Episode 29 – Rob Illage – MD Social Republic

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Audio Transcript:

Speaker 1:

Hello and thanks for coming along to, And We Have an Office Doc, the digital agency podcast where we talk to agency owner directors and learn more about what makes them tick. From the things that make them similar to the things they’d rather have known sooner. Where they’ve had success and where they’ve learned some hard lessons. All will be revealed with your host, Chris Simmance, the agency coach. And he’ll be talking to a different awesome agency person in each episode, asking them four questions and seeing where the conversation takes us over the next 25 minutes. Okay. So let us begin. Over to you, Chris.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Thanks voiceover guy. And on the podcast today, we’ve got Rob, the CEO of Social Republic. Hi Rob.

Rob Illage (Guest):

Hi.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Are you doing all right?

Rob Illage (Guest):

I’m very well. Thank you for having me on. I am one of those kind of longtime listeners first time callers, or guests kind of situations. So it’s nice to be on. Thank you.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Thank you. I mean, flattery goes a long way, Rob. This will get an extra couple of tweets, I’m sure now. So a lovely sunny day and both of us are smiling. So I think this will be a nice smiley friendly podcast. So first of all, Social Republic, give us a plug. What do you do apart from maybe being a little bit obvious? Tell us what you do. Super powers. What makes you special?

Rob Illage (Guest):

Yeah. So in a world where there’s lots of social media agencies and a lot of them saying they kind of do things differently, we were very much born into this innovation. My journey goes back to 2006, the birth of Facebook and being one of the first Britains to have access to Facebook while I studied at university over there, which was a bit of a badge of honor back then, now not so much with fake news and cat videos, and God knows what else is on Facebook, but yeah. And we’re incredible social media agency, specifically working with nonprofit organizations like the NHS, the Red Cross and luxury brands as well. So like Nelly Johnson, Constance Hotels and Resorts, I’ve just been to recently, which is very nice. So yeah, we very much specialize in a nonprofit. It’s something we’ve kind of fallen into, which we’re very happy with, being able to support charities that are making a difference.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. That’s awesome. I think that goes a long way with especially social. It goes a long way when running an agency kind of keeps people motivated if you feel like you’re part of something bigger than just the agency and you can do some really good things. Because lots of nonprofits, they struggle with finding their own staff that helps to get things done. So I know what the job market’s like in digital right now. So if I was a potential member of staff, what would be the key draw for coming to work with you?

Rob Illage (Guest):

I think the staff that we have, they are part of a journey. We recruit very, very slowly, I know this isn’t the sexiest thing in the world, especially in the agency world where you’ve got to be hiring a thousand people at once and you’ve got to be a unicorn and growing really fast and… I’m old, so now I have the benefit of hindsight I’ve been doing this for seven years. I’ve seen businesses kind of come and go and the ones that hire and fire very, very quickly kind of don’t make it. And that’s not what we want to be. We want to have people on this journey. So our staff have been with us for a long time kind of, which is refreshing in an industry where turnover is quite quick, it’s quite high. Things like supporting charities, so having days off for charities, all the things I kind of felt were benefits when I was in a job.

So, lots of time off at Christmas and just kind of making the organization work for employees as well. Not saying that we have three day weeks or anything like that, but just being respectful of people’s flexibility. I think COVID especially has had a positive impact in that in terms of, we don’t all have to work from the office. We can work from home. Obviously we’ve got an office dog, that’s a bit of a no brainer and things like just asking people what they want and one size never fits all. But generally you have, most people will say, “Actually, yeah, that’s a good idea.” So things like prep subscriptions, other coffee shops available, gym subscriptions, that sort of thing. Those are two things that came up. People wanted the gym and then coffee, kind of the two.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah, we had in the past the team, I kind of did this thing where I thought, “I’m not going to do standard benefits’ kind of thing.” It’s a kind of, “Here’s a budget, what do you want?” And someone was like, “Well, I’ll have an annual Netflix subscription.” Someone else was like, “I’ll have a discounted gym membership,” or whatever it might be. And it just has to fit what people want and what people need. So over the last seven years, I’m sure there’ve been lots and lots of successes in the agency, but what do you think has been one of the sort of standout successes that you’ve had?

Rob Illage (Guest):

Kind of after I always think about this and I’m getting better at celebrating small wins or even just little things. I think that’s really, really important because no matter what business you’re in, if you’re growing a business, whether it’s an agency or not, things happen very, very quickly and you might win a client for example. And then you think, “Right, when’s the next one,” sort of thing, at least. I’ve really become more aware of taking time to actually celebrate that win, go out with staff and enjoy that time and obviously celebrate their hard work as well. I think just getting to this point, I don’t know what the statistic is. It changes all the time in terms of the number of businesses that fail within the first few years. And obviously we’re in America now would be celebrating the failure and all that sort stuff.

