Me And My Partner: GEORGE MICHAELIDES AND GRAHAM BEDNASH
Graham Bednash and George Michaelides share the same ambitions and sense of humour. So five years ago they set up their own firm, creating media strategies. Today, they employ 21 people, make pounds 700,000 a year and their clients include Tango and Channel 4
Wednesday 17 March 1999
George and I worked together on a number of projects. He's good fun and incredibly bright. Most people who do what he did were quite dull and formulaic in the way they approached problems, but he never took the predictable way. He would go in to do a presentation with only three charts when everybody was expecting 40. He argues very intelligently and singlemindedly and he is very persuasive. He's an exciting person to work with.
I moved to HHCL as an account director and George joined nine months later. During our five or six years there, we often talked about doing something on our own - it was something we had always wanted to do. The key thing was that we were friends. There was absolute trust, and no politics, which I think slows everything down. We like challenging the status quo, and for us, ideas come before money. The industry is often obsessed with money for the sake of it, but both of us share the belief that if you come up with great ideas, money will follow.
We saw a major opportunity in the media area: there's more media now than ever before, and the view the advertising industry had taken was that media was about numbers. We knew it was about culture, so we set up M&B to challenge that. The prevailing wisdom was that the media function was about getting eyeballs at the lowest possible price. We were saying: "It's so important the way people edit their media." It was a discipline all on its own. We wanted to work out the most interesting way of engaging people. George had championed some of these issues at HHCL and we found there was so much interest that we were convinced there was a huge opportunity to go out and do it. We spent nine months discussing it carefully and then went into it.
Both of us enjoy the atmosphere of early start-ups. It's very democratic and you can challenge things, but after a while, in all these companies, things fall down and you get hierarchies. For our company, there were a couple of fundamentals. One is architectural design: everybody working round one table has equal space. Environment influences behaviour, and if you have an office with lots of closed doors and blinds, clearly you are going to get hierarchies and politics. The attitude which comes from George, myself and Tony Regan, our third partner, is also fundamental: it's about honesty and openness. That is very stabilising. We're also natural risk-takers, restless and ambitious. We wanted to create something very different and very successful.
One risk was that nobody had ever started a company doing what we did. We create communication ideas for clients. Our expertise is understanding the media and using that to advise different kinds of companies on ways they can add value to their business. We also use that information in our relationships with television production firms. One key thing is collaboration and teamwork. The idea that you have these big monolithic companies is outdated: companies have to interconnect, maybe just for six months. We have lots of relationships like that - it's a spider's web rather than a linear thing.
When we see clients, we mostly do things together. Clients are buying chemistry and a vision, and George and I are good at expressing that. We do it better when we are doing it together. In that situation, they get the full-on 100 per cent sense of what the company is about. I like to do everything at once and make things happen - I'm not very patient - and George is good at being focused. I want to do eight things and he will want to do one.
The challenge has been to be steely and focused. A lot of people said: "It's not going to work - it's too different. Nobody needs it and nobody will pay for it." We have had to ignore that. The most important people are the clients. We are opening up in New York; we want to be 10 times bigger in the next three years. Our focus is on growth and innovation. The attitude is to be pioneers. And one huge reason we did this was to have fun - it's fun controlling your own destiny.
GEORGE MICHAELIDES: My first impression of Graham was that he was a good laugh and I liked his manner. We found it easy to get on together. Part of it is being on the same wavelength. I joined advertising on a graduate trainee scheme. I found advertising interesting; I enjoyed conceptual thinking and it was an arena to develop these skills. I also understood its limitations - ultimately it wasn't that challenging and it was quite a narrow area. I found the bigger area of media as a culture far more interesting.
I knew from early on that Graham and I would do something together. We didn't even need to discuss it - it was just obvious. When you want to run your own show, it becomes increasingly difficult to do it within a company. HHCL offered me a blank sheet of paper to set up a media function and gave me scope to work things through in my own way. And it made a difference to be in a small company which gave me a voice.
Graham and I joined GGT as a young company, and the two things that have underpinned our career progression have been ambition - you seek the new ground because you like challenges - and risk-taking. The biggest risk you can take in our business is not financial: it is more about reputation. You can't recover reputation.
An asset that both Graham and I have is that we are very incisive in the way we communicate ideas. We have applied that to marketing our own company. The first thing you have to do is to get people's attention. We did it by stating that what we were about was radically different to anybody else. Stage two was convincing people that it wasn't just different - it was better. The balance that we have created in the company was important, but it's not something you can write down on paper. Underpinning it all is conviction.
We have developed a style of managing the company which is not hierarchical: we don't have set-piece management meetings, but we are continually involved. There is a strong egalitarian streak, and I hope we put the company ahead of egos. It's very easy in small companies for individuals to dominate, but increasingly at M&B, other people are doing things, and it's vital to future growth that we train up other leaders. We want to give them the skills to develop their own leadership qualities: I don't mean to mimic, but to understand that knowledge is power. We encourage people to take courses to give them that kind of understanding. If I am trained in anything, it's probably philosophy. I'm intrigued by the German philosophers, whom I find far more rigorous than Greek philosophy.
Graham has often said that I have strong conviction and self-belief. He has the same confidence that I have in him - that he can actually lead, because leadership and direction are critical to a small company. It also takes account of the fact that one of us might have a bad day.
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