Jon Goulding is the founder and CEO of Atomic London, a London-based and rapidly-growing independent creative agency.
He spoke to Econsultancy about how he came to found a creative agency seven years ago, why advertising is a unique space in the business world, what he loves most about his job, and the advice he would give to a new marketer starting out.
Please describe your job. What do you do?
I’m the founder and CEO of Atomic London, one of the fastest-growing independent creative agencies in London. We’ve worked with some great household-name brands, such as Homebase and Peperami, as well as charities such as Cancer Research UK and the NSPCC.
Other than carrying out the usual responsibilities of any CEO, I spend a lot of time engaging with clients to make sure their campaigns are moving in the right direction, working on new business, and coaching and mentoring the wider team. In creative agencies the people essentially make up the entire product, so it’s vital that there’s always a feeling of self-belief and togetherness.
What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?
To perform my role effectively you need a really clear vision of what you want to build. But you also need to be flexible and brave enough to adjust that vision to accommodate changing circumstances. There are brutal realities to running a business and if you fail to adapt you won’t survive. As important—if not more so—are your personal qualities. You need to be determined, resilient and patient, and you also need a healthy dose of optimism. You have to get up each day in the belief that you will succeed.
Advertising is an unusual space in the business world in that it’s almost entirely about people. There’s a unique blend of personalities in creative agencies, and it’s part of the job of any CEO in the ad world to understand this and create the right kind of conditions for success. So I’d say that for CEOs in advertising specifically, you need to know a bit about how the mind works and be ready to support as well as lead from the front. It’s a tricky balance.
Tell us about a typical working day…
The alarm goes off at 5.20 a.m.. I don’t get up until 5.30—I love the false sense of having a lie in—and I’m in work by 7.30 a.m. so I have time to get all the stuff I need to do done before everyone else arrives at about 9.
On any given day there will be a good mix of client and new business meetings and that will take up almost all of our time. We don’t do management meetings during working hours so I tend to meet my Head of Strategy or Creative Partners after work for a quick catch-up over a beer. Sometimes instead I’ll grab a Diet Coke and go home for a run with my dog and a dose of Newsnight, but I aim to get home for about 8 p.m..
What do you love about your job? What sucks?
I’m a real student of my craft. I live and breathe the advertising world and I can vividly remember really great ads that were released decades ago. But I also love everything about being in charge of your own destiny and having the chance to build something that never existed before. Whether you launched your business five years ago or 50 years ago, I don’t think you ever lose that. I’m also fortunate in that I happen to work with some absolutely brilliant people.
What sucks is that you have a responsibility to make sure your business is successful so you can always pay your team. And of course there’s no-one around to bail you out if you mess it up.
What kind of goals do you have? What are the most useful metrics and KPIs for measuring success?
What we’re doing at Atomic is trying to build the best integrated creative agency in London. That means being able to combine brand and activation creative thinking better than anyone else in the city. There are many agencies that are very good at one or the other, and that’s how it’s always been traditionally. We have a different approach.
So we set ourselves two simple KPIs, New Business Wins and Great Creative Work, and we work to do each equally well. This produces a healthy culture in which we’re delivering great work for our clients, attracting the best talent to the business and bringing sustained growth to the company.
What are your favourite tools help you get the job done?
In a previous life I worked for Omnicom, and I was lucky to get some Harvard Business School training when I was there. I still use all of their case studies, publications and my lecture notes as materials to inform my thinking every day.
We also use various digital tools, such as Winmo, which a kind of health tracker for every client account in the UK. And we’re also developing our own tool, the Never Quiet Index, which calculates how brands are performing as a brand and activation criteria. It uses a score to tell us and those brands in what ways they’re over-performing and underperforming, why that’s the case, and how to change things.
How did you end up founding Atomic, and where might you go from here?
Our founding partners all met at DDB, but it was after becoming COO of the UK group that I got the itch to see if I had what it took to make it on my own. I saw that there were many agencies that were brilliant at either brand or activation, but none that could say objectively they were exceptional at both, and clients increasingly wanted a joined-up solution.
Necessity is the mother of invention, so it was with this in mind that I started to develop a vision of an ultra-modern, independent agency that would do things differently and be able to give those clients what they needed.
We launched Atomic in 2012 and the rest, as they say, is history. At some stage in the last two years we hit a vertical trajectory and our progress has accelerated. Now we have ambitious plans for the future—we want to grow our creative capabilities to accommodate more and more channels—but whether we do that alone or as an arm of a bigger business, I can’t say.
What advertising or experience has impressed you lately?
As proud as I am of the work we’ve done, it’s just not cricket to choose one of your own campaigns! So I have to go for the brilliant work that Marmite has done. They’re not only brilliant but very consistent. They manage to achieve the rare feat of bringing great brand and activation creativity together in their campaigns. You might say you either love it or …
What advice would you give a marketer starting out?
More than any other generation, marketeers starting out today need not only to learn the core marketing skills but to be infinitely flexible and able to learn new things every year. This kind of adaptability is becoming a core skill in itself.
But the best and most employable people in the near future will also be experts in the more transferrable general management skills—qualities such as leadership and the ability to negotiate, as well as real social fluency and a talent for building and maintaining productive interpersonal relationships. These people will be enormously valuable in the industry.