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Maze founder Nicola Bray shares the challenges of running a successful agency

What does it take to run a successful marketing agency for over 10 years? Ambition, confidence and maybe even a bit of naivety. Maze founder, Nicola Bray, talked to Head of Content, Katie Ecclestone, about the challenges and rewards of business and what it takes to start an agency with little but a vision and some good connections.

Maze Media was established by four Partners in 2009. What is your dynamic like and what benefits or difficulties come from having a leadership team?

I’d have to say it’s an overwhelmingly positive thing to have a leadership team like we do, for both us, the Partners and the teams. While myself, David, Charlie and Nick are very different people, we have the same vision for what we want to achieve and importantly, how we want to achieve it. Each person brings the balance and perspective needed; for example I’m very excitable and love big creative ideas and will want to run ahead with them, whereas David is more rational and assesses ideas with a more logical head. 

Between us all there’s a strong mix of creativity, intelligence, pragmatism and risk-taking. Also, I’d like to think we’re all decent people, with good intentions, who respect each other and want the best for our company and our employees, so that makes leading as a collective much easier.

The evolution of Maze Group has happened really organically, from growing the agencies within the Group to merging To The End back into Maze, and having people to hash out the pros and cons of every strategy is really important to me. Sharing the concerns and weighing up the options together allows us to feel more confident in our decisions.

We’ve always wanted to create a solid business full of exciting people and exciting clients and it’s taken a long time but we think we’ve done it in a really good way, through the hard work and the relationships we’ve built over the past decade. 

What was the biggest challenge you faced when you first launched Maze?

Honestly, despite having worked at many agencies, client-side and in PR for years, I had a lack of actual business experience and there was a lot of naivety. I knew broadly what running a marketing agency would entail but back then I just didn’t overthink things – I saw the opportunity, it felt really exciting to do, so me and the Partners just went for it! Being in my late twenties, I was definitely overcoming my lack of business experience and learning in real time. 

Back then, understanding finances, figuring out what your day rate is, what the cost of running a team or the whole agency for a day – all of it was really new! The operational side of things was new to me, nevermind having a team of employees to look after and manage! But honestly, I love learning new things so even these ‘challenges’ were really inspiring and uplifting to me, because I was learning all the time. 

At the very beginning we had a solid business plan and I already had a relationship with Adrian Flux (one of Maze Media’s long-standing clients) and they came on board very quickly as a client, which allowed us to have a steady flow of income and plan our growth from there.

What guidance did you receive when starting the agency? Do you have a mentor or anyone to help guide you?

The marketing industry was so different back when we started the agency. It was very male dominated and there were very few women in positions of leadership. Even in meetings that I’d go to at publishing houses there were very few women in the room. So there wasn’t a singular person or woman specifically that I admired or could reach out to for advice. I would say regardless of that I’ve always wanted to forge my own path and do well for myself. 

But to give credit where credit’s due, the Managing Director of one of our main clients was so generous in the early days, he was really understanding and gave me advice where he saw it could be useful. We also had a great accountant at the time who really talked us through the important parts of how to be financially savvy when running the business. So I had a lot of support locally that helped stabilize the business and get us up and running. 

But everyone is different, and getting support with all the aspects of owning and operating a business is crucial. Nowadays there are so many outlets for getting advice, support and guidance, with social media and specific networking platforms, and people shouldn’t be intimidated to reach out and ask for help if they’re considering going it on their own.

Maze has a progressive approach to the work/life balance, with flexible hours and every other Friday off. What was the reason behind this?

Establishing a more prominent work/life balance at the agency was something we have talked about for a long time. Like most people we (the Partners) have families and personal commitments as well as our work, and we wanted to ensure everyone at the agency has the energy and motivation needed to put their whole selves into both their work and their home life. 

If I think back, it probably stems in part from my experience working in PR, where you’d be in the office until 10pm and work weekends and always be ‘on call’, and I’ve seen how it doesn’t actually benefit your output or your business, at all. It used to be cool to dedicate your life to your career, but I realise more and more it’s just bullshit to be that busy!

The healthier you are and the better your mindset is, the more productive you’ll be in the long run. Humans aren’t built to be productive all the time and it finally feels like the world is realising that.

