5 Years In The Wilderness
2020 has gotten off to a pretty rocky start. We’re not even out of Q1 yet and the entire world is on lockdown. Not great!
At Wilderness we’re working on continuing to support all of our clients and one another at this difficult time. But we’re also looking back – 2020 isn’t just the year that everything went mad, it’s also our 5th Birthday year. We had a team party back in February which is the official birthday month and it got Founder/MD Tom Jarvis, Strategy Director Jamie Maple and Head of Client Services Ali Mannering talking about how they’ve come, where they started and what’s next for the agency.
Part 1: The beginning – Wilderness’ origin story.
TOM JARVIS [Founder/MD]: The idea for starting Wilderness came off the back of an ill-fated venture that had just ended. I’d started that with a good friend and when it had run its course I felt like I had unfinished business. Literally, I was tying up loose ends with old clients knowing that there was still the beginnings of an agency that had just never got off the ground. I wasn’t ready to let that go.
To make it work though I knew I needed to hire someone brilliant to come in and deliver for clients in a way I never could. Finding both Jamie (to take on our first high-profile client, Sony), and Ali (to work across everything else) was like striking gold.
ALI MANNERING [Head of Client Services]: The date is Friday 14th November 2014. It’s about 11am on a bright but chilly morning in Golden Square, in the middle of Soho. I’m pacing up and down the fairly empty Square, rehearsing exactly what I’m about to say in my interview for Enter the Wilderness, a digital marketing startup. Did I mention that I’m bricking it? I’m absolutely terrified. Why wasn’t university this hard? Eventually, at 11.57am exactly (not too early, but not late) I press the buzzer for MeWe360 at 4 Golden Square and ask for Tom Jarvis. That is where my Wilderness story begins…
JAMIE MAPLE [Strategy Director]: I heard about the possibility of a job at a possibility of an agency through a mutual friend of Tom and I – the elevator pitch was too good to be true: you’ll be doing digital marketing for films. For me that’s it. I’m in! Tom and I had only met fleetingly once or twice – at a party, bumping into each other at Glastonbury – so sitting down with him in Soho Grind and having him focus all of his attention on me was an overwhelming experience. Tom’s a supernova of energy and when he’s fired up it’s incredibly infectious. He gave me both barrels about what Wilderness could be and where he wanted to take it – I’d had a couple of interviews that week and was setting up a third and final round with OMD to join their digital team. But something about Tom’s vision and the idea of what I could make of the opportunity in front of me made Wilderness an impossible gamble not to take. I had a feeling about this northern powerhouse (even though he did look about 12 years old). Turns out my gut instinct is pretty solid as it’s five and a half years later and it’s no understatement to say that joining Wilderness was the best decision I ever made.
Not bad for an initial meeting that lasted 15 minutes.
AM: Self-indulgent attempts at literacy aside, that really is how it started for me at Wilderness. I’d just graduated university but didn’t know what to do next. I begged family and friends to ask around to see if anyone they knew might need an intern. My sister got back to me saying that her husband’s friend from school (more on him later) knew someone who was looking for some help a few days a week: enter Tom Jarvis. Funnily enough, after introducing me to Jamie and James in the office, he also took me to Soho Grind to give me the ‘Wilderness pitch’. I was in before he could finish his first long and rambling sentence. One thing Tom probably doesn’t even remember is that he asked me to prepare a presentation for the interview about a recent social campaign I’d seen. He must have forgotten about it, as unfortunately my Powerpoint on Adidas’ social campaign during the 2014 World Cup remains to this day unopened in a folder somewhere, gathering whatever the operating system equivalent to dust is.
TJ: Knowing that the value for clients didn’t rest with me felt like I was off to running start so I took myself off to do a consulting gig to bring in some extra money. It was also a big learning in how founders can often run away with their own vision and solidified in my mind the need to take the team along with me in order to succeed.
