There’s No Business Like New Business: Rob Wills

MADRID - Spain - In the latest episode of our new series focusing on agency growth, we talk to Rob Wills about his role as Chief Marketing Officer EMEA at VCCP.

How would you define your role? What’s the remit of a CMO at an agency as opposed to, say, head of new business?

My role, put simply, is about driving reputation and growth. I lead our marketing efforts across Europe and oversee a team of new business and comms specialists ensuring the business grows and there is a steady stream of positive, prominent and relevant agency news to elevate and build our agency profile.

As part of overseeing the offices in London, Madrid and Prague, I ensure the way we’re perceived externally aligns to our agency challenger positioning – not just what we say, but how and where we say it. I make sure that our offering translates into those markets and as the industry changes, I’m continually questioning how we can evolve it and better it. As we’re headquartered in London, part of my role is making sure the magic of London is emulated abroad.

From a growth perspective I seek opportunities and then manage them. From identifying the right talent and casting for a brief across all departments and offices, working through a client brief and their challenges they face, always sense checking if we’ve got the right talent on it and if not bringing them in at the right time, and always having a little paranoia of what else can we be doing. Pitching is still a large part of my role and like everyone at VCCP, I’m in the thick of it, which I love.

I noticed that you studied marketing and advertising at university. What attracted you to the industry so early on?

I actually got into advertising by chance. I initially wanted to be an automotive designer and was headed down that path until I saw the final year degree show – basically replica models of real cars – a few months before I was due to start. The show was breathtaking, so breathtaking that it literally took the wind out of my sails and I panicked and transferred courses to Marketing & Advertising. At the time I loved the Honda ‘Cog’ and to be honest even though I didn’t see it at the time, it was an absolute blessing.

In my summer holiday I was fortunate enough to get a few weeks’ work experience in a few agencies, and from that point I was hooked by the people and culture of the industry. Not to mention I’m an absolute sucker for a decent print ad. A few words, well art directed, can mean a thousand words to millions of people. Very powerful, not to sound too cliché!

You’ve worked at VCCP for ten years, which strikes me as unusual. What have they got on you? Just joking: what is it about the group that fosters your loyalty?

Ever since I started at VCCP, I’ve loved it – I love the people, the work, and I’ve definitely grown up here – I think a lot of people feel the same way and the agency is full of what I would call ‘VCCP lifers’. I can still feel like the new kid as the management team hasn’t changed since the first day I started.

I’ve always felt proud to be part of VCCP: it’s an agency that has and continues to change and evolve enormously. Since I’ve started we’ve grown from 250 people to now being a global network of over 1000. Every time I feel I’m getting my feet under the desk something will happen that pushes me back into the deep end and challenges me to grow. I’m hugely fortunate to be at a company which has grown a tremendous amount, and with growth has come career opportunities. It’s not just about work opportunities though,: VCCP is very unique in the way that it genuinely feels like you’re part of a family.

Many clients prefer to work on a project basis today, so the challenge is to convert that into a longer-term relationship. Has that been your experience?

Yes more and more so, but in the main it’s a positive change as it can open up opportunities that didn’t exist before. We’re a challenger agency so the chance of a project, gives us a chance to prove ourselves and punch well above our weight.

When you arrive at the office in the morning, what’s facing you during the hours ahead? I’m sure there’s no typical day …

There’s definitely no typical day in my role. Every day throws up its own set of challenges, which I have to be prepared for and willing for my whole day to be reshaped by. I could be working on any number of live pitches with clients, working with our social division on our content strategy, or talking to our planning department about our thought leadership pipeline.

My north star is growing the business and as the overall remit, it’s a very far and wide-reaching role. That’s what makes it exciting to be in – and I think it’s a certain type of person that buzzes off it.

Where does most new business come from today? How does the process of reeling in a new client tend to begin?

The work is our product, the product is our calling card, but that can take the guise of many different sources; direct inbound opportunities, intermediaries, client recommendations and business development. We have a healthy mixture across all sources to allow for the inevitable peaks and troughs throughout the year. But across all sources of new business, the process starts with having a good product, and to quote Adrian Coleman, one of our founders, “you’re only as good as your last game”.

(For two terrific examples, see the agency’s work for Cadbury here and Walkers here.)

There are a lot of different personalities involved in a pitch. Any tips for managing them all to avoid clashes?

You have to be a people person, you have to understand what individuals are bringing to the table and then make sure they can deliver to the best of their ability. So take away any unnecessary distractions to help them perform: it’s a stage, really. But what has really helped is that our management team is largely the same since I’ve started and continues to be so. Our chemistry isn’t forced and what exists is a friendship that extends beyond the office walls. I think we’ve always benefited from this dynamic to help build chemistry, which definitely served us well at the start of lockdown, when we were pitching from home. You can’t fake culture over Zoom! I think everyone will vouch that it’s extremely hard to get the agency culture across without being in person, so this was a huge benefit.

What’s the biggest challenge of your job? And the biggest reward?

Fitting it all in. There’s always more to be done: I have a continuous “to do” list that’s constantly evolving in line with the agency and the extremely competitive market we operate in. Ten years have flown by, which is quite scary to think about, but the biggest reward is meeting new clients, and learning about new industries and businesses. I find it fascinating, and I end up becoming invested in the brands and genuinely wanting them to succeed. Seeing the multiple effects of winning a piece of business, enabling us to grow into new markets, develop new capabilities or into new sectors, bring on new talent – it feels so satisfying knowing you’ve helped to build that brand and business.

How has your role evolved during the pandemic period – and what have been the positive consequences of that?

Like everyone, when the pandemic hit we had to rapidly adapt the way we approached our long-standing and trusted methods of pitching. However, once we worked out how to unmute ourselves and share a screen, it was really all about going back to basics and enforcing them. Timings, agendas and casting have never been more important, because without the fundamentals in place you’ve got little chance of building rapport, let alone chemistry.

What I do hope does stay moving forward is a new hybrid model, picking the best from the old ways and the best of the new practices. For example, even without a physical environment to build rapport, clients have been able and keen to meet more frequently – as they can fit in a quick catch up in between meetings – so we’ve ended up with more client face time, and it has felt more like a working relationship than pitching, which is advantageous for all.