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Cultivate entrepreneurialism, stay small as you go big: Pawl Cubbin on competitive advantage

Want to compete with the multinationals but worried ‘going big’ will kill the creative spirit driving your business? According to Pawl Cubbin, founder and CEO of independent creative network ZOO Group, you can punch above your weight by cultivating a culture of entrepreneurialism, getting your core team right and learning from different business models.

In 1995, Pawl – then an awarded art director with more than ten years’ experience – launched City Graphics, a branding/advertising business in Canberra. Over a period of 12 years, the business saw success, securing a 60% market share and growing to include a workforce of sixty people. In 2007, half of the business was acquired by a multi-national communications group. ZOO Group was born three years later when Pawl bought back business, determined to transform it into a network of independent agencies.

To date, ZOO Group includes three agencies across Australia (Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney) and two abroad (Auckland and Singapore), with plans to grow to a network of 10 agencies across 7 countries by 2020.  Pawl’s entrepreneurialism extends beyond the advertising industry. He played an integral role in the acquisition and launch of the airline Regional Express (Rex), and has a portfolio of restaurants, clubs and commercial properties, which are run by his company CubbinCo.

Pawl revealed to Dynamic Business the philosophies that have allowed Zoo Group to compete with multinationals in a meaningful way:

Correctly diagnosing problems

“At ZOO Group, we seek to understand clients’ business needs. A lot of the time, clients will approach us with a brief for an advertising or marketing solution. Our approach is to dissect these briefs and ask different questions, which delve into their business and the reason they approached us and others. The aim is to correctly diagnose a problem a client needs to address in their business, rather than just working to a brief.  What we say, internally, is ‘ask better questions’.”

An entrepreneurial culture

“A true entrepreneur is someone who has a vision and a really good business idea– in other words, something original or a new twist on an existing idea. In order to be an entrepreneur, it’s also necessary to take business and creative risks because what they’re trying to achieve is, to a degree, without precedent. If you employ people, there’s a lot of responsibility, because it’s not just your money at stake, it’s also the livelihood of others. If what you’re doing works, you can bring more people into fold but if it doesn’t, then you might have to take people off. You’ve got to be a certain kind of person to take on that responsibility, that risk.

“Entrepreneurialism is a big part of ZOO Group in that we headhunt people who’ve risen to the top of their careers and are willing to take a risk – namely, stepping away from a really good job with a multinational – if it means personal growth and development. The idea is that these people will spur others to continually innovate, to find what we call ‘the new better’.  A crucial part of this approach is giving the managing directors of each agency – as well as their creative partners – equity in the business. Having skin in the game provides them with emotional ownership of the business, driving them to produce high quality work and build hard-working and loyal teams. It’s also important to mentor personnel who leave multinationals to join us. While they might excel at managing clients, delivering results and building great teams, they won’t necessarily know enough about running and growing a business and operating in the private sector. My CFO and I regularly connect with these people and teach them things they haven’t had a lot of experience in to round out their skillset.”

Not too big, not too small

“While we want to have a global presence, and we’re starting to get there, we’re not aspiring to operate like a traditional multinational. We’re sticking with smaller agencies with around 30-50 people who are engaged, want to challenge themselves and thus produce better results. Even if you have big aspirations for your business, you don’t have to have a huge amount of people; instead, you can keep it small – get your core team right and know who to go to get other things done. It’s been important for us to retain the entrepreneurial spirit of a smaller operation but blend that with some of the practices of multinationals. Small companies have a very flat structure but aren’t robust enough to look after larger clients. Conversely, the multinationals are, by their very nature, very competent at running a large business but they’re very hierarchical. I think we’ve struck a very happy medium between being too small and too flat and being too big and quite hierarchical.”

Cross-referencing businesses

“Outside of ZOO Group, I have several restaurants and hospitality venues.  The similarities between a restaurant and an advertising agency are quite amazing. You’ve got the guys in the kitchen making the product, and the guys on the floor looking after the customers and selling the products. An analogy I use is ‘you come to us because you hear the food is great but you come back due to the quality of the service’. Obviously, a combination of great products and quality service is what helps us retain clients in the long-term. I find myself cross-referencing the business models of ZOO Group and our portfolio of restaurants not only because they’re quite similar but it allows me to think about the structure of each business differently.”

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James Harkness

James Harkness

James Harnkess previous editor at Dynamic Business

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