JM: You’ll note above that I said ‘five and a half years’ this is where accounts of when Wilderness officially began diverge. We track the official start date of the agency as February 15th 2015. My first day was September 15th 2014. The plan for my first day was to head to Brighton to start working out how we would embed with the publicity team that work across Sony Pictures. Tom and I were going to meet outside of their offices beforehand in order to get our ducks in a row. I will never forget the feeling of standing outside their offices ringing Tom on the phone, asking when he planned on arriving and being told ‘actually I’m not going to be there today – you’ve got this. Bye!’. There are learning moments in life that you recognise after the fact – this one I knew was happening whilst I was in it. You either panic and crumble or access the part of you that knows you know what you’re talking about, press the buzzer and get on with making an impression. I think about it now and see the faith that Tom had in me to just get on with it. He’s a great one for saying ‘I think we should just crack on!’ and that’s exactly what I did.
TJ: My first day back in the office was a strange one. Having had an early morning meeting with the founder of the business I was consulting into where I had told him I intended to step back and focus on my own business. I was quickly, within moments of leaving the meeting, completely shut out of the company email without being able to say goodbye to the team, some of whom I had become close to over the last 4 months (another lesson in always trying to end things in the right way).
I headed back to the two desks we shared in Golden Square at the time with the realisation that now I HAD to make it work. For the first few months we had been skating along but now we would have to fly and that was down to me. It was exhilarating. In some ways I’ve been in that state ever since.
Part 2: We’re here – Oh the places you’ll work….
ALI MANNERING [Head of Client Services]: We’ve had a serious variety of work spaces in our 5 years. As someone who’s never really worked another ‘proper’ job, they’re also the only offices I’ve ever really known so I’ve grown attached to each of them in different ways. MeWe360 had all the usual things you expect from a modern office: lots of light, funky furniture, a kitchen with all the mod cons, and more Apple laptops than your nearest Apple store. I would later become accustomed to all this – particularly as we moved East – but as someone in their first job I was blown away. I couldn’t believe how cool this all was. Tom and Jamie hardly spent any time at this office, but for me it felt like Wilderness could achieve absolutely anything as long as we had this base.
JAMIE MAPLE [Strategy Director]: I wasn’t even aware that the concept of shared working spaces existed until Wilderness and I can remember thinking how wild it was that we had an address I could get Tom to order issues of Sight and Sound to. Our first place I barely saw – I was always working out of the other agency or client’s offices and so would only set foot in MeWe360 on Fridays where we’d gather to discuss the week – that is, of course, on the days that we weren’t having breakfast meetings in Soho House (a long lost practice which would make the blood drain from our accountant’s face if we tried to reinstate it).
AM: The next office for me that marked a real turning point for the business was Forever Beta. It was trendy East London at its peak: a pool table; an interior design that I’d describe as ‘loud’; and a creative agency upstairs with enough beards to make it seem authentic. We had room to expand in this office, and started to grow the team and make some amazing hires. It felt like this was the place where we really established a lot of the core principles of our culture at Wilderness – open and honest, collaborative with each other as well as our clients, and the idea that a happy team is a successful team. The only way was up from here.
JM: We were the first company to move into the cavernous Betaspace and were on our own there for three months before anyone else turned up. The warehouse space was ours to command and we really started to spread out – to the point that when other companies started to arrive we got VERY territorial. Still space was amazing – great spaces for creative thinking, sofas for communal working, an outside space for sunny socialising and a pool table which Ali and I are still on at Tom to reinstate in our office.
TOM JARVIS [Founder/MD]: A huge change happened following the decision to finally take the plunge and move into our own office on Leonard St in the heart of Shoreditch. Tilly, our Head of Operations showed me around a number of options in central and East London and had reluctantly kept the office we now call home under her sleeve knowing that as soon as I saw it I wouldn’t be interested in seeing anywhere else. She was right.
AM: This was a big moment for everyone at the company, from Tom right the way down to those who had only been with us a matter of weeks. This felt like the moment we progressed from startup to full fledged business with over 30 people in the company.
TJ: We had a job to do as it was over budget but I know it was the space we needed. It was so very us. As a founder you have to take some of the emotion out of leading a team. You learn not to let the wins go to your head and the to not take the losses personally. But with the decision on our first London HQ I was going to lean very heavily on emotion.
