Ian Millner
What: Founder and Global CEO of Iris Worldwide Advertising Agency
Field: Advertising
Where: London
Website: iris-worldwide.com
Follow: @irisworldwide



Ian 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.

So Ian tell us how you take your coffee?
Frequently. I get up at 5/5:30am to make conference calls to Asia. Coffee has become an ever-present part of my day. Luckily for me I’m able to drink good quality coffee and it’s not that unhealthy now.


Which university did you go to and what did you study?
I went to Liverpool university. I didn’t have too many choices, as I was the first person out of my family to go to university. I studied PE because I enjoyed Sports. I could do the academic side but I didn’t enjoy it as I didn’t know where it could take you. I didn’t have anyone in my family encouraging me to focus on one thing.


Were you a good student?
I was a good student in that I could get by. I would calculate what I would need to get to pass and would aim for exactly that.

So, you’ve been running the show for nearly 20 years now. What was your first move in starting the business? 
We were all at one agency in our mid-late 20s, and one chat led to another down the pub. And before you know it you’re in front of a client. Once you make that step there’s no going back. I remember when Stu and I went to present to the marketing team at Sony Ericsson and after that we had to get up and running and the people in place in days to service projects.


How did you build those connections?
We were all involved with servicing that client and there was an element of trust. That’s the big thing about agencies. It is a people thing and relationships. People will buy people that they believe in and that’s still true now as it was back then.


Where did you meet the other founders?
Stu and I came into IMP on the same day as part of the graduate recruitment process. We were actually in the same interview and pitch team. It was like a Britain’s Got Talent without the Talent. We’ve always respected each other and the other people involved were all working with us at the time. Before you know it, we had 6 or 7 people wanting to jump on-board.


Would you say that you and Stu complemented each other’s strengths and weaknesses?
I would say so yes. Stu was strong with people, he was patience, charismatic, careful, he had a great mind, a good sense of humour. I was more of a pace-setter, new business and more directive. There was a good mix of skills, experience and personality.

But I think some of the core principles were identical. Fairness, sharing ownership and the value of people and culture. We had such a hard core of agreement on what the things should be about that it allowed the nuances to be valuable and useful to how the business developed.

Where did the name Iris come from?
Most agencies will be made up of something to do with the founders. We didn’t really want to do that and that’s very much the way things used to be done and very much egotistical We wanted it to be about everybody and the future orientated.

Iris is the eye and it looks forward. It responds to light and it’s a strong muscle. This was our limiting understanding of what it was about but recently it’s developed. The MD in Iris Delhi told us it stands for the ‘ancient Goddess of communication’.


As the new business director in IMP, which new business pitch process did you learn the most from?
New business is less about selling and more about listening. You have to be really credible and go for things that you are really good at and not try to pretend that you can do anything. You’ve definitely got to stick to your unique ability, and whether that’s defined by skills or personality I think that’s the most important thing.

Secondly, it’s about trying things. Most people in our industry are really scared of rejection, to the extent that they will overthink things and end up never doing anything, because they don’t want to put themselves in the situation where they’re uncomfortable. A lot of people are just not geared that way to handle that sort of pressure - Ian

Beckham X Zidane | Adidas

Beckham X Zidane | Adidas

Do you think that’s as a result from the pressures of society and how it’s trained our minds to avoid getting out of our comfort zone?
It’s possible. I’ve not really thought about why its’ like that. I think people are used to having things done for them in society and education. What I am describing is there’s an entrepreneurial act that is by definition has discomfort, it has risk and rewards all built into it. I think you’ll probably find the willingness to do that in most entrepreneurs that ever get anywhere.

Obviously, a lot of effort, time and money is invested into pitches so when there are the unfortunate cases of pitches lost, what do you tell your team and how do you make sure you learn as much as possible from these pitch losses?
There’s a lot of self analysis and self flagellation that goes on and I just don’t bother with that. I think you can reflect and learn but normally the things that you did wrong you wouldn’t or couldn’t change anyway. Because it’s often linked to a perception that they had of you that they didn’t know that they had that you didn’t know that they had, all along or you have made a decision about some creative work a week or so before the pitch that is wrong until the pitch.

I’m not sure feedback from Clients really help you. I think the only real value debate about pitches is should we have done it or not. Would our time really have been better spent on something else. i.e. an existing client.

“It’s about doing as few pitches you can get away with and only taking on ones which you have a brilliant chance of winning. Otherwise you’re burning so much time, emotion and reputation  and it’s not worth it.”
Ian Millner


It’s like the 80:20 rule, whereby 20% of your clients are generated 80% of your profits right? Is it about focusing on those core clients?
It’s a lot easier to win businesses from your existing clients than it is from someone new.


Iris is a partnership with shared ownership correct, why did you want to structure the business this way?
I’m not sure how technically we would be described now because we’re majority owned by Samsung. The founding principles includes partnership whereby the risks, rewards, responsibility, benefits and decision-makings are shared. We try to deliver that today, in the same way that we always have. It gets harder over time as you’re bigger and some of your behaviours look more corporate. But the principles are still absolutely there, we are a collective business that is a co-operative.

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 don’t think it’s that hard. I think you’re personality doesn’t change, why you do it doesn’t change. There are definitely things that crop up in different phases that effect your behaviour and of course have some short term impact on how culture is perceived. 

