Who better to tell you about Freedman’s heritage than the man who started the company himself, Kevin Freedman. We sat down to hear his side of the story…
How did Freedman all begin? What was your inspiration for starting your own company?
I’ve always been interested in business. My grandfather had his own clothing company which my father took over, but sadly it closed when I was at university. At university, I studied Economics and then qualified as a chartered accountant with Arthur Andersen. A great firm at the time, but 3 years with them made me realise that I didn’t want to be part of an organisation with lots of politics and hierarchy. I moved to work in the finance sector in London, for a highly leveraged conglomerate. But it was badly managed and went bankrupt. I was left unemployed in January 1990. I took away some important lessons:
- A successful enterprise revolves around great people. Building a strong team is vital but it’s easier said than done. I wanted to learn how to do this well.
- Debt is dangerous. During the good times, it’s seductive to borrow money as it can allow you to move faster and aim higher. But if you make a wrong move, you can lose everything.
- I didn’t want my career to be at the mercy of someone else’s bad decision making. I decided that if anyone was going to ruin my career, I’d be the one to ruin it. So, it became clear that I needed to start my own business.
One of the business associates I’d met in finance wanted to start a print management company. Conceptually it made sense – you could offer to take away the hassle of managing print for companies – I decided to give it a go. We set up an office in my flat, with two desks, two phones and the yellow pages, and that was that.
Freedman has changed quite a lot in terms of the services we offer, from print management outsourcing to digital advertising, and now global creative production – can you talk us through this progression?
We started off doing print management during the early 1990s recession years, it was really tough. I knew nothing about printing and neither did my partner at the time, as I soon found out! We started getting business from advertising agencies and design agencies, managing print for them. We also got work from corporate clients, lawyers, insurance companies, etc. But the margin was very low. We barely broke even and drew hardly any salary. My partner left after 2 years as he couldn’t take the pressure anymore.
Then, in 1993, an opportunity with UPS arose. They were operating in 15 countries around Europe, all with their own ad agencies, print companies and designers. It was all very decentralised. UPS appointed us to handle design, translation, typesetting, printing, personalisation, warehousing and delivery of their pan-European sales training, customer brochures and shipping documents. It was a massive undertaking, but a big breakthrough for us. I brought in the right people to manage multilingual marketing campaigns and the business with UPS went from strength to strength. We streamlined the process for them, reducing time to market and ensuring all materials were on brand across the region. This set us on a path to becoming the experts in handling complex multi-market campaigns.
In 1995, Ford approached us to manage the production of multilingual press packs for the launch of the Galaxy, their all new MPV. In 1996 we broke into the airline menu business by winning the fiercely complicated British Airways Club Europe menu contract. This involved producing 100s of menu versions in 30+ languages for 1000s of BA’s European flights. Within 2 years we were awarded Supplier Of The Year by BA, having reduced costs by 48% and time to market by 95%. In 1997, Xerox asked us to help them establish a centralised model for all channel marketing communications, including building an online ordering system used by 50k+ resellers. This online solution helped us win the CBI E-Business of the Year in 2000, an award ceremony attended by none other than the great Bill Gates.
Towards the end of the 90s, print was becoming less relevant. So, we started doing OOH, TV and digital, and became more and more global. Overall, we naturally progressed from print, to international print in Europe, to international multimedia in Europe, and finally to global content.
What would be your recommendations for successfully evolving as a company?
You’ve got to focus on solving business or customer problems. And, by doing that, you create value for the customer. If there’s no challenge to solve, then there’s no opportunity.
Another thing I learnt very early on is that you need to find people who know how to solve your problems and bring them into your company. Having the right people is key. When I started in new areas – printing, translation, digital – I didn’t know much about them, but I found the experts who could help. So, my advice would be: if there’s a problem to solve, find the person who can solve the problem, rather than just trying to solve it yourself.
Over time, I’ve learnt the value of people and in trusting people. I used to have a motto: ‘never trust anyone until they’ve proven to you that you can trust them.’ But, in the last 10 or 15 years I’ve flipped that motto on its head, I now see the good in people and I trust them until I’m proven wrong.
Freedman now has offices in Sydney, New York and London, plus a large global network of production and creative experts. What are the biggest challenges when expanding across the world?
