Five minutes with Marcus Orme, CEO of Medialab
Why has Medialab adopted a partnership-led approach to client relationships, and how has the agency made its promise to "put its people first" a reality? In this interview with Mediatel News, Marcus Orme answers these questions and more
You co-founded Medialab with a team of two others 15 years ago – why did you decide to found an agency, and has its aim or ambition changed since?
Me and my two co-founders did a management buyout 15 years ago, but I actually started working as an employee over 20 years ago. I built the company under our then-owners, who very much encouraged an entrepreneurial spirit and nurtured an existing work ethic of “what you put in, you’ll get out”.
The main drivers behind establishing our own agency was firstly the enjoyment, and secondly knowing we could develop what we had built; making it better if we maintained our ‘people first’ approach.
Our ambitions have grown with the company, but the basis of reaching those aims remain the same; no quick fixes but a long-term partner mentality with clients, surrounded by people who share our values. We’ve grown to a team of 80+ people, but being independent and doing the right thing was, and still is at the heart of Medialab’s approach.
We never stop looking for a better way of doing things, so building a learning culture and a desire to push ourselves and our partners was always front and centre of our plans.
The founders are all still very much involved in the day to day running of the business, and although our roles have changed in those 15 years, we still have the same passion and enthusiasm that we did when we launched. It’s been an exciting journey and we’re looking forward to the next part of the growth journey.
How challenging has it been to maintain agency culture from home during the Covid-19 crisis and nationwide lockdown, and why?
2020 has brought out the best in my team and it makes me incredibly proud. They’ve adapted and responded to unprecedented circumstances - a result of a long-established culture built at Medialab. Maintaining that has been a blend of new ‘ways of working’ initiatives and the commitment, support and hard work of the team. This has been critical in helping us stick together and helping them stay motivated and ambitious whilst always feeling supported.
Communication has been key. Since March, each team has a daily 9am call and we’ve had daily all-company briefings to make sure everyone is informed about what is going on, and also to share different people’s experiences of lockdown. We’ve taken our Friday ‘MediaTed’ sessions virtual – sharing company performance, campaign reviews or inviting in guest speakers, and have focussed on training and development, making the most of the opportunities offered by the likes of the IPA.
We have also fully utilised Workplace to keep social interaction alive; the sharing of ideas around exercise workouts, cooking recipes, craft ideas, things to watch and hosting quiz nights and FIFA tournaments.
The challenge has been the small things; impromptu chats and catch ups you don’t intend to have when in the office, laughter and camaraderie of having people physically around you and the ideas that get shared at your desk. This is why I maintain that while remote working is here to stay to an extent, we will always get back into the office as it’s what we have built up there over the years that has enabled us to thrive in 2020.
As we enter the second national lockdown we are very conscious about the acute duty of care we continue to have in these darker winter months. Strong, positive, consistent behaviours have developed within Medialab as we have grown and diversified our talent, client and capability base.
Medialab claims to put its people first – but that’s easier said than done, especially during a year as challenging as this one. How are you making sure that you continue to make that claim a reality?
Honesty and openness is the first thing I’d say; being upfront with colleagues and sharing company progress, good and bad, is critical in making the team feel empowered to effect change and influence how we perform. Sharing the rationale behind difficult decisions encourages them to reciprocate by sharing their thoughts on how we can be better.
Acknowledging the importance of creating time to recharge during the day, and also focus on your own work has been crucial. We’ve implemented an internal email embargo from 7pm to 7am and at weekends to ensure we switch off and make time for ourselves and our families.
We’re also conscious of ‘Zoom fatigue’, so have a 12-2 ‘no video call/meeting’ rule. This allows time to have lunch, exercise and focus on work, helping productivity and motivation and positively impacts mental wellbeing. We also provide financial support to the team in order to improve their home working set up where required.
