Chris Friend is the Managing Director of Iris Amsterdam. Having arrived in central Amsterdam in 2010, Iris has rapidly grown into a fully integrated agency. They predominately work with global clients including Heineken, Sonos, Adidas, MINI and most recently gained partnership with Uber.
What’s your day to day role Iris Amsterdam?
It’s really about making sure the business remains successful for the key stakeholders in the business. For the employees, the clients and the shareholders ; are we delivering real value to all those people?
Sometimes people forget that one of the three gets forgotten. Our assets are our people and those people need to be happy and successful and that’s what makes us successful.
You’ve been at Iris for 8 years now, what was your first role when you joined the company?
I joined the company in London on the 1st June 2010 and I was helping on the Sports accounts with Adidas. There was a need to make redundancies at the time and I assumed I would be one of those people that would be let go as I had no notice period having just started.
So, I went to my then boss and said ‘look I know this is going to happen, why don’t you let me find a new job and I’ll stay professional’.
The Chairman took me for lunch and proposed the idea of moving to start up the agency in Amsterdam. I didn’t even know we had an office there at the time. He managed to convince me, with a 7-month pregnant wife to leave my home, all my London contacts and give it a shot. My wife and I eventually came around to it, I started working remotely and within the space of 2 months we had moved out to Amsterdam and haven’t looked back since!
In the spirit of entrepreneurism, on paper it looks insanity and all my friend’s and parents agreed. But I thought to myself, when are you going to get the chance that your wife is going on maternity leave, so she’s got a job guaranteed, everyone speaks the language. I’ve also had the desire to run my own agency and someone else had already invested the money, so all I needed to do was build the business. I saw it as very low risk opportunity.
Had it gone horribly wrong, I would have just moved back to London and in an interview, I would have had an amazing story to tell.
What did you study at University?
European Business Administration with French at the University of Wolverhampton.
I was a fairly poor student, I would spend the winters in the Alps and the summers in the mountains. I’ve always believed in doing things as opposed to the theory. I remember failing my accounting exam and now having had to run a profit and loss I really understand it all. I guess when you have skin in the game, it gives you an incentive to learn.
Have you always been quite entrepreneurial?
As a teenager I wanted to run an agency.
In this industry you don’t need to be academically brilliant, you don’t need a First from Oxford, your dad doesn’t need to be head of the bank to get ahead, you just need to have a bit of smarts.
Iris Amsterdam has shown YOY growth commercial and creatively. As the business has grown, how easy or difficult has it been to keep it operating in line with the vision you had for it?
The founders of Iris spoke to me about the triangle of truth. This was about people, profile and product (with profit in the middle). We would think about a potential client and ask ‘are they going to make us famous?’ ‘is it going to make us happy?’ ‘are we going to make work that we’re really proud of?’.
So when I came out to Amsterdam I wanted to build an agency where people loved working at, great clients wanted to work with and felt that if you get the people part right, they’ll be the ambassadors for the business and the clients will see and feel that. When we first started we were a real scrappy start-up, I remember the router was tapped to the wall. There would be days where we thought do we need to start selling furniture to be able to pay the bills. It was brilliant fun looking back, but it’s a very different business than now.
The phase was very cut and thrust, really entrepreneurial and aggressive start-up culture, but very bumpy and scary. In that phase, you don’t want employees you want people who want to build something. The second phase, is where you give the business a solid foundation for the future. This is where you build a lifestyle business, one that would support 15 employees, turning over a decent amount of money and making a reasonable margin. Once you get there, you need a slightly different vision which is about making sure the process becomes a tool for you.
We had to re-educate our clients and tell them to pay proper rates for great work. It was almost a re-launch. We had to have DMCs with our clients. Now we’re in third phase. This is about really building progress, structure and reputation. To be seen as a world-class agency in a world-class creative city.
“Find them, be clear on where you’re going and then get the hell out of their way. Because they’ll take you there much quicker than you can.”
You always compare the suits as entrepreneurs with how they have to manage the financials, to creatives and managing external stakeholder relationships with clients and suppliers. What would you say are the top three tips for someone looking to start their own business?