And we’re a bit more grounded over here in the UK, but in terms of… We don’t want to fail as much, but yeah, I think just getting to the stage, doing it in a way that has been nice and steady, which again, isn’t the sexiest thing to say, but I’m very honest about it, and I think is a reason that as an agency, we are still here and we have great staff and great clients who stay with us. So kind of that longevity, I think is probably my success.

Chris Simmance (Host):

I think longevity is success. I think there’s different levels of what you would say is a success or is a failure for an agency. If you go from zero staff to 10 staff down to one staff and you do it for 30 years and you end the agency in your sixties and you’ve got one member of staff and it’s the dog, it’s still a success, if that’s what you call success. If you get to a hundred staff and you close the agency for a massive sale, that’s success. Quite a lot of the fail rates of businesses, they have to look at within five years or within 10 years and that sort of stuff. They often forget that most businesses, 87% of businesses across the UK don’t necessarily fail. They just close because people run out of steam or they just don’t want to do it anymore. And that’s technically classed as a failure, because your business is closed, that’s it. But two thirds of the UK economy is small businesses. So most businesses don’t last and longevity is therefore it’s a successful business.

Rob Illage (Guest):

Yeah, absolutely. And when I do exit, eventually from the company, I want people to be able to be proud that they’ve worked for us. And even if we are for example, just a little small kind of stepping stone in their career, at least they look back with kind of fondness and they think, “I had a great time there and I learned a lot.” Those are the sort of things that I remember from previous positions. It makes me laugh. When your parents say to you, “I was young once,” but when you’re a teenager, you don’t imagine them as 20 years old, you just don’t see it. I think it’s the same with staff when I was getting a bit older. I think they don’t realize that I was 20 years old and stupid. Not saying they are but I was a bit of an idiot.

Chris Simmance (Host):

We all were in our own way, I think. So that brings me on nicely, I think to this thought is that if it was possible and you were to go back in time seven years and give the younger more potentially spritely version of yourself, some advice, what one piece of advice would you give yourself?

Rob Illage (Guest):

That’s funny. I was watching back to the future the other night. It just reminds me of that. You got to go back, you got to go back. I probably would’ve listened for a start because I was naive and a bit silly, but I think it would be to not take things personally. You really can’t. And it’s very easily done, but I also think it’s quite easily overcome as well. If people leave the business, if a client moves on, it’s not about you personally, it’s just people have their own ideas and their own kind of tram lines as it were. And not to take things to heart, a lot of things, it’s business.

Chris Simmance (Host):

It’s hard, isn’t it? Because it is your business and therefore it’s yours, it’s you. But when you separate that from a professional and a personal version of you, it’s a little bit easier. I used to remember leaving the office on a say Friday afternoon and thinking about all of these things personally affecting me all weekend, then coming into Monday and probably being a horrible person to be around, because I’ve spent an entire weekend having arguments and discussions in my head about things. And as soon as you can kind of learn that it’s not all about you and actually getting out of your own way sometimes is a superpower to letting other people flourish. Don’t know about you, but the first person that I ever hired eventually when they moved on to another job, I was both proud because they went into something much bigger and better, but I was also quite devastated. I thought, “What have I done wrong?” Oh, what have I done wrong?

Rob Illage (Guest):

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, exactly the same. Yeah. When the initial kind of staff that you hire, move on, they are almost part of your family sort of thing. I always tell people not to imagine our agency as a family, because nobody likes the family.

Chris Simmance (Host):

You’re thinking of dysfunction, when you think of family most the time. I can imagine sitting around a dinner table having a lovely Christmas meal with my team and not so much with my family potentially.

Rob Illage (Guest):

Yeah. That would be a really good Christmas dinner actually, with your team. Yeah. Yeah. It is nice to think as close friends. I see a lot of agencies talk about being a family. I think families don’t get on, you can’t choose your family.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Exactly, exactly. There’s the old saying, I don’t know if you’ve heard this, usually quite a lot of mums say blood thicker than water.

Rob Illage (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

The actual, the actual turn of phrase is, “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” which basically says the people I choose to be around are stronger relationships than the ones I have no choice about.

