I had the pleasure of interviewing Jenny Biggam the founder of the7stars over lunch. The growth of 7stars is impressive, to say the least, and incredibly inspiring to hear the modest beginnings to the 101 employees now. Read her story so far, hear about the 'growing pains', achievements and making people a priority.
the7stars - The Journey
How did the7stars begin?
I worked in big media agencies all my life and had a vision of a different way of doing things. When it came to do something different we talked to a lot of clients and tried to really understand what they were looking for. What an modern, open, transparent, honest media agency would look like. Then we just went about creating and building a company around that vision. We use the financial year as an opportunity to revisit the values, to revisit the proposition, revisit the relevance of what we do and identify any gaps in what we do.
Did you have any growing pains as the7stars grew?
For me one of the big differences between having your own company and working for a company is that when it is your own company you’re a lot more emotionally involved. It’s very hard not to take things personally. If I had to describe it: the highs are higher, the lows are lower. You might be doing a new business pitch and not winning it, which happens all the time with any company; when it is your own company, it is feels like ‘they didn’t choose me’. Finally when you win, again, you feel that it is a huge personal vote of confidence in your ability as an individual.
How did you go about winning your first few clients?
We spent the first few months not actually trying to get clients but spending time talking to media owners; talking to TV stations, radio stations, press, and presenting to them what we are doing and why. We wanted to get their support so that when we did win clients we could have a good, positive, transactional relationship. I’d say we spent 3 – 6 months just getting systems in place, getting an office, all that logistics stuff.
People & Team
How did you go about your first few hires?
Interestingly, my first few hires came to us. People who knew us, or had read about us, or wanted to get involved. Then as we grew, we created our 5 year business plan and we got an idea in terms of what kind of people we needed. You have to be a little bit led by your clients. If we, for example, won a client who wanted to do work in magazines then we need a certain person who has that background to come and work for us. Whereas, if we have got a client who is very much focused on television then we need a different type of person, with a different background and different industry contacts.
What is your thought process behind hiring grads and training them up rather than hiring people with a few more years experience?
I think if you don’t hire graduates, what you are saying is ‘we want our competitors to train our staff for us.’ I think there is a certain irony in that because, you are going to clients and saying we are better than the competition so surely we should be training our own people. I am still a huge believer in that because what we do is quite technical and quite complex but with the right training, people can get up to speed relatively quickly. Sometimes if you try and recruit from a competitor it can take six months to get somebody; there is an interview process, and all of that to-ing and fro-ing. Some of our people have started as graduates and it amazes me how well they have done. For me personally it is hugely gratifying to see somebody coming in who didn’t know anything about the industry, taking on a big job with the confidence to go to big meetings, confidence to make big decisions and deliver brilliant campaigns.
How has your role transitioned throughout the growth of the7stars? What does your day-day to look like? Are you still in the trenches with everyone?
Still very much in the trenches with everybody else. I think if it is your own business, you just are and I like that. I don’t mind that. But, literally this afternoon I have got to spend some of my afternoon choosing flooring for an office. We are about to move offices and I need to pick the floor; it’s the little things. It is very easy to work in a big organization and not even think about what floor you have, where it came from, who chose it, how much it costs or anything like that. So you do certainly take on a much more diverse role but that is part of the fun of it.
Challenges & Achievements
What has been your biggest lesson that you have learned throughout running your own business?
I think the biggest lesson I’ve ever learned - well not really a lesson - but the most important thing in my businesses is people; my team of people. We have over 100 active clients so I can’t possibly be in every client meeting. My job is to attract the very best people, to train the very best people, to make sure they are motivated and doing a great job and then they’re the ones who go out and spend the time with the clients. My job is about attracting that team, motivating that team, and then giving them as much flexibility. Really letting them go and be entrepreneurial on their own.
What has been the biggest challenge that you faced over the course of the business?
The industry we are in is dominated by the big advertising groups and we still face challenges on a weekly basis whether that is just our competitors trying to pinch our clients or where we are trying to pinch their clients. There is a constant battle for credibility, for being independent. I don’t think there is one overall challenge. I see it more as 365 challenges a year but not in a negative way.
What do you feel your biggest achievement has been throughout the business?
Growing the business to the size that it has grown. The market trend is for bigger advertising groups to do the work that we do but I think we have really proved ourselves as an independent agency; we can match what they do, match their service and then some. I am very proud of the clients we work with and our relationships with them; we work for some great brands. We have fairly long term relationships with our clients, and we don’t have a one-hit wonder mentality. We get client feedback all the time so they score us, we get surveys and that is always really, really gratifying for me to see our clients genuinely happy with the service that we deliver. And, attracting a really good, really loyal team.
Culture & Communication
How do you communicate within the company?
In our weekly Wednesday meeting, we have a slot that is called ‘Idea of the Week’, where you can win £10 for coming up with any idea. It can be crazy, we have had people suggesting we should have a the7stars choir. They do it because they have got a great idea and they want their idea to be heard. They want to see it happening in the business. Just little things that make you feel like this company is listening to me, my ideas can make a difference, I can help shape the business.
In your interview process do you test for ‘cultural fit’?
We don’t do psychometric testing, we use open ended questions to test creativity; are they on our wavelength? When they come in for the interview, there are group interviews where people come in at one time and they will see 4 or 5 different people from the7stars team, each of these people will be testing something different.
Is there a type of person that just fits?
We are in a creative business but at the same time we don’t really need people who are completely out there and just really wacky. It is basically about being bright and getting along with people. I tend to think people who are good at what we do will probably be good at whatever job they have ever done.
Women in Business
What are your thoughts behind how we can encourage more women to want to achieve and go into more senior roles?
I honestly can’t say in my career, either in the7stars, or before that in previous agencies, that I really felt that it was a barrier. There are fewer women in leadership roles but not significantly. But there is always more you can do. I would absolutely make sure that it is not a barrier to anybody who works for me. I just try and treat everyone very neutrally, it wouldn’t even occur to me to think we need a girl for that team or we have too many girls. The other thing I have never ever experienced is any kind of client prejudice. I have never had a client say they would prefer having a woman on their business rather than a man or vice versa.
Advice & Final Thoughts
What is your vision for the future for the7stars?
I want to carry on growing the business, keep ourselves independent; there are a lot of benefits to being a privately owned business. Just more of the same really. Get bigger and better!
Are you going against the trend by trying to stay private?
Very much so. We have only been going for 9 years and we are the biggest independent media agency; the biggest by quite a big factor, probably more than double.
What would your advice be for someone wanting to start their career in your industry?
I think once you get to the job application employers increasingly are looking for a really passionate attitude and persistence, plus showing creativity not just talking about it. We are looking for rounded individuals as well as technical understanding. You have to make it about ‘why’ you want to come and work with me and it is not all about you.