Meet Fergus Watts, the former AFL player who created $20 million marketing company Bastion Collective

Fergus Watts, founder of the Bastion Collective

Fergus Watts started his own marketing agency, which later evolved into Bastion Collective, when he was just 23-years-old. 

Since that time, the sports management and marketing business has grown to accommodate more than 100 employees and recently opened an office in London. Bastion Collective now operates a number of subsidiaries that specialise in everything from reputation management to merchandising. 

SmartCompany caught up with Watts to find out how dropping the ego has allowed him to grow his business into a $20 million company.

Fresh out of school I got drafted to Adelaide Football Club. I was then traded St Kilda.

I had a lot of injuries and a lot of issues, and by the end of my fourth year I was done [with professional football].

I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I was working in a [marketing] agency to get my start, because I eventually wanted to work for myself.

I thought there was a positioning in the market where everyone was getting bought by these big, public companies.

I thought we could create a smaller group that was full of small agencies that are experts in their field and very good at what they do.

My sporting background prepared me for immense failure.

I was a first draft pick twice. I was pick 14 to the Crows, trading to 15 or 16 for the Saints.

I should have been much better than I was, but I wasn’t. So it was a very public failure in a career I had dreamed of as a kid.

So failing becomes an easier proposition after that because you’ve done it in a reasonably public platform.

Being able to have a go at a business and take a risk is the biggest thing my football career taught me.

Failure is okay and it does happen time and time again. But it’s about being able to adapt from that and keep moving forward.

I’m lucky I think, because I started the business when I was young.

When you’re 23 or 24, you don’t really appreciate the risks you’re taking. I sold my house but I did that because I didn’t have kids or anything like that.

There are a lot of positives about going and starting a business young if you’re okay to have a real hot crack and okay with the fact it’s not going to be perfect.

The biggest challenge with our business in the early days was finding a way to get our group working.

When you have more than one company, how do you get everyone playing nice? How does everyone look out for the greater good?

What we found over the journey was the way to do that, and the way we’ve been able to do that, is by making it about people and not about business.

It’s impossible to grow if you’re controlling every element of your business. There’s only so much you can do.

I think the people running small businesses are some of the most amazing people on the planet. They just have this immense workload and are incredibly passionate.

But the reason most of them don’t grow past a certain point is the director or the chief executive can’t let go. That’s the bit that stops them and can ultimately kill the business.

We found the best marketing we’ve done is not marketing: it’s solving business problems.

A lot of agencies go out to market and say “this is what we do, do you want it?”

What we do with potential clients is ask them about their business, what their objectives are in their organisation, and we find ways our services can help them achieve that.

What we’re finding six years in is marketing directors, chief executives, government relations staff have changed jobs but have come back because we’ve used them before. The best marketing is good work.

Get rid of your ego. The corporate world, the whole world, is driven by ego.

The decisions that people make and the politics within businesses are driven by insecurities. That’s one of the key factors I think holds businesses back.

Find the right people and let them be the hero of your business.

What comes around goes around and if you deliver good work, your business will grow.

Broede Carmody is a former senior reporter at SmartCompany. Previously, he was a co-editor of RMIT University's student magazine Catalyst.

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