Rob Illage (Guest):

Exactly.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And it’s a bit uniform, isn’t it, saying we’re a family as a team because it’s the same as saying we’ve got an office dog, it’s the same as saying that we’re an extension of your team and all those sorts of things. They’re just meaningless words because realistically, would you delegate tasks to a family member then pay them later for it?

Rob Illage (Guest):

I tried. Bloody tried.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Just doesn’t work, does it?

Rob Illage (Guest):

Doesn’t go down very well, bribery now with young nieces doesn’t work. Give them a few more views on TikTok and they’ll be very happy, but yeah, it’s an interesting point.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So you say you wouldn’t have listened to the advice had you gone back in time, I think that’s fairly standard amongst the brain type of an agency owner. Is there something that you kind of regret doing or did that didn’t work out so well that’s actually something you’ve now embedded in that has set you up for the current successes that you have?

Rob Illage (Guest):

Yes. So I don’t regret anything, actually. I think, I don’t know what the saying is, you should regret doing something rather than regret never doing something, apart from murder, obviously. Something illegal might not work, but I regret not starting sooner, but I guess hindsight is an incredible thing. It’s easy to say that, it’s easy to say I wish I had to start sooner. I do, but at that time, so I started the agency 2015. I started my career in 2008. Back then, if you’re a 20 year old entrepreneur, it would’ve been very, very difficult to get work, especially in an industry that was still evolving. People were still quite wary of Twitter and Facebook, talking over time where Instagram didn’t really exist. There’s no WhatsApp, that sort of thing. So now you see a lot of 18, 19, 20 year old entrepreneurs, which is amazing.

And they grow businesses very, very quickly. I feel like even if I had started earlier, I wouldn’t potentially have been successful. Just because of the timing. But then having that time working in house and then going and working for agencies, gave me kind of contacts and experience. And I think sometimes it is who you know, not what you know. So when it came to me quitting my job on the Friday and thinking about it over the weekend and then on the Monday realizing I got the rent pay at the end of the month, I don’t have a job. I don’t have any clients. I don’t have an agency. I then basically rang around everybody that I knew. And I started with a list. So I started with people I didn’t know very well at the top. And people I knew really well at the bottom, including family and just thought, well, I’m in trouble if I kind of get down to the bottom of this list by the end of the day.

So just rang around and said, I’m kind of consultancy agency freelance, whatever you might call it, do you need any assistance with social media marketing? And it took all day and there’s a lot of nos and it’s when you get to that point where you’ve had so many nos, you kind of become desensitized to it all. And then you get to your friends that you know really well who’ve got their own businesses. And you think I’ve kind of got to throw pride and ego and anything else I’ve got left out the window because I’m not going to be able to pay that rent at the end of the month. And I got quite lucky. I had an old, my very first boss who is actually still a client to this day, which is amazing.

Chris Simmance (Host):

That’s lovely.

Rob Illage (Guest):

She runs an amazing charity called Melanoma UK, a skin cancer charity. She gave me a break and then a friend who had a FMCG business, he also gave me a shot. So that’s kind of how it started. I’ll never kind of forget those people. So yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

That’s interesting. Let’s just take a moment to have a shout out to the dog who’s also part of the podcast. So again, this is a beautiful thing.

Rob Illage (Guest):

Can I go and get him?

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah, go get him.

Rob Illage (Guest):

I’ll go and get him, yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

I think one of the key things with sort of that early doors of running an agency is that it’s almost entirely built on network and referrals and things like that. And then once you’ve got those coming in, you’ve got some cashflow to then start doing some marketing and sales for yourself. But to start off at the top of that list and work your way down with successive no’s, it can be quite hard can’t it. And knowing you’ve got to do it is, not to sound all pretentious, but I think it’s a Winston Churchill quote, something like, “Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm,” and essentially going through that list of nope, nope, nope, nope.

If you got to the bottom and you are still sort of, “I’m excited, I’m doing this all for myself and do you want to come and work with me,” kind of thing. It’s why you, if you started that relationship with the first person that you mentioned, and you’re still working with her now, then the enthusiasm on day zero is the same that you carry now with the team, that keeps people, retains people.

Rob Illage (Guest):

Absolutely. And those referrals are very much the lifeblood of a small business. A business that has just started, they’re not technically sustainable because they can dry up at any point. And they always say it’s a three F’s, isn’t it? Friends, family, or fools, looking for investment and that sort of thing. But they really do help, go to people that you know really well. They might not understand your business, but they’re passionate about it and they’ll share it for you.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. There’s great power in using the part for time and the opportunity that you’ve got with… Oh, you’re letting the dog out as well.

