What I've Learnt: Jamie Matthews, CEO at Initials

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Jamie Matthews, Initials

West End-based Initials was founded in 2006, and is one of the country's fastest-growing independent agencies.

CEO Jamie has more than 20 years of experience working with the world's largest and most successful brands, which he brings to Initials.

Under his watchful eye, Initials has worked alongside clients like Heineken, Fiat, Nestlé, McLaren, Pepsi, Philips, and Samsung, supplying strategic thinking, creativity, knowledge, and experience.

We sat down with Jamie to hear about what his career's taught him about life and work.

Which single daily habit or practice could you not do without?

Definitely exercise. I broke my collarbone skiing in January and was told I couldn’t do any exercise for a long time. I didn’t realise immediately the impact that would have.

I found myself caring less about what I was eating and drinking, causing my sleep to suffer and work productivity to drop. It’s been so refreshing to be able to exercise again now and work my way back towards where I was.

Personally, I don’t worry about big challenges anymore. I like to focus on smaller targets, for example running a certain distance in a certain time. Achieving micro targets like that give me the kick I need. 

What's been your luckiest break?

Sending a packet of crisps to Walkers in 2007. We’d seen an article in Marketing magazine saying they were looking for an agency. Of course, everyone was going after it, so we knew we needed to do something special. 

We developed a foil bag, it looked just like a bag of Walkers crisps, but with Initials’ branding and team info on the back. It was filled with replica crisps featuring each of our initials.

It turned out the story was false, they weren’t actually looking for any agency at the time, but the crisps got us a meeting, which led to a brief, and they are still working with us 12 years later. 

What's your best failure?

Losing £250,000 in the first six months of setting up. At the time it felt like all we were good at was losing money! However, what it did do was give us pure focus on one thing - survival. Cash was running out, which meant we had to be totally aligned on our business priorities. 

I remember sitting in a room with my team (there were only eight at the time) and saying: “We’ve got the biggest new business team in London, and that’s all we need to focus on.”

There is no greater motivation than a ‘food on the table’ mentality. It was a very stressful period, although you don’t appreciate how much until you’re out the other side. Within 18 months, we were back in profit and cracking on.

What is the best investment you've ever made, either financial or time?

Undoubtedly my best investment so far is setting up Initials. Until you’ve done it, you don’t realise how liberating it is to be your own boss and to be in charge of your own agency.

Sometimes you think, 'this is brilliant, I have autonomy and can set the agenda (to an extent!)'. A lot of this is down to the brilliant and very talented team around me. Other times, the weight of responsibility can feel overwhelming - knowing that the buck stops with you, with people looking to you to make decisions big and small. That’s when you realise how important leadership is - in you and in the team around you. 

I send a weekly ‘all-agency’ email, which includes both updates and learnings. This week it focused on the distinction between “management” as ‘doing things right’ and “leadership” as ‘doing the right thing’. Basically, what I mean is that you can be dragged into achieving the correct execution, but leadership is knowing the one decision you make that week will have a profound effect on the decisions to come and acting accordingly. If I look back and think 'that was the right call', it’s a relief. 

I believe in Malcom Gladwell’s '10,000 hours' rule. You only realise how competent you really are when decisionmaking starts coming to you more quickly and easily. When this starts happening, it’s because you’ve put the hours in.

So many business leaders or entrepreneurs want that ‘quick fix’. They honestly believe that in two years they’re going to be millionaires. In reality, there are no shortcuts; what matters is hard graft, maintaining focus and keeping your foot on the gas. If you consistently work like this, you start avoiding pitfalls left, right and centre simply because of the time you've invested over the years, allowing you to make the right decisions intuitively - most of the time.

If you stop learning and absorbing the world around you; innovation stops, creativity stalls and new opportunities no longer come along.

How would you describe your work/life balance?

I recently realised I needed to address this and make more of an effort to get it right, so I booked myself a long-overdue holiday. This gave me a proper break; the chance to completely reset and clear my mind. 

I’m also a fan of using mind maps to prioritise things. This exercise feeds into work actions as well as personal life activities and it allows me to feel good about what I need to do moving forward. I try to see it not just as an actions list, but also something more strategic and visionary. A small example - I’ve recently realised I can sometimes be too accessible at work and need to focus on empowering my team to be self-sufficient.

It’s important to make sure you don’t get distracted by the day-to-day, there are always certain key things you need to focus on.

Which book would you recommend others to read and why?

I’ve just read 'Seven Habits...' by Steven Covey for the third time. It’s such a brilliant book and has so many good insights that I’ve often been able to refer to it throughout different stages in my career. My favourite part is the advice Covey shares about seeing things from other perspectives before you judge - this is vital in agency life. 

What one piece of advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

The art of helping others win. This is definitely something I realised later in my working life; I’d say over the last 10 years.

It’s my mission every day to support and help whoever I’m working with and to ensure that they are winning. It’s not always about making money - if you help others achieve their goals, it comes back in spades through loyalty and dedication. 

Who or what has had the single biggest influence on your working life?

It may sound dramatic, but getting cancer in 2011 gave me strength in so many ways; it was such a life experience and I learnt a lot about myself. When you’ve had such a close call, the things you once found key can pale into significance. Battling an illness helps you understand what you’re here for and helps you make decisions with a different mindset.  

You get to know who your friends are, and personally, it spurred me on to achieve greater things. I changed so much in my life to help tackle the disease and left no stone unturned when it came to adapting to a healthier lifestyle. It was the only time in my working life I wasn’t doing anything as such, but it gave me clarity on the things around me and time to think.  

Tell us something about you that would surprise people.

I am 5'11" and weigh 12 stone, so am of a fairly average build. Our family pet is a 12-month-old puppy, and she has about six months of growing left in her. Currently she weighs the same as me! So I weigh the same as a year-old Great Dane puppy.

What does success look like to you?

Success is not something you reach, it’s not a mountain to climb. I love it when I walk in the office and it’s buzzing. I can arrive and clients are here, creative is being discussed, there’s a real hive of activity everywhere you go - that for me is success.

It makes me proud that people often comment on it when they come to our offices for the first time.