At Cannes Lions 2023, Gautam Reghunath, Co-founder and CEO, Talented.Agency and PG Aditiya, Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer, offered insights on fostering a culture that nourishes creativity for brands and agencies. Their discussion highlighted the essence of an employee-owned agency and how it translates into a dynamic work environment.
By shedding light on these aspects, they aimed to propel the creative industry towards advancing the conversation on 'agency culture' and its significance. Reghunath and Aditiya discussed Vice’s Unfiltered History Tour while highlighting all the clichés they are unlearning as creative entrepreneurs and new ideas for building a modern agency.
Aditiya said, "We are going to talk about the excerpts from a handbook that we put together a little bit before we started. This contained everything from how to start, how we work and operate, what our values are to stuff like leaves and insurance policy, everything. I have insured this policy. These excerpts contain some interesting topics which might be helpful for people who are thinking of starting up. These are simply questions that you can ask yourself, which we asked ourselves and came to a decision."
"First of all, get a name. It is a really simple thing especially when you are a first-time founder. If you are a second or third time founder, you know the drill of how a bunch of things work. So, get a bunch of options for names if you can. Talented was Gautam's suggestion," he added.
The second step is, proudly copy from your heroes for inspiration, Aditiya stated.
"This especially goes for creative people. We are surrounded by this myth that every single part of our agency needs to be original. I think if you have good ideas from other shops that are doing it right, you are paying tribute and homage to them by actually taking and copying it and proudly doing it. One of our best ideas in fact that we have copied is not even from advertising. It's from tech," Aditiya said.
Reghunath said, "What we copied from tech is our stock options model. How that has changed things for us is that we now work with colleagues who have skin in the game. Upwards of 20% of our company over the next two to four years, through our stock options plan and our equity allocations we will be employing all that. We were advised against it here and there but other than a slight sort of hopefully a future financial sacrifice, I don't see how it affects us much in any way. In fact, it's an investment in our future and we're really glad that we did it."
Reghunath highlighted some other important steps to keep in mind - including crafting a financial and company structure that matches your principles.
"For us, casting a financial structure that meant sharing long-term wealth was important as we began. Like I said, more skin in the game for your founding team, for your founders and we wouldn't replace that for anything else in the world. These same principles are the reason why we now invest as a company in other companies," Reghunath said.
"In most other industries, you might need to take a break up as you begin. We have realised that the right sort of ratio revenue of what we should be spending on our staff is 50% of everything that comes in goes directly to staff right now. You would be then surprised as to how easy it is to potentially make 35% or 40% of a profit margin in the long-term and medium-term," he added.
Furthermore, he went on to say that none of this really works if people do not get one step right, which is picking your co-founder, which makes half of the job done right there.
"It's easier to share this journey with someone. We both like to believe that we picked someone with completely different habits and we are different from each other but our values align. I think that was the most important thing. We share high integrity, things that we care about and love winning," Reghunath said.
Aditiya said that the co-founders don't have to be best friends. Adding on to his point, Reghunath said that one should find those differences and see if they can become their strength as they begin.
Speaking about people, Reghunath highlighted another important point which is to 'manufacture' culture. It's called choosing the right founding team.
"We have a rare opportunity to manufacture culture with who we're letting in. Most companies start with the beliefs of the founders and they are hoping that they scale but until those beliefs and values are proven correct and successful, they are open to debate and change. Now, if and when those values are proven successful and they lead to real sustained success, that is when they go from the conscious, you have to be trying to do something, to the unconscious, and that is what culture is," Reghunath said.
The next point he spoke about was paid hiring tests - A signal to show that even simple acts of creativity have value.
"Our principle was that anyone who takes any sort of a creative test in Talented as part of an interview is simply paid. It sends an early signal into the hiring process. We realised that the way that a company hires is possibly a great signal as to how it will actually be to work there," he added.
Furthermore, he said, "We're also experimenting with decentralised decision-making. It's as simple as WhatsApp polls. It gives our colleagues a chance to play a part in building the company and us. We do everything right from our building in the office, the colour of our tables to see the stuff like what we believe about the right insurance and the healthcare policy should be. The signal that I hope goes out is that a management team cares about employee representation and employee input as we take our daily decisions. We also do have employee representation on our executive committee."
Aditiya said that many creative people believe that it is an account management's job to follow up with them.
"We conducted an informal survey right before we started up. About 50 account management folks in India said that about 40% to 50% of their average day goes in following up with creative people. Who likes that job? Why did we think that someone who is so integral and so core to the way an agency needs to function, half their time needs to go in babysitting creative people? I think that's a huge cancer in our industry. Creative people do not need following up. This is a work in progress and we have been 40% to 50% successful in this area. The better creative people get at this, that is the kind of talent that is actually worth the premium," Aditiya said.
"This is a cliche but we wrote something on tissue paper that we took too seriously and codified later. This is the agency flywheel and that is how we make money. We pay a premium for the best talent that is out there. We create incredible work that helps price ourselves much, much higher and we use the premium from that work to pay our talent better. This is our business," he added.
Furthermore, he highlighted one more work culture where people work for hours every day.
"At Talented, when we are talking to other people, we don't ask them how they are doing, we ask them how they are sleeping. Sleep is a fantastic conversation that lies at the intersection of productivity, mental health and efficiency. It helps you navigate all of those three topics without talking separately about work, separately about mental health and separately about efficiency," he added.