Michael Richards, MD of agency alan., on ambition and digging for the truth

B2B agency leader Michael Richards on the worlds of B2B and B2C converging, telling electrifying stories and making an impact

In this interview our Editor Mike Piggott chats to Michael Richards, an experienced consumer advertising professional who’s held senior roles at some of the world’s best consumer agencies, as well as running the UK’s largest digital marketing group. They discussed his career highs and lows, and how his mission is to encourage B2B marketers to be more ambitious, tell electrifying stories and dig for the truth.

Thanks for chatting to us today. So what does alan. do? You talk about ‘provoking the truth for progressive B2B brands’, but what does that actually mean?

Michael Richards: alan. agency provides digital first, insight-led strategic creative marketing solutions for B2B brands. We’re part of the Raconteur Group and are independent and privately owned. Our purpose is to make B2B marketing visceral by ‘provoking the truth for progressive B2B brands’. Too many in B2B are frightened to take risks and tell stories that provoke people to think differently, and be brave with truths that galvanise. We’re driven by these truths and it’s at our core; because of our journalistic heritage.

Through our ‘research first’ approach we challenge, investigate and interrogate to find the stories that brands must tell, using intelligence, imagination and emotion to tell them in ways that can’t be ignored. In short, we help B2B brands stand out in a sea of beige. The world of B2B is full of fascinating stories, if you know how to find them and tell them.

What was your career like prior to joining alan.? Because your CV reads like a bit of a leadership straight flush… Group CMO, CEO, International MD, Group CEO, MD. What leadership lessons have you learned over the years? Any insight from your lowest and highest points?

MR: I’ve been lucky to enjoy an amazing career; I love what I do. In fact, I’m writing this on Sunday night and I just can’t wait to get to work tomorrow morning. I’m a hands-on and creative business leader and I’ve enjoyed senior leadership roles at some of the world’s biggest and best agencies, and bought, built and AIM-listed my own successful challenger agency. I was a ‘private equity installed’ CEO at one of the UK’s largest digital marketing groups, and Chief Growth Officer at one of the fastest growing global digital marketing groups; which we sold last year. I’m also founder shareholder of thisgirlisonfire.com, a digital subscription business with the purpose to help empower 100 million women. I also have my own eco water (waterinabox.co.uk). I like to be busy and useful.

I’ve always felt that energy and ambition is everything and my leadership style throughout has been to demonstrate this at every turn; hopefully inspiring the team to come along with me. I also recognise that as a leader I set the tone and I’m very conscious that what I do and say really matters. However, ultimately success and winning galvanises everything, and so more than anything I focus on that!

I guess my lowest point was probably when I started my agency, my house was on the line and we needed to win lots of business to survive. I very quickly learned that my fear of failure was an incredible force to drive me to win clients and grow the business. I still have that fear.

My highest point was probably selling that business, and recognising all that we had achieved in building such a brilliant agency; one that set careers for so many fantastic people who came with me on that journey. Since then I continue to try to be a high performer who always delivers and brings energy and inspiration to help make good things happen.

You’re a self-confessed ‘B2B snob’ and now passionate about revolutionising B2B marketing… why’s that? Where does the snob part come into it? Many marketing leaders like to talk about change and revolution, but what do you realistically hope to achieve with alan.?

MR: I have always felt that B2B has been B2C’s ugly sibling. But I’ve never understood why that’s the case. It seems like B2B agencies are full of people who weren’t good enough to get into B2C agencies, which I don’t believe to be entirely true.

In my previous role I met over 20 B2B agency founders as part of our M&A strategy, because I believed there were enormous opportunities for decent B2B agencies. Unfortunately all those agency leaders confirmed my prejudice — they were such an uninspiring bunch and it was so disappointing. So I did some digging and came across this interesting B2B agency called alan. They didn’t want to be acquired, but they were looking for a new leader. Now I have the opportunity to help shape an agency using my B2C experience and, a few months in, our challenger proposition is already landing — early days, but encouraging and exciting.

What did you think about the world of B2B when you were on the consumer side of things, and has that opinion now changed? It often gets asked the other way round, but what can B2C marketers learn from B2B?

MR: B2B marketing has always had the reputation for being dull, particularly when compared with its consumer counterpart. The problem often lies in a lack of ambition from agencies and clients to work together to break free from the culture of mediocrity. The result is many B2B brands miss out, because they fail to tell electrifying stories and share extraordinary acts of innovation. So no-one cares.

Instead of simply accepting that B2B marketing is uninspiring, brands and agencies have the opportunity to look for the difference, to unplug a more ambitious attitude and dig for the truth. There is every reason why B2B marketing can be more visceral, more provocative, and ultimately more effective. But to achieve this, B2B needs to take a significant leaf out of the B2C book, and start using their consumer-based techniques to better market their brands.

It might not sound like it from some of what I’m saying, but B2C can learn that B2B is actually incredibly exciting. Our B2C colleagues do not have the monopoly on creativity. In B2B, the relationship between activity and bottom line impact feels more immediate, and I think all marketers could do with reminding themselves everyday that you must understand your clients’ business and what will make a difference.

There’s no room for art for art’s sake — it should always be about impact.

Despite some progression over the last few years, many still consider B2B to be quite dull. What do you say to that? First, do you agree? Also, how do you see the industry developing over the next decade? Any big changes on the horizon?

They’d be right! It’s simply incumbent upon all of us, clients and agencies, to do much better. But there’s good news around the corner. Frankly, the worlds of B2B and B2C are converging so much, that it’s now an outdated distinction that needs to go.

Hopefully clients and agencies will soon recognise this enormous opportunity and see that B2B has the potential to be electrifying, instead of being an industry paralysed by a culture of conservatism with insipid brands churning out safety first white papers and buzzword-ridden blog posts.

Finally, what excites you about the year ahead, both for alan. and for your own career journey?

Well, so far so good! A few months in and I’m loving it and having so much fun. To be honest, this has rather taken me by surprise. It’s been a joy to be surrounded by a smart bunch who just needed focus, direction and some inspiration. We have some awesome clients who want great work, we’re winning stuff, launching a new research business and about to announce a new acquisition.

For myself, it’s been exciting to step into this new sector and I’m learning so much from some exceptional colleagues and clients. It seems that not all in B2B are bozos!

Featured image: alan-agency.com