Voices

Being Independent. Again

Neil Hourston, Chief Strategy Officer of The Corner on the process of buying back the agencies independence and learning to re-treasure it in the process.

Neil Hourston, The Corner

Chief Strategy Officer

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We launched The Corner London in 2012, sold it in 2017, and in September 2020, bought it back. People seemed surprised, mostly in a good way, and intrigued. They imagined it was a difficult decision. It wasn’t. Our independence had been hard won, then possibly, too easily taken for granted. When the chance arose, it was a no brainer. We jumped at the opportunity. 

Independence is a responsibility, but it’s also a freedom, permission to do the things that you want to do. As some way of explanation, we, the founders, have breakfast together every Wednesday. We call it ‘Eggs’, on account of the fact we tend to eat eggs. We’ve done it since we founded the agency, and eight years later, we’re still doing it. It’s part social, mostly work. A window in the diaries, a chance for us to talk about the agency, together, every week. 

Pre 2017, ‘Eggs’ was my favourite meeting of the week. An opportunity to talk about our project, the agency, together. And our shared ambition, to build a more modern advertising agency. We would talk about our people, work, clients, culture, pitches, all the things that matter. And then, towards the end, we might talk about money. Not because we don’t care about money, we do, but because we’ve always felt that if we get everything else right, the money will follow.  

The real threat here isn’t next quarter’s figures. It’s the receding influence, and perhaps extinction, of our creativity, and role.

Neil Hourston

Re-treasuring independence

Post 2017, ‘Eggs’ changed. Bit by bit, but relentlessly so. Until we talked about money first, and eventually, almost entirely. Targets, margins, revenue projections, people costs, all the things that we had escaped from when we set The Corner London up, began to dominate our agenda. 

Perhaps this sounds naive. That’s the cost of selling up. The economy is tough, so is our industry. It’s never been more important to have a strong grasp on the financials. All true. But the real threat here isn’t next quarter’s figures. It’s the receding influence, and perhaps extinction, of our creativity, and role. Certainly as we know it. And at The Corner, we have always felt that agency leaders need to be given the freedom to pursue change, to back their instincts, to place well-thought-through-bets on how to broaden and extend their strategic and creative product. Not to think conservatively, and manage decline. But to think expansively, and create growth.  

All of which served to remind us of why we set The Corner up in the first place. So if anything good has come out of this ‘sabbatical’, it is the opportunity to re-see what matters to us, and to re-treasure our independence. Because it gives us the permission to make the right decisions, and the energy to lead effectively. It can be challenging, and tiring; there aren’t many hiding places when there’s no one to blame than yourself. But in our opinion, it’s the only way to do it.  

Since taking the agency back, we have felt nothing but positivity from our people, and our clients. All of them had seen a change in our energy, but all of them stuck with us. We owe them something better now, and we’re getting on with it. Since September, we have won three pitches, put plans in place to make a number of interesting new hires, pushed four strong, previously ‘teetering’ creative ideas into production, and have plans in place to re-invest in our agency culture. 

Yesterday was Wednesday. We had ‘Eggs’. We talked about all the good things, the difficult things, the opportunities. Towards the end, we talked about the money, and it was in a good place.

Guest Author

Neil Hourston, The Corner

Chief Strategy Officer,

About

Started in research. Then spent 11 years at TBWA, learning the planning trade, practising Disruption, and working my way up to CSO. Joined Grey London in 2008, as CSO, a central part of a management team that turned a dying agency round. In time, became CSO EMEA. Eventually outgrew networks, the bureaucracy, and the speed at which they change. Joined Neil Simpson and Tom Ewart in 2012, in a new start up called The Corner London. Realised this is what it’s all about.