Steve Wheen, Managing Director, distillery

Listening is perhaps one of the most important yet under-utilised skills in marketing according to distillery’s Managing Director.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE


In our always on marketing ecosystem, listening is a skill that is very easy to neglect. Why whisper when you could shout, why walk when you could run, and why make a simple yet brilliant piece of print when you could create an epic three-minute long social video?

For Steve Wheen, Managing Director of distillery, the industry needs to move away from a broadcast model based on always wanting to be heard. He explains, “Listen. You can learn a lot just by listening to the people around you.” Having spent years listening to those around him and gleaning everything he could, Wheen founded distillery four years ago when he turned his passion for the creative industries into the fire to light his own business.

Australian-born, Hong Kong-bred Wheen moved to the UK 15 years ago, following a stint studying jazz performance, film and TV. It was an experience which led him to a career in television commercials in Australia. On moving to the UK, a shift that coincided with the credit crunch, Wheen decided to go back to school, to Central Saint Martins to be exact, where he studied for a master's in design.

Listen. You can learn a lot just by listening to the people around you.

Steve Wheen

Becoming a content studio

During his master's degree, Wheen says he “looked at the design of social video, or online video as it was called back then.” He explains, “As part of that thesis, I talked to places like YouTube about the direction of travel of online video and that really ignited my passion for online and my focus.”

He admits that he “wasn’t technically a Googler” but that working in-house at the tech conglomerate enabled him to truly get under the skin of the behemoth that is YouTube: “[it] helped [me] really see the mechanics of YouTube from the inside and really look at how YouTube was working with brands to create long term content strategies and get the best ROI.”

Once he felt he’d “soaked it all up”, Wheen set out to found distillery, with the aim of remaining “platform agnostic”. Where once the company predominantly produced social video, now Wheen says the focus has shifted: “The agency has widened its focus from just a focus on strategic social video to [becoming] much more of a content studio.”

Crafting a culture

Many of the conversations happening both inside and outside businesses this year have been around culture; both within the creative work and inside the four walls of an agency. For Wheen, “The internal culture for me has always been a real focus.”

Distillery’s unique culture, Wheen believes, comes from his experience working across a myriad of different businesses and industries: “Working in such a broad range of different organisations, when I set up distillery I really wanted to cherry pick all the things in terms of culture that I really liked and to take all of those and blend them to create a culture at distillery that’s really truly creative and collaborative.”

This culture is something that Wheen is looking to replicate out in Singapore where distillery recently opened their APAC office. As he explains, the office is “very much based on our model in London and looking at how our culture translates to our team in Singapore has thrown up all sorts of challenges which is great.”

What’s also essential for Wheen is that each of his employees admit their fallibility; everyone makes mistakes but what’s vital to always fall back on the understanding, as Wheen explains, that “as a team we can fix anything.”

We’re all about the thinking and the making and the blowing up of content, really making it fly.

Steve Wheen

Small but nimble

The size of the agency was also important to Wheen when setting up distillery. He believes the relatively small size of the agency works in their favour as it gives them the agility to work on projects with just days’ notice. “Not many agencies can do that,” he adds.

This has seen the agency work with the likes of Oxfam, WWF as well as on a recent campaign for Lil-Lets that examined how women could reduce the amount of plastic used on their period. After being approached by the brand in 2018, distillery produced all the content for the campaign, running it on social and identifying key influencers. The year-long campaign, in collaboration with Dream Quickly, had a reach of 17.5m as well as an engagement conversion of 51%. As Wheen explains, it is a campaign “that has smashed all their expectations.”

This nimble way of working extends to the way Wheen decided to build distillery, opting to become a content studio “because we can turn around material, really high-quality product very quickly and jump on the back of trends. We’re all about the thinking and the making and the blowing up of content, really making it fly.”

Last year was a celebratory one for the agency, being awarded two Lovies as well as winning video of the year at the British Media Awards. A career highlight for Wheen, who explains, “For me that was a really proud moment that felt like distillery had come of age…it felt like we’d made it somehow.”

Getting out of the echo chamber

Besides running his own agency, Wheen is also an active member of Outvertising, formerly known as PrideAM, the not-for-profit LGBTQ+ advertising lobbying group. He is heavily involved in the Pride Brand Makeover awards and is immensely proud of the impact the awards have had on the industry.

As he explains, “For me it’s about ways of getting out of the echo chamber.” He goes on to talk about the launch of the group’s second iteration of their Outvertising paper, a guide for the industry on how to produce LGBTQ-inclusive advertising for a mainstream audience. The paper was produced to speak to agency and brand leaders looking to diversify their marketing.

For Wheen though, “The real work is actually getting that paper [Outvertising] in front of people who aren’t so engaged in the debate, who perhaps aren’t as aware to really start making a real difference.” He expresses irritation about business leaders who think their work on diversity and inclusion is done: “The thing that bugs me is that whole tick box mentality of yup, I’ve done diversity, what’s next?”

While many agencies talk a good game on the importance of agile marketing, distillery’s growth and international credentials underline the fact that size is no barrier to scale. As the agency model shifts and changes, attributes like speed and nimbleness cannot be underestimated, something Wheen well knew four years ago when the idea for distillery was simply that, an idea.

Q: As MD of distillery, what is your primary focus?
A: As a content studio, my primary focus for distillery is to align both our EMEA and APAC teams to help us deliver the best work possible for our clients. As dedicated specialists covering a broad range of disciplines, it’s my job to ensure the team is across and adapting to the latest industry trends so we can make sure our clients are ahead of the game.
Q: What has been your agency's best work in the last year?
A: The work we’re most proud of in the past year was for the feminine hygiene brand Lil-Lets. We helped them hero their non-applicator range of tampons with a targeted paid social strategy, which demonstrated that women had a choice to reduce their plastic usage during their period. The work played on all of our strengths as a content studio - the thinking behind the content, making the assets and making sure it blew up online (in the right way!). We worked with a range of exciting influencers, as well as the exceptionally talented magician Katherine Mills.
Q: Industry wide, what work has excited you most this year?
A: As a board member of PrideAM, a lobbying group that advocates for fair and accurate representation of LGBTQ people in communications, my experience running the PrideAM awards and seeing the wonderful work submitted by brands was hugely inspirational. While I think there is still a long way to go, it’s exciting to see how far the industry has come. Seeing brands such as Lloyds and Paddy Power embrace lifestyles like my own is wonderful.

We are better debaters, negotiators and communicators when we have an understanding of the different points of views around us, and not just our own.

Steve Wheen
Q: How do you see the advertising industry evolving over the next few years?
A: It’s such an exciting time for the industry - things are changing lightning fast. I see a real opportunity for independent agencies that are agile and built to react to clients’ ever-changing needs. To do this we need to remain a tight and nimble studio.
Q: What are your ambitions for distillery over the next few years?
A: Our 2019 ambition was to enter the APAC market, which achieved in May this year. The ambition was never to be a large-scale agency, but rather be one that is always adept, with small teams that act fast to solve our clients’ challenges.
Q: What piece of advice do you give to the junior members of your team?
A: Listen. You can learn a lot just by listening to the people around you. There is a trend to be heard, but we learn so much more when we listen. We are at our best when we are able to see the other side. We are better debaters, negotiators and communicators when we have an understanding of the different points of views around us, and not just our own.

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