A series of interviews with the founders of independent + successful ad agencies and creative studios.

Dave King

The Royals

June 2, 2017

Interviewed by: Glenn Rogers

Can you explain to us who The Royals are and what you do?

The Royals are a bunch of creative miscreants who love to help clients solve interesting problems and realize new opportunities. We work in creative communications, advertising, content creation, film, social media and other amazing things that go on the internet.

With the launch of Y2, an R&D partnership with Deakin University, we’re also heavily invested in helping organizations develop innovative products and experiences.

How long have you been with the company and how large is your team?

As a founder, I’ve been in the business since the outset. Even a bit before. We have about 55-60 people across our Melbourne and Sydney offices.

How would you describe the culture at The Royals?

We’re really proud of our culture, and I think that is reflected in how people talk about the experience of working here, whether they are current Royals or have moved on. Our values are audacity, camaraderie, and revelry. These guide us on how to approach problems, opportunities, and decisions—big and small.

Back when you were starting out, was it tough to win new business without an agency reputation, and did you ever try to appear bigger (or more established) than you were to win clients?

Totally. I think it’s often hard to get momentum in the beginning. We had the benefit of some founding clients with good brands that looked good in deck, but we have always had to really hustle to compete with bigger agencies that have deeper pockets.

One of the ways we’ve dedicated ourselves to building on our reputation is to invest in our own ideas, products, startups, and experiments. That way we can communicate what we believe in to the outside world, and demonstrate what we’re most interested in by doing, not just talking.

The Royals has seen a lot of change and growth over the past few years, including moving into a new office in Sydney. Has that growth always come organically, or do you set out a very clear 1-3-5 year vision?

I am very lucky to have partners who are incredibly buttoned-down in budgeting, finance, and operations. They’ve learned a lot from ups and downs at other agencies so, since the beginning, we’ve managed growth closely. And also pretty conservatively. We haven’t really been extravagant in spending or hiring, but more managed, to reasonably grow without having major setbacks.

Entering a new market like Sydney is always a big commitment. Sometimes people underestimate the amount of time, investment, and resources it takes to achieve that in a way that lasts. And that’s why there are hardly any independent agencies in both Sydney and Melbourne.

Speaking of which, how does the location of your team members affect your work culture? Have you grouped teams by project or by discipline? Do you have any folks working remotely?

We have a “two eggs, one yolk” cultural philosophy which speaks to the way we see our two offices—one team, one dream.

At a basic level, there’s only one profit & loss ledger. And that means that decisions about who works on what aren’t about individual office targets. So we always have Sydney people working on Melbourne stuff, and vice versa. The obvious benefit to this is that we can have people with the right expertise, experience, and interest working on a bunch of different things, regardless of where they’re based.

We also have two people in Amsterdam on the payroll because they tried to leave us, but they’re awesome so we wouldn’t let them! So we rely heavily on Google Hangouts to collaborate with them. Lots of sight gags and laughs ensue.

I’ve read that you guys are advocates of the Google Ventures Design Sprint process, which you say ‘doesn’t feel like writing a brief – it’s more like decoding an opportunity.’ How is that working out? Has the process evolved at all?

Yep, we have adopted and mutated a version of the Design Sprint. We mostly use it for innovation and product development types of projects, not so much for campaigns or content work.

I really like its structure, and it allows us to rapidly conceive and test an idea by actually getting started. I’ve seen companies spend six months creating a business case document when that investment could have developed and tested 10-15 different ideas in the same timeframe.

How do clients react to being involved in something like this?

Without exception (so far!), I can say that clients love it. It breaks down the barriers between client and agency walls and gets everybody immersed in the challenge with the same perspective, information, and understanding of the problem we need to crack.

Speaking of clients, are there any particular traits that help you deliver your best work?

We’re lucky to have a great bunch of clients to work with. In my experience, it works best when everybody just acts like themselves. No roleplaying or bravado, just a bunch of people enjoying working on interesting things.

What I love about great clients is a willingness to let us in and feel like part of the team, to take on their challenges as our own, and to be able to laugh and tell stories over a beer.

As a company, we’re filled with people who simply want to help clients, enjoy their work, and be challenged in interesting ways. When clients embrace that, they make the most of us.

How do you schedule your team to handle the downtime between projects? Do you have internal projects that you spend time on?

To be honest, we don’t have too much downtime. We schedule our extra-curricular activities in amongst our paid work, so there’s always something up next!

You’re the innovation partner at The Royals. What technology are you most excited about at the moment?

It’s hard not to be excited about the growing potential for different aspects of AI, as it’s gradually being produced and made more widely available to companies of all different types.

I’m particularly interested in some aspects of ‘Creative AI’ like natural language generation, computer vision, style transfer, etc. We’re going to see some amazing new tools and ways of working come out of this kind of tech that will help us augment our creativity.

Do you have any words of advice for those considering starting their own agency?

Surround yourself with people you like and trust. Say yes to heaps of things at the start, but keep an eye on what inspires you and what matters to you, and adjust the work you take on over time.

Treat people respectfully, don’t make clients the enemy, and work hard at creating a place you love to come to (it doesn’t happen without consideration). And overall, do it. It’s heaps of fun!

Anything else you’d like to add?

Like in competitive sports, “momentum” is an important concept to understand and embrace when running an agency. When things go your way, embrace it and double down. When things aren’t going your way, address them, don’t let them drift. Make momentum your friend.

Thanks to Dave for taking the time to answer these questions and to Louise for the studio tour. For more on The Royals, be sure to check out: www.theroyals.com.au.

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