I think there are 4 main challenges:
The first would be where to go. When a client initially asked us to go to the states, we set up in Atlanta to be near that client. Then we realised the location was a bit too client-driven, so we moved to New York. We also originally set up an office in Singapore for clients in Asia, but it was hard to find the right talent there. Singapore doesn’t have a big domestic advertising industry and there isn’t a depth of advertising talent. So, we moved to Sydney, as it’s a better fit culturally with the UK and there’s a very strong Australian advertising sector, plus it’s very multicultural. So, thinking ‘where’ is absolutely key.
The second would be hiring the right people. When opening a new office, you have to find someone to lead the office who understands what you’re trying to do, someone who you get on with and who has the right motivations.
We were opening start-up offices in New York and Sydney, so we needed someone with a start-up mentality, someone with enough drive and resilience but also someone who was good at building a team. That’s a lot of challenges for anyone, to be able to drive the revenue as well as leading a new team. So, finding the right person who could rise to the challenge was vital.
Number 3 is making sure the sales revenue and the income is consistent enough to support the office on an ongoing basis. When we first opened our offices in New York and Sydney, a lot of the work we were promised never materialised, which is quite common in this industry. You need to make sure you have sufficient customers and revenue streams to sustain the office.
The fourth one is a daily challenge: communication between the offices. Communication between London and New York is relatively easy, but it can be very difficult between Sydney and London due to such different time zones. With the right tech and regular check-ins, we’ve made it work.
You’ve navigated a lot of global crises – the Asian financial crisis, the dotcom crash and the Great Recession to name a few – so how do you stay resilient as a business during difficult times?
The first thing to remember is that you need cash as a business to survive a down period, otherwise you can’t afford to take the hit that comes with a recession. I’ve always operated cautiously to make sure we have cash in the company.
The second thing is you have to believe in yourself, your team and your business, and believe that it’s worth pushing through the pain. You might have to reset your service model, you might run at a loss for a while, you might have a lot of sleepless nights, so you need to have strong belief. It’s like climbing a mountain, you can’t look down, you just have to keep climbing.
I think, also, support the people in your company and be honest about the situation. If it’s bad, tell them it’s bad. When you go through the downturns, you really find out who people are. Some people can’t handle the tough period but some people show their strength during tough times, which is really interesting to see.
You often say that you don’t enjoy being the centre of attention, and yet you always try to keep your staff in the loop in the most dynamic, and personable way possible! So, how would you describe your approach to creating an open atmosphere here at Freedman?
I don’t like hierarchy, I think anyone has the right to talk to anyone and that you should treat people as you wish to be treated. I know that the people who aren’t running the business probably feel less in control of what they’re doing in their career – but I don’t want people to feel like that. I want people to feel significant and included at Freedman.
I just try to tell people what’s happening in an upbeat way, motivating them and sharing good news more often than bad news. Although, if a mistake is made, I encourage everyone to learn from it. I also try to make a fool of myself occasionally, if I can, and don’t take myself too seriously.
On a personal level, what do you enjoy most about your role at Freedman?
There are 3 things:
Firstly, I really enjoy seeing people and teams blossom to achieve things that I couldn’t, things that the business needs. Getting the right people together to do amazing things, I love seeing that across the business.
The second one I call ‘crushing big challenges’, like taking on a big new client and getting their work off the ground with impossible timelines. I like being faced by big challenges and finding ways to crush them.
Thirdly, I enjoy thinking about the future, ideas and concepts, and meeting people to chat about new ideas. Luckily, I’ve also learnt the importance of staying focused. My advice for all entrepreneurs would be: ‘stick to your knitting!’ Don’t get distracted with too many new shiny things. Focus on what you do and make it the best it can be.
So, what’s in store for Freedman, and where do you see global marketing in 5-10 years’ time?
We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. We want to be the best in our business, helping brands and companies communicate their messages globally with impact, no matter the media. I think we’re also going to push much more into creative innovation, helping customers try and test new formats and approaches that they haven’t done before.
We’re entering a new era of globalisation. Businesses are going to need to mesh the local market situation with the global brand aspiration in a much more sophisticated way than they’re doing today. So, how do brands keep their promise consistent but locally relevant? The focus will be on being tactical locally while maintaining a strong brand everywhere.
Nowadays, everything is meshing together: the brand, the marketing, the people’s experience of the brand… A strong omnichannel experience will become vital; keeping your communications consistent across online and offline. There’s still quite a disconnect today which needs to be addressed.
Lastly, I think we’re going to see the fight back against Amazon and other ecommerce platforms. How does a brand maintain its strength when you’ve got these ecommerce goliaths out there? Instagram is the new place to shop, so where does that leave brands? They’re dependent on Instagram to present their brand – it’s going to be really interesting to see how brands react to all these challenges