I remember 5 or 6 years ago we almost ran out of business. We over stretched ourselves, we had the bank as a shareholder and we weren’t making any money. We had to close a load of offices and get rid of a load of people. You’d think that would alter the company and culture and in the short term we didn’t feel great but we bounced back because of the principles. It’s personality and the founding group and who we are as people that in loads of way shape what the culture is. 

Unconfined: The Galaxy S8 Design

Unconfined: The Galaxy S8 Design

If you haven’t got resilience you’re never going to get very far in a service industry. It’s poorly differentiated. There’s always going to be unreasonable clients and meritocracy is not always clear.


What would be the one piece of advice you would give to startups wanting to make their first hire?
I don’t think you can be too picky and you have to look for entrepreneurs that are rough and ready. Not the finished article and not trying to be, never going to be. You need entrepreneurs who can be generalists and deal with the discomfort and lack of structure. People will come and go. Over the years, we’ve hired expensive people and not expensive people. There’s not one right answer. It’s about timing, personality and what they make of each situation.


From an employee perspective, what are the key characteristics that would make an individual become a good ROI?
It’s down to people who are multipliers. If you look at someone like Chris Marlow, the MD of our biggest agency in London. He came in as a graduate and here he is running our biggest business. Even with the progress he’s made, he’s got incredible potential still, as he gets more experience and becomes more impactful. So when you look at ROI, there it is and you only need a few Chris Marlow’s to have an amazing and successful business.


What has been the biggest risk that you’ve taken throughout your career at iris and did that pay off?

I don’t think risk is the word that we would use, because risk sounds bad and stops you doing stuff. I think there’s always opportunity and consequences. I don’t think we sit down and appraise risk. We either do it and take the opportunity or don’t do. It’s not about making right decisions, it’s about making the decisions right. It’s about conviction and following through, making the best of things. Working with imperfect dynamic scenarios - Ian

adidas Paint the streets: the Gabriel Jesus mural

adidas Paint the streets: the Gabriel Jesus mural

Over the years we’ve done loads of deals and partnerships where there’s a time where the bank was a partner and we exited the bank, we bought in another company as a shareholder, we exited them then did a deal with Cheil. We’ve always bought in some sort of external influence to help us get us to the next level. Sometimes that brings funding and investment and sometimes stability and opportunity or access to markets. Every time we’ve done one of these things, we can’t really do something and then not do it the next week. You have to make it work and roll with the punches.


What’s the big dream and future plan for Iris?
A few months ago, we had a little look at ourselves and we were thinking about who we are in the market are and what we stand for. We surfaced the idea of being ‘for the forward’. This is all about being a unique type of agency side-business that can offer clients all of the skills that they need to future boost their business.

We’re all really excited about this even though we’re nearly 20 years old, it feels like we’re the biggest start up in the agency scene. We’re so full of beans and energy still and I think that as a point of view and a vision really clearly makes sense of who we are and where we’re going. All of our decision-making now around about acquisitions and talent is all about that.

I think it’s now about maturing our network, out of our 15 or so offices, we have more of them that are of a level that can make that sort of difference to client’s businesses all over the world. If we can do that over the next 3-5 years, we’ll be an amazing company.

Nowadays, it’s normal to see fashion brands like Revolve who use all these social media influencers and celebrities and run high end curated experiential events and create content for them.

How would you justify the argument that it’s hard for a business to grow past a certain point without certain investment of advertising and media spend? How does that relate to different types of businesses?
It doesn’t always correlate to spend. It depends on so many factors. Competition is the main one and the adoption of the consumer and your penetration into the market. There are loads of businesses that are around today that have been built without marketing spend. Uber or Starbucks are a good example, where they are marketing and the investment has been in the experience of an app and how good the retail experience is rather than the stuff that appears through media. We have to have a more open-minded view of what marketing is and how it works.

Years & Years VR Gig

Years & Years VR Gig

”As you all know, we’re doing a lot of work for Adidas and the core quality of the story telling and the authenticity that is told makes that catchy. So, it’s less about how much media spend but more so the quality of the work that determines how far it will carry” - Ian


Do you think people should be tapping into influencers for their brand and is this effective?
Yes, I do and it is effective. Of course, there are caveats, there’s no one size fits all and you need the expertise to tell the right story.

There’s good marketing and there’s bad marketing, in the same way that they’ll be good use of social, digital and influencers and bad use. Particularly when you get people that are blatantly getting their reach up just to have numbers. Or people that start to become over-exposed and over-used. It becomes irrelevant and there’s no brand alignment.


It takes a certain level of focus, resilience and character in each individual to drive routine and 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?
A lot of it is personality and stuff you don’t know is there until it appears. I’m from a fairly down to earth background. My family have got nothing to do with marketing.


What did they do?
My mum was a hairdresser and my dad was a mechanic in the quarries near where I’m from. Being down to earth is a thing. Because if you are, you’re just a bit more aware of how things work and why people do what they do. It’s something that I didn’t know that I was interested or any good at it until the last 5-10 years. It would have been great to have found some of these things out about myself earlier because I think I would have taken things a bit more seriously and gone at things with more confidence.


What does your morning routine look like?
Coffee. I try to get out the house quickly, but the commute is terrible, it’s like an hour and a half. I remember in Singapore; my commute was 10 minutes and I used to cycle in. Now it’s 3 hours a day of travel, it’s shocking the amount of productivity that is lost. It saps out the enthusiasm both out of your personal and professional life.


What advice would you give 20-year-old Ian?
Nothing. Do more sports.


What’s your favourite quote?
‘One for all and all for one’ Alexandre Dumas.



22 JUNE, 2018



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