Rob Illage (Guest):

Sorry.

Chris Simmance (Host):

It’s okay. We won’t edit any of this for the listeners, too lazy for that. And you guys who are listening right now, you can either enjoy it or not. And therefore you probably aren’t a dog lover. So yeah, just kind of that referral based start of an agency is quite tough because you don’t want to burn relationships you’ve already got, but at the same time you really do, like you say, need to pay the rent and things like that. As soon as you start bringing on staff, you can start spending time being the sales machine in the business and start bringing in actual sales that are not based on referrals and things like that so much. So if I’m a brand new agency owner, I’ve just started running an agency or I’m literally listening to this podcast waiting for Rob the CEO of Social Republic to give one piece of advice that I’m going to write down and live by. What would that one piece of advice that you’d give someone be, assuming that they’ve asked you for it, so they’re ready to listen.

Rob Illage (Guest):

Not that I just give it to the random…

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah just random people on the street that doesn’t work. That doesn’t usually go so well.

Rob Illage (Guest):

I would say definitely go down the path that you want. Don’t let other agencies sway you because there is a lot of bullshit that you will see on LinkedIn, for example, you’ll see the way that agency owners will portray their business. Yet, if you actually talk to the staff, it’s all for PR, it’s all for LinkedIn, it’s all for content. It isn’t actually the way that a business is run. And you’ll find that out very quickly. So do what you want to do. So we are different to other agencies in that we rely, or we utilize the expertise of a freelance network and it’s always the way I wanted to grow Social Republic. I mean, I was so stubborn at the beginning. I didn’t even want to have social in the name, because I thought every agency called digital that or social this.

So I’m not doing it but then when we actually spoke to a branding expert who were like, “No, you probably should.” So we did, but yeah, we’ve always utilized experience with freelancers. One of the issues I found when I worked for agencies was that as a client, you’d only get the expertise that was within those four walls. So let’s say, I don’t know, you’re a sports company and you go to an agency and they don’t have anyone internally who is an expert within sports. So it’s just kind of passed to whoever is the closest, might enjoying football or whatever. Whereas we always want to build teams around the clients. So where we need expertise, if it’s an industry, the team internally don’t have expertise in, we’ll always bring somebody in as an expert. And also it not only creates jobs but it builds relationships. So our team now is just over 500 globally. So UK, US, Australia, Europe.

Chris Simmance (Host):

That’s some pretty hefty project management skills you guys have to deploy there. It’s like herding cats when you got people across the planet.

Rob Illage (Guest):

Yeah, especially in Australia as well, but yeah, it’s always fun. Funny enough, I always wanted, having a previous kind of relationship with the US and living there and going to university there, I always had this vision of the company becoming quite dominant in the US. And now we’ve actually accidentally, we have more clients in the US than we do in the UK. And we’re a UK company, which is great, but it wasn’t meant to happen this soon, but it’s still kind of wonderful. So yeah.

Do what you want to do. If you want to grow an agency to a hundred, I saw someone post yesterday and this girl said, “I’ve got 10 people working for me now. I want to have a hundred staff,” if that’s what you want to do, go and do it. Personally, I don’t see the draw. It might be for investment. It might just be kind of to actually quite quickly, if you grow something really fast, if you want to build a company that is small and reliable and more ethical like ours, then do it. Yeah. And don’t let others just kind of sway you and try not to believe… That famous Einstein quote, “Don’t believe everything you see on the internet.”

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yes. I think I’ve seen something along the same lines with all sorts of other faces and things like that. Yeah. So being true to what you want to do is essential I think, because you’ve got to build the right purpose to have an agency and sure, you’ve got the purpose that you personally have, but you’ve got to have the collective goal sort of style purpose. And the mission then has to be followed from that. If your purpose in running an agency is solely to have a hundred staff and you really, really mean that then you might need some coaching.

You might need someone to help sort of slip that away to work out really what it is that actually you want, because it’s really tough hiring people, firing people, keeping accountabilities, keeping processes running smoothly. And every time you get, by another 15, 20, 30, 40 staff, it gets massive. And so last thing you want to do is kind of cause yourself harm by having some sort of massive idealized thing. Someone says, “I want to be a million pound a year agency.” That sounds great. But do you know how much hard work goes into that? Why not be a 200,000 pound a year agency, but with a 50% profit margin.

