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

Will + Ben

Stepladder

October 31, 2017

Interviewed by: Michael Freedman

In one sentence, can you tell us what Stepladder does?

We make buildings famous.

What made you decide to launch your own studio?

We’re lifelong friends who’ve been making and selling things since our schooldays, so it was inevitable that one day we’d go into business together.

Our careers were very different for the first five years or so, but our paths crossed over time through design and property. We eventually ended up working together for the same design studio, and it was there that we realized we loved taking ownership of entire projects and managing people within the studio. We were too ambitious and curious to carry on working for someone else, and we craved variety and felt the need to take control of our own future.

It was a brave leap forward, but we thought we’d gained enough essential experience and that we had all the tools we needed to start Stepladder.

What were some early challenges you didn’t anticipate when you first set up shop?

We didn’t realize that running a business came with such a steep learning curve! Cash flow, trust, and delivery were three areas that really hammered home the reality of being totally responsible for something.

We didn’t anticipate the costs associated with leasing and fitting out our offices, and going from renting desks to leasing our own studio was a huge (but exciting) risk. We also failed to foresee all the highs and lows we would go through on a daily basis, and how personal and emotional they could feel. Luckily for us, we had a lot of highs in the first few years that spurred us to keep pushing forward.

Finally, we didn’t truly grasp how many late nights and long hours there would be. We knew it would be bloody hard work, but we were regularly putting in 15-16 hour days for the first couple of years—sometimes even working around the clock! We gave up our social lives and almost everything we owned financially.

Looking back on things, we believe that if we didn’t have that drive and attitude, we wouldn’t have made it.

How large is your team now? Do you encourage people to work remotely?

Our team varies in size depending on our workload, but I’d say it’s between 20-25 most weeks. We’ve invested in a lovely modern studio in the center of London, and working together helps us with the collaborative delivery for our clients, so we like to have as many people at HQ as we can.

However, some of us spend a fair amount of time meeting with clients across the country (and sometimes the world), so the ability to work remotely is still essential to us. The key is to have enough flexibility to do both at the drop of a hat.

What does a typical project look like at Stepladder?

It (of course) looks outstanding! “Typical” is not in our vocabulary. The majority of clients come to us with some strategic problem within the real estate sector that they need help solving, but outside of that, everything varies. That’s just the way we like it.

You’ve mentioned that you specialize in real estate. Does focusing on one market give you an advantage over other agencies when you meet with prospective clients?

Our decision to tell the world that we only wanted to work within the property sector was not easy. The positives were obvious—we speak the same language as our clients and understand their challenges and how to solve them. The big risk was that we might be thought of as a “formulaic” and “less” creative agency in the eyes of some.

We definitely put our necks on the line, but we believed that we could squash any negativity by improving our creative output. We’re happy to say that through the careful recruitment of top talent, we’ve become known for engaging creative work and a knowledgeable and passionate approach. We think that our specialization is what’s made us such a success in our sector.

What do you need from a client to help you deliver great work?

A realistic budget, respect for the creative process, and the confidence to challenge our suggestions! It also helps if they’re equally open to being challenged themselves.

How do you measure progress and success as an agency?

Controlled growth is the key, and ultimately that’s only possible if you can reinvest in your agency year-on-year. We work hard to run a very organized operation, which (in theory) should keep us profitable. We believe in constant communication throughout the company, and we pay painstaking attention to every element of the business.

It’s not very romantic, but establishing and growing a branding agency in central London is very hard and very competitive, and  “doing it for love” isn’t enough to survive.

We measure our success by reflecting on where we are. Our team is growing, we continue to win pitches, and we’re delivering amazing creative work for our clients.

 

Are there any technology trends that excite you? How are you implementing those into your work?

The property industry, in general, seems to be pretty slow in adopting new technology. While virtual reality is creeping into some campaigns, I think it will eventually take over the industry. We’ve recently launched a new company called Beyond, that delivers high–end marketing CGI for the industry and is already producing some very interesting VR for clients. When the tech and market are fully ready, we’ll be there waiting.

You’re based in Southwark—an area of London that is home to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and is the setting of many Charles Dickens novels. What’s it like working there?

Southwark is one of the oldest settlements in Britain, dating back over 6,000 years! During the late 18th century, the area developed into a more industrial setting, with docks, warehouses, and wharves abound.

That industrious spirit lives on today, and although it’s overshadowed by trendy bars, galleries, and shops, the working community here always seems to be up to something interesting. It’s not a place to simply sit and watch the world pass you by—that’s for sure!

What advice would you give to someone starting their own studio?

Be ambitious (but take only calculated risks), enjoy the highs along the way, and keep pushing forward no matter what. Most importantly, be prepared to give up everything else that means anything to you for at least the first few years!

A big thanks to Will and Ben for taking time out of their day to be interviewed. For more on Stepladder, check them out at: http://www.stepladderuk.com/.

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