Me And My Partner: Eamonn Wilmott And Andy Hobsbawm

Eamonn Wilmott, 38, met Andy Hobsbawm, 36, when they temporarily shared desk space. In 1995 they set up an Internet firm, Online Magic, and last year merged with Agency.com, a pioneer in interactive technology and TV
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The Independent Online
EAMONN WILMOTT: In 1993, I had a joint venture with APT Data, where Andy was working, and they put me into his office for a couple of days. He'd left a note saying: "If you need me, I'm in the fourth hut on the left, on the beach in Thailand." I remember hating him because it was an awful, rainy English winter.

When he came back, he was tanned and pretty cool. We had a few chats but our paths didn't cross often. The pivotal moment occurred during a lunch in the park, in Soho Square. It went from being a chat to him agreeing to invest and become my partner. He was the cream of the crop - I could tell the guy was super-smart. But there wasn't much courtship before consummation. And although there were only three or four employees, our critical mass was such that we decided Andy would go to America.

I was confident there would soon be 100 staff, and we'd be part of a global organisation. I have to put some of that down to madness rather than vision. Poor old Andy would be saying, "We've only got eight people", and I would go: "That's not really important - it's clear we'll have 50 in the next couple of weeks." The Internet is changing the world in one of the most profound ways we have seen. People are beginning to see it, but when I first came across the Internet in 1991, it was already done in my heart.

For the first year together, Andy and I saw each other only four or five times, and would talk three times a week. We'd rarely disagree on overall direction. We've yet to find something where one thinks we should go left, the other we should go right.

We took a trip to Mexico together, before we knew each other well, when we were both single. We thought it was a good idea to catch up on stuff. I found out Andy was great to hang out with - funny, he tells bad jokes and will make little asides and quips. He's also got integrity. We had a conversation about sex on the nine-hour drive back from Belize - he was talking about the importance of being faithful, and it was a bit of a bonding on what we felt was appropriate behaviour.

There's a feeling at Agency.com that in Andy, we have someone world class. I see part of my role as helping him find the space to shine and making sure his impact is maximised. A lot of people can see the future, but aren't good at putting that into plans. Other people are good at breaking it down. Not many can do both. Andy can see a crucial need and break it down, like a scientist, to see how to enhance the experience. He can also articulate that. But he has also really broadened his awareness with people. We talk about tuning in, multi-listening - on one level absorbing as much information as possible, on another listening in terms of intuition, with your heart or your gut, getting a bit of calm and seeing what the situation feels like.

My strengths are in assembling teams and getting them to work together in a vibrant and effective manner. You put people in an environment where they can flourish. The result for the company - and the employee - is incredible. We laugh about the fact that I have to perform a more corporate role in the business. We communicate as much as we ever did, but he doesn't have to go to all the meetings and he's spared a lot of that grief. The more we work together, the more we respect each other because we're seeing each other perform.

ANDY HOBSBAWM: I'd had no experience of starting a business, having been in a band for five years. I pretty consciously didn't follow in the giant academic footsteps of my dad, Eric. We made an EP and got on the chart show; then our record company split up and we spectacularly failed.

I was about 27 when I saw an advert for a job, "Entrepreneur Wanted", and wanted to find out what it meant. That company, APT Data, taught me a lot; they threw me in at the deep end, launching technology magazine titles when I didn't even know what a hard drive was. The atmosphere was "win at all costs".

When I came back from one holiday, Eamonn had arrived. We got on really, really well. I remember someone saying: "We can't tell the client that." Eamonn said: "Why not? Just say what's happened." It was as if someone had switched on a light. One of the things I really like about working with Eamonn is that he's incredibly open and honest. It's a much better way to work, and you attract business relationships that match that.

We already published magazines electronically, but when I saw the first web edition of the e-zine he was setting up, it was a classic Internet moment of epiphany. I could actually see people from all around the world interacting with the content in real-time. It was a million times more alive than anything I was doing. We started having conversations, which led to the moment in the park when we said: "Let's do it."

Eamonn and I recognised in each other common threads. We were good at selling and understood the dynamics of closing a business deal and creating opportunities out of nothing. I think he liked the way my mind worked, and how I looked at the world. I'm quite analytical, and enjoy scooping up vast tracts of ideas and applying them to a specific cause. I like mixing creativity and commerce. Something my dad always told me - you don't create by waiting to be inspired. The road by which you get to wonderful things is intrinsically as interesting to me as the final creative product.

Eamonn's vision is more holistic. It's about people, because it's about energy: that's what he works with. It took me a while to get used to, because sometimes his answer to problems would be, "I know it's going to be great". I was the one saying: "Hang on, how exactly are we going to cross the next mountain range with no food or a map?" I'm also more fired up by ideas for their own sake. Eamonn doesn't get the same lift from that.

When I was setting up the business in New York, I was doing what Eamonn is doing now as president. There were some tough times and I was on my own. I got through by using my back rather than my brain. To make things worse, my best friend, who was the company's creative director, died at 33 of a heart attack, and that affected me. I knew I needed to get out of this situation; when the merger with Agency.com was going through, Eamonn and I decided it was the right time for me to come home.

Eamonn's good at allowing people space to do what they have to do. He's not good at taking people by the hand, although I find it easier to say to someone, "Here's how you can do this". He was brilliant at supporting me 100 per cent, but I learnt that meant I was on my own for a lot of it. Just knowing I had his support was enough.

What I've loved about coming home is having a partner to interact with. Becoming chief creative officer in Europe is a chance to concentrate on the infinite creative possibilities of this new medium.

The exciting thing is that we haven't even scratched the surface. Creatively, our business will be driven by finding the way to make an emotional connection - the Internet is unemotional so far, compared with TV or even a good board game. Communication is not so much about the transfer of information as the co-ordination of human behaviour. Right now, the Internet is good at the former, but not the latter.

Eamonn and I have been in the same office now for 16 months. We spar verbally; we enjoy seeing the absurd side of life and not taking things too seriously. It's not our company any more, so we have different responsibilities and dynamics. It's like the shaded bit of a Venn diagram: you have to know enough about another discipline to empathise, but totally respect that your partner is doing things that you can't do for reasons of choice.

I think Eamonn now partly sees me as someone he can lean on in an increasingly complicated world of corporate pressure. He's chosen to have a lot of that stuff on his shoulders, and knows I'll be there for him. I think he also gets some pleasure out of the fact that I'm doing what I really want to be doing, finding out what makes the heart of a successful interactive experience tick.

Interviews by Rachelle Thackray

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