Steve Parks | [Top Agency Series] Radical Transparency, Merging Four Companies Into One, and Predicting the Pandemic

John Corcoran 11:28

Yeah. Makes sense. I want to ask you about after a new client signs on with an agency, you know, there’s always a little bit of buyer’s remorse whenever anyone spends money on something substantial. And you know that any friction that happens along the way can can lead into more buyer’s remorse like if it doesn’t go smoothly. But you have something you call the magic document that helps with magic mapping out the user journey. Tell us a little bit about what that is.

Steve Parks 12:00

Yeah, it’s something that we did as an early stage, we tried to use our own techniques on ourselves as an agency a lot. And we were we were doing sort of in large, complex projects for national governments. And we needed to be doing lots of service design for these, they were very big, complex things. So we applied service design principles to the way that our agency ran and the way that our clients would experience that. So we treated our clients as the users for us. And we mapped out the whole user experience of their journey with us. So we would be looking at, you know, for the first time that they had some contact with us at an event or through our content online or something like that. The first time there was person-to-person contact, the first time we pitched for something, and so on. And we looked at where we were strong, where we were weak, where there might be worries where the clients had stresses and worries. And we did identify exactly what you said that we identified this kind of Valley have buyer’s remorse in that whole satisfaction thing, which is, you know, that if you do go in and you are quite an expensive or high-value agency, there is that thing when a client, you know, we know it ourselves, we’ve gone out and bought an expensive Hi Fi system, we then get at home and go, Oh, should I really have bought that expensive ifI system? Or should I have saved the money or bought a cheaper one or whatever. So there’s that period of doubt. And that is when you absolutely as an agency, that is the most critical time. It sets up the entire project, if you give a client a lot of reassurance and support in that period, so that they can see our know, wow, that is a really good Hi Fi system or listen to that. So what we decided to do in that was we mapped out what are all the things that give them some kind of pain in those first few days or weeks of engaging with us. And one of the things that gave them a lot of pain was for example, their internal procurement and legal and so on processes. So we worked with a few clients, we’d we’d built long relationships with them, we looked into what they typically had to do. And we then just prepared a really simple three page document that goes out with a client in response to their email, it says fantastic, you’ve been selected. We send them straight back a great news, we’re really looking forward to it. Here’s everything you need to know to get a set up on your procurement systems. And it maps to the fields of common systems. This is the field face. This is what you need to know about us. Here’s our bank account details here is our tax number here is this and just a whole lot load of that in the document. And it seemed to us like a really simple thing that was just going to be one of those small nudges to improve that experience. But I still have a client who procured from us in 2015 and I occasionally go for points with And he will still from time to time, say, you know, I was just telling so and so the other day about your document. And you know, he’s spreading the word and telling people about this thing and telling other agencies, they should do the same. So things that can seem really small, can actually make quite a big difference to the experience for the client, because it

John Corcoran 15:18

kind of smooths over the Yeah, the experience. I want to ask you also, you know, I know that through your agency you worked with, you know, some big companies like MTV, Comedy Central, selling large projects, hundreds of 1000s of pounds, you know, in and you’ve got this background in journalism, which I’m kind of fascinated by people that shift careers. And, you know, journalism, you know, I think it’s fair to say you’re not doing sales in the b2b sense. So to be able to shift from that into doing sales, especially on a high level selling very large projects is, you know, not always easy. A lot of people struggle with it. So but But you say that you see sales as like a form of journalism. So talk a little bit about how how you view that?

