Sally Henderson
Powerful change from the inside out




Shine Brighter Interview featuring Manfred Abraham, Founder & CEO of BrandCap

SH: Can you tell me a little about your business, what you do, how long have you been going, and how many people are you?

MA: In a wide context, we are operating within the Branding industry. We describe ourselves as a business consultancy that uses brand to drive performance. For us it is vital that brand and business strategy work closely together, without understanding one you cannot understand the other.

We are 4 years old with 30 people in London and 4 in New York.

Industry perspective

SH: What is your view on the industry’s approach to talent and development? 

MA: Our industry has seen two fundamental changes.  Firstly, many of the larger players are now owned by bigger networks which have been built around their advertising and media buying agencies. The brand consultancies have been tagged on and their role in the large groups is deteriorating. They have even started to combine some of the bigger players under one CEO (eg Lambie Nairn/The Partners). Clearly the networks don’t see value in their differences. In comparison to media and advertising, the revenues from branding are a drop in the ocean so branding businesses are treated like second class citizens.

Secondly, the cyclical nature of the market means companies hire quickly when they are busy and fire quickly which creates a lot of unhappy people.  There is little looking after people or talent development.

We look outside branding to management consultancies such as KPMG and EY as they have a much better approach to talent. They are rewarding and reviewing their talent very frequently and consistently. 

As an industry, we just don’t compare favourably yet we compete directly with the management consultancies. How we reward, incentivise, train and cultural aspects means our industry is losing out. There is a belief that the nature of the work we do, and the clients we work with, somehow compensates for this. This is probably still true but changing fast especially given the direction management consultancies are heading in. (eg Accenture buying Karmarama)

SH: Have you seen changes in the market from a people and talent perspective since you set up your business?

MA: We haven’t seen dramatic changes but the challenges have become more pronounced

SH: From your career so far, what were/are the common mistakes you see happening in the industry regarding people and talent?

MA: Generally, the leaders I have observed, with rare exceptions, throughout my career have been great strategy practictionners but not necessarily great managers.  I have always had to learn on the job and never had any training. I also observed that only a select few people were rewarded well financially. Again when you compare this with management consultancies this is not the case with financial reward being more widely distributed although the leadership is exceptionally well rewarded.  I also saw that your own personal development was very linked with the direct Line Manager you had.  Working with a very critical boss often means your progress is slower than when working with a more relaxed person where you generally progressed faster!

SH: How do you think the call for more diversity is affecting the industry?  How diverse are you as a business and are you taking any steps to be more diverse at work?

M.A: Personally, I think the branding industry is diverse, certainly we are. We have a 50/50 male female ratio.  Our Chairman and MD are female, we employ a lot of LGTB people, have numerous different religious backgrounds and we come from 12 different countries. We see diversity as essential ingredient for the success of our business.

Company perspective

SH: What are the key changes you have experienced in your business since launching from a people and talent perspective? 

MA: Because we are a relatively young business when we were 5 people the “culture thing” was very easy and cost no money. We could go out for lunch or breakfast and it was very easy to be inclusive and involve everyone in the decision-making process on most things.  We still do consult heavily with our people but it is a much more complex process. We are committed to maintaining this though as inclusivity is really important to us. We have to be more organised to develop our culture, however in my view organisation and culture are not natural bed mates!

From our previous backgrounds, we haven’t seen tools that we felt worked particularly well for developing the right type of culture so we are creating our own tools to support and develop our culture. They are needed because of the size of the business and the fact that we have two locations and designed to maintain our uniqueness.  This isn’t always easy as we are very busy and it is difficult to not just fall back into what we’ve seen in our past careers.

We have changed our review process and got inspired by EY’s innovative way of reviewing people. Our approach has been designed to take subjectivity out of the process regarding the line manager and allows for fast progression of high quality talent.

SH: Would you do anything differently based on your learnings and experience?

MA: No. We are constantly reviewing what we do as what was right when we were 6 or 10 or 15 isn’t right for us now.  We’ve made sure we evolved our approach to people and talent so it is fit for purpose.

SH: What has been most effective for you / what core people and talent initiatives have you created in terms of Attracting Talent?

MA: For attracting talent we have been extremely targeted. We have directly approached the people we think will be right for our business.  We also have a very strong intern scheme with universities in the US, India, China, UK and the rest of the EU. We have 2/3 Interns at any one time as part of our recruitment drive.

