St Luke’s: Andy Law

We speak to one of the great innovators in the world of advertising

I believe in liberation management,” says Andy Law, co-founder of creative agency Boy Meets Girl, which he set up last year. This is the man responsible for St. Luke’s, the advertising agency that gained an enviable reputation for employee satisfaction and innovation in the late 1990s under his chairmanship.

But now his belief is that the most senior person in an organisation should act as a trainee. “If you assume to know everything and operate a pyramid structure where everything filters its way to the top you slow down the process and fail to see the potential in other people,” he says. Instead he says much of his role, beside securing blue chip clients such as Disney, is to create circumstances for others to flourish.

He dismisses the viability of a traditional managing director. “I’m very negative on MDs. Most offices,” he says, “tip-toe around them. They try to make a company conform to a personal timetable and spend a lot of their time asking people what’s going on.”

At Boy Meets Girl the day-to-day direction of the company is controlled by middle-management through what he describes as the ‘business forum’. Law’s is a template for working that will almost certainly not be embraced far beyond his own venture, much to his chagrin. It would shake conventional business wisdom to its core and leave many owner-managers feeling bereft of their traditional role and concerned about the consequences of relinquishing control. But to him it’s a worthwhile experiment.

Law argues that in most businesses “middle-management acts like a middle-aged spread and is the root cause of why companies fail to progress”. Middle-managers, he adds, are typically in their late 20s and in control of client incomes and closest to what’s going on within the business. This level of control extends to the Forum’s right to decide whether to invite Law along to meetings, which they have only chosen to do sparingly. While responsibility for the week ahead lies with the Forum, three years ahead he expects company-wide input and senior management defines the overall five-year plan. He’s happy to leave a general manager to take care of workflow and timetabling to ensure deadlines are met.

It’s not the only thing Law does differently and he makes no apologies. “Working with a character like myself you experience extremes. If you’re not ready for that you can join the civil service or an order of monks.”

Far from being a tough and uncompromising boss though, he’s referring to the difficulties employees might have in being permitted to break the accepted norms. “The reason my approach at St. Luke’s got so much airplay was that the market pushes back on innovation. It tries to normalise businesses. I haven’t heard of any new exciting businesses for the past five years.”

Five years ago St. Luke’s was making all the headlines. In 1997 it was named Agency of the Year and in 1998 billed work amounted to £85m from the likes of Boots, Clarks and Eurostar. Law founded the company in 1995, and in his time there introduced hotdesking and flexible working long before they were fashionable.

Breaking the mould

There were no job descriptions and employees (or co-owners) were encouraged to work outside their remit. Staff could also define their own learning needs and targets and were entitled to a four-week sabbatical every five years as well as being allocated 50 hours off each year to pursue a ‘social project’.

He had ‘brand rooms’ for clients, such as Clarks, where the room mirrored the company’s shop floor. There was no fixed line for the office – instead everyone was assigned a mobile phone. Potential work was also frequently turned down on ethical grounds.

But there were experiments that failed too. He admits that staff reviewing salaries didn’t work. “We asked people to set their own pay and said we’d publicise it. I publicised mine, but nobody else did. The interesting thing though was that they undervalued themselves by 10%. There are so many Victorian and Dickensian constraints in this country and secrecy is at the heart of so many companies.”

Nevertheless, the structure he put in place was recognised by staff and assessors of the Sunday Times’ 50 Best SMEs to Work For survey. In 2004 it was named the second best small company to work for in the list. He was also voted one of Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneurs of the Year in 2002.

St. Luke’s was set up as a partnership, much in the mould of John Lewis. Staff were kept fully informed on anything relating to the business as a whole, such as major investments, new products, services and the introduction of new technology.

While Law still admires John Lewis and other similar companies, Boy Meets Girl is a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP). “We thought about creating the company as a partnership, as we did at St. Luke’s, but young people are looking for an opportunity, not a job,” he says. “They’re not worrying about their long-term career. We wanted more guts and gumption.”

Law is positive that employees will still exert a strong influence, the company having now gained its independence – it was co-owned by a large American company (40%) and a German company (20%), during which time it was more conventionally managed. Around four months ago it bought itself out and is now in the hands of him and his two co-founders.

The company offers consultancy in advertising, retail, design, digital, direct marketing and sales promotions. Turnover in 2004 was £7m and staff numbers now stand at 60 in London and a further 20 in Paris. Clients include Daimler Chrysler, Disney, Channel 4 and Total.

Many of Law’s early workplace experiments may have been dropped, but just as the Business Forum is evidence of a new approach, there are other noticeable breaks from the norm. Every morning starts with a blast of loud music chosen by the staff. And the last Friday of every month a company meeting of fish and chips is held, from which staff leave when they want. “This effectively means six days extra holiday in the year and can help make the weekend more interesting,” says Law.

At the recent first company away-day staff re-named their job titles based on what they believe they do rather than conventional titles. A list of possible innovations was also drawn up, although many may prove unworkable, including the request of reception staff to work from home occasionally. “We’re looking into that,” he promises, “and by the end of the year we’ll have worked through some of the ideas. The important thing is to be constantly curious and never settle. I exhausted everyone at St. Luke’s to the extent that they probably needed a rest.”


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