Steve Parks 16:07

Yeah, it’s one of those things that when I first started a business, you know, because I always wanted to start a business ever since school careers advisor, I told careers advisor, I either want to work for the BBC, or run my own business. And they’d laughed. And that’s thing, but I’d held it in my mind. And so when the time came to sort of leave and start my first business, I was excited. But I was also a bit scared, because one of the things at the BBC is it is a public service broadcaster. So there is no such thing as sales. There is no, there’s no advertising to sell, there’s nothing like that there is a tax that goes to the BBC. And then the BBC allocates the money internally. And the ridiculous things like I was producing a program and I wanted to know, I had ambitions to do a series of outside broadcasts and so on. And I asked my boss, senior guy, can you tell me what’s the budget for this year for the show, so that I can plan out this? I can’t tell you the budget. Why not? Well, you don’t go and spend it. Things like that. So money was just this taboo subject. And so sales, you know, money, and nothing was part of that. So I felt launched into a business I was, you know, incredibly ill equipped to do this, I have no sales experience nothing. And so I figured, like, okay, you don’t have to be, you can’t pretend to be something you’re not. So I’m just going to approach running a business with the skills that I have and what I know. And I figured out later on that there is this thing called consultative selling. And that’s essentially what I ended up doing. Because I was a journalist, I would go meet people, I would ask them lots of questions, find out lots of interesting things. And having asked lots of other people interesting questions elsewhere, I’d be able to see the patterns and the stories that emerged and tell those stories back to the latest people that were asking me questions, as have you sort of thought about this, and the way this connects with that, and you could do this, and they thought it was miraculous. And then they would say, we’ll tell you what, you’ve got to come in and do this for us. Okay, shot. And so that was the sales process, we did very little that you would recognize as sort of true sales. I am a terrible, kind of schmooze a dealmaker, closer, all that sort of thing that’s just not my style, I just go out there help people as much as possible, be human and normal. And once people can see how helpful you can be, then they want more of it. And they go great, how can we get your agency involved. And so it’s consultative sale. And sometimes it takes longer, there was one project that took over a year to turn from being invited into, you know, talk to him about some stuff to actually buying a thing. But it creates a much better relationship, it creates a relationship where you’re going in there as an equal to them, not as a kind of, you know, servile company, who will do whatever they’re told. They bring you in for expertise, and so on. So I found it really valuable. Learning that less than approaching sales, not as a here’s the thing, you want to buy a thing. But hey, what are you doing about so and so and how does that work? And have you thought about this? And I saw so and so doing it over here. And let me tell you a story about that. That worked a dream?

John Corcoran 19:28

Yeah, yeah, I can totally relate to what you said. Because I have a similar kind of experience. I was worked in, in politics as a speechwriter and putting together a speech is like putting together a story. And, you know, for me, once I realized that sales was more about being consultative and giving people advice, and being yourself not trying to be someone you’re not. Yeah, that’s when it became a lot easier. So I can totally relate to that. I want to ask you about wonder group. Wonder group was an agency that was the result of Different companies, I think coming together, I think you had 12 different owners and four directors that were running it. Is that right? Tell me a little bit about the how it how it came together.

Steve Parks 20:10

Yeah, that’s it. Well, that’s, that’s both one of the most exciting things. But also one of the biggest regrets I have is the Wonder group. And it was we merged together for different agencies across Europe, we were aware that a large organizations were seeking to buy open source, digital solutions, we’re seeking more sort of, you know, consultancy, and support for those. But large organizations were expecting to deal with larger organizations than just a 10 person shop. And so we looked around Europe at, you know, particular agencies with particular technology, and the technology was Drupal at that stage. And we built relationships with a number of agencies between ourselves, and then essentially merged together as for equals, within a larger agency that created a much bigger agency that grew eventually to be 170 people in nine countries, and was terrific success for a while. But I learned a lot in that period, and have a lot of regrets. Because been one of the owners and one of the directors, seeing them the way that people who have the different cultures and the different experiences and different experiences of running a business, when a business suddenly becomes very successful, and the pound or euro signs start dialing up. As soon as it starts getting to be quite big numbers, people can go a little bit funny. And when we were building up something that was good, it was clicking with clients, staff were loving working, there was amazing culture evolving, it was profitable, that was successful, and was on a good good growth path. Suddenly, business partners started thinking, Oh, do you know I could have a nice skin house somewhere or I could have a Porsche four by four or you know, things like that. And it’s just that little bit of sort of greed built in and, and they then look at this golden goose that’s laying these golden eggs, you think they think well, hang on the golden eggs have been great. Imagine what we can get if we killed the golden goose. And, and then that’s what I do in that. So that’s when people turn to, hey, let’s sell this thing, we can make a load of money. Now, you and I and lots of other people listening will know that selling an agency particularly in that sort of size should be to be effective. And to get the best value and to protect the value that’s there be at least a sort of two year process. or more, you need a period of time first, where you’re shaping the business up for sale. Because preparing a business to sell is very different to growing a business. With growing a business, you’re not looking to maximize the profitability all the time you’re looking to gain market share, you’re looking to invest and grow open new offices, and it can be expensive. And that’s the road we’ve been on and we’re successful on. Where are we if you decide to sell, which can be a valid decision by shareholders, then you need a period of right let’s really look at our processes, get everything in place, let’s make sure the management structures are there. Let’s make sure the profitability is as high as we can possibly make it. So that multiple really has an effect. And you do all of those things over a kind of a longer period. And then you actually go about sort of dating process of finding potential buyers. And you, you know, set them off and you look for an auction to be going on and lots of excitement and things around. Grace. What happened instead was some of their shareholders thought, hey, my mate works in corporate finance, says we could make 20 million euros, let’s do it. And they sent a document out. And they they said, Well, let’s not there were a few of us that were in the business at that point. And we know whether business people were running it and others were developers and designers and so on in the business had been there since the start. And they just they knew that the business e ones wouldn’t agree with it. So they just sent out a document through their corporate finance mate. And it’s things like that. And, you know, there was just a whole irresponsible mismanagement. And it was, it was a real shame. See, because everyone involved was good people. And nobody had particular malice involved. There was just that sort of, you know, Euro signs cycling through their eyes, like in a cartoon. So and that’s, that’s sad.