We also have Project Palm which attracts talent very well for us. We encourage our people to spend time on their own businesses with our full support. We also strongly feel our clients benefit from our people having real world experience. Since we launched only one person has left to set up their own company and remains very close to us. We see ourselves as a modern family business.

We work with start-ups for either a discounted fee or we take an equity stake in their business. Our people enjoy working on start-ups and this also helps with attracting people. Our people are also encouraged to work on client site for full immersion and to offer new learning and experiences.

SH: What has been most effective for you / what core people and talent initiatives have you created in terms of Retaining Talent?

MA: For hiring talent: most people we have employed we know and we still know a lot of people out there in the market. We have pin-pointed the people we want to add and when we are at the right stage we go all out to get the talent we want. We are networking on a consistent basis so we have friends of BrandCap even if they are not here yet.

We are really committed to individual development and reward well for this. We will always honour progression of individuals even when this may fall outside of the company’s performance. We appreciate how frustrating it is to be ready for a new challenge but the company can’t promote.  We encourage growth as it is also very good for us. Sometimes we may feel it is the wrong timing from the business’ perspective to promote someone but went ahead anyway because the individual was ready. This has always worked for us and feels a better way.

We have a summer away day and night at a super luxury hotel together where we review the business’s strategy and share thinking and views. The team will then go off and work on it and what it means for the business so we are all involved in the process.  We also make sure we have fun. There is always a hot tub together, that’s a must have! At Christmas, we go away just for fun to bond and say thank you.

Financially we pay above market rates for salaries and have paid a bonus every year.

We have individual development plans and allocate a £500 training budget per person.  Employees can tell us what they want to do with it and they can accumulate it up to 3 years. Their mentors also advice them on this. We organise training sessions for the company that are open to all and hold a roundtable every week where we bring in speakers for inspiration either internal or external resources. For example, recently Rita Clifton, our Chairman, held a session explaining how the role of Boards have changed over the years.

Also, we grow our own to fill leadership positions over bringing in lots of senior people. We have systems to kill politics quickly with honest direct conversations that occur from top down and down to top including me.

SH: What results have you seen from your approach to attracting and retaining talent?

MA: Our margins are better than any company I have ever worked for. We have only lost one person in 4 years which is the person I mentioned who left to set up their own business which we actively supported. On a personal note, when I walk through the door I am really happy to be here.  It doesn’t feel like work. I am surrounded by amazing people I want to look after they are looking out for me and each other. 

SH: What do you invest in training and development annually? How do you determine this?

MA: Without including the time we spend from a company perspective, we have set aside a budget of £35k for this year.  In this we have the £500 for each person and we will also be investing in the senior team’s development and offering specific development opportunities to all.

SH: What are you most proud of as a people and talent offering at BrandCap?

MA: Giving people a stable home where they can develop

SH: What remains a challenge you wish to tackle re people and development?

MA: Communication. We recently brought in a Managing Director and the first step I took was to step back and give her space. The challenge with this is keeping the right level of connection with the business around our vision on a constant basis so we are working this through.

SH: What do your people tell you they want from work/career you as an employer?

MA: We have a bunch of highly ambitious people so personal development is their number one especially when you look at this in the context of the changing industry we are in.

We are focusing on deepening specialist industry knowledge and this is working out really well for both our peoples’ development and for our clients’

SH: What’s the best advice you have ever had when it comes to talent and development as a Leader?

MA: The best piece of advice was one that I didn’t take which was:

“People are responsible for their own careers and journeys.  As an owner/leader you need to keep detached from this”. I wholeheartedly disagree.  As CEO, I think I do have the responsibility to develop the people who work in my business. 

If you don’t feel this responsibility then in my opinion you are not right as a CEO.

SH: What advice do you have for other leaders/owners of a creative business?

MA: For me, it is the most rewarding thing to see people progress and grow. Then your job becomes easier. We see delivering results for our clients as our number one priority so through creating an environment where people can grow means by and large they will then grow by themselves. You set the surroundings and then you can watch it happen. The reward this gives me is far better than any monetary one.

SH: Is there anything we haven’t covered that you would like to share that will help creative businesses / leaders get better at attracting and retaining talent?

MA: Remember your environment.  When we started, our office was an empty space.  We invested in making it a great office and place to be.  Don’t underestimate how important your physical environment is on spirit and the culture of the team. It does feel a big investment up front but at the end of the day we only have our people and our space. Invest in these at the pay back will be a million times over. Lastly, always find time to play and have an office dog!

SH: Who else would you recommend as a great example of investing in people and talent in the creative industry?

MA: Sea Design - Brian Edmondson Founder

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