It’s a short walk from Deansgate station along cobbled streets to Albert’s Shed in the heart of the Castlefield area of Manchester, an enclave of restored red-brick warehouses full of trendy loft apartments, canals lined with colourful barges moored end-to-end along the tow path and trains trundling overhead visible through the lattice sides of chunky steel bridges. The industrial revolution that gave birth to this infrastructure has, of course, long gone and the area has been reborn with the kind sensitive and stylish redevelopment that makes you wonder how nice it would be to live in one of those fabulous warehouse apartments. To wander round the artisan cafes for a flat white, pop out for a craft beer in the evening or take in the concerts at the nearby bowl, as I did just last week, but without the hassle of travel and parking. To be honest, with weather like it was on Thursday - lovely sunshine making the waterways twinkle - it was quite tempting to head straight onto one of Albert’s Shed’s large terraces and just sip cool beers all day. But I was headed upstairs to the first ‘Bulletproof’ Conference held in generously proportioned, light and ariy meeting rooms above the bars and restaurants.
I’ve been meaning to go to a Bulletproof networking event for a while, having received numerous invites from Michael Henderson at RiskBox who are our insurance brokers. RiskBox are one of the ‘Bulletproof Agency Network’ founders along with MyAccountancyPlace and solicitors BLM. The network aims to ‘unite industry experts and thought leaders on how to scale a thriving, profitable and robust digital agency’ which sounds like a mission you can’t really argue with. And this was their first foray into a full day conference, stepping up from networking events, with an interesting agenda led by speaker Lee Goff who’d come over from the States specifically for the event.
I must admit to not being aware of Lee beforehand, but he was quick to fill in the blanks being far from the shy and retiring type. Born in Mississippi he had a strong southern states accent but his delivery was as far removed from the slow drawl of a character from Mr Ed as you could possibly imagine. Lee was constant motion and spoke rapidly with a slight lisp and a relentless series of points, argument, advice and challenges. I concluded he was the living combination of a couple of Looney Tunes cartoon characters - he sounded pretty much like Daffy Duck (which he cheerfully self-acknowledged) and looked pretty much like Elmer Fudd (which he didn’t).
I should quickly stress that Lee’s career is far from a Looney Tunes cartoon though. He started his own agency in the US, called GetUWired, in 2003, which picked up various awards as he grew it into a leading ‘Infusionsoft’ partnership before deciding to sell up and retire in 2015 aged just 40. Retirement, he decided, was a mistake as he realised there’s only so many rounds of golf you can play on your own before you get bored, although that’s true of golf when playing with partners too in my experience.
So Lee decided to go back into business as a mentor of small businesses leveraging his experience and dynamism. His motto is “success using vision, leadership and shared knowledge” and he certainly shared plenty of his experience and knowledge gained from building GetUWired in his highly engaging talk to the dozen or so agencies attending the full day ‘VIP’ session, and then a further 40 or 50 in the shorter evening session. Those of us who were there during the day also enjoyed a 20 minute one to one session with Lee which was a great opportunity, and with some of the Bulletproof partners.
Lees' key advice was around structure, process, automation and productisation. He explained, and kindly provided the supporting materials, from his own agency’s processes which were all indisputedly sound and common sense measures to plan, document and control the stages of delivery and when to get the key sign-offs from the client. He outlined how, by capturing and reusing processes, you can make your agency more efficient and, in turn, more profitable.
During the day there was plenty of opportunity to chat to the other agency owners too and share our own experiences. Before the evening session started, there was a welcomed chance for us all to go down to the bar in Albert’s Shed for a swift beer in the rather enticing sunshine. During this break I had a really interesting chat with lawyer Steve Kuncewicz [I know - an interesting lawyer] from BLM one of Bulletproof partners. His area of expertise is intellectual property and social media which I find fascinating and discovered he shared many of my own concerns about the latter.
Steve introduced the evening session, with the room now filled, which commenced with a shorter talk from Lee around a tool he’s developing to automate the lead generation and sales process. This too was interesting, although it seemed perhaps more applicable to b2c agencies targeting smaller businesses, as I struggled to relate it to my own sales and marketing strategy.
This was followed by Adam Carolan of Xentum, an IFA specialising in digital and creative agencies. His talk was naturally about the value of financial planning both from a business and personal perspective, and the risks of not doing so with some searingly honest advice.
Finally, we had a talk from business consultant Marianne Page whose ethos has been developed from a career in McDonalds and is encapsulated in her book ‘Simple, Logical, Repeatable’ which she was kind enough to hand out free copies of. She explained how super successful businesses like McDonald's use planning, simplified processes and training people thoroughly to deliver consistently, and then to measure performance to keep it all on track. This is fundamentally indisputable and sound advice of course but much harder to achieve I think, in creative and digital services where the market is fast moving, where technology is constantly changing a landscape which is also affected by other 'X factors' such as the talent war, all of which make simplification and repetition challenging to say the least. The evening was brought to a close with some Q&As with the panel by Paul Barnes from MAP.
With all these types of events, when you’ve been running an agency for over 20 years, there are inevitably many things you already know and then there are others that you feel aren’t directly relevant to you, probably because you’ve tried them. In fact it would deeply worrying if there were any major issues you were completely unaware of. However, I always feel that if there are just 1 or 2 new nuggets or ideas to take back to your business it’s always worth the entry fee, and if you come away inspired it gives you a boost personally which again, you take back to work with you. Lee’s dynamism alone did that, then the one to ones with Lee, the guys from Bulletproof and the other delegates added those bits of knowledge and ideas to take away. Overall, I enjoyed the day and have to credit Bulletproof for, at the very least, having a proper go and for pulling off a really good event. Looking forward to the next one.