Claire is one of the six founding partners of Iris Worldwide and we find out how they started back in 1999.
Iris has built the reputation as a leading independent agency with offices in London, Amsterdam, Singapore, Sydney, New York and more. They predominately work with global clients including adidas, Starbucks, Samsung and Heineken.
Introduce yourself and tell us about your role at Iris.
I’ve been at Iris from day one and have worked in various roles over the years. My role today as CMO means I’m in charge of the agency brand and marketing which in this context is b2b marketing.
I’m trying to attract prospective clients and I’m also the lead for all of our new business activities. This means managing the new business pipeline from the initial content we put out in the market, to making sure we’re on the radar of any prospective clients, right through to if that client contacts that agency and has a speculative brief that they want us to look at. I also manage the pitch process to ensure that we optimize our conversion rate.
I hear you were the first employee of Iris?
Yes, I was employee number one. There were six of us who were working together and wanted to start our own agency. At the time, I thought it was the most exciting opportunity that anyone could be offered so I was first to hand in my notice. I then had to find an office space and persuade friends to underwrite our equipment lease for printers and computers.
When the client started briefing us, I had to be the face of Iris and work with the one creative we had at the time to create our marketing campaigns.
Where were you working before?
An agency called IMP which doesn’t exist anymore, but it was part of the DMB & B group, known as Leo Burnett now.
So you were the first one to hand in your notice, who was next?
Ian, our Global CEO was actually one of the last ones to join. You can only afford to pay employees if you’ve got the income coming in. It’s the classic case of balancing work load coming in and the people payroll. We all needed to earn a salary, but we couldn’t support all six of us from the word go.
I’d like to say it was a carefully orchestrated plan that rolled out exactly how we envisioned it, but the reality was that I said I was going first and the briefs started rolling in and at times it was a bit of a scramble to get enough staff to generate the work for the client. After a year and a half, the six of us were all in place.
It was also a covert operation, we were trying to do it without anyone at the current agency finding out. So, we couldn’t all leave at once. Each of us left one after another all giving a different excuse as to why.
Whilst the others were still at IMP, were they working on Iris in the evenings and on weekends?
They were involved in terms of helping us make decisions about what we wanted to invest in and where we wanted to be. But they couldn’t actually physically do anything to help service the client. I can remember phoning Stewart and Ian and they’d be at their other jobs and I would say ‘I know you can’t talk right now but you just have to say yes or no to the questions I’m going to ask you’.
I definitely felt out of my depths at times and it was frustrating because I couldn’t get the support that I needed until the evenings or the weekends, by then it was often too late.
What path did you take after University?
I went back home to Portsmouth after University. I studied Marketing at Southampton as I always knew I wanted to be at an agency. While I was at University I was looking through the graduate applications processes for companies like Saatchi and Saatchi. I didn’t think I was going to be able to stand out in that process, as I’d come out of University with a 2.2 and they wanted the crème of the crop in terms of graduates.
I realised I would have to take a different route and work my way into the industry. So, I took a job at a telemarketing fulfilment house that was helping agencies like ours. During my time here, I started to learn how the below the line industry functioned and about what agencies expected from suppliers and therefore what might be required from you as an employee.
I worked there for about a year and a half and then I started building up a file of all of the agencies that I wanted to work at (IMP being one of them). I then started writing speculative letters and made an advert of myself.
An advert of yourself? Please elaborate…
I literally created a poster with a cut off return slip at the bottom with a pre-paid envelop attached. There was a picture of me in the middle and it said who I was and what I wanted and if you want to find out more you needed to fill in the details.
The client services director at IMP at the time, replied and asked me to come in for an interview. I then went through this torture of 6 months waiting whilst sending him birthday and Christmas cards. I was 22 at the time but I think it taught me good new business and life skills.
I’m a firm believer in creating your own luck and I think if you’ve got the guts to ask and the tenacity to keep asking, stick with it.
As the global CMO, which new business pitch process did you learn the most from?
I think you learn from the ones which don’t go well. As in life, you’ll learn the most from the mistakes that happen, as long as you’re humble enough to accept that you need to learn from it. The difficult thing about pitching is that each pitch, brief and client is different and they’ll be a lot of factors in place that don’t reveal themselves throughout the pitch process.
You can only orchestrate your own performance in the team and deal with the facts of what you do know. You have to make sure the team is operating in a way that will deliver a good performance. It’s like a football coach trying to get the best performance out of people within a limited time period. It’s not always easy as pitches are done outside of the day job and you’re asking for a lot of personal sacrifice in terms of time spent away from family and friends in order to do the pitch.
The thing I can do above everything else is be very clear with people about what the brief is and what their roles are. Remove any of the barriers that crop up along the way that would prevent the team from performing and then support and encourage them.
A lot of effort, time and money is invested into pitches so when there are the unfortunate cases of pitches lost, how do you make sure you learn as much as possible?
I think it’s quite important to do a wash up with the team before you know the result, because people will have a gut feel around what went well and what didn’t. They’ll change that opinion once they know the result. I think it’s quite helpful to get everyone to jot down (warts and all) what went well. Usually when you aggregate those, you start to see a common theme coming through.
