Opinion / 06.06.23 / 4 min read

17 lessons I’ve learned in 17 years of Mr B & Friends

Today, 6th June, marks the 17th anniversary of Mr B & Friends. Founder and CEO, Simon Barbato, reflects on the lessons that he’s learned since starting the brand and creative agency back in 2006.

17 lessons I’ve learned in<b> 17 years of Mr B & Friends

It’s incredible to reflect on the journey that I personally, and the agency has been on since opening our doors on 6.6.06. What started out as a collaborative consulting gig – myself and my black book of talented creative friends – has flourished into a family of agency businesses that we are all immensely proud of.

You learn hundreds of lessons running a business – here’s the 17 that really matter to me.

1. Surround yourself with greater people

If being the brightest, most experienced or most innovative person in the room is important to you, you’ll only ever grow to the level of your own limitations and probably live a life of frustration. Surround yourself with greater people and you’ll go further together. Your ego will thank you.

2. No-one achieves success, (or suffers defeat) alone

I have always believed in team play. We work in an industry filled with talented, specialised practitioners and power players. But unless you’re a freelancer or business of one, then successes and failures are down to the team, no matter how big or small the contribution. Celebrate or commiserate together.

3. Selling is helping

One of the reasons I love this industry is because we have expertise that others do not possess. And when you use that expertise to help solve problems, to unlock the potential of your client, to do the things they cannot, then at that moment, you are at your most potent. This is the moment when selling isn’t selling, and your enthusiasm and ability to help is reframed as meaningfully different expertise. Help more.

4. Play the long game

Give without the expectation of receiving – the most important lesson I have ever learned.  Transactional thinking – quid pro quo – will line your pocket today but means that you’re constantly filling your future pipeline. Be generous and think with long-term relationships in mind and your future pipeline will fill itself. I have NEVER been more sure of anything, as has been proved time and time again. Be a giver.

5. Don’t be afraid to make a profit

Is this a profession, or a business? A great question I was asked by Chris Noel-Johnson on my first day in advertising at McBains in 1992. That has stayed with me for my entire career, and at the heart of sustainable business is profit. Our staff need us to make a profit, owners and shareholders deserve a profit and good clients expect us to make a profit. Make profit a priority and life becomes a whole lot easier. Earn it.

6. Invest in people

The most impressive thing any leader can do is to give their people the environment to flourish. By a long way, the most expensive cost on the P&L is our people. But guess what, by a long way the biggest revenue generating asset is… our people. Substitute the word ‘cost’ for ‘investment’ and see the returns. Our Employee Value Proposition, The Friends Pact is just one of many of our people investments. It pays dividends.

7. Humility is an incredible leadership trait

Society is full of hubris right now – too many people winging it or believing their own hype, or rhetoric. Yes, being a leader requires strength, confidence and resilience, but it also requires humility; the ability to be, well, human. The fastest and most authentic ways to build trust is to show your human side. Be more relatable.

8. Keep your feet on the ground all the time

Never has David Brent’s prophetic words been truer: one day you’re the pigeon, another day you’re the statue. The creative industry is a wild rollercoaster and when you’re up: winning pitches, awards and plaudits, you feel invincible. But this industry has a habit of biting your ass and pulling the rug from under your feet. Never forget that you’re only ever one phone call away from a shitstorm. Stay grounded.

9. Be a lifelong learner

If only we had the access to tech, podcasts, media and social channels when I were a lad! I have learnt more about the industry I love in the last five years of my career than in my first 25. If you’re not taking advantage of the wisdom on offer from the likes of Blair Enns, David C Baker, Jenny Plant, Chris Do and Mark Pollard et al, you’re missing a bloody trick. Open your mind.

10. Most people, have mostly good intentions, most of the time

I’ve met very few assholes in this industry. Generally speaking the folk we come across (staff, clients, partners and suppliers) are intelligent, highly skilled, sincere and enthusiastic people who recognise the impact of collaborating with others, and offer a fair value exchange. With this in mind I’ve learned to see people through the lens of positivity. I’ve made a few mistakes here and there for sure, but generally this rule of thumb has taken me far. Be less cynical.

11. There are no silly questions

Curiosity is one of the greatest characteristics of a brand and creative consultant (and agency).
You cannot be ‘over-briefed’, you cannot know too much. Yes, it’s up to you to discern the nuggets from the white noise, but to get to that point you need to be thirsty and enthusiastic for knowledge, and that means exposing yourself occasionally with naïve, cringey, child-like questions. Give zero shits. Ask away.

12. Lose graciously

Staff resign. You lose pitches. Freelancers don’t deliver. Projects get pulled. If everything went to plan, what an unbelievably boring industry we’d work in! I’m a competitive person but accept that I can’t have everything. Focusing on how I deal with setbacks means that I can show leadership in the negative space, internally and externally. Our agency brand deserves composure and maturity at all times. Grin and bear it.

13. Invest in managing money

I learnt this way too late, but if you want to sleep at night, then invest in your finance team. Your goal: one version of the truth across the business. Since we have invested in a professional finance team, our brand agency has gone from strength to strength. We make decisions based on fact not fiction. We expect, not hope, to make profit and I’m freed up to dedicate my time to growth. A total no-brainer.

14. If there’s any element of doubt, there’s usually no doubt

I have learned that my gut is far more useful than my brain when I’m at an impasse. I don’t know what it is, but instinct sniffs out the danger or opportunities far quicker than the logical patterns of the brain. It’s a trait that most entrepreneurs and founders have but can baffle others. Your business is in your soul and your DNA and no one feels the ebbs and flows like you do. Trust your instincts.

15. Work harder than everyone else

My late mum’s name was Antoniette. She was the hardest working person I’ve ever known, and one of the most special gifts she gave me was a work ethic that dictated that nothing was ever going to land in my lap. I grew up on effort and graft and having been given a chance in this very special industry, there was no way I was going to let it slip – I still feel that way 30 odd years later and pride myself on my ability to do the hard yards and make big impacts. Don’t expect anything for free.

16. Don’t be afraid to say yes more

This is controversial. The more established you become, the more people will ask of you. If I had a pound for every time a request for a call, meeting, podcast interview, lunch came in… well, I’d have a lot more pounds. But being open-minded, thinking about where a yes could take me has opened more doors than I could have ever expected. One of my best business decisions (accepting a lunch request from the lovely folk at Noble Studios Inc) led to the formation of our successful joint venture, Noble Performs. Eyes wide open!

17. Think big.

If I’m honest, I’m still trying to work out how I got here: three agencies in our family, 55 talented and committed staff and the most amazing clients, so while I’m here I’m not going to let my bewilderment get in the way of doing something amazing. As per our agency ethos ‘Challenge the Ordinary’ we’re thinking big at the moment: London, LA, Singapore – an adventure that’s available for all that want to join us. With greater people around me, the limits of what we can achieve have grown exponentially and while we’re now an established teenage business, it still feels like we’re only just getting started. Seize the opportunity!

Simon Barbato