John Corcoran 24:41

So in retrospect, what could you have done differently in order to prevent that kind of outcome? Is it just choosing different partners? Is it having a better partnership agreement in place? What would what would you have done differently?

Steve Parks 24:55

Funnily enough, I’ve been working on exactly that this week and thinking about that because we’re We’re trying to essentially build up this framework for how people who lead agencies can think in those, you know, upper hats within the business as a shareholder, as a director, as the CEO. And, you know, we as leaders often inhabit all those three roles at the same time. And so how do we do the right things in each of those, and I think in our shareholder hats, what I’ve learned from that, and what I’ve seen multiple times from consulting with other agencies, is it’s so easy for shareholder owner disputes to flare up just from misunderstandings or misaligned objectives or hopes or fears. And so I think what needs to happen is every year there needs to be a formal shareholder retreat, where it’s not just, Oh, hey, haven’t we done? Well, let’s have a few beers. Let’s decide how much to give ourselves as dividends and so on. And instead of treating your business, like a cash machine like that, just how much can we take out this year? Treat it as an investment and treat it like your portfolio and look at the performance? And do we want to continue to invest in this business? Do we want others to invest, and you have these discussions, and the shareholders then need to give a commitment to the company and there should be a written document, you know, separate to the shareholders agreement, this is a written mandate between the owners and the business about, I’m continuing to keep my investment in the business, because I want either you to maximize the value of the business over this period, or I want dividends of this percentage per year, or I want, you know, this kind of pride in that the organization is achieving X, Y, and Zed. You know, so there are reasons why people own businesses. So let’s get those right to the surface. Let’s make these very transparent between this the owners and the company. And let’s have that agreement on a rolling three year basis. So that then if a shareholder does go on, my mate says we can get 20 million euros, if we sell this, let’s do it. Now, the thing is, well, no, we’ve made a three year commitment that we’re owning this. So it’s now this year’s meeting. So it’s a rolling three year commitment. So we can make a plan for in two years time. So we can say in this year’s three year document, okay, for the next two years, we’re ending this, but in year three, we want to sell it. So management, your role now is to maximize the profitability, you’ve got to put in place all the processes, make sure due diligence will go very smoothly, you’ve got to get management teams in place everywhere that will stay with the business, when the owners exit, all those things that drive up the value can be done over that, you know, responsible two year period. And then in year three, there can be the dating and so on. And it can be planned and structured. So what you’ve got then is a CEO and a board who have always got that at least two year horizon to what what they’re going to be doing as a business and what the strategic priorities of the business are. I think that’s really key. And then if you see that there’s differences, you can work those out then in discussion, rather than them coming up later on and flaring up.

John Corcoran 28:06

That’s great. Another thing that you’ve spoken about is, you know, you said that a lot of founders and owners, they kind of panic when their overhead hits a point like a million in overhead. I think you’re referring to that maybe on an annual basis. What can they do about that?

Steve Parks 28:26

Yeah, no, I, my reference was on a monthly basis. He was, you know, once your salary bill is a million a month, things get a bit stressful. Yeah. Millions, this psychological number in people’s minds. And you know, if you’re growing a large business, and you get to that sort of level 170 People in nine countries, you’re getting wage bills of about that size. And so that means that then you’ve got business people who if they’ve grown up through the agency, since it was small, suddenly, it’s quite scary if they’re not used to that idea of seeing that million quid cut out every month, though, million euros in that case. It can can be very stressful indeed. And so when you have then someone offering a big amount of money, let me take that worry away from you. It seems very tempting. And I think this is why actually Americans are better at growing businesses. Because there’s a bit more of that confidence and a bit more of that investment attitude. In Europe, there’s more caution. There’s more, oh my gosh, I’ve got all this responsibility for this million pound a month salary. And there’s the looking at the the worry and the stress of that, rather than the hey, we’re all together, what can we do now? Let’s go and do something great. That makes more than this. So I think then needs a bit more gung ho. When you’re leading an organization and you have that responsibility. You have to know you have that responsibility, but be able to put it a little bit further towards the back of your mind. So that what you’re focused on is now how do we really grow this thing? How do we make this profitable?

