Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

ROAST Founder & CEO, Ollie Bishop, reflects on two decades of  building, running and selling agencies

Ollie Bishop started his first agency in 2005, STEAK, which he later sold to  Dentsu in 2011. Since then, he has gone on to do it all again. Launching  Performance Media agency ROAST in 2015, and Web Design &  Development agency, Kitty, in 2016. Ollie sat down with Andy Oakes to look at the ups and downs of launching and running an agency; scaling too quickly, navigating uncertainty, fostering lasting relationships and the learnings that he’s acquired over the past two decades. 

I love being entrepreneurial. I love business. I am prepared to face challenges head-on. And I love people. This blend of passions led me to the decision to launch my first agency in 2005. I was 28 at the time.  

Starting a business from scratch isn’t easy. And over the years, my own unwavering passion and enthusiasm have occasionally been to my detriment.  

Bias for action  

I like to move on instinct and avoid procrastination. And we know that confident decision-making while listening to others and focusing on the end goal are key attributes for any leader of a business.  

But not all of my business decisions over the past twenty years have been the right ones. At times, I’ve expanded too quickly, hired too fast, and opened sister agencies that weren’t required.  

Case in point, when I decided to launch global offices at STEAK, I was advised by a Board of senior, well-trusted individuals to slow down and do it one at a time. Of course, I didn’t listen. The move created huge financial pressure, particularly during the crash of 2007/8. And we nearly went under because of it.  

At the time these mistakes felt like huge setbacks, but now I can recognise that it was all part of the process and I learnt from this.

By continuing to push forward through what felt like catastrophic challenges, I’ve been able to have even more clarity on what is important to build a great company. 

To be successful, an agency model has to flex and bend with clients’ needs. Be client-led when it comes to business growth. Ensure your clients will truly benefit –  whether that be a new service or geographical presence – from your expansion. It not only develops your relationship with your client but certainly holds a lot less financial risk.  

Nurture lasting relationships  

As well as carving out the direction of the business, as the CEO, I am ultimately responsible for the satisfaction of our staff and clients.  

I’ve always enjoyed building genuine relationships with those I work with. The danger of working with anyone you aren’t aligned with in terms of vision, morals or approach is much higher than the value of any new business win.  

Maintaining open communication, having difficult conversations when required, and building mutual respect is imperative for a lasting partnership.  

Don’t ever underestimate the power of a solid network of good people. Economies shift, teams change, and business objectives switch up, so you can never assume clients will stay indefinitely. However, I always strive to never close doors.  

Hire Smart  

As the leader of any business, you must carve out real relationships and build mutual trust that you are all driving towards the same things.  

Inflicting a strict hierarchy can lead to downfall. I truly believe in creating an environment void of the perceived power that comes with titles and is instead one that is built on individual respect for one another. This starts with investing in people who are wanting to drive the company forward, with shared values and passion.  

One of the traits I look for when hiring is grit. That perseverance to do well for themselves personally, as well as the business. At every level, I encourage and empower people I hire; to grow, learn and lead. Understanding where their skills  and passions lie, along the way.  

By truly immersing myself in the entire business: talking to and having a deep understanding of everyone in the agency, our clients, our peers and our partners, informs and drives that wider purpose. 

Hire smart and it’ll make the difference between a business that scales to one that fails.  

A happy workforce  

Positive company culture has been and will always be the heartbeat of every agency I  work in. It’s immensely powerful and acts as a mechanism to bring people together on a personal and professional level, that transcends the stresses that may have occurred in their working day.  

A personal learning over the years would be to address and eliminate any toxic behaviour quickly. Good company culture runs deeper than social events; it’s the people. If you have the wrong people who don’t align with your values as a business, it could be game over for your culture.  

Knowing when it’s time to sell, and why start again  

When I started both STEAK and ROAST, all the partners had the vision to sell one day. I believe that with any big venture, you have to have an end goal.  

And despite the challenges that came with the global expansion of STEAK, the contribution of having this presence to the earn-out was well worth it.  

The sad part of selling any business is losing the brand – that’s your baby. You’ve nurtured it, believed in it, and built it up. With STEAK we had a fantastic tagline –  ‘Rare Media. Well done.’ It was one-of-a-kind, and I loved it.  

Next year will be our tenth year of ROAST. And I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved – the work we produce, the clients we work with, as well as the many marriages, children, and friendships that have been forged through both agencies. Here’s to the next decade and, I have no doubt, many more lessons to learn along the way.