Interviews

Paul Jacobs, Managing Partner & Ben Hooper, Creative Partner, Wax/On

Wax/On’s Co-Founders, Paul Jacobs and Ben Hooper discuss why a collaborative approach is at the heart of the agency’s approach to unifying creative and media.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE

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“We all need to be succeeding to get out of this.” Paul Jacobs, Managing Partner at Wax/On explains the challenges facing the world, and by proxy the state of the industry. Yet it’s a challenge he isn’t tacking alone, but alongside his Co-Founder and Creative Partner Ben Hooper. The pair are discussing the power of collaboration and why they placed that at the heart of the agency they created. 

In a notoriously competitive industry, collaboration is often the missing piece in agency culture. At Wax/On the focus on collaboration extends not just to an internal focus, but also externally with other agencies, sharing learnings and, as Jacobs highlights, “breaking down that stigma of we’re competing against each other.”

It also means paying attention to the noise of the industry, but not getting lost in it. For Hooper, that demands an ego-less approach. He explains: “If we do create work, we’re not doing it to get validation from our peers; it has to be something which is actually going to do something for the brand.”

The pair talk about the development of their working relationship since they came together at the end of 2017, launching Wax/On in January 2018. As Hooper says, “you are in a real relationship, so you have to have incredible patience with each other.” Jacobs chimes in with the declaration that Hooper is his “work husband.”

That delicate balance between founders and business colleagues is intriguing, which partnerships work and which fail tends to come down to personality type more than anything else. For Jacobs, Wax/On’s founding team were “a perfect storm of personalities coming together, skillsets, timing [and] shared belief.” The personalities complement one another because of their differences not in spite of them. Hooper adds, “you need complimentary skills and personalities to make sure that you’re not lopsided.”

We set this business up to be more accountable. It’s not about finding a creative idea and lobbing it over the fence to the media agency.

Ben Hooper

Unifying creative and media

Wax/On was born out of a desire to raise the bar; a simple but nonetheless noble pursuit to do better and push for better work. Alongside Jacobs and Hooper, Mark Runacus is the agency’s Planning Partner and they have another Partner in Matthew Brown. As Jacobs says, the team weren’t miserable where they were before but “we could see plenty of things that weren’t working.”

Both Jacobs and Hooper have worked in across agency disciplines; from media to creative to PR and digital. Both have also been client side. At Wax/On, Jacobs explains, “our model was around uniting creative and media.” This unification is essential, he believes, because “an idea doesn’t reach its true potential unless you do those two together, as closely as you can.” He believes this one stop shop approach is a better way to deliver great creative and communication planning.

Hooper believes that there has been a renaissance in traditional channels like radio and out of home. He points to the examples of the BBC’s work for the new Dracula show and Soreen’s out of home activity.

But, he adds, “film and TV advertising is still seen as the zenith of brand creativity and it still is the most effective when it’s done properly. It is about understanding where that fits in a streaming world.”

Ultimately, marketers just want to know what really works and for Jacobs this means accepting responsibility for the work produced: “We set this business up to be more accountable. It’s not about finding a creative idea and lobbing it over the fence to the media agency.”

Everything is media

The dream brief for the Wax/On team is when brands have a strong belief in a product or service but no idea where the idea or the advertising should live. According to Hooper this is where the agency comes in, behaving almost as consultants to move the creative and media role upstream.

One of the agency’s founding clients is Fred Perry who operate under the attitude that “everything is media,” something that Wax/On very much prescribe to. “They don’t believe in traditional out of home advertising; they want physical objects or things which are part of people’s lives to act as their media channel,” Hooper adds.

The work the agency has done for the brand, who are adamant they don’t want to be a “traditional advertiser”, includes pubs and road signs, as well as a return to Fred Perry’s heritage heartland of tennis courts.

Hooper explains that their Fred Perry campaigns behave “in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re being advertised to.” For Jacobs, as a pure creative challenge, “that idea that media is everything is one of the most exciting parts of the job.”

The idea that media is everything is one of the most exciting parts of the job.

Ben Hooper

Growing together requires bravery

The pair’s ambition is to “grow together” with their clients. Jacobs explains, “a huge part of our model is being commercially responsible. We all really give a shit about how the business does.” The Wax/On team are adamant that they are in it for the long term; that their ideas contain consistency and their team demonstrate “the confidence to commit to a really strong creative idea,” Hooper adds.

It’s that level of confidence and bravery that Jacobs believes is becoming even more essential for marketers, a level of bravery not seen before. This especially comes into play when marketers must commit to a long-term idea. This kind of mindset scares people because immediate results are easier to justify. Hooper expands: “Building a brand, and the long-term approach to that, requires a really brave and quite a rare marketer these days.”

