Charting Unconventional Paths: Simon Barbato on Leadership and the Drive for Business Growth
Can you give us a quick overview of your journey towards becoming a business leader?
I took a slightly unconventional route to start my journey in this industry; not attending university, but completing a Chartered Institute of Marketing qualification at a technical college.
From there I made my first foray into the agency world, working at a subsidiary of AMV. That led onto a role at Ogilvy & Mather Direct where I worked on accounts such as AMEX and IBM, which was great for big brand experience. It was at Light & Coley though that I really fell in love with brand consultancy. I worked on projects for FMCG brands through to PLC corporate brands. The experience gave me the drive to set up my own agency, the-field in 1998 which was acquired in 2004. I set up Mr B & Friends in 2006.
How would you describe yourself as a leader?
I’d describe myself as a servant-leader. I feel it’s much more effective to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. There’s nothing I like more than supporting staff using the experience I have gained over the last 30 or so years. I think you really have to roll your sleeves up and get stuck in and help where you can.
Did you always want to run a business?
Yes, I did. I was entrepreneurial even as a child. I had part-time jobs from the age of 11. At school I ran a video rental service and hilariously, even made membership cards. But while I knew I wanted to run a business, I didn’t know until later that it would be in this sector. Originally I wanted to be a journalist, and it was actually a friend’s dad that suggested I’d suit either sales or marketing.
What would you say led you towards the position you’re in today?
It’s a consequence of growth that I’m a business leader in the way I am now; an owner and on the Board of three different agencies. As the business has grown and I have installed leadership in each agency, the role has slightly narrowed. Today I know focus my efforts in just three areas: agency culture, business development and expansion.
What drives you?
Different things have dominated my thought patterns at different business lifecycle stages. In the early years I was driven by fear, losing opportunities and not being able to pay the bills. But that’s healthy, it creates ambition. As the business became more stable it was more about ensuring quality, capability and reputation. Now my focus is on the agency fulfilling its potential. I’m driven by our employee experience and making sure everyone is thriving. As a more mature business today, I sleep better now than I ever have.
Have your life experiences shaped your leadership?
Massively. I came from pretty humble beginnings and I’ve never forgotten that. My mum gave me a hard work ethic, and I pride myself on my ability to still do the hard yards when needed.
What do you most enjoy about running a business?
I really enjoy seeing other people thrive. You sort of give up your career when you become a leader in business. Quite often you stop being the main person in the room and instead create opportunities for other people to shine. I also really love getting great feedback and positive advocacy from clients – it’s those moments that make it all worthwhile.
What’s the hardest part of running a business?
The hardest part is accepting that people come and go. Businesses are not family, and it’s wise to remember that. People come, they contribute, and they go. But when you invest in people and they leave, perhaps earlier than expected, it’s a shame. Luckily, we have a very long average tenure at Mr B & Friends, so it’s pretty rare this happens.
What’s the most unexpected twist you’ve experienced as a business leader?
Overall, we’ve made brilliant hiring decisions but when you get it wrong it can be really damaging to the business. We hired for a position a few years ago that was a senior role and we had high expectations for how that individual was going to shape an area of the business. Unfortunately, they created a very negative situation that cost the business money, reputation and culture. That was a very unexpected twist!
How do you perceive failure, and can you share an example of how a failure has shaped your business?
Failure is inevitable in business. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying. Failing is positive as it means you were brave enough to try. Failure can also lead to better long-term outcomes. The incident mentioned led to the closure of an unprofitable – and somewhat unpredictable - part of our business. The business has since become more predictable and more profitable, and we can focus on our real areas of expertise.
How have you developed resilience in business?
You have to develop the thickest skin to do what I do. Every day there’s a risk of disappointment and failure, and you’re only ever one phone call away from a shitshow. You have to accept that you can’t win everything, that people won’t always do what you hoped they would, and that projects won’t always go as intended. Instead I try to control the controllables, take time to think things through and remember it’s never really personal. I’ve made dusting myself down, and picking myself up again a fine art.
What has the appointment of the Board and the SLT meant for your role in the business?
Our Board has three main objectives to discuss at our regular check ins- the health of the business, the growth of the business and the culture of the agency. The SLT is focused on the more tactical aspects of the business such as performance, people and process. In both scenarios this has taken a huge amount off my plate and also stops me meddling in everything!
