So says the chief exec of intelligence consultancy Savanta. The company was born earlier this year from the merger of MIG Global’s suite of agencies and is on track to achieve a turnover of £35m.
We caught up with Roger Perowne to find out more about the collective entrepreneurialism driving his company.
Savanta promises to help clients like Vodafone, Wagamama and Sainsbury’s make better decisions. What has informed your own decision-making over the years?
‘Is there a better way of doing that?’ That question pretty much sums it up for me. And whenever I’ve taken big – and sometimes scary – decisions, professionally speaking, it’s because I’m convinced the answer is ‘yes’.
In the early 2000s, I was working in a large brand consultancy along with a very clever man called Alistair Cunningham [Savanta’s CIO]. We both had this overwhelming sense that the old agency model just wasn’t nimble or tech-savvy enough to do the things being asked of it. Our capacity to collate and present data was evolving faster than most non-tech experts could relate to, with most research businesses were not offering their clients the benefits of this new world: data on demand, data integrations, interactive data visualisation, analytics using AI, and so on. We took the plunge and created our own company because we thought we could do it better.
That company, Morar, was bought by communications group Next 15 for £5million so you were vindicated in the long run. Do entrepreneurs need that level of confidence do you think?
There is always risk attached to going it alone, and I guess not everyone likes risk. But if you have the belief that things can be done better because you’ve seen first-hand that the old ways aren’t working, and backed this idea up with detailed planning, then the desire to do something about it becomes pretty overwhelming. That’s not to say the decision is straightforward; you can be confident and daunted at the same time. Alistair and I found ourselves in a London bar at 2am playing a game of chicken, each daring the other to quit his job first. He had a young family up in Edinburgh at the time; that makes him braver that me.
Until recently Morar operated alongside several other sister companies under the banner MIG Global. How did that come about?
We knew from our own experience with Morar that a boutique-style approach was the way forward. Clients prefer a personalised experience; they like dealing with experts who have the know-how and the motivation to push boundaries in order to provide high-quality intelligence for their businesses. Thanks to Next 15’s buying power, we could apply Morar’s proprietary tech to other entrepreneur-run data companies and help them grow.
So what was the thinking behind combining seven companies into one single brand earlier this year?
It’s a question of scale. To do really impressive things you need a certain level of investment. We were all interested in developing brand new tools that enable us to capture data of the highest quality and interrogate it better than ever before. We now have a fast-growing team of twenty developers working in our tech hub in Cambridge. That’s an investment Savantais able to make because we’ve come together with a single P&L, operating on a global basis. But the boutique idea hasn’t changed. We’ve kept the personalised client-led approach that you’d expect from highly motivated entrepreneurs working in their own field of expertise – there’s no way we’d give that up.
How do you get a whole load of entrepreneurs working together as a team? Some would say that’s a contradiction in terms.
By not telling them what to do. It’s about recognising that the best ideas come from right across the company, about creating a culture that says: ‘The people at the top don’t know more than you. In fact, they know a lot less than you about some things’. Savanta works because entrepreneurs know that the autonomy and flexibility they thrive on won’t be challenged. I’m not interested in command and control models. Savanta is a collective, in which we all benefit from the company’s success. This belief in each other, rather than competition, helps to create a place where people collaborate and go further.
It’s also a question of keeping working practices client-focused. Yes, we’re a bigger company now – there are now 250 of us – but that doesn’t mean we have to become corporate. Instead, we have a consultancy-inspired structure: small teams of people with deep pools of expertise. We call them Practice Areas. People can be in more than one Practice Area; they might be specialists in the restaurant sector but also be highly skilled in planning, say. So, from a client’s point of view, we can assemble handpicked teams on a case-by-case basis at whatever scale is required. It keeps us flexible and light on our feet and it means our company remains firmly talent-based. I’m very much one for career management, not line management.
And can Savanta keep growing along those lines?
Provided we stay true to our spirit, yes. But it’s vital we don’t grow for the sake of it. Our most recent acquisition was Wealth-X’s custom research division [previously Ledbury Research] and it’s a great example of the conditions being right. Torie Bold and her team bring unparalleled expertise in the wealth and luxury sector, and Savanta’s platforms and innovative techniques can help them access hard-to-reach audiences and make discoveries with real impact. Getting together is better for us and our clients, and better for them and their clients. Crucially, it’s a good cultural fit too: we share the same values.
Do you still see yourself as an entrepreneur first and foremost?
Well, I was selling bunches of daffodils door-to-door when I was six for 25p! But I’ve never liked the idea that my life is defined by what I do for a living. Your job is not you. Soon after starting Morar, I moved to a four-day week for myself so I could look after my young son on the fifth day. My aim for the future is to teach cricket more, which some people might think isn’t very entrepreneur-like. But I think there’s a lot of confusion around that word. People associate it with lone-wolf egomaniacs, but when you get lots of ambitious and talented innovators pulling in the same direction you realise that’s nonsense. At least half of the key management in Savanta are out-and-out entrepreneurs and so is Tim Dyson, my boss at Next 15. It’s a rare situation and a real privilege to all work together, for common goals.