Our people make us who we are, so we take our duty of care responsibility very seriously. Health and wellbeing has been one of my priorities for a number of years; we have a long-established employee assistance programme as well as providing subscriptions to the team for mental health apps.
Our company-wide mentoring programme is also making a personal difference to both the mentees and mentors, alongside the support many of our colleagues receive through external mentoring schemes.
“Innovation has always been the key to our business success” – can you expand upon this? What does true innovation look like for agencies?
This partly goes back to the entrepreneurial approach instilled in me; taking ownership with an idea and running with it. If it goes well, develop it. If it doesn’t, learn from it.
True innovation is about being curious and open-minded, not always believing that just because something works now, you should always do it like that. Challenging clients also nurtures innovation on both sides.
We regularly share our knowledge from various books we’ve read, podcasts we’ve listened to, webinars watched or new suppliers/vendors we have met with and this communication of learnings enables us to innovate.
As a data marketing partnership, we improve our client partners’ marketing performance by turning data into valuable insights. True innovation for us is best illustrated by the development of Apollo, our proprietary data platform, which has led to some transformative results for our clients.
Apollo allows us to organise and interrogate marketing campaign data, predict outcomes and provide actionable insight for our client partners. It’s been a game changer for us and our partners and sets us apart from our competitors. We are a data marketing partnership, not a media agency and we’re proud of that differentiation.
The last eight months has shown what true innovation is. The extraordinary market conditions have encouraged, if not forced, innovative conversations which may have seemed unthinkable previously. Clients have been faced with unique conditions and that has meant thinking differently to adapt to the new norm.
For our charity partners, we’ve created virtual fundraising platforms to replace long-standing physical events, helped to deliver vital Emergency campaigns to drive awareness and generate donations, and helped establish new partnerships such as the one between Alzheimer’s Research UK, YouTube and Jay Flynn MBE and his record-breaking TheVirtualPubQuiz that generated £300,000 of life changing donations across four unique celebrity quiz take-overs.
We’ve also developed a Covid-19 ‘market tracker’ report which is sent to clients monthly, giving them live feedback on developing trends and consumer behaviours as a result of the pandemic.
Covid-19 has encouraged us to be braver and make decisions faster and I am confident that we will take this attitude with us when we come out the other side of the pandemic.
You’ve said that Medialab’s partnership-led approach is one of the key reasons why you have such long lasting client relationships. What does a partnership-led approach mean, and why is it working so well for you?
This means working with your client partners, not for them. It also means not being afraid to challenge each other.
We are not afraid to push back sometimes. As long as we’re committing to doing the right thing for our partners, they appreciate our honest, dedicated approach. This relationship doesn’t happen overnight – it must be earned, and it comes down to hard work, performance, and innovation.
The same approach applies to our media owner partners. No wider deal, share or volume commitments exist so our planners spend our clients’ budgets as if it were their own and that’s been fundamental to how we operate. This open, collaborative way of working delivers trust and credibility.
A partner-led approach thrives on providing a great service and delivery of results for our clients - it’s key to building long-term success. Speaking to clients daily has highlighted why this works well for us; we have worked together to navigate an uncertain climate and made difficult but brave decisions which have worked, and when they haven’t, we’ve identified why and made sure we do it better next time.
We have strong, long-standing relationships with clients because we have their best interests at heart. The fact that most of our business comes through referral is testament to our belief in strong and trusting relationships - we believe our clients’ success is Medialab’s success.
What is your biggest hope for the future of the media and advertising industry?
In the short term, I hope that the wider industry bounces back in 2021 and we see more stability and certainty. The pandemic has brought a lot of positives and it’s important we hold onto these moving forward.
I believe we’ll see an industry more comfortable with flexible ways of working. The industry has had more conversations about wellbeing, mental health and diversity and inclusion during recent months and long term, I hope this continues to be a priority.
We are nothing without our people, so attracting and retaining great talent should be a key priority. We should strive to use this challenging period of history as a springboard to effect more positive, longer-term change.