John Corcoran 30:02

Yeah, now you end up exiting with a small team that becomes Convivio, your company now, which focused on working with governments, but actually change focused in 2020, around the time that the pandemic switch to helping agency owners. And one of the things I think is really fascinating about you is you had contingency plans and business continuity plans in place, in in case of the worst case types of scenarios happening, terrorist attacks, and a pandemic. And you actually, were starting to plan for that as early as January of 2020. So take me back to that period of time. Were you watching the news? did? Did you kind of see this thing committing the pandemic and, and figure out that you needed to make some changes? And what did you do?

Steve Parks 30:53

Yeah, this is one of the things that caused us to switch our focus our business, because during the pandemic, I suddenly found out that lots of other agencies weren’t doing the things that I did in an agency and I felt agencies needed to do, which was that level of strategic thinking and strategic planning, where it is moving beyond being reactive in the day to day to just Oh, my gosh, this projects on fire, I got this clients asking for this, we’ve got to run around, we’ve got to be crazy doing these things. And moving even beyond the gosh, you know, next month pipelines looking a bit thin, we need to do something. And he’s looking even further ahead than that. And so I think that even if you are a sole founder, you need to spend a day a month, being a board member, being a director of your company, taking yourself preferably physically away from everybody, and from everything that’s going on disconnecting from the world, and really taking the time to think about the street, the landscape your business exists in and the strategic issues that might come up. So you would look for example, at, you know, what are the risks that could happen in this business. Now, most governments publish some kind of National Risk Register. In the UK, for example, a pandemic disease has been on the National Risk Register in the UK since 2008. And every year, it’s been the top risk of terrorism above everything else, of causing, you know, the most threat to the country, because it can damage the entire economy, it can lead to many more people being killed than it would be killed in a terrorist attack, and so on, and so on. So it was the main risk. So therefore, when I was doing my regular planning about risks for the business, and then it was an issue. It was a thing we needed to think about. And so what you do is you take, well, this thing could happen in the world, a pandemic, say, and you then look at what if that thing happened? What’s the risk to our agency, and you bring it close to home, you say, well, the risk to our agency is, we won’t be able to go to the office, or we won’t be able to meet with clients, or we won’t be able to travel, or we will have to do everything you know, and so we’ll have to do everything online. And so you begin to plan for, okay, what’s that scenario of, we can’t use the office, and we have to work from home. And that scenario could also be used if the office burns down, or if the office is in an area of a major city, and a terrorist attack closes that area of the city for a few days. So you by preparing for one risk, you end up being prepared for many others, and you put in place these scenarios. So we for example, issued all staff with these 4g Mobile dongles, we got them to check their home broadband setups, we did a quick audit of who are the online technology providers we rely on, and how what we think their resiliency is to some of these scenarios. And we looked at people like Google Apps and zoom in and so on and decided we were fairly confident in their resilience. But we have backup plans. So for example, as well as our Zoom account, we have an account with appear in, which is another video conferencing technology. And of course, by using Google Apps, we have the Google one too. But it just gave us a range of options where we knew we could have video meetings with people on one platform or another at some stage. So those were all in the plan, then what happens is because you’re aware of the things that could happen, you watch the news, and suddenly words click with you. And in sort of late 2019, I saw these very early reports coming out of China, of you know, some mysterious virus and people getting sick and so on. And then on the 11th of January 2020, the first person died confirmed death from this novel virus. And that’s when I knew that something was coming. This matched all the patterns of a potential pandemic. And so we refreshed our plans, and we started communicating with clients at that point as well. We started talking to clients and provided between then in January and March when lockdown happened, we provided training to clients about working from home, we provided some key client staff with 4g dongles as well. So that then essentially, from day one, we were ready. And we also went into lockdown about a week to 10 days before the government went into lockdown in the UK, because we wanted to test the setup, while we could still legally meet up if we needed to, we wanted to test everything at that stage. So we activated our plan earlier. So you can make these decisions if you’ve got this kind of preparation in your back pocket. And if you think strategically, and for that, I think you need to have that dedicated time, where one day a week you think as the CEO, one day, a month, you think as a director of the business, looking at bigger, longer term risks and opportunities and trends. And then one day a year you think as the shareholder.

