Bold Horizons: How Mark Watkin brings an entrepreneurial streak to independent advertising agency BWM

Bold Horizons: How Mark Watkin brings an entrepreneurial streak to independent advertising agency BWM

Mark Watkin says he has his young daughter to thank for landing his position as group managing director of the Melbourne operations of BWM, established in 1996 and now one of Australia’s leading independent advertising agencies. An accidental phone call resulted in Watkin, 42, managing a team of 70 in the BWM Group which turns over in excess of $20 million each year.

The real story about how I joined [BWM], well, I’ve got my two-year-old daughter to thank for that. She pocket-dialled [BWM co-founder] Paul Williams while we were on holiday in Bali, and Paul texted me back from France asking if everything was okay. I replied with an apology and suggested we catch up when we were both back in Australia. So my daughter Libby gets a recruitment fee.

I joined BWM in September 2013. Before then I was managing director at TWBA and I spent seven years at George Patterson Y&R, another agency in Melbourne.

What I really enjoy is the fact that the agency is very entrepreneurial by spirit and nature. That’s alive in both offices, but particularly in Melbourne.

The BWM Group has seven key businesses, which include the full range of advertising and public relations. The strong showing here in Melbourne is BWM. We bought Sputnik about 18 months to two years ago and they are now fully integrated into the group.  It was one of my first tasks to integrate that digital team into the agency.

We’re very open plan here. We have introduced ‘working walls’ here, which are big spaces where thinking and ideas can be put up and be visible to everyone.

The feedback we’ve received is that people like walking into the reception in the heart of the agency. Energy is a big thing, especially in a creative agency and it can be quite disarming when people first walk in. We’re there, warts and all, but I think there is a nice honesty to that.

The difference I see is that it is a very iterative process of working. That’s what we’re about. We don’t try to polish at every milestone, but instead take our clients on the journey with us.

It’s very much an agile methodology of working.

In business it is important to have a direction and a long term plan. When I joined BWM, I effectively set three horizons. It’s very McKinsey-based stuff. The first horizon was about rebuilding, the second was about building, and the third is about growth.

I set the three broad horizons and then set clear goals against each of those horizons. It’s important for everyone to understand what they are working towards.

I then created a very simple operational methodology. At its heart is the BWM philosophy of ‘ideas that get Australians talking’. It’s an interesting philosophy as it demands participation and it doesn’t just talk to advertising, which is important. I always say we don’t work in advertising anymore. It’s about brand experience and brand entertainment, and there are hundreds and hundreds of different touch points at which we come into contact with brands.

Around this philosophy are three things: our client partners, our people, and the agency itself, both internal operations and how it is perceived externally. So the operating model is quite simple.

The first horizon was up until the end of the last financial year and we ticked off most of the things we wanted to achieve. We focused heavily on recruitment and restructuring based on the new digital skill set of Sputnik. And it was about galvanising the teams within the agency and looking at what we’ve already got.

We were focusing on organic growth with existing client partners but we managed to generate a fair bit of new business without trying too much.

The goal in the next 12 months is to add another blue chip company to the roster. That’s a big desire. And to really continue to help our current clients grow as businesses.

People are the most important element of our business. The dynamic of people and the challenges. But it’s a good challenge.

There’s a thrill in seeing people grow and step out of their comfort zones. That’s where they grow and see real rewards.

One of the things I introduced—which I unashamedly stole from Dave Brailsford, the UK manager of Team Sky cycling team— is the aggregation of marginal gains. It’s a mindset about making sure all the one-per-cents count and are wrapped up. That’s where we make the difference. The devil is in the detail.

Right now, my short term goal is to embrace this agency. I have always enjoyed the growth and transformation of businesses. But I have also always had a desire to create something tangible myself. There’s definitely an entrepreneurial streak in me.

There is currently quite a buoyant pitching environment in the Australian advertising industry. I think there is obviously a shrewdness with budgets, but that goes without saying and it is not going away.

It’s the theme of the day and the theme of the future as well: how we tackle the challenges and problems of budgets that need to be ever efficient. At the end of the day it’s about showing efficacy.


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