Avoid being the smartest person in the room. When I started I was the most senior account handler, the creative director, the finance guy and I’m not really superb at any of them. Pretty quickly I tried to find people who were or would be better than me. So hire for your weaknesses and be comfortable with people being better at their job.
Just go for it. The risk is pretty low in a service business as the overhead can be almost nothing. If it fails, you probably haven’t really risked a great deal. It will probably be more emotional than financial, but you’ve learnt something amazing which you’ll bring with you to your next job.
You have to be prepared to work harder than you’ve ever imagined. It’s not just the long hours but you never seem to switch off. You wake up in the middle of the night because you forgot to do that thing, your clients don’t care if you’re on holiday or not.
You have to be really honest with the people that you care about. I was fortunate enough that my wife had run her own business before and so when we came to Amsterdam she said I could be 100% committed to the business for a year and then we’ll regroup at the end of the year to see if we can do it again.
She’s been so supportive and when I’m not at work, I have to be 100% focused on the family. This means work life balance takes on a new meaning.
What business does your wife run?
She used to run a graphic design studio.
What are the key characteristics that would make an individual become a good ROI?
That’s a great question. It’s always about entrepreneurism and you need people who can demonstrate that they can think laterally and have a desire to change and make something. We don’t really look for employees we look for team members. If someone’s first questions are around working hours and salary, they’re probably not for us.
The other thing I look for is integrity. Will someone do what’s best for the business and the client even if it means exposing themselves to having made a mistake.
On the topic of building a team - what does it take to be a good leader?
Oh god, I wish I knew. Someone said to me once that the one thing you need to be a leader is followers. I think really good people are infectious. And sometimes that’s just energy. All those people who are really smart, you want to think, “I want to be near that.” All those people who have charisma, you want to be close to them. I think that’s what you’re looking for for leaders, that kind of personality that is just infectious.
I read somewhere recently that the top 15 most productive countries included Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. Amsterdam ranked 9th in this article published this year. I think it’s interesting to see how different culture’s work. E.g. in Germany over time is frowned upon and in France they tend to take a full hour of lunch. Whereas in London most people grab a sandwich and eat at their desks. What do you do to encourage your team’s productivity here in Amsterdam?
The Dutch culture is quite European, so there is a culture of taking an hour lunch break, work-life balance is incredibly important here. What we we try to do is build a real team mentality. So if we’re all aiming at the same thing and we’re all enjoying doing it because we’re supporting one another and in it together, I think productivity goes up. A tradition from Iris, historically, is to have squads: we’ve got a sports squad, a culture squad, and a smile squad. The smile squad almost always descends to a pub. For sports squad, actually at the moment it’s too hot, but we had a picnic at the park that was sports-based recently. Culture squad takes us out and tries to keep people inspired with their creativity. Once a month we have an agency get together.
What really happens is, first of all, we’re able to be very open with our communication. Secondly, it’s amazing how quickly you get to the truth. You know, people will tell you stuff or you’ll get the sense of whether they think the work’s good or not, whether the pitch process has been good or not. It’s really valuable to get that measure.
When landing your clients or during the pitch process, how do you get clients to see your value?
The pitch process for me is too one-sided. Your job is to make sure whoever’s pitching has an amazing day. What we try and do is make sure we have regular, frequent contact throughout the process to be able to stretch and test ideas and to try and get clients to spend time with us. Then work really really really hard to convert the client.
“Hard work beats talent 95% of the time. If you know the client and understand their business, they’ll respond positively. “
In terms of new business and networking, what tips can you give around finding new business and the initial stages for people who are starting out and want to get more clients?
I mean I hate the new business process, the networking. I try to go to as few as I possible can because networking events are full of people trying to do the same thing, and it’s not really real. What I think works well for us is, first of all, make sure everyone in your company understands what you’re about and what you do.
As the leadership of the business, we need to be really sure on what we do. Being able to have this elevated pitch pretty clear, kinda sticks in people’s minds.
“The other thing is that reputation really matters. Being able to be visible, making sure clients are speaking positively about you, we spend a lot of effort and time to make sure our clients are happy. Because, actually, it’s not me talking to the marketing director of the agency that matters, it’s my clients talking to the marketing director that matters. “
On the topic of finding balance, what tips do you have to stop overburning?
