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Five minutes with Jenny Biggam, founder of the7stars

25 Sep 2020  |  Michaela Jefferson 
Five minutes with Jenny Biggam, founder of the7stars

Jenny Biggam reflects on the challenges of the past year, the industry's lack of socio-economic diversity, and why you should never underestimate the power of good old fashioned positivity

It’s been 15 years since you founded the7stars, which is now the UK’s biggest independent media agency - managing over £400m of billings for clients including Suzuki, Nintendo and Iceland. Why did you start the agency, and do you think it has achieved what you set out to do?

I felt that media agencies were becoming homogenous and the craft of media planning/buying was all a bit commoditised. There was a gap to develop a more client-focused, transparent and collaborative solution.

I wanted to create a place where people could have freedom to develop their careers in more creative ways, too. That meant an escape from the tyranny of the linear career ladder and the doom loop of constant objectives and appraisals, leading to meaningless job titles. Our environment allows people to set their own goals at their own pace, in their own unique ways.

Finally, I wanted to build a business that gives back. Whether that’s creating opportunities for people, supporting the industry, or giving back to the community.

Do I think we’ve achieved this? I hope so, but like anything, it’s a journey and it’s really healthy to keep on asking that question.

How challenging has it been to adapt to the Covid-19 crisis and nationwide lockdown as a business, and why?

We have seen a few positives. We’ve adopted new tech, working at a pace of change that’s exhilarating in some ways; and our team has continued to excel, too. Looking back on it now, it’s clear we’ve achieved several years’ worth of work in a few short months.

But of course, it’s had its challenges too. Financially, we’ve had to cut costs in areas where we have always previously invested generously. We have doubled down on efforts to support clients – we’ve seen first-hand the devastating impact that lockdown has had on our many clients in travel, retail and entertainment.

And then there has been the feeling of being disjointed from the team. Not seeing the team on a daily basis has felt very lonely. I guess it means we will appreciate each other even more when we are finally allowed to hang out together again.

How have you personally managed to adapt to the situation?

Gin and tonic mostly. The biggest problem for me personally is that I never learned how to type properly and my PowerPoint skills are abysmal. So, I am definitely not one of those people who are “more productive” when they WFH.

I also hate the formality of remote working. I find it frustrating to book in time for a quick chat with one of my team for a question that I have, when before I’d simply just say it. I know open-plan offices get a bad rap, but with hindsight there is sheer joy in shouting a quick question across the office, or having a (pre-Covid) high-five.

What are your thoughts on the physical workplace? Do you think agency culture will evolve the working from home model or do you believe there’s a need for office-based working?

I guess for all the reasons above, I really believe in the hybrid model, where some tasks are done from home while others are better in the office. Welcoming new starters, training people who are new to the industry, collaboration, creativity, training and supporting the team’s wellbeing are all so much better when the team is together.

And I think clients appoint us because of the work we do as a team – not a group of individuals working in isolation.

You’ve previously been outspoken about your concern over the industry’s ability to attract the best new talent, due to low starting salaries and long working hours. Do you think the industry has progressed at all in this regard? Has the Covid crisis made things better or worse?

In the short-term, possibly worse. I have lots of sympathy for the graduates and school-leavers of 2020.

I strongly believe that the industry will only succeed long-term if we invest in future talent now. We’ve seen a lot of great work on diversity and inclusion in 2020 and that’s really important. One area that concerns me is socio-economic diversity, and giving people from less well-off backgrounds opportunities in media. This will only change when agencies start paying more attention to starting salaries; these simply haven’t kept up with other industries over the past decade.

We pay a London Living wage to everyone, including sub-contracted cleaning staff. We don’t allow any free internships as they can unfairly benefit better-off students. We have ongoing partnerships with three organisations – VisionPath, Bryanston Square and Future Frontiers – who all do brilliant work with teenagers from deprived backgrounds and support their transition into work.

You didn’t go to university. Do you think this helped or hindered you at all in terms of your career progression, and do you think a degree is needed in order to be successful in this industry?

I don’t have a strong opinion either way. There are some roles – particularly in data, tech or digital teams – that definitely require exceptional numeracy, and qualifications are a great demonstration of a person’s ability to do well in these areas.

But I think young people’s attitudes towards higher education are changing. There is greater awareness of different options after school now, from apprenticeship programmes through to school-leaver schemes, as well as university.

Last year we took on a combination of school leavers, placement students and graduates. We have slightly different training programmes for everyone and people will develop in different ways. But I think it’s healthy to have a range of different starting points for people to join an organisation.

2019 going into 2020 was a pretty solid year for the7stars, with a number of new business wins – including First Rail Group’s £44m account. Why are you winning?

We are certainly a people-first business and whenever we talk to a new client, the first thing we talk about is how we behave as an employer. I think clients are genuinely interested in hearing our story. It gives them confidence that our team is here for the long-term; they feel reassured that they will always have a passionate and committed group of people working on their business.

In the last few years we have really matured as an agency, too. We’ve built new capabilities, particularly in areas of data, insight, digital and creative services. These new and growing capabilities don’t just help in new business though, they also enable us to deliver a better and better product to our existing clients.

With UK marketing budgets slashed to their lowest levels in 20 years, how do you see an adspend recovery taking shape? Are you already seeing signs of renewed spend or will it take longer?

I quite like the “K-shaped” description. We can see green shoots from some client sectors, particularly e-comm, DTC, tech and at-home entertainment. But there is no question that other sectors are facing very tough times.

As an agency we need to support all of our clients and ensure that we are applying creative solutions to business challenges.

Our first value at the7stars is “Clients Come First”, and that mindset has kept us focused and grounded on supporting clients, no matter how big or small their budget is.

How do you think media agencies will (or should) evolve in the coming years?

I think we should all be working towards building talent pools that are as diverse as possible. There’s so much research that shows a diverse and inclusive workforce leads to greater levels of creativity, innovation and problem-solving within an organisation.

Equally, the effort to become more diverse won’t just happen of its own accord: you need to be strategic about it, and create a working culture that actively attracts and supports a wide strata of employees, whether that’s single mums, employees with disabilities or under-represented ethnic minorities.

The ability to quickly and seamlessly develop new capabilities such as real-time planning is key, too. We live in an age of on-demand service, which means speeding up and streamlining processes to become instantly responsive to client needs. Consumer tastes change on a dime nowadays, so media agency teams and the clients that they serve must be agile enough to adapt accordingly.

And finally, what is your biggest hope for the future of the media and advertising industry?

I think you can't underestimate the role of good old-fashioned positivity. Media and advertising has a long, rich history of creativity, so a crisis like Covid-19 – while undoubtedly really tough – is also a reason to put that ingenuity to test like never before.

At the same time, we have this burgeoning tech scene at our fingertips. The potential to create standout campaigns is limitless: we now have the kind of engagement tools and audience reach that the ad minds of a Mad Men era could only dream of.

So there’s a lot of reasons to be cheerful. Couple this positivity with an open-minded and progressive work culture that inherently respects its talent, and you have the foundation for great work. The kind that delivers growth and vision for clients who are as relentlessly ambitious as you’d hope them to be.

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PaulFox, Owner, Ark on 25 Sep 2020
“What a pleasure to hear these nuanced comments, in an industry not noted for its ability to be creative about the way it works and organises itself.”