Hooper feels that this bravery can be matched by the agency partner. But what they’re finding they need to do is, “prove the value of agencies again because there’s a huge lack of trust.” He adds, “Big brands are really questioning marketing spend on a level they’ve never done before. It is seen as a discretionary spend for some people as opposed to an invaluable way of growing the business.”

At first glance this reduction in agency investment doesn’t bode well for a new, small agency with the energy and desire to grow. But, says Jacobs, it’s about “building that trust in agency partners, being transparent and tak[ing] them on the journey.” As a small business, they are clear on what they can offer a client. As Hooper explains, “What excites us is being a more future-facing partner.” In the midst of a sharp rise in short-term investment, he is clear the agency is not in there for a quick buck. “We are in there to help them grow their brand,” he adds.

Mass consumerism vs environmental concern

The rise of purpose, specifically with regards to protecting the planet, is something that Hooper believes is one of the biggest challenges within the industry. It’s the ultimate business paradox; how to balance mass consumerism with environmental concern. As Hooper says, “How do you balance the need to make money with doing the right thing?”

Hooper wants the industry to acknowledge the hypocrisy. He explains: “Ethically the people that work in our industry don’t want to be doing damage to the environment, yet reality says that we’re actually incredibly entwined in that whole mess. It’s about how we advise brands out of this or into solutions. And not [by] purpose washing or greenwashing.”

The solutions agencies offer their clients need to be both practical and realistic. As Hooper shares, agencies “need to act even more as a self-awareness filter for brands who get a bit deluded about what their role in society is.” This delusion is easy to get lost in as many of the worst examples of brand purpose-washing would attest.

For Jacobs, it comes back to that idea of collaboration, of community: “it does need to be a collective effort,” he adds. This means pooling together ideas and working together to come up with solutions. Industry movements like Create and Strike and the Purpose Disruptors as well as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are creating communities within the marketing industry where stories can be shared, and answers offered.

Building a brand, and the long-term approach to that, requires a really brave and quite a rare marketer these days.

Paul Jacobs

Internal pride

Both Hooper and Jacobs believe that it is an interesting but challenging time to be starting out in the industry. Both have lived through the era where presenteeism reigned and sitting at your desk late into the night meant you were the best person in the business. Regardless of if you were actually doing anything useful while you sat there.

What we have seen taking place across the industry, as Hooper so succinctly puts it, is that “the focus is on work life balance not work hard, play hard.” As a business leader, you gain more respect from your employees by acknowledging that they’re real human beings with life outside the office rather than offering them a free drink down the pub on a Friday. “The free booze bubble has burst,” Jacobs decades pithily.

Jacobs believes that, although they started the business focusing on the work, “the best part of the job is about what you create internally.” It brings a level of pride that, Jacobs says, he never expected to feel. This all stems from the two ideas they’ve put at the heart of the business: “freedom and accountability.” They are, says Jacobs, how they structure the business; that’s how they run Wax/On. The freedom is only possible because of the accountability; “it’s all built on trust,” he adds.

This is also the only way that flexible working can be successful in a workplace, something that Jacobs acknowledges has to be led from the top. It’s a careful balance though, explains Hooper, between “this idea of flexible working and people working from home, being remote versus creating a culture.”

Success breeds success

Collaboration, community, sharing of stories; these all feel like the hallmarks of a modern agency, one that recognises the power that stems from coming together. It’s a sentiment that many across the industry have echoed, a solidarity that comes from sharing both the good and the bad. It is, says Jacobs, an example of “success breeding success.”

This desire to invest in community was a large part of Jacobs’ decision to set up a peer-to-peer community of start-up business leaders with the Drum Network. Every couple of months, a dozen or so agency leaders meet to swap learnings. As Jacobs says, “It’s actually just become cheap therapy.”

Another project that lives within Wax/On is the agency’s weekly podcast, something the team are immensely proud of. It’s also something that was always part of the plan since they launched. As Jacobs explains, “We always knew, as a creative led business, we wanted to be making our own stuff.”

Yet they are also acutely aware of the demands of our always on and at times unforgiving marketing ecosystem. Both are eloquent discussing the perils of social media, emphasising that true connection takes place face to face, when you’re sitting next to a real human and, at the same time, acknowledging their humanity. 

It’s notable that the pair share that they have got better at listening to one another, of simply asking how each are doing. As Jacobs says, “it’s as simple as that [because] you forget you are real people.” It’s that humanity, that focus on the importance of active listening and collaboration that stands these agency leaders in good stead for the future.

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