Live team. Without the broader trust in place on the ground, you can’t push the creative boundaries.

Three: Be generous and collaborative.

I’m a strong believer in karma. Even if you don’t, surely it’s a better life to be kind and helpful. Always make time to talk to people. Give more than you take. Remember how lucky you were that people helped you on the way up. Pass the baton on.