Maze has a lot of women in management and leadership positions; was that a conscious decision?

No, we haven’t consciously made that choice, we just try to allow the space for individual growth and give guidance to people who are ambitious and want to progress, and in a lot of those instances, it’s been women who have moved into positions of influence. 

Like all the Partners, I like to champion creative and ambitious people regardless of gender, but saying that, I’m very conscious of gender inequalities and the pay gap.  I’ve seen it in companies before where big decisions are being made by one gender, and you wonder if there are inherent bias taking place subconsciously. But ultimately at Maze, the recruitment process we have in place allows the best person for the role to shine, regardless of gender, race, age, etc.

I do think though what’s important for women’s continued rise to roles that men have historically held, is to make a clear path of progression and the support to know they can be there on their own merit, calling the shots.

Can you explain what Maze’s strapline of ‘Clever Creative Campaigns’ means to the agency and potential clients?

This was something the Partners spoke about in length over many, many meetings. It came from conversations we were having around the TTE and Maze merge, and wanting to encapsulate who Maze Media is as an agency, how we deliver work and how we are perceived. We wanted a simple strapline that could be easily understood and remembered. 

‘Clever Creative Campaigns’ does that nicely. It’s the clever and creative thought process that goes into everything we do, from working with new platforms to pushing for disruptive ideas and just being creative with how to approach clients and projects. 

Marketing is such a multi-disciplined area and we feel we excel in delivering the whole package, from the ideas to the data and the content creation, and the discipline of joining it all up. There are many agencies who specialise in specific areas, and that’s great, but there are also a lot of clients who are looking for one place that can provide the full package.

Are there any USPs of the agency that you wish you could shout louder about?

Definitely, but rather than a specific offering or discipline, I think our work ethic is worth shouting about! For the past decade we’ve quietly gotten on with things, bringing new clients on board, building stronger relationships with existing clients, getting award nominations etc, but unfortunately we’re quite bad at praising and shouting about ourselves publicly. 

If you speak to our clients they’ll be really positive about us, because we work hard for them, we’re honest with them and want to do good work. We just don’t shout very loudly about our achievements which maybe we should do more! 

There are so many positive things about the agency as a whole – the culture, the cross team collaboration, the work/life flexibility – but really it’s the people. There is a lot of amazing talent but no big egos, just people who want to work together, learn, have fun and achieve great work and results. 

Are there any areas of marketing you’d like Maze to expand into over the next few years?

Hmmmm good question. In the last 10 years we’ve achieved more than I could have dreamed of. If you said to me back then that we’d set up more agencies, management teams, win awards and open offices across the UK and even in America, I’d never believe you!

I think the most important thing when it comes to expansion is not just jumping into a new discipline or trying out a new social platform for the sake of it, it’s about staying up to date with the industries and considering how these developments might suit our collective and individual skill sets. Everything from social media to SEO evolves so quickly and we need to make sure we’re at the forefront of the evolution in order to provide that for our clients. 

Personally I’ve been really excited by psychology and marketing and I’m trying to bring more of this into the agencies and how we can apply marketing psychology to ourselves and our clients in clever and creative ways.

Finally, if you could wake up tomorrow and start the agency over, what would you do differently?

It’s a hard one to answer honestly. I look back over the past 10 years at client jobs we’ve taken and people we recruited and wonder if we could have done things differently, but then everything, even the clients that were more difficult to deliver for, is a learning opportunity. 

By working with different types of clients in different industries you get to understand what characteristics you value in a client and that shapes your approach going forward. I don’t think asking if there’s anything I’d ‘do differently’ is the right way to put it, as I think you make decisions based on information you have at the time and learn from the outcome. 

Saying that, it definitely would have benefited the agency to have a bit more structure in the early days. We were taking it one day at a time back then, so we may not have been the most operationally efficient. Looking back with hindsight now, I might implement things like more career development for employees and setting clearer objectives as part of the business plan. 

Also personally, I’d delegate more! I was so involved at the beginning and cared so much, I was entangled in everything and it got really stressful. Now I know that to grow you have to let go.

Everything has been such a wonderful journey where we have created so many relationships, campaigns and fabulous memories.