BQ Editor Mike Hughes recalled that the tenth anniversary is marked with a ‘tin’ present. So, can of Yorkshire beer in hand, he met Fantastic Media CEO Andy Hobson.
Ten years ago, when Andy Hobson started working on a logo for his new business he saw red – for all the right reasons. The vibrant colour which dominates the office walls and website of Fantastic Media was chosen to signal the revolution in marketing that Andy knew was waiting to happen.
“I felt there was something missing from marketing,” said Andy. “I was running a business, so I was able to put myself in an owner’s shoes and ask myself – where’s the value?
“I wanted a company focused on the people we were working with. Nowadays, everything is results driven so it’s commonplace, but ten years ago it was pretty radical.
“Every client we have worked with knows why we did something and what the results were. Whether it was a complete company rebrand, a TV advertising campaign or a single email newsletter, our results speak for themselves. We will continue to be judged on them and we’re fine with that.
“It’s all about relationships. I’ve always worked with people and understanding the value of relationships was one of the first things I learned.”
A decade on, the firm has just recorded its highest quarterly revenue and now employs 25 people at its Birstall offices, working with big names like Card Factory, House Of Fraser and Adidas and Premier League sports personalities Theo Walcott and James Milner.
With a family full of creative people like architects, artists and musicians, it was always a good bet that design would appeal to Andy. “I have always been able to sketch and draw – it is in my blood - so I went straight to Batley Art College from school and onto design courses for five years. But that wasn’t sexy enough for me and I always had my eye on marketing and results and what they could do for a business.
“I cut my teeth with a number of creative houses, starting at Matrix Design in London, but my nature is all about networking and meeting people and putting them together as a dealmaker so I don’t think I was ever going to be working for someone else all my career.”
The young Hobson then came back up North and worked for TSA (which later became SFX and now WFG), where he worked with stars such as David Beckham, Alan Shearer and Dwight Yorke, and soon felt the time was right, aged 25, to set up Atom Design and then on to Fantastic Media.
He faced one early hurdle that looms up for all our BQ entrepreneurs – recruitment of the right people to take the business forward – with confidence and insight from his previous employers. “Part of running a business is selling a dream to clients and colleagues, so you have to be able to identify people in other businesses, win them over and convince them that they will be safe with you – or that it will be more exciting with you than with someone else.
“There must be 30 or 40 agencies around Leeds that good staff could go to, but at some stage people make the decision based on a gut feeling and an emotional connection that tells them they want to jump to people. That connection is how you build a team and spot the people who are going nowhere in a business that might be flatlining.
“Young talent is essential in this market, but it is also so important to have grown-ups around the place that can make that level of connection.
“At 44, I’m the oldest in our company, but I always make sure I have at least six grown-ups around me of very similar age who will go out and make the commitment to people. That relationship is just as important as the work you deliver – although we are well aware that you need to do the walk as well as doing the talk.”
That means he is not a fan of “waffle and bull” and that his results-driven strategy has to keep working, always impressing the clients. The initial contact has to be good, the relationship has to grow and the results have to be measurable so that the client gets a return for his ‘investment’.
“I work in the business with the first high-level insight and strategy which I thrive on and then I’ll pass it over to an account director and carry on working on the business. We work a lot for owner-managed and family-run businesses between £10m and £40-50m turnover and they want to see value and look into the whites of the eyes of the people they are spending their money with.”
With more than 90% of businesses not making it past their first ten years, Fantastic must be doing something right – so what advice would Andy pass on to new businesses heading for their first ten months? “That statistic doesn’t take into account marketing companies founded two years before the worst financial crash in almost a century,” he points out. “Many more established agencies didn’t make it through the worst of it, so I’m incredibly proud that Fantastic is part of the 4%.”
“The recession was tough for many businesses, but we were able to demonstrate ROI for business owners and directors so we became a safe pair of hands for those still looking to actively market their business. That built our reputation as an agency that offers value and results which is what I always set out to do.
“I don’t know if I’m a little old-fashioned, but I never took more out of the business than it could afford.
“It’s what we call in Yorkshire ‘wool on our backs’ – and I know woolybacks get the mickey taken out of them – but the fact is that I will always have wool on my back for a rainy day or if things aren’t going too well and we have a quiet month.
“I honestly believe that a lot of businesses go to the wall because they haven’t planned their finances properly and kept the accounts tight enough and end up spending beyond their income.
“No matter how things are going, I will always acknowledge that the buck stops with me and if there isn’t enough work in then that isn’t anyone else’s problem. So I will go to the ends of the Earth to make sure this business is constantly fed.
“Also, businesses need to be early adopters of new technologies, whether that is social or apps, or e-commerce, I have always gone out and employed leaders in those areas that Fantastic needs. If you don’t keep up with the trends – which can change every six months - you will just fall by the wayside and let young upstarts in to start pecking away at your margins and your clients.”
There are lessons there for new businesses, who will be encouraged by the fact that they still form the backbone of Andy’s operation and have helped lay the foundations for the next few years.
“There isn’t a plan for the next decade because I don’t think anyone can plan that far ahead in detail. But there is a plan for the next five years which includes making the business more manageable by the heads of department who make up our agency board to give us that flexibility.
“Perhaps that will eventually lead to an MD sort of figure who is on an equal standing with the rest of the board. But that sort of planning is already in place here and there is a fresh excitement to move away from a comfortable demographic into other regions – notably down South.
“I have held back from that move, but the business is stable enough now and we have plenty of clients in London, so why don’t we have a little go in the next couple of years and at least get some sort of base down there?
“We are delighted by what we have achieved, but we still have a long way to go. We are proud to be one of the most successful and established agencies in the North of England, and we are also one of the most decorated, but we will never rest on our laurels.”
Rest doesn’t come easily to entrepreneurs like Andy. The set-up was very successfully completed ten years ago, the reputation established and the figures are looking good. The team has been built and the technologies mastered...but entrepreneurs will always battle the deep need to be at the centre of their organisations so that it is still their ‘baby’ no matter how fast it grows.
“I pay people well to look after the operation over the weekends,” he admits. “And I am happy to do that because my weekends are precious and I think it is important for a business leader to have a clear, positive head rather than running round like an idiot.
“I have two kids and do everything all other parents do, from the ‘dad’s taxi’ to trips to Whitby and even a bit of kayaking!”
Sport has played a big part in his business life ever since the days of Beckham, Shearer and Yorke at SFX and that continues now, with Fantastic Media becoming important sponsors of local clubs from Huddersfield Town to AFC Emley, where a rolling contract between the club and the agency means the ground has been renamed the Fantastic Media Welfare Ground.
At Huddersfield Town, the Fantastic Media Stand will certainly be full on 12 July when The Terriers take on Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool team for the Shankly Trophy, named after the legendary former manager of both clubs.
“We do lots like this, helping junior rugby and football clubs with kits and sponsorship,” says Andy. “We don’t get a lot out of it – and we certainly don’t get a return on investment – but for me that’s not what it is about.
“Me and the staff get a real feelgood factor out of it, particularly the breakfast clubs Huddersfield hold which get out into some deprived areas around West Yorkshire and give breakfast to some kids that might not otherwise get a meal in the mornings.
“It’s not really something to shout about, but it makes the area we live in a little bit better and helps the youngsters grow into half-decent kids.”
Perhaps that’s the very human side of Andy Hobson’s marketing mind in a nutshell. Take the basic product in front of you – with all its potential and unfulfilled aspirations – whether it is an innovation, a person or a region – get to know what the issues are and guide and assist it towards the best possible outcome.
He never could resist a challenge.