LEAVING a good job in one of Ireland’s leading advertising agencies to set up his own business was a risk for Pat Stephenson. Boys and Girls has proved a chance worth taking. Stephenson studied Greek and Roman civilisation and history at UCD. “You do an arts degree when you haven’t quite figured out what it is you want to do,” said Stephenson, who followed it up with a stint working in a coffee shop.
It’s a training he still looks out for when recruiting. “I’ll favour those who can show they started out working in pubs, restaurants or shops as teenagers, it gives you invaluable and lifelong people skills.”
A keen writer, he enrolled on a master’s advertising programme at the Dublin Institute of Technology with a view to pursuing a career as a copywriter.
“The course split halfway through, half to the creative side of advertising and the other half towards the client executive side,” he said. “As a personable sort of person, that’s the route I took.”
He got a a tip-off from a lecturer that Ogilvy & Mather was hiring. He landed a job as an account executive. “Ogilvy was a brilliant schooling because you get the rigours and discipline of working for a large international organisation with big international clients.” He spent two years there, working on campaigns such as Eircell’s transition to Vodafone. A call from rival agency McConnells saw him jump ship. After a seven-year stint, rising from junior account director to head of client services, the idea of his own agency took root. “It began really as a series of pub conversations with friends and colleagues, which coalesced into one.”
Some of those friends lost their jobs in the recession, others, like Stephenson, reckoned the downturn offered a unique opportunity to start up. “For a start, rents were very low,” he said. “But we also felt there was room in the market for an agency that didn’t try to over-complicate things, one that could compete both competitively and creatively by offering what we like to call ‘daring simplicity’. ”
With five colleagues, he set up Boys and Girls — “it reflected that simplicity and the fact that we were four boys and two girls starting out”. The start-up phase was exciting — “you’d be goosed if you weren’t excited about it” — and a little terrifying. “I had a serious mortgage,” he said. Three weeks after starting the business, his wife became pregnant, and a month later, the couple got the news that they were expecting twins. The team, he estimated, has 80 years of experience in the industry. “We had business relationships with something like 90 of the top 100 advertisers,” he said. “We spent the first few months making appointments to meet absolutely everybody we knew in the industry. “Some of them invited us to tender and, thankfully, pretty soon we won one.”
Working from rented offices on Pembroke Road in Dublin, the company’s first client was Irish Distillers. “Once you start winning, you grow in confidence and that helps,” he said. “Right from the start, we were conscious of acting like the kind of business we planned to be, not what we actually were.”
So, for example, he said that, from a team of six, the agency had two planners on the team. “These are the people who come up with the brand or product insights that allow the creatives to work their magic,” he said. Advertising works best when it is addressing an issue for a particular brand, he said. “Ideally a client will come to us with a business problem which we can turn into a marketing objective,” he said. “The planner’s role is to find the insight that will help solve that problem, before handing it over to the creative team to do the actual solving.” The founders took out a loan of €125,000 from AIB. “The overheads are relatively low compared with other industries but we still needed laptops and business cards, and we always paid ourselves at least something each month,” he said. “It seemed a nonsense not to.”
Well known brands — John West, Digicel and 3 — followed. As a small, nimble operation, Boys and Girls competed on price, yet any agency’s calling card is the quality of its work, he said. “Advertising agencies are like cobblers’ kids (having no shoes) — they are pretty poor at marketing themselves, so it really is the quality of the work that people trade on,” he said. “Advertising is a relatively small community here so people know who is doing what.”
Everything comes back to economics, said Stephenson. “Very few businesses will pat you on the back for something that looks good if it hasn’t been effective,” he said.
“Fundamentally what is important is the idea. If you have a great idea, based on great insights, executed well, consumers will respond.” While every campaign has a digital element, the agency takes “a channel neutral” approach. “When a client comes to us, we don’t have a preconception about what channel we will ultimately use,” he said. “In a recent case, it wasn’t advertising but a design solution that was needed. ”
Boys and Girls employs 37 staff and has a turnover of €7m. One of the financial pressures of an advertising agency is that you have to “build forward” or have enough resources and capacity for business yet to be won. “We go for toned, rather than lean,” he said.
Of the six founders, one has left. The remaining five are the company’s “top team”, all directors and co-owners. The company recently appointed its first non-executive director, Peter Byers, a former director of Associated Marketing, who Stephenson met through a mentoring programme run by Enterprise Ireland. Having a fresh pair of eyes on the team is helpful. “When you are working day to day, things can catch your attention that don’t deserve it,” he said. The company recently moved into a converted schoolhouse in Portobello. True to stereotype, he’s keen to provide staff with a fun workplace, investing in a giant boardroom table made from Lego. “Environment is hugely important if you’re trying to foster creativity,” he said. “And you’d be amazed how many Lego fans there are out there.”
First appeared on TheSundayTimes.co.uk 25th June, 2016