What does a typical day in the life look like for you?
Typically, I’ll have a number of internal meetings with people across the Boards of Mr B & Friends and our sister agencies, FutureKings and Noble. I’ll also have new business meetings with prospective clients, and I stay close to the marketing efforts too. Often I’ll be involved in proposal writing for programmes of work or pitches and occasionally I’ll join client meetings where senior presence is required.
With our expansion plans, I’m working on plans for location of the London office, and staffing that, as well as growing our client portfolio for that base. We’re also anticipating opening our US office within the next 18 months, so last week I attended an educational seminar in Belfast run by the Department of Business and Trade. It was fascinating how much support the Government has on offer to help UK businesses succeed in the USA.
Aside from that I’m involved in mentoring the leaders of a couple of agencies, so I’ll meet with them and discuss ideas and best practise.
What do you read/ listen to that influences your leadership?
On my desk at the moment I have five different books about leadership, most of which have been recommended by my peer group. There are some great insights on business excellence and growth – some I implement and some I take with a pinch of salt. I also listen to a lot of podcasts around personal development, politics, current affairs, business and of course of industry. Mostly I listen to learn and get different perspectives and motivation.
Who is your business hero?
I could mention a few but actually Richard Branson seems the obvious choice for so many reasons. It’s quite inspiring that his vision for Virgin – set out at such a young age – has enabled him to build an organisation that’s driven by culture rather than products and services. The Virgin playbook presents the foundational pillars of the brand: fun, innovation and excitement. These values are present and active for all the businesses in the portfolio, which covers airlines, records and money. The Virgin brand has played an important roles in society and culture.
What has been your greatest triumph as a business leader?
That Mr B & Friends is still going after 17 years in an industry that’s really difficult for independent agencies. There have been other moments of triumph too: the pitch you don’t expect to win, winning awards like Business Leader of the Year, or the IOD Director of the Year or working with a dream client. But definitely the longevity and sustainability of the business is what I’m most proud of.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a business leader?
There are challenges to face every day and occasionally things totally blindside you. Getting the agency back on track after closing down the digital team was probably my most challenging and distressing period of my time in the agency. Then we got back on track, had our most profitable month of all time and then immediately got hit by the Covid pandemic! Fortunately, the business has thrived since and I feel very fortunate to be where we are now.
What’s the best advice you’ve received during your career?
The best advice I’ve been given is to always be thinking about growth. When you’re at the limit of your capacity you still need to be focusing on business development. The distressed sale of my first agency business was really down to us resting on our laurels. We hadn't focused on growth then SARS hit, and with many of our clients in the field of adventure travel we had nothing to fall back on. By contrast, constantly filling the pipeline creates a growth mindset and it’s really this attitude that drives one’s ability to above the 10-15 people ceiling that so many agencies in our sector are restrained by.
What would you say makes a good business leader?
Having a level of fearlessness but not recklessness. You need to be hardworking too. Lead from the front and never ask someone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. You also need great business acumen and a sharp mind but be able to maintain empathy and humility. Good business leaders also allow others to shine.
What are good habits for aspiring business leaders to get into?
Do the basics brilliantly. Business is simple but always be prepared to learn, be open-minded and work hard.
You recently won Business Leader of the Year award. What was your reaction to the award win?
I was stunned, surprised and incredibly proud. It was the biggest award of the night and there was a really great line up of nominated leaders. To be singled out was incredible but on reflection I feel we, as an agency, deserved to be there. We work hard, we create great work, we work with high calibre clients and we run a great business.
What’s next for you?
With our strengthened Board in place and a solid SLT, I’m able to focus more time on the expansion of the business. We’re almost ready to open London now. Then towards the end of 2024 we’ll be spearheading expansion into the US, as the economy seems to be recovering more quickly there.
I’m 52 now but I still have so much energy and new opportunities seem to keep presenting themselves. Our expansion plans take us up to 2025, then the next part of the journey can begin!
Simon Barbato - CEO of Mr B & Friends, an independent brand consultancy of 45 people working for clients such as The LEGO Group, IHG and Britvic. Simon recently won a Business Leader award.