But also, as the more independent observing person in the pitch process, I can work out what’s just personality driven and what were the things that could have been worked out better. It’s helpful to get the team to talk about it and if everyone’s honest with themselves and each other, then usually going through that cathartic process will help them bond again and be quite a strong unit. Often when you’re really in the thick of it you can’t see what’s going on. You’re just trying to cope with it and you’re completely blinded.
“It’s only once you’ve given people a chance to step back; because what you’re encouraging people to do is analyze their own performance, to reflect on it and come up with their own answers” - Claire
If you can do that in work then you can do it outside too. I think it’s something most people should be taking the time to stop and do anyway.
Something that is always said at Iris is that new business is everyone’s business and it’s not just the responsibility of the Managing Partners. What tips can you give for mastering the art of networking?
Rather than mastering networking I think what people need to do is to stay curious and realise that they need to expose themselves to other stimulus outside of the company that they work for on an ongoing basis. It’s not enough to just have a job, perform really well at it and then go home. You’re closing yourself off to things that could lead to your next job, spark an interest or create an idea for a client.
Just the sheer number of events that go on in London, even if you did something new once a month, you’d learn a lot. I also think you’re better off going alone, because if you go with your friend you’ll just stand there and talk to your friend because it feels really uncomfortable to be in a room where you don’t know anybody. If you go by yourself, you’ll be forced to chat to someone.
I felt the same feeling when I went travelling to South America on my own last year. I would have had a different experience had I gone with a friend.
This was the same for me when I went traveling around South East Asia, New Zealand and Fiji. I did loads of things that I wouldn’t have dreamed of.
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?I think it's been very difficult and your own vision for it changes over time. I think when we first started at Iris we were very focused on the culture of the company and we wanted it to be a sort of utopia where everyone wants to work and work's fun all the time. We did actually feel like that, even though we were working incredible long hours, but that's easy when everyone is of the same age and similar in their mindset.
I think as the company has grown, we've become very diverse in terms of the skillsets that we've acquired via acquisitions and organically.
Integrating different points of views, personalities and skillsets is quite difficult. There's a lot of friction and tension created.
A lot of that can be healthy and result in better work but it definitely isn't the tight knit friends that it felt like when we first started but that was probably quite naive and unrealistic and not in line with our commercial objectives. Acquisitions can have a massive impact on the culture, they're not as easy as I thought they would first be.
From an employee perspective, what are the key characteristics that would make an individual become a good ROI?
I think personal attributes and personality traits are the most important thing because what we do isn't rocket science and it's teachable. If someone is enthusiastic and willing to learn you can teach them. What you can't instill into people is a passion for something, an enthusiasm or even a work ethic.
I really think people's willingness to work hard in order to get a result is an important trait. I believe that you're not just lumped with what you're born with. If you really want something in life and work hard enough you'll get it.
Having the right approach to life and the right work ethic are the two building blocks you need.
The rest is pretty easy to pick up!
You need people with open minds and people who are willing to learn and don't think that they know it all. Particularly if it is your business, you feel quite emotional about letting people in.
What would be the one piece of advice you would give to start-ups wanting to make their first hire?
Try to find out as much as you can about a person outside of work so you've got a holistic indication and sense of who they are. I don't think looking at a CV or an interview performance is really indicative. Go out for a drink with them and meet them under a normal circumstance or a slightly stressful circumstance, where their personal skills have to come into play.
What does it take to be a good leader?
I think you need to lead from the front. You can't just tell people to be something. You have to show them. You have to show them what good looks like and what sort of standard you want them to reach and you also have to be that person you want them to be. You want to inspire them as well. If you're not willing to put yourself on the line, push and challenge yourself to see where you can get to then you're not going to be very inspirational.
During the new business and pitch process there are initial screenings and client tissue meetings. What kind of things do you look for when deciding what to showcase in your portfolios to attract the right client? How do you get clients to see your value?
They'll only value it if it's something that they value. You have to find out what it is that they're looking for and probably assume on what it is you think they need. It's a bit of a guessing name. I think you need to be able to show how and what the agency and team can do and how that matches what it is you think they'll value. The hard thing is that they won't make it easy for you.
It'll be hidden in a brief which is about using a load of marketing jargon which is about needing a new TV ad, but that's not really what they want. What they want is a team on hand to give them. So, they'll be a load of things that the client has hidden that are softer. It's about reading between the lines.
Recently Iris went through a new logo and re-branding stage. What things did you do to make the branding have longevity and what made you decide to go through a re-branding phase?
We hadn't touched it for 19 years! It's that saying that the cobbler’s children don't wear any shoes, which is a clear case of us telling our clients day in day out how to look after their brand and then we're not looking after our own. It was well and truly in need of an update. We were starting to get comments from employees, especially when you're recruiting creatives. They've got a strong opinion on stuff like that, they would say I love the company but I’m not sure on the logo. Many companies rebrand when there's a problem or they're going through a business transformation. We didn't have any of those underlying causes, it was a bit of a re-branding face lift.
