Creativity's flexible futures: the Fawnbrake story

Amelia Torode and Sera Miller, co-founders of The Fawnbrake Collective, explain how building a new agency model has afforded the opportunity for fearlessness.

The world has changed faster than agencies, and we just came to a point where we had had enough. Enough of dealing with the structural inadequacies of traditional agency models.  Enough of living through the dehumanising process that networked scale imposed. Enough of tweaking the edges of legacy structures that needed to be wiped clean. 

It had just become impossible and stopped being fun. 

In the end, neither of us believed that a 21st-century system could be created out of a 20th-century corporation. So we took a "day zero" approach and started again with two simple questions: 

1. What do clients want and value from an external organisation? 

We heard about a lot of issues from a lot of clients. They told us that they valued strategic counsel and were happy to pay for it, but that they saw through strategy that simply sold creative execution. They were fed up of "pitch and switch". They wanted access to key people but seemed to have to buy layers of agency staff to do that. They were still kept at arm’s length by agencies. 

They wanted a way to buy short, focused, project-based teams of talent and, depending on the outcome of the first assignment, have the ability to adjust the team and the scope accordingly. 

We also heard about the opacity of agency billing and the frustration with what they saw as soaring overheads. Basically, they were looking for something faster, flatter and more flexible. 

2. How does today’s best talent want to work?

All around us we saw men and women voting with their feet. We observed two key trends. First, smart people around the 15-year mark stepping out of agency structures and going freelance or establishing themselves as a sole-trader company, but often finding it lonely and not how they wanted to work. Second, we also saw young talent leaving London, unable to live on low salaries there. They were starting up small studios around the UK but they missed the big-name client briefs. They might have given up on agencies, but still loved doing the work, and this world-class talent was being sidelined because they weren’t in London. 

We knew that the last thing that the world needed was another agency, so we decided to design a new operating system for advertising, one that worked equally for client and talent alike. 

We stripped away all the frustrations and doubled-down on what we loved and what everyone else loved about working in creative agencies. You could say that The Fawnbrake Collective was born of frustration, but conceived with love. 

The Fawnbrake Collective is a diverse group of independent thinkers and makers with standout track records and great connections, brought together through their shared beliefs and values, rather than a shared headquarters. 

Each "Fawnbraker" continues to run their own sole-trader or small business, but is also a part of the Collective. We have not set out to design a database of freelancers, nor is it one. There are plenty of those, and they do a good job. This is different by design. 

‘We believe that 20th-century structures and approaches are stifling creativity for 21st-century brands’

The Collective is a community. We build connections through real-world activities such as not-for-profit strategy hackathons ("StratHacks"), Fawnbrake socials at Brunswick House in Vauxhall and Fawnbrake field trips to explore theatres, galleries, pop-ups, lectures and more. 

We believe that our Collective has to exist virtually and physically; virtual alone does not serve to build tight teams who have each other’s backs. 

This "access, not ownership" talent model enables Fawnbrake to take a different and transparent approach to pricing. Clients pay for what they need – no more, no less. It is simple, straightforward and highly effective: pay for talent, nothing else. We are not looking for expensive retainers; › we often find that our best work is done in "sprint" conditions. Slow is anathema to us. 

Our internal mantra is "fast, flat and flexible". That’s how we like working and we find that clients want to work that way, too. 

Through the creation of iterative "minimal viable teams" comprising experienced talent with diverse backgrounds, we can ensure we deliver what is needed to solve the problem, not the predetermined team we need to sell. 

Seven principles for flexible futures

The Fawnbrake Collective was launched with a beta "proof of concept" phase in October 2017, with a roll-out launch in January 2018. We have just hit the six-month mark and learned many things that we want to share. 

  1. It’s less scary to do, than to think about doing. 

  2. When you issue a call to arms to join a movement you shouldn’t be surprised if people around the world answer that call and want to join in. We were, and we weren’t really ready for it. We were surprised how many people turned up in Vauxhall on a cold, wet Tuesday night in January for our first social. We were bombarded with emails from around the world asking questions, such as "Can anyone join?", "Is there a test?" and "Is there a cost?" At the start, we didn’t have the answers. We do now. 

  3. Not everything that can be monetised should be monetised. Mark Earls said this to us when we talked to him about the Fawnbrake operating system. We had told him that we’d been advised to explore a "pay to play" model for Fawnbrakers – essentially a paid membership approach – because that would lead to more profits. This wasn’t an approach we wanted to take, and Mark told us: "Sometimes you want to build financial capital, sometimes you want to build social capital." We’ve taken to using the hashtag #KarmaNotKickbacks.

  4. Everyone wants to work in a different way. We’re having conversations with clients who we never would have dreamed might want a non-agency solution. They’re all looking for brilliant, razor-sharp work, faster, and delivered more transparently and collaboratively. 

  5. Location doesn’t matter. We’ve never been questioned about why there is no HQ or where Fawnbrakers are based. All clients are interested in is the quality of the work. 

  6. Our industry is packed with kind people. We’ve been so heartened by the support we’ve encountered. Whether it’s agency folks giving up nights to StratHack for charity, or the emails, coffees and tweets we’ve had from industry colleagues, people seem really enthused to see willing new models. There’s a wonderful energy in optimism. 

  7. Clients do pay for strategy. In April, at Advertising Week Europe, Sir Martin Sorrell said that the industry needed agencies to be "more responsive, less bureaucratic, more agile, less layered, more principled", and someone tweeted that this sounded like The Fawnbrake Collective. We agree. We believe that 20th-century structures and approaches are stifling strategy and creativity for 21st-century brands. We don’t think tweaking the edges of agencies has worked or will work. The world has changed faster than agencies. The Fawnbrake Collective takes a modern and pragmatic approach to talent and creativity, deliberately setting out to change the game, to design a new, flexible operating system, equally suited to the needs of clients and talent alike. It’s not perfect, but it’s different and it’s energising to be living out a newly designed creative structure. 

Mind the flexibility gap

Adopting new working practices may be at the top of the business agenda but, according to research from Timewise and Deloitte ("A Manifesto for Change: A Modern Workplace for a Flexible Workforce"), workers in the UK are currently paying a high price for flexibility.

•  Of  respondents to the survey, 30% felt that they were regarded as having less status and importance because of their flexible working pattern. Of those who responded in this way, 92% were women. 

•  Twenty-five per cent felt they were given access to fewer opportunities and missed out on potential progression and promotion opportunities.

•  And 28% felt disadvantaged because they couldn’t attend work-related events outside of working hours.

The study also highlighted that the barriers to successfully embedding flexible working are mainly cultural, such as the attitudes and behaviours of managers. A majority of respondents agreed that organisations need to step away from passive policies and approaches, and instead:

1 Create a workplace culture in which people are judged on the work they do rather than the hours they work (70%).

2  Recruit and train managers who truly support their team to achieve work/life balance (70%).

3  Implement a range of suitable flexible working options (60%).

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