TJ: I walked in and knew this was our new space and following a month of hard work and slog, especially from Tilly we were ready to share it with the rest of the team. I was really excited that we’d kept it a secret from some of the team, especially Ali, who’d been with us from the start as it felt like a marked change and a real signal that we were growing up as a business.
JM: I remember getting a sense that this was us taking a step up. Having our own space legitimised what we’d started in a cafe all those years ago.
AM: Every business goes through ups and downs, and has those tough periods when you wonder if the momentum has stalled, but to walk into a space we could call our own was an incredible feeling.
Part 3: Team building – Finding the people that make it special
TOM JARVIS [Founder/MD]: In the early days there were key hires like James, Nick, then Tony, Jana and Sophie who all in their different ways played a big part in the formation of the culture and ethos and the standard of the work we deliver.
ALI MANNERING [Head of Client Services]: James played a massive part in the growth of Wilderness. He was there from the beginning for me, and showed me the ropes when it came to the fundamentals of what we do: planning a campaign, devising a great brand voice, and delivering this for a client.
JAMIE MAPLE [Strategy Director]: Nick was our Creative Director and Tom’s right hand for a time back in the day and he set the bar for positivity and inspiration which is very hard to match. To this day I swear I can still occasionally hear him chanting WIL – DER – NESS in the background of our team meetings.
AM: Nick is the aforementioned sister’s husband’s school friend! He put me in touch with Tom, and put me on my own personal journey here at Wilderness which I’m so grateful for. Added to that, he’s a brilliant Creative Director who changed the way Wilderness approached every creative project in his time working for us.
TJ: With Jamie and Ali I feel genuinely like I struck gold, twice! Jamie is the heartbeat of the agency. From day one the most impressive strategic minds I’ve ever worked with. He’s able on one-hand to warm a room, and then support the team, as well as be the standard-bearer, and pitch it like you mean it! Over the last five years he’s been my right-hand and a huge emotional support to me and the rest of the senior team – the place would fall apart without him!
Ali is the boy wonder. I was told recently by our non-exec Sarah that I’ve done well to not hire in my own image and I’d like to think I see a lot of myself in Ali. His calming presence, thoughtfulness, and caring makes him a guiding light for others on how to succeed. He’ll be running the place one day and I can’t wait to see that!
JM: A really pivotal hire for me was Jana – she joined us to take on the client relationship that I had been forging since I started. She was the first person that I had ever interviewed and I remember on her first day having a conversation about exactly what would be required of the role watching her eyes glaze over as I listed task after task that I had been doing and thinking “I need to get better at this – quick.” I’d never even considered that I would have a role in the hiring of people before – let alone managing them – but at Wilderness I’ve discovered that I have a passion for both.
TJ: A big one for me was bringing Meredith on board to run our office in Amsterdam and grow the business across EMEA, or should that be convincing Meredith to take a leap of faith.
I could not be more proud of having Meredith on our team. Her tenacity and drive is inspiring and her experience speaks for itself. Bringing Sarah Vick onboard as a Non Executive Director has had a huge impact on me personally. Her support and guidance make such an impact and to talk to someone who has been there before is so invaluable as I’m often has really allowed me to focus on the bigger picture.
JM: There have been many BIG hires for us as a company but Tilly – our Head of Operations – is one that I often wonder what we were doing before she started. Despite having joined us long after the founding of the Agency Tilly is undoubtedly a founding influence on the agency and instrumental to the way we do things.
AM: Jana, Sophie, Camilla, Shannon, Tony, and Kate. Each of them contributed so much to the work we did at the time and helped grow the business to where it is now. More than that, they were the core group that really helped to define the amazing culture we have at Wilderness. We really are a family here. At times that can mean some impassioned discussions, but they’re always with the best intentions and motives, about continuing to interrogate our own work and always improve.
TJ: What has been amazing to see is that those values that we instinctively worked with in the early days, and didn’t codify, have been passed on. Now that we’ve sorted out the issues with biscuits in the office!
