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Agency Founders: Jonathan Emmins

To read the original interview, head to Float for the interview published 8th June 2020 by Michael Freedman.

Tell us about your agency.

We’re Amplify. We’re a brand experience agency. We join the dots between people, brands, and culture.

What made you decide to set up shop?

Creative frustration and a desire to do things better (even if we didn’t know how). For context, several Amplify partners and I used to work at an early proto-experiential agency. We had great camaraderie there, despite a leadership and management team that wasn't particularly nice to any of us.

What's the story behind your name?

We create big ideas, experiences, campaigns, and platforms designed to be "amplified" at every touchpoint and across the entire marketing mix.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when you first launched?

When you start your business, you need clients. Simple as that. Without business, you aren’t a business.

When I started the agency, I had three previous clients who, for various reasons, had encouraged me to set up on my own. Neal Southwell, my now CFO, told me he had put my forecast back eight months. I thanked him but said I didn’t need it as I had client commitments. It turns out, I did need that buffer — two of the clients took over 12 months to come on board, and one never did! That was fairly stressful at the time, but it made me go out and broaden my client base and opportunities, which in turn made the business stronger. As Neal pointed out, that crucial first 8 to 12 months can discourage some entrepreneurs from setting up their own business. Not everyone has the appetite or the stomach for it.

I, for one, certainly doubted myself during that period and was lucky that he and Anton (our now CEO) believed in me when I didn’t.

What does a typical project look like at Amplify?

It shouldn't look the same. My biggest fear is having a house style. A Nike AirMax Day for Melbourne's creative communities needs to be very distinct from Facebook's F8 developer conference in San Jose. We avoid this by using different mixes and blends of talent in the office while mixing up teams of external creative collaborators, who often come from the very communities our clients are trying to engage.

What we do hope for is a constant with all our work. Our ECD, our mantra from Jeavon Smith, is: "Simple, innovative and makes the audience feel something."

Do you work on any internal projects? How do you balance those with your paid client work?

Everyone should have personal projects, but the lines blur, and I see it the other way around too. Whether it's a passion project like Young Blood or any one of our client campaigns, it's a win-win.

Can you tell us a little bit more about Young Blood?

Launched in 2016 and regularly updated, Young Blood is Amplify's ongoing deep-dive into the hope, fears, and realities of growing up in the world today.

While Amplify deals with a breath of audiences, it's always the younger audiences we look to for inspiration, creativity, collaboration, and to see what's next. Our social mission is "to connect with, enable, and champion young creative talent" from all walks of life. Young Blood is part of this mission.

Yes, it makes our work better, but we also feel this audience gets a hard time, whether it's through the legacy they've inherited, or by being described in the media as "snowflakes", "robots", and "enfeebled youth." It simply doesn't tally with what we've seen as a positive and pragmatic set of individuals, and Young Blood serves as a platform for their voices can be heard.

You've got offices in London, Sydney, and Los Angeles. What are some benefits of having a footprint on multiple continents?

We think globally, but as a culturally driven agency, we're always grounded in local nuance. A lot of our clients are global brands, and we're often working with them at a central and global level. Typically 55–60% of our work is outside the UK, but for the first 10 years, everything ran through the London office. In 2018, we set up in Sydney, and an LA office followed at the end of 2019.

There are three factors we look for when we set up a new office: Firstly, lead talent. Both offices are headed up by longstanding Amplifers from our London office and ready for the next challenge. Secondly, we need client demand requesting us to be in that territory. Finally, and most crucially, we carefully consider the market. There are a lot of good agencies in the world. So we really question whether we are needed and how can we can make a difference.

And yes, there is a lot of collaboration between the three offices. That's the exciting world we live in! We use a blended model—best-in-class talent on the ground, but with access to all the people and specialists in the London hub. As Sydney and LA are growing, they are developing their own strengths.

What are some of the differences when your client is an established brand versus a startup?

We're lucky enough to work for some of the most progressive and forward-thinking brands all over the world. It's worth noting brands can grow quickly. Airbnb was founded in 2009, Spotify in 2006, and Google in 1997. Relatively speaking, these are three young brands. Every client has similarities and differences, and they are at various stages and trajectories.

