Winning formula brings continued growth for Iris

In the last two weeks, integrated agency Iris has won the European ad account for car rental company Hertz (MW.co.uk March 12) and has been appointed to handle Sony Ericsson’s global integrated business, capping a remarkable few months for the nine-year-old company.

Iris is now the global sponsorship agency for ING, Shell’s lead global digital agency, on Coca-Cola’s digital roster and has worked for brands including Southern Comfort, Sure, Lynx, Vaseline and Gala Bingo.

Last year saw some serious hiring, with former British Airways finance director and managing director of Air Miles, Drew Thomson, joining Iris as chairman along with a raft of creatives, account people and senior management.

Winning streak

Iris is beginning to take business off bigger, longer established and better-connected rivals. But the agency’s winning streak comes as no surprise to some in the industry.

One agency consultant says: “They are very ambitious and very aggressive – a formidable new business machine. They win some business from a client then impress with fantastic service and delivery and win more.”

A former Iris staffer agrees. “Ian Milner [one of the two founding partners, now chief executive] has client relationship skills that are second to none. He is intelligent enough to see that a foot in the door can be used as leverage to give you the corridor and the board-room as well, if you do it right.”

The independent integrated agency has grown to be more than just a sales promotion agency. According to Nielsen Media, billings for 2007 rose to £19m from £14m in 2006.

Other observers agree that Iris will take even relatively small projects, perhaps ones that other big agencies think themselves too grand for, in order to get close to major clients.

One comments: “Iris gets a toe-hold in a client, often through its digital or sponsorship work, then it throws everything it has at that project and seriously over-delivers. As a result, it often gets additional work. It’s a great way to win new business – so long as you don’t over-stretch yourself and go bust before the new business arrives…” If there are criticisms to be levelled at Iris, insiders say, then they revolve around the agency’s extremely youthful culture and the huge demands it puts on its staff.

Corporate ethos

One ex-Iris employee says: “You often have to have no external life to work there – but when you’re 25 and your whole world revolves around the agency, you don’t notice that kind of thing. Thomson agrees that people work hard, but says it goes with the industry and the job. More seriously, he argues that the agency would not have come seventh in the Sunday Times list of best companies to work for if the rewards were not there for staff, and he points to an 85% retention rate.

The workload has also been a result of the company’s rapid growth, all of which has been organic, he argues. Future growth, however, is likely to involve acquisitions: “In the next three to six months, you will see Iris acquiring, either for geographical diversity or to add skills sets we don’t have.” Last year, Iris set up offices in US and Asia to service clients such as Reebok and Sony Ericsson.

One consultant with experience of working with the agency says the group recruits some 25 graduates a year and spends significant amounts on training. But he sounds a note of warning: “They are youth-oriented in every sense – which means they are not always the easiest fit with traditional clients, both companies and people.”

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