Nine things I’ve learned in nine years of Manifest

Manifest officially turns nine years old today. We registered the business on 30th of July, 2009 (although I technically didn’t start until September). I still feel like we’re a very young business, but in a post work chat in the pub recently, someone asked me if there was any advice I’d give to the 28-year-old me, sitting at his kitchen table on a drizzly autumn Monday wondering what the hell he was doing. I mean, beyond ‘put some trousers on mate, it’s nearly lunchtime,’ I really wasn’t sure. But after a couple of beers — I started to get somewhere. So here you go, laid out in blog form, my answer: nine things I’ve learned running Manifest for nine years:

Crazy people are a sensible investment

When I started the business, it was impossible to hire normal people. I mean, who takes a punt on a tiny start up agency as the next step in their career? And it might have been my naivety in running a business, or the fact I never really trusted ‘experience’ to be the best indicator of ability, but I actually liked that. I quickly found out it was the people for whom the work was a priority, and the ones who got a kick out of building something new. Those early hires — many of whom still work here now — set a precedent for us. As we quickly gained a reputation for creativity and throwing the rule book out the window, it was obvious that it was because we had a team of misfits for whom the concept of ‘normal’ was completely alien. We have become an agency where those who don’t feel they fit in, fit in. Now we’re 45 people across three countries, we still seem to attract the crazies. And that’s the way we like it.

The whole Manifest team on the roof of our first office on Grays Inn Road, circa 2011.

Great ideas scare the shit out of you

Around 2014/15, I wrote a charter for our creative work. There was a clear manifesto we were carrying into our response to briefs that needed putting down on paper. And one of the lines in that charter has been more useful than any other. “A good idea will send a shiver down your spine, but a great idea will scare the shit out of you. Get used to it.”

This might sound like the kernel of reckless or controversial ideas, but it’s not at all. It’s related to the fact that if you have a new idea — something genuinely original — then you are immediately in a minority of one. And the first thing the world will look for is a reason it can’t happen. Manifest exists because I was fed up of ‘nobody does that in our industry’ being a reason to NOT do something. Most of the time, the hurdles to true creativity are just perceived.

The worst decision is not making one

When I started this business, I was frustrated with not being able to make the important decisions at work. That switched overnight to a panic about whether I was making the right ones or not. But something I learned quickly was the frustration of missing out on an opportunity was far worse than making a ‘wrong’ decision and learning from it. Sitting here now, I can’t think of one ‘bad’ decision we made that hasn’t had a silver lining — I mean, we’ve made loads of wrong decisions but you just learn and move on. It’s the decisions that I didn’t make, or made too slowly, that I regret. Life is here to be lived, work is here to be done and decisions are here to be made. Decide the fuck out of life, people. Because that’s the exciting bit.

The first ever Manifestival, September 2012

If it ain’t broke, break it

We always built things from scratch because we didn’t know any better. Templates, policies, terms and conditions — you name it, we invented our own from the ground up. Then as we got bigger, with a senior team that brought ideas of ‘how things are done’ from other agencies, we found we still invented the things we needed, rather than adopting the status quo. Polishing things or tweaking things was just not as effective or as fun as creating things ourselves. It’s the long way round, but you’d be surprised how creative you can be running a business when you write your own script. It has given us a mindset that sets us apart — and a unique experience for both employees and clients that has become magnetic for the kind of people that are looking for something extraordinary.

Gut instinct is big data for the little guy

Often people criticise spontaneous decisions for lacking strategy or insight. In reality, spontaneous ideas are proof that your strategy is running on rails. The beauty of knowing the direction you’re driving your business is that you have the confidence to drive it like you stole it. The clearest example I can think of is when Ali (our Global Business Director) and I met a couple of freelancers to work on a project for us in Sweden. To this day, I’ve never met people with such a passion to do something amazing as those two women (unknowingly and modestly) displayed. It shone from their excitement about the brief. Within an hour long interview we went from discussing a brief, to discussing the creation of Manifest Stockholm. We made the decision during that meeting. Discussed and agreed terms. Shook hands. At no point did Ali and I even look at each other. We didn’t ask ourselves what the hell we were doing. And the fact Anna and Josefine jumped right in with us made us love them even more. This might not have been ‘according to the plan’, but it was 100% in line with our dream. Manifest Stockholm has flown since we launched a few weeks later in March 2017 — now with five members of staff, including those awesome co-founders.

Josefine Hedlund (l) and Anna Karlsson, our co-founders of Manifest Stockholm. They’ve been profitable since day one, and built a team of five in just one year

Everyone is making this shit up

It doesn’t matter who you’re speaking to, they are flying by the seat of their pants too. Anyone who’s doing their job well is pushing it in a direction nobody else has pushed it. They are dealing with a context nobody else has had to deal with. As an agency, you are able to zoom out and see your clients’ context much more clearly. That’s your super power. But it’s also why you shouldn’t feel intimidated by experience or prestige. Do your thing the way you want to. Because those people you respect or idolise, are just making this shit up as they go along.

Visiting the Manifest New York office earlier this year. We won the PR Week USA Consumer Launch of the Year this year, less than 3 years after opening.

2-year olds are the best creatives

I became a dad for the first time in 2014. It was in 2016 when my daughter, Vayla asked ‘why do you go to work, Daddy?’. Not ‘what do you do?’ or ‘where do you work?’. Why. Anyone who’s had a two year-old knows that ‘why?’ is their favourite word. And it’s a shame we lose it as we grow up. It’s the hardest question to answer, and the only one that really matters for creative work. If you ask why more, you’ll get to better ideas, be more empathetic, build real solutions for real problems and you won’t float anything down the fucking Thames.

Profit isn’t just financial

It’s really hard to say no to work. It really shouldn’t be. We turn down briefs every week now, using our values, our ethics and our ambitions as a filter. And too often I hear others complaining about the soulless work they are doing, or clients that treat them like shit. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve done both those things in our early days. But we’ve since learned that we really do have a choice, and we are defined by the work we do, so we need to be discerning. We learned over time that profit, for Manifest, is about a net value that is not simply financial. It’s about fulfilment, about impact and about helping brands that are doing things we believe in change the world in their own way. Yes, we need to make money — but we can do that working with the good guys. If you spend your life chasing a line on a spreadsheet, you’ll end up creating vanilla work for corporate dickheads. Just look at the nearest network agency. And the only thing worse than a corporate dickhead is the agency head who tells them they are wonderful while picking up the money they tossed to the floor.

Work Hard & Be Nice to People

When I set up the business, people said the first thing I’d learn is that you can’t be successful in business by being nice to people. Obviously it depends on how you define success, but nine years in I still have no cause to believe them. Yes, it’s been incredibly hard work, but being nice to people has grown our network, allowed us to build a unique culture, attracted the most amazing, inspiring people and made it so much fun to show up to work every day for the last nine years. Nice has not at any point been a drawback. I’d go so far as to say it’s our secret weapon.

Some of the amazing Manifest London team at the start of 2018. They’ve won five Agency of the Year awards so far this year, including Small Agency of the Year at the PR Week Awards

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