April 11, 2016Published by: Drew

How we built a consultancy for innovation: the Battenhall blueprint

This is a post about how Battenhall works. We are now three years old, and throughout our time building up this business we have tried to foster a new way of working that I felt when we launched better fits the social media age in which we live. The good news is that our model is flourishing. And the single question I get asked the most about what we do at Battenhall is: "but how does it work in reality?" So I wrote this post to explain a little.

When we launched Battenhall in 2013, we designed our working model deliberately to break new ground in the communications agency space, because traditional working practices were designed for traditional media, and things were changing. From my own experience, I found that working in a field where there is short term pressure to be billable as a client servicing consultant, but a longer term need for innovation as a specialist, brings about a situation where a delicate balance needs to be struck. Most teams that innovate are simply not revenue-making, and most client servicing operations simply don't do innovation.

What I saw everywhere I worked as a consultant, both agency and client side, was that innovation comes from either a specialist team, individuals with ring-fenced time, or from out-of-work time.

In the early days of my work in digital, I experimented and innovated in my home time. That's when I taught myself to code, set up my first blog, tried out every new social network, and so on. Then when there was a visible revenue opportunity for my agency, I tried things out while they were new, and bosses then ensured my time for other normal work was cut down. I became partly ring-fenced - I saw my time 'freed up' slightly so that I could do digital work in the office.

But when making this scale across a business, I could see new structures would be needed, a topic which I have written about here in depth as it is about the founding principles of Battenhall's ethos from the day we set up shop.

Specifically how we work has attracted without doubt the most questions from those watching our growth. We have by no means taken over the world, but I am very proud of what we have achieved in our first three years in business.

Battenhall awards

In our first year of business, we were identified as an agency to watch by the PRCA. When we were one year old we won best social media agency in the UK. And at two years old we won best large social media agency, best specialist agency, best new agency in EMEA and best small PR agency in the UK.

I put this all down to how we work and the people and therefore clients that this model has managed to attract. So, here is how it works.

1. Things we have around us: the critical non-essentials

Most of how we work at Battenhall is just like any consultancy. We have an office in London, communications technology to help us do our job, and systems to organise ourselves. However we try to go that bit further in the hope that it will help us and our clients in some way.

Firstly we have created a modular set-up for all staff that helps them be the best they can be. No shitty technology to battle with (something surprisingly common in offices!) no lack of tools or services needed to get things done fast, and plenty of little perks. When I say modular, I mean these perks worked when we were two people in the business back in April 2013, they work as we hire new staff every month, and they work now we're a larger team just the same. They work if you're big or if you're small.

One of my business and sports idols called this concept 'critical non-essentials' and using this model he turned England into a world #1 rugby team. At Battenhall, these non-essentials are our blueprint, and they include the following:

  • Tech set-up. We give every new starter the choice on how they would like to spend £1,200 on their tech set-up. Most people go for the highest spec laptop that they can get, some lower the spec and get a tablet or watch to go with it. Also EVERYTHING we work on is online. No huge expensive clunky IT room. No expensive migration of things into the cloud. From day one we ensured everything we used was accessible from anywhere.
  • All the tools. All the media, social media and measurement tools we can buy and get our hands on (we build our own too, but we buy all the acknowledged industry-leading services out there so as to level the playing field).
  • Noms. there is free fruit in the office, there are also lots of sweets for the fruit to cancel out, there's Donut Thursday, Friday drinks, regular all-team lunches, outings and evening events.
  • Office. everything has to shout out innovation to the team and to visitors. From the hidden jokes on the doorbell to the social-media-connected company sign, the office, its location and its contents are geared up to give the right impression to all.
  • There's more, but these are the main things.

 

2. How we work: resources & talent

At Battenhall, client campaigns are designed from the ground up on building blocks of time and materials. Whether we base a piece of client work on a retainer or a project, and whether the work is creative, technical or strategic, the building blocks stay the same. We don't work on commission, on 'value' or any other metric. Our clients buy our time and the materials that help the job get done. So our team's capacity becomes very simple to manage - each client's workload is shared between the Battenhall team members doing the job, which makes it clear when we need to hire, and when we have capacity to take on new clients.

We build slack into our team at all times, which means we always have time available to work with new clients. We do this because we've been lucky enough to keep growing ever since day one, and so new clients and new team members increase hand in hand every month.

How we manage our innovation time though is radically different to other consultancies I have had the fortune to work with... we call this our 20% time and it's talked about literally every day.

Brainstorming

Before we map out client time, we take 20% of every team member's working month, and keep it aside for innovation work. That means 80% of our consultants time is available for everything else, with the mix for each consultant between client time, strategy, admin, proposal-writing and so on varying according to their own career path.

This I felt was important for an agency that focuses on innovation: the 20% time is where new ideas come from, where we try out new technologies and social networks while they are brand new, and often where the stuff happens that attracts the best talent and keeps us wanting to work here. 20% time is increasingly common in technology companies, but not so much in the services industry.

Other time-focused initiatives we foster at Battenhall include time shifting, flexi / remote working, and unlimited holiday. Team members are encouraged to be in the office as much as possible, but we appreciate that it's not always the best use of time to be there just because. Working a bit from home, or from a location near your next meeting for example, or perhaps starting later because of last night's late shift, are all things that keep us sharp. On any give day however, the office is full and buzzing.

Unlimited holiday is managed on a use your own discretion basis. Team members can take longer than the standard 25 days per year allocation, but they have to ensure there is cover for their clients, that it is ok to take off, and anything over 25 days is taken as a salary sacrifice. Because of the balance that is necessary, holidays are managed very responsibly. Nobody takes the piss, it's fair to say!

3. Things we make

Lastly, we try hard to walk the talk when it comes to our use of social media and content creation. We put a considerable amount of our time into researching the future of communications, sharing our findings, and pioneering in the use of technologies ourselves.

In addition to our blog, Instagram and Twitter, we have a monthly email newsletter, The Battenhall Monthly, an annual piece of research, The FTSE 100 Report, and newer channels such as the Battenhall WhatsApp, which is a daily broadcast of news for people working in comms, and our Snapchat, which gives a window into life at our company.

Battenhall WhatsApp

Our content is the only marketing we do. We don't have any sales or marketing people, and never have done. We have never advertised, and all our clients have come to us through word of mouth. I find that in doing this, we keep our tools sharp, and we hep get the word out there as well.

Over and above this, we have a special projects team, where we build industrialised tools and services that are useful to our clients. People in this team focus their 20% time on R&D and technical work, and we are busy building IP, software tools and new platforms that help our clients.

What's next?

With all this in mind, we try hard to ensure that as a team and a consultancy, Battenhall has one foot in the present, and one firmly planted in the future.

Our focus on innovation is not only there to attract great staff and clients, but to ensure we and our clients are relevant in the future present, in this world where the media, technology and how we communicate is changing faster than most of us can keep up with.

It certainly makes for a fun working environment, but as you can see, one which requires a new way of working in order to succeed. Here's to the next three years.

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