John Corcoran 35:57

Now, you said in 2008, your agency was serving banks during that financial meltdown, which heavily affected you. And one of the big shifts you made them in 2020? Was you’re serving governments and you shifted made the decision to shift to agencies, did you make that decision more quickly? Because of the experience you’d been through in 2008? And also going back now, would you have made that change earlier shifted to focusing on agencies before the pandemic, knowing what you know, now,

Steve Parks 36:31

knowing what I know yet, and yes, and it’s always kind of been at the back of my mind. I’ve always been an absolute business geek, I’ve loved learning about business and talking about business sharing business, you know, back in the day, you know, back in 2005, I wrote some business books for Pearson, big international publisher. And I loved that experience. And I’ve always since running an agency wanted to do more that is geeking out about agencies and how to run agencies. But it always felt like a bigger leap away. And you know, I always had a business that was doing well and I wanted to be running it. So it kind of never quite got done. But I always did lots of mentoring and support of other agencies, peer group stuff as well. And writing about it, I did a lot of blogging, and also I worked on our agency, and then I shared publicly what we were doing. And other people picked that up as well. So I did sort of healthy agency finances framework, and I open sourced that. And a lot of agencies worldwide have picked that up and running with it. So I was doing it in a way, but it wasn’t the business. Then we had this thing going where we were working with governments, particularly the UK Government. And that felt like good solid work, it was productive things. We’ve obviously had a change of government in the UK, in recent years, and a change of politics, much as America has been through for four years. Previous Yeah.

John Corcoran 38:03

And I was gonna I was gonna mention that as well, because you ended up because of Brexit, and the risks that that pose to your business, you ended up moving to France.

Steve Parks 38:12

Yeah, that’s right, I wanted to create options. And I resisted it for a long time. Because there’s a lot involved, you have to do lots of admin, you have to, you know, all that sort of thing, and I had over responsibilities here. But once we decided to change the direction of the business that opened up other possibilities to and that possibility to be to have more freedom. So the French were very, very generous to us poor Brits who had been subjected to Brexit. And they offered us a special residency permit that basically as long as you established some kind of residence in France before the end of 2020. And they included in that list renting an Airbnb. As long as you establish some kind of residence, you could get this five year residency permit that would allow you to retain most of your EU rights, the vast majority of them. And that one term would allow you to then get citizenship in France in five years time, if you’ve continued to meet the criteria. So for the moment that’s giving me options, I’ve still got the flat in London. In fact, that’s where I’m at now. Hence the small room packed in a flat in London, and I shuttle back here to do sort of client work and things like that. But then back to France for beautiful walks along the coast and so on. It’s gorgeous and great fun. underwears oysters. Oh,

John Corcoran 39:40

you’re really really sacrificing there. I can tell.

Steve Parks 39:43

Yeah, that’s tough.

John Corcoran 39:44

Yeah. Well, I want to wrap things up but the My gratitude QUESTION Yeah, I’m big fan of gratitudes expressing gratitude especially to peers and contemporaries. So, you know, if you look around at your peers, others in your industry, however you want to define that, who do you respect who you admire who’s doing it? Good work.

Steve Parks 40:01

Now I know all your guests always say this, but there’s loads and loads and loads, let’s just get that out of the way. First, it’s like in Alaska speed, you can’t thank everybody. Or say you admire everybody. But there’s one that I would pick out who’s another agency learning owner who I’ve seen grow their agency. And he’s also making a similar transformation of moving from being an agency of Client Services Agency, to being a product business in their case. And that’s Tom Wilmot of human made. And he’s done it with such an incredible approach. I mean, he’s one of the least egotistical people I’ve met yet he’s achieved loads. And he’s so willing to share SEM, you know, support all sorts of other agency leaders, and he and I meet up and we compare notes, and so on. And he’s just an absolutely lovely chap, while also having built this really successful long term agency that’s now adding to it with a product called Altis. And that’s becoming the main bit of their business with the client services part supporting that. So he’s made a massive transformation there, and done it brilliantly and very successfully. So here’s my nomination.

John Corcoran 41:13

That’s great. Steve, thanks so much for your time. Where can people go to learn more about you and Agency Radar and Convivio? The best place sorry about that?

Steve Parks 41:22

Yeah, the best place is That’s And just briefly before we finish on the word Convivio, I must tell you about it because it’s brilliant. It just encapsulates the soul of our business. Convivio is an Italian word. And it captures the spirit for Italians of being around a big table with family and friends, sharing good food and good conversation. And that’s how we want our business to feel and that’s how we think agency businesses that have run well really can feel. So we love the word Convivio.

John Corcoran 41:58

That’s great. Yeah, very good name. Great, great word for a name for a business. Well, Steve, thanks so much for your time.

Steve Parks 42:05

Thank you. 

Outro 42:06

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