A U-turn to Ignite Positive Change

Our Founder & Strategy Director, Toby Barty, shares his thoughts and learnings from his career change from client-side to agency.

by Toby Barty | Thoughts | 4 May 2021

At the end of 2018 I left Unilever after a fantastic 12 years to join forces with Craig and launch Catch A Fire. Three years later and we’ve seen fantastic growth, steered the business through a pandemic, expanded our team and our portfolio, and evolved our brand. Now in 2021, we’re excited to refresh the brand and agency with a renewed purpose that’s stronger than ever.

When we launched Catch A Fire, we wanted to build a different kind of agency. To work in a way that would actively shape a better future, rather than just talking about it. To help businesses and brands with an ethical purpose and story to tell. To bring together everything we had learnt over the last 20 years from two very different worlds and focus on how we could amplify the positives and make a real difference.

One giant leap

As a client-side brand strategist, the opportunity to lead an agency was an irresistible challenge and has proved to be a non-stop learning curve, in a good way. It was a chance to build a creative agency from the ground up that not only stood up for positive values, but had true client thinking and experience at its heart.

We didn’t start with a textbook approach. We stayed openminded. We had to experiment; learning from our mistakes, and our wins, in equal measure, and we can see the benefits of those learnings now, as we embark upon this new stage of our journey.

So after three high-energy, challenging, but amazing years, what have I learnt?

1. Look to your experience

It won’t let you down.
Never underestimate how much you’ve learnt along the way. My years at Unilever took me across the UK, Europe and around the world, learning how to communicate the benefits of different brands to different audiences.

Having transferrable skills is more than just a stock phrase for a CV; I’m always struck by how the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills I developed during my time at Unilever have helped me make the leap from client to agency side – and how they continue to help me shape the future of the agency every day. For me it’s been about bringing my learnings and experience, processes and principles into Catch A Fire in an agile way to make our agency the best it can possibly be. From brand understanding and development thinking, to people development.

2. You can’t over plan it

I’m a brand strategist.
When we founded Catch A Fire, I did what was expected. I wrote a strategy. It made sense at the time, but three years down the track I’ve learnt that, as a start-up, you can never predict what’s going to happen next. All you can do at that stage is be really clear on who you are and where and how you want to play – and put your best foot forward. As it happens, we smashed our Year 1 targets and never looked back.

Three years down the line, we do of course, have a strategic plan in place, we’ve dotted the ‘I’s and crossed the ‘T’s, and it’s guiding us into the next three years.

3. Create time to think

Step back before you step forward.
The first 18 months of Catch A Fire went by in a blink. We were learning on the go and focusing every day on doing everything possible to deliver work that made our clients happy.

This hasn’t changed today, we’re still working and growing at pace, but taking a holiday in August last year brought some much-needed breathing – and thinking – space. A chance to reflect and look forward. Around the pool, cold beer in hand, I started to visualise how we could step up the business, to make it even more sustainable and connected.

When I got back, we set about making some brilliant people, who’d been with us from the start, permanent, and also recruited some new roles to strengthen our core agency team and proposition – taking the full-time team from 5 to 15 overnight. It was the step change we needed to make. Taking a holiday and beer are now also permanent fixtures in the business plan going forward.

4. Commit to your instincts

Hold your nerve.
One of my biggest learnings on the road from start-up to where we are today has been to truly commit to my instincts. To trust them and then to act on them. You’re doing this just by starting a business, but that’s not the only plunge you’ll take along the way. Every day there are decisions to be made and risks to calculate.

You don’t grow without risk, and you can’t take risks without a little bit of faith. There have been some pivotal moments along the way that have had me relying on my instincts, such as when we hired a new digital team, a key strategic area of the business that we were yet to develop. It’s now a huge and thriving element of our offering. When you know, you know.

5. Brilliant people make it happen

This is not new news. Without a brilliant team of people working really well together, growing a business successfully is simply not possible.

A huge factor in our success has been building a consistent team of super-skilled, brilliant people who are all working towards the same end goal. We’ve worked hard to create an environment and a culture where people want to work, grow and stay.

Many of the team have been with us from the very start, around the kitchen table. Kamran, our Design Director, worked on our very first project, and now heads up our studio team of talented designers, editors, animators and developers. Hannah, our Project Director, was our first employee who started working for us part time to help us build the business up and is now leading a number of key projects and clients within the business. Every single member of the team brings something unique to the table – thankfully no longer in the kitchen.

We also have a deliberate 50/50 mix of client and agency-side experience in the team. It’s a business KPI. This keeps our feet well and truly on the ground and ensures we really understand not only the brand challenge and ‘job to be done’, but also the pressures the client may be under internally. We now have a brilliant team of over 20 people from incredible designers to bright, strategic thinkers and digital experts.

It’s been quite a ride from the kitchen table to our own office, and not without its challenges, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m hugely proud of what Craig and I have achieved so far– and even more grateful to the clients who put their faith in us, over and above other more established, traditional agencies.

We’re also closing in on our B Corp accreditation, a massive step forward for us a business in our pursuit to balance profit with purpose.

As for the next three years? We’re ready…!