Working across a breadth of brands helps inform us how we tackle constantly evolving brands and business challenges in whatever life stage they are at. When the agency started 10 years ago, we were applying our culture-first approach to predominantly youth-focused B2C brands, including Nike, Converse, Red Bull, and PlayStation.

Now, techniques and tactics previously reserved for hard-to-teach and influential youth audiences are just as relevant and accepted for other audiences; for example, older or B2B audiences that have become equally adept at filtering out messages they don't perceive as relevant.

Have you ever turned down a project because it didn’t fit with what you do well or it went against what you believe in?

Yes. As an agency, you’re defined by the good work you do. But equally you are defined by the work you choose not to do. Having integrity and the ability to turn down the wrong kind of work is key.

Does music play an important role in your work?

A commonality between the team is their interests and passions, all of which make our work stronger. Music is a shared passion, but it's also a broad church, as we see from fights over the office stereo or the allocation of DJ slots when we're out.

Music and sport are two of the biggest passions, but they're hotly contested and brand saturated. Our campaign approach is to understand the target audiences and their passions and find cultural spaces to bring them together with brands. The brand needs a right to be there, a clear point of view, and to add genuine value.

Are there any technology trends that you're excited about using in your work?

I firmly believe the only time you think about technology is when it isn't working. The rest of the time, it's just enabling you to get on with your life. Jamie Davies, Amplify's Head of Innovation, nails it when he says: "Don't worry about the innovation… just think about what you want your audience to feel. The tech is just an invisible helper." Easy for him to say when he's got a background in both the agency and product sides!

While COVID-19 has laid down a number of challenges, one of the (few) positives is that it has created an expedited opportunity for all of us to push things forward; to find innovative, exciting, authentic and helpful solutions that have total relevance now; and to build the platforms and formats that take us forward into what comes next.

By necessity, brands are having to be brave and, consequently, some amazing creativity is coming out. A lot of our clients' campaign objectives and messages remain the same, but we are using new methods and channels to deliver them.

Have you worked on any cool projects lately that you're particularly proud of?

That's like asking me to pick my favourite child. They're all special and unique in their own ways and labours of love.

We recently won a couple of Grand Prix awards, so I should probably mention those. One was from The Drum for our work for Airbnb on "Night At...The Louvre", an event for two people that traveled the world with over 2,700 press and broadcast hits in 90 countries. Our recent launch for Google Pixel 3 "Curiosity Rooms" won 7 awards at Campaign's Experience Awards, including the Grand Prix. Check them both out at weareamplify.com.

If you could wake up tomorrow and start your agency over, what would you do differently?

There's nothing I would do differently. It's all been part of the journey that's got us to where we are.

The one area I would counsel to think carefully about is time. It's the most precious commodity, so think wisely about how you spend it. Making time for people and building relationships is so important, as 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. The one question we all ask ourselves to focus on is, "Will this make Amplify stronger?".

How do you measure progress as an agency? How do you know that you’re on the right track?

The culture of the agency and the quality of the work we produce are inextricably linked. We pride ourselves on being a home for creative people and clients. We know we're only as good as the talented individuals that call Amplify home.

We use Amplify's founding values to benchmark ourselves, our team, and our work: We are fuelled by curiosity. We are creatively brave. We are culturally connected. We are executionally excellent. We are Amplify.

Good and happy people = inspirational work and happy clients. We've been lucky enough to win a few awards of late (including Campaign's Brand Experience Agency of the Decade), but we feel awards should come as a byproduct or in recognition of good culture and good work. They shouldn't become the primary motivation or focus.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering starting their own creative agency?

1.) Do it for the passion and the purpose, not the money. Always remember why you started 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 works. There have been plenty of times when we have walked away from lucrative jobs that would have taken us away from our path.

2.) 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 one that you'll often hear from us. It represents the yin and yang of the business: the studio and the live team. Without broader trust in place on the ground, you can't push the creative boundaries.

3.) Be generous and collaborative. I'm a strong believer in karma. Even if you aren't, surely it's better to be kind and helpful than not? 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.