We had a very consultative process where we involved different employees from different markets. If your people don't like it and don't feel some sort of ownership about how it's created then how are you going to sell it to the outside world.
“Your people are your brand ambassadors and they need to be able to believe in it”
We had various different versions of logos that we presented to some of the partner base. One of the partners, Henry put his hand up and said I absolutely hate all of those, if you give it to me I think we can do something better. Credit to him and Ian (our design director). It took Henry to see something he hated to spur him into action and say I'm going to get my designer on it.
If I was giving advice to anyone I would ask who's your most vocal and has the strongest opinions about what your company should be doing and make sure that you are involve them in the process. They are an influencer within your business and will bring other people on board. If they're passionate about it as well, it's likely that they'll come up with a pretty good answer to the problem.
What has been the biggest risk that you’ve taken throughout your career at Iris and did that pay off?
I started as an account handler running pieces of business and I got the chance to help the team pitch on a piece of government business for the Department of Health for the teenage pregnancy campaign and I felt like I had a lot to bring to that campaign. Having come from Portsmouth which has had high teenage pregnancy rates and had friends who have had babies when they were younger I felt like I could add a lot to that.
Rather than getting people to buy things you were getting people to change their behavior. As I took this on as a piece of business, it involved specialising in partnership marketing. The government's brief to Iris was 'go and brand a load of young cool brands into this campaign and get them to deliver the message to teenagers because they won't listen to us because we're the authoritative government. In a way, I took a risk by choosing to specialise but because I was really passionate about it, I grew it to a £3m piece of business and that was the thing that pushed my career up from an account director to a Managing Partner.
My advice would be that if you find something you love, don't be afraid to specialise because actually these days there's nothing wrong with being a specialist in a particular area.
It takes a certain level of focus, resilience and character in each individual to want to make their mark on the world. What do you think taught you to be this way and what childhood influences have contributed to this?
I think about this in relation to my own children because they’ve had a more privileged upbringing than I have. I’m worried that they will have too much on a plate and I’m not sure where their drive will come from. My drive is obvious, I came from a working-class background and my father was quite hard on me. As much as I hated it at the time, it’s built that resilience in me. I’m still a bit better about it but I do know deep down that I do have him to thank for it.
Then I look at my husband who has come from the flip side and his parents are great and amazing and they never put him on a pedestal and told him he was wonderful but they were so supportive and focused on education and filling him like a sponge. He’s ended up similar to me but we’ve taken very different routes.
We met at Iris and he’s also in marketing. Not everybody who’s success has had a hard childhood and there are certainly people who have had a worst childhood than me. I think even if you’ve got a privilege childhood you need to set yourself goals. You need to do things that you think you might fail at, because you’ll learn from scaring yourself. It will be the fear of wondering if you’re going to be able to do that race or climb that mountain.
I keep trying to put my kids into situations where they’re not quite sure of themselves and give them both positive and negative experiences. So, they feel comfortable with going for it and accept at a young age that they’re not perfect. If you come to terms with that quite young in life then you build that mentality and go for it.
What does the definition of success mean to you?
It’s definitely not material for me. Having a full life and having things outside of work are important to me. I’m quite a goal orientated person and do a load of sports outside of work that are about setting myself impossible races. I really need that to challenge myself and I just want to be able to look back and say I gave it my all no matter what I was doing. I’m lucky enough to be fit and healthy and I never want to waste any time sat around wondering what it was like to do X, Y and X, I just did it.
On a bad day I could look at Iris and think I’ve just given 20 years of my life just to one thing. But I think it’s important for people who want to have kids, that they don’t give up the things that made them who they were before they had children. One day those kids will leave and then who are you?
Obviously, your life changes when you have children but some people use that as an excuse to check out and stop trying. They get to this point in their career where they think ‘I’ve kids now and I can’t really carry on progressing and I haven’t got time to go running and do the things that I love doing’. But you have and you just have to keep trying.
What advice would you give to working mums in terms of juggling work, social life and their children?
It’s knackering but it’s worth it because if you still carry on doing the things that you enjoy as an individual outside of your kids and marriage, then you will still feel like you are ‘I am Claire and I am this person and I’m not just totally dependent on these other things in my life’.
If you’re happy you’ll be a good mum. If you’re happy you’ll be good at work and it will affect other areas of your life.
What does your morning routine look like?
It depends if I’m dropping my kids to school or if my husband is. But I get up give my kids and myself a cup of tea and then get my running kit on and get out the house as quickly as possible. I run on my commute or go to the gym. I like getting exercise in the morning.
If you had to gift one book to someone what would it be and why?
I read so much it’s difficult. Feet in the clouds by Richard Askwith which is a book about fell-running (hill running) and it’s about one guy living in London and his multiple attempts to try and complete the Bob Graham Round. That’s had a major impact on me because I like doing this outside of work. My second son is named after one of the great fell-runners Joss Naylor. But you’ll only enjoy it if you like running.
If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why?
Just get up and do it. You won’t know until you try.