Rob Illage (Guest):

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Think of what you want and then follow it through. And don’t be sort of sidetracked by what you see, like on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, all those sorts of things, most people post pictures of them, for example, on Facebook or Instagram at the beach, having a great time. If you see that you think, “Oh, I wish I was there. That’s not fair.” And then you think, “Hang on a minute, it’s just the first time they put a picture of themselves on the beach for five years.” If you start thinking rationally, you don’t really want a hundred staff unless there’s a good reason for it.

Rob Illage (Guest):

I think there should be some kind of, not test or exam, but just an example of, if you are a young startup owner, agency owner, stand in a room with a hundred people and then have them all talk about what they want all at once. And everyone’s going to want different things. You offer apples and oranges and then someone will say, “Well, I want a pineapple.” And then you’ll realize what a hundred people actually is like dealing with, hopefully you’ll have staff to do all, but there is a great book called and I am going to plug it, called Built to Sell.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. That’s a great book.

Rob Illage (Guest):

Yeah. I don’t read a lot. I’m not one of these agency owners who reads 50 books a day and all that sort of stuff. I prefer to listen to a podcast like this one or…

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Rob Illage (Guest):

Watch a film, well Built to Sell is amazing because there’s one point in that book where he says, I think they are a design agency and they’re doing lots of different things for different clients. And they’re letting the clients kind of pull them in any direction. And this expert, guru, whatever you might call them, comes in and says, “You do one thing really well, which is designing logos. Just do that.” And the reason he doesn’t want to do it is because it means he has to drop revenue from other areas where they’ve been designing websites or brochures. And this guy says, “I won’t ruin it for anyone. But just do logos, just specialize in logos because that’s where you’re really good at. You can make a lot of profit and you’ll have a better team. You can build an agency that you can sell.”

And I think doing that is very, very difficult at the beginning because you think, “Oh, I’ve got to bring in revenue,” but it does work long term, because then you are seen as that agency, for example, that specializes in working with nonprofits and word does get out. If you stick to your guns, it does work. It is difficult at the beginning because you are needing to bring in revenue and needing to make profit.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Absolutely. And the dog agrees.

Rob Illage (Guest):

Now he wants to come back in.

Chris Simmance (Host):

It is really good advice and hopefully anyone who’s listening either recognizes that as something that they followed themselves or that they feel like should follow. Because I think there’s something really important with that in terms of kind of sticking to your guns is key. If you follow everyone else in the room, whether it be as a agency owner or someone aspiring to start an agency, if you do that, then you’ll end up being like all of the rest. Because everyone, all these agencies that have the same website, the same this, the same that, and the same language and the same services they’re like that because everything has eventually kind of distilled into the big river of all of the agencies. You want to be something that you want to be, so stick to it.

Rob Illage (Guest):

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. A hundred percent agree. Even now, when we pitch, people ask us, “Do you do SEO?” We just say, “No, because we’re not good at SEO. So we don’t do it.” So if you to work with an SEO agency, go to an SEO agency, and if you want somebody that does everything, great, but it might be diluted in terms of what you’re actually going to get out of it. And they might be really strong at SEO, but quite poor at social. They might have one person stuck in the corner of the roof doing all the tweets.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And it causes all sorts of friction. You lose clients that way, but that was fantastic advice to end the podcast on. So thanks very much for coming along, Rob.

Rob Illage (Guest):

Oh, thank you very much. I’m going to plug our new platform, if that’s okay?

Chris Simmance (Host):

Do it, do it, do it.

Rob Illage (Guest):

So Vulse, V-U-L-S-E. If you are looking to create amazing LinkedIn content, if you’re looking to schedule content, whether you work for an agency or you’ve got your own business, it’s free, can sign up today. It’s vulse.co. Let me know what you think. Please be honest. We are looking for investment as well. So we’re looking to raise at the moment, but we’ve got some very exciting AI technology created by Manchester Metropolitan University.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Oh, wow.

Rob Illage (Guest):

So it’s basically going to save people a lot of time, creating social content, starting with LinkedIn. So if you’re struggling for either creativity or time, or you don’t want to pay for a block phone, then come and use Vulse.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Oh, I mean, I’m definitely going to have a look at it and that’s not just part of the plug. I didn’t even know it existed. And I struggle sometimes to think, it’s not just a case of, “I have to post,” it’s a case of, “What do people want to hear?”

Rob Illage (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So, absolutely. Thank you. Thanks for that. And, and, naturally you should, if you’re listening to this and you use the hell on earth that is LinkedIn for your marketing, then give it a try as well. So thanks for listening. And in the next podcast, we’ll have a different agency leader to talk about their journey and things they’ve learned along the way. So thanks very much.

 

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