JM: As we’ve grown from two to four to thirty one of the constant pressures has been to maintain an open company culture. Tom has always been great at sharing information with the team about where we’re going as agency and my hope is that the whole team know how important they are to driving everything forward – that they can have an impact on the direction and vision of the agency.
Part 4: Our clients – Big wins and career highs
ALI MANNERING [Head of Client Services]:
TOM JARVIS [Founder/MD]:
JAMIE MAPLE [Strategy Director]:
ALI MANNERING [Head of Client Services]: The first client that I worked on was Magic Light Pictures, a client we still work with to this day. So many people, past and present, have worked on the account and they’re a client that threads a lot of our history together. We’ve learned from them both the value of a long-term relationship but also the need to constantly push the envelope, to never rest on our laurels; something we carry onto any project we work on.
TOM JARVIS [Founder/MD]: A real momentum builder or pivotal client win was 20th Century Fox. Competitively pitching and winning our first project which then got us on the roster with them was a huge validation that our passion and ideas could carry us over the line against more established traditional agencies.
JAMIE MAPLE [Strategy Director]: In the early days I would attend meetings with Tom and nod along – occasionally chipping in a stat or an observation – but mainly letting Tom lead the conversation. I’ve never been shy but finding myself in formal situations with real business stakes attached made me feel a little more reserved. Watching Tom thrive in those situations – commanding attention, having facts and stats committed to memory (both our memories are shocking), never being caught off guard by a question – was like the world’s best intensive post-grad on-the-job training scheme. It’s because of those early experiences that the pitch we attended together with Universal Pictures for Fast & Furious 8 sticks out in my mind as a key moment in my career. We left the room and Tom turned to me and said ‘I barely said a word in there!’ I’d created the deck, developed the ideas and handled the entire conversation from ‘just some water please’ to ‘what have you got on for the rest of the day?’.
AM: Discovery Channel is the client that transformed the way I work at Wilderness. I embedded myself into their team – in not too dissimilar way to Jamie in his early days at our PR agency partner – and worked from their offices 2 days a week, and it was possibly the best thing I’ve done at Wilderness. I’m a firm believer in the ‘can you swim, here’s the deep end, bye’ method of learning and this was certainly it for me. It also opened my eyes up to how we as an agency should work with all of our clients; we need to be an extension of their internal team, and know the ins and outs of their brand as much as they do. It’s a relationship we’ve now had for coming up to 2 years, and one I couldn’t be prouder of.
TJ: GSMA was a funny one. Some opportunities kind of fall into your lap. One thing I’ve learnt over the last 5 years is to stay in the game, keep doing what you believe in and good things will come. GMSA was a great example of that. An opportunity to work on an exciting global project for a major organisation who wanted a different type of agency. It happened very quickly, it was probably 2-3weeks from the first inbound email to pitching and securing the work. Pretty amazing for a 12-month retained deal supporting the governing body of the mobile tech industry.
Part 5: What’s next? – Planning for the future
TOM JARVIS [Founder/MD]: The focus for this year is to build out the team in Amsterdam and deliver more award-winning work from our team in London for an expanding array of clients we are passionate about. Do great work with great people.
Beyond that I’m excited about establishing WSA and Pack our two unique product offerings. Wilderness Social Academy is our training and up-skilling service for existing and new client teams.
As an agency we want to support our clients, teams, and people to deliver the highest standard of work across social channels. It’s been months in the making but we’ve finally got a set of 4 in-depth courses on best practice and I’m excited to see how Jamie, Ali and the team build on the work we’ve already done with English Heritage, NOW TV and others.
We also have Pack, our growth partner offering ands we’ve got some big plans this year for supporting some of really exciting scale-up businesses through performance marketing.
Outside of these new product offerings I think we’ll be delving further into our creative offering and looking at supporting brands to create original video and audio. We are also going to be exploring further opportunities across paid media, with connected TV advertising coming into view and and voice search becoming more relevant.
Jamie Maple – Strategy Director Wilderness Agency