I think one of the things that took us a while to get right was really understanding what it took to do a given job, the scope of work and what it actually takes to do the given work. I think when we started we actually undercut clients. In the second phase of our business, we started to put in those measures. Then you realise you are wildly wrong. What we go better at was having honest conversations with the clients and not being afraid to be honest about the prices. I think making sure that people are aware of that metric, the difference between what you quote and what you spend, is really important.
What do you think has taught you to be this driven?
My parents are very good at believing that we should go and do the stuff that is the most interesting to you. They said to do something you’re interesting in, whatever that may be, and as long as you put hard work into it, it will work out. I had an extremely stern head master at school, and he really instilled the value of hard work. I wasn’t a particularly good student, and I’m not massively academically bright in context to a twin brother who got an offer from Oxford. But I did realise that hard work really really pays off.
“A guy once told me that you should act like the CEO of your own life, and I thought that was a really interesting phrase. Turn up prepared. Do the work on the weekend for the meeting on Monday. No one’s as interested in my career development as I am, so why would I rely on anyone else? “
Which failure have you learnt the most from?
Two to three years ago, we had a pitch opportunity, and the client said they really want to push the boundaries of creative as hard as you can. We really felt like this would be an interesting opportunity, so we went for it. We went ballistic. We went mad. We came in with four concepts that were really out there, presented it to the clients. At the end of the session, the clients said we don’t need to continue with the pitch process. We pushed it too far. It was really bad, but I remember thinking afterwards that the thing we should take from this is that context is everything. In my mind, when someone says “push creativity” that’s in the context of being in the creative industry and agency. But in the client’s world, pushing creativity is what we might think as a small step or a lateral step. That’s why it’s really important to spend time with potential clients. We don’t know the context of their lives, of their brand world.
Four years later, I was in a huge meeting and the lady I pitched to made me stand on stage while she told the story – she’d been telling this story for years. Straight after the meeting, one of her colleagues talked to me and we picked up their business without a pitch. So sometimes going big and doing something memorable works.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, what do you do to get back on track?
I’m a huge fan of talking a walk. Just getting out of the office and changing perspectives is really important. If I had time, I would cycle, run, or ski if I can. I’m fortunate of having a really good team around me, and it could really help to have a conversation with someone. The other thing is that my wife is extremely good at being ranted at. We have an unwritten agreement where if I have a bad day, she would sit on the sofa while I rant and rave, and she nods her head and smiles. It’s a really good way of getting rid of the anger.
If you had to gift someone a book, what would it be?
I would go with Julia Donaldson’s, The Gruffalo. Amazing kid’s book. It is a genuinely brilliant story. Kid books are a really good way of reminding yourself about good quality storytelling, about repetition, about simplicity. There’s also always something joyous about it.
What does your morning routine look like?
Up at 7, get the baby up, and then normally my son would also be up. We try to have breakfast together as a family and then, brilliantly, my wife would walk my son to school, which takes about fifteen minutes. So I get fifteen minutes with my daughter, which is really nice. Then I have the horror of an eleven minute commute across the park on my bike to the office. When I get into work, power up the computer, make a cup of tea. Then I try to spend the first fifteen minutes of the day just reminding myself on what’s in my diary and priotising. And then on with the day.
If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere, what would it say and why?
My mum once said something that is really important to live by. She said to me, “Don’t try and keep up with the James. You are your own James.” I think it’s a really interesting point. People get really unhappy about comparing themselves to other people. There’s always someone who has a bigger house, bigger car, whatever it is that gets to you. I think if people stopped comparing themselves to everybody else and remembering where they came from what they enjoy, what gets them up in the morning, what keeps them content, it will be much better.
We live in the most beautiful city in Europe, I would say. We have been able to grow a successful growing business with significant number of employees. I get to do work that I’ve always wanted to do. I get to work with the most talented people I’ve met. And, you know, I get to cycle home in 11 minutes to hangout with my amazing family. What’s not to love?
3 August, 2019