Company Health (Beyond Profit)

youdo talks to James Kirkham about all things company culture. Episode 7, Part 1

Luke - It is with great pleasure and no small measure of excitement that I welcome James Kirkham to our discussion series. James and I first worked together in the early 2000s. I was at Channel Four, and James had co-founded an amazing creative agency called Holler. And although he’s far too modest to say it, James has been at the forefront of the way that brands communicate with their audiences ever since. So James, welcome. What are you up to at the moment?

James - They were good days when we met. I think I used to describe you as the funniest man in media just because you always made me laugh! But I think in the context of today's chat, there's probably something more interesting there in terms of that ability to galvanise people around you, and basically make sure you enjoy what you're doing.

These days, I recently founded my own business (again). After Holler, I went via football for four years with COPA90, which I loved. And then I decided it wasn't enough to do one hobby so I went off on a record label called Defected for another couple of years. But then, I guess I got that itch again and about the turn of the year I founded ICONIC. I guess it's the summation of all of my work career from sports and music and fashion. It basically sits at the intersection of culture and it gives brands a queue jump to the front of popular culture. So we're doing thinking and creative stuff and deployment for some lovely brands. And I'm enjoying it. I'm energised!

Luke - So let's dive right in. As you know, the meta topic here is company culture and why it's important, but the bit that I'm really keen to speak to you about is how companies have changed over the last 20 years. When I came into the job market it was pretty much all about making money vs. maybe where they are now. Or am I being overly idealistic and it’s actually still mostly just about making money?!

James - I guess like you, I often wonder if it's our own experience - dare I say ageing process - that changes or alters the perspective from when we were both first in that job market or running businesses or running teams, or whether there has been a change?

I think there has been a significant change. I think it's been well documented for some time that the youngest of these generations who are now at work, they care deeply. They care about businesses and companies who outwardly care. It is not a strange coincidence that businesses, like a Patagonia, quite rightly garner such wonderful headlines in all of the social streams. And likewise, that generation - is this a cancel culture point or not? - are very quick to ruthlessly filter out businesses who frankly, don't play by the book. And their book is climate aware. For starters, they want to know that these businesses are doing what they can and not just filling up the world with crap and leaving it all for them to fix.

There is a significant shift there because the generation prior to that had a hacker mentality. That was a Napster era, that was a pirate era. That was a ‘I don't really care about the cost implication so long as we can hack it and break it and make up our own rules’. That's definitely shifted to a far more kind of rounded understanding and perspective. So all of that is to say that when it then comes to the workplace, or company culture or work culture, I think there's an expectation of those values being met. And there being a value exchange. I know, young people going into businesses right now, whether they be brands or agencies or companies, whoever it might be, there will definitely be a set of questions and almost stipulations about how much good that business does. Does it really sit appropriately on the right side of a value set? What does it do in terms of CSR? How is it giving back? What were the purpose driven campaigns of last year?

Is this happening because it's a sort of a seller's market in respect of that young people can afford to be choosy? Will that shift again? We're going through what has been described as sort of bloodbath of the unicorns. There is a huge, huge shedding of numbers from big tech platforms, Your Facebooks and Googles were built very much in a company culture of ‘get your free breakfast’ and big, big numbers. That's going to shift again. You feel the next couple of years - without being doom and gloom - are going to be incredibly stark, Many parallels, perhaps with the pandemic, because the cost of living is such that it's preventing so many people from doing their everyday enjoyments before or after work. So the company and the culture around it, and where they reside is as important as ever. And perhaps it will be less sort of frivolous, less face value, less about just a free breakfast and more about what are you, the company, actually giving back into this world?

Luke - You co-founded your own business - at a relatively early age - and you've also worked for some big organisations. Give us your perspective on how you build a healthy company culture.

James - I guess it feels like you can't just manufacture it. And I say that because I've been very fortunate with founding Holler and then running COPA90, they had a very comparable set of cultures that were almost unmatched. And I say that because an awful lot of people went through the doors of both places and many very sweetly said that they’ve never been able to find that again. I'm sure you might have found something similar from a certain era.

My part one of this would be that it’s devilishly hard to manufacture because a lot of it comes down to people. That alchemic mix of individuals that make up that company or that team. They're quite tricky to ever perfectly put together like a jigsaw. I'm just not sure that anyone ever can. You should have a lovely rigorous set of values with which you go and seek people out. A very early example from Holler days is where I was interviewing two developers who were basically the same level. The reason we plumbed for this guy called Mike was that he had a master's in zoology. I bloody loved that about him. It was absolutely nothing to do with the job. Mike ended up going to run Holler Sydney and being a fantastic entrepreneur. I guess the simple rationale of choice was that we were looking for interesting people, people with a difference, people with something to say. So that's a filtering process that felt very gut.

If we're honest with Holler and COPA90 the vibe was fun. There are now sides to this that would worry me a bit (and having spent time in music), but I'll go with my innocent appraisal, and then I'll go with a more 45 year old James appraisal. It was fun. We would work hard and play hard. It was very much that era. Maybe my favourite ever time at Holler was when there were about 15 of us. We had a studio in Farringdon Road in London, we would work, frankly, silly hours, but all together for the real common good, often working on one or two projects together. So it's a gang mentality from the start. And then you would go to the pub and get drunk and turn up the next day and you would carry on. And it was imbued with such a natural team spirit of helping one another. I guess, if you want to now look with a fresh perspective, it wasn't that we were going ‘hey, let's go paint-balling for the day’. It was a culture where there was loud music playing, we had a lot of fun whilst we worked and we adored what we did. And then we all got drunk together. The reason I have a slight take a breath moment on that is that I've worked in the music industry and that is a mentality that's lasted decades now. And to many people's detriment as it's ultimately damaging. I love how that 50% of Gen Z - or whatever the stat is - don't even drink, which is great.

But so how do you create the release post work when you're driving that gang? I think that's a different conversation. I've been in other places where it was a continual conversation of how we make that culture. But much of it felt manufactured. And it isn't easy is the point. You can start with that set of values, know who you are as a business, have your aims, your Northstar. I think you have to appeal to that really heartfelt part of your people. To say ‘we are on this journey together. And this is how we're going to make it work these days’.

Fast forward to 2022/2023 and you can't help but have to know that assembling good people is also assembling talents. Irrespective of their position or place in life. It might be they've got multiple kids and they're doing the school pickup, it might be they’re remote working because actually they chose during the pandemic to live in Cornwall and there's a there's a myriad of if you like factors now that they weren't there in 2001 when I started Holler. Maybe they should have been or maybe I was ignorant to them, but they certainly weren't at the forefront as they are now. So I believe we are assembling from a different set of ingredients. And it is harder for people.

I really truly believe that the jigsaw is not as easy as ‘Get some great music, get a bunch of people of a similar age, get a shared set of values, get a belief in where you're heading to and enjoy!’ That's sadly not the level of simplicity that can carry as easily to create culture these days.