Richard Humphreys, Chairman, Felber Consulting

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Richard Humphreys, Chairman, Felber Consulting
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Many of the best interviews for this project came through my parents network, for which I am very grateful. Richard Humphreys was one such gentleman, whose career pedigree is up there with the best, having started businesses and led teams at Saatchi and Saatchi, Adcom and elsewhere.

While not technically a purely a salesperson himself, Richard’s enjoyment of winning pitches and leading sales teams shines through in this insightful interview.

You can read Richard’s full biography here

Jamie: Richard, what have you found the most fulfilling about your career, thus far?

Richard: I suppose the ability to start a company and create success for the whole group. It’s a self-managed entrepreneurial lifestyle. 

Jamie: And do you consider yourself to have been in sales?

Richard: Only in the sense that a very successful company, at some stage, is selling themselves to clients – if it’s a medical company, it sells itself to patients, whatever industry it’s in, it sells in a direct or indirect way. So yes, you have to sell. 

Jamie: You’ve run big companies before; how did you view the sales function, as a part of the overall company?  


Very important – new business is the prime objective to maintain morale and to improve the finances, and therefore, I always invested quite heavily in the new business departments, which is how I would define sales in the advertising industry. 

Jamie: So you make a clear distinction between the new business and account management parts of the business?

Richard: I think the actual sales and the presentation has to made by the senior management of the company because that is what the clients are buying into. But the preparation work is something that is distracting in the everyday management of accounts. Therefore, when one presents to clients, one has to be fully prepared. I would say the mantra is to know your client. Know what their interests are, what they want. And that requires some study. 

Jamie: What sort of behaviours or culture did you see in a successful sales function, and what were you trying to cultivate? 

Richard: The ability to understand, to plan, because so many sales efforts fail when they reach the wrong people. We’ve seen that with cold calling, quite an inappropriate waste of time, quite often.  I remember when I was in my 20s seeing something – “I want this in double glazing.” Then the salesman come to the house. I was newly married then, and we just wanted something to get rid of the draught at night. 

This guy set out his little demonstration and talked it through, and I was thinking, “okay we will buy one like this.” Until he said, “And shall we ask the little lady to come in and show it to her?” As if my wife wanted and needed to be part of this discussion for some reason. He totally misread his audience completely, so I threw him out and didn’t buy his product. You have to have empathy and understand your audience; make it simple to buy. That’s a key attribute. 

Jamie: You worked in advertising media. Do you think it’s a good industry for a salesperson to go in to and to consider as a career?

Richard: I think it’s an industry for outgoing personalities. And the key thing in advertising is the ability to get on well with people. Have some sort of personality, and rapport. And the basis of that is understanding what your customer wants and needs.

Jamie: So would you recommend any salesperson look at that industry, or would you say that there’s a certain type of salesperson who thrives more in that environment?

Richard: Certainly. It is quite particular work. Anyone can survive or succeed in it, I suppose. But it is a less formal environment than most salesforces. It is not generally rewarded with a percentage with your sales, or something like that. It is to do with being a part of a team. The billing of business then becomes a snowball. 

I think you need imagination to be in the industry. You need to understand the product you’re selling. You can understand that with glazing. You can understand widgets. But in a lot of times, you have to understand communication itself. And in advertising you have to understand the creative products, and the solutions, that you’re bringing to client’s needs. 

Jamie: To play on the stereotype to the extent, that advertising media is renowned as an industry that has a fair amount of perks. Is that the case?

Richard: Well, it’s well paid. It’s well paid and good money is also made by the owner of the company. It’s an entrepreneurial business. There are lots of small companies. The constant stream is: people do well in the big company, then start their own company, then sell it to another company, and on and on. Perhaps those are the perks. That is how people make their substantial money there. It is now a well-paid business. It’s an international business. Salaries and perks are comparable around the world.

Jamie: You mentioned the empathy, the communication, and maybe a little bit of flair in the salespeople you’ve dealt well. Are there any other sort of skills, or characteristics you point to and say, “that’s a really good salesperson to work with?”

Richard: I think in the advertising business, the presentation is the point. Generally speaking, the start of the cycle is winning the customer’s account, and you win it through a presentation. Generally, you’re shortlisted in 4 or 5 agencies, and you come up with your creative work, you present it and everything around it, and they make a decision based on that work. The decision includes whether or not you are the sort of people that they could form a good chemistry and form a good relationship with. 

You’re trying to get across your character, your abilities to understand them.

In my experience, the best way to start that process, when you first see potential clients, is not to talk about yourself, or your company, but to talk about their company. The most successful presentations I’ve ever made, I don’t think I mentioned our advertising agency. 

I just talked about the widgets, or whatever it is, because that’s what they really want to know. I think if you’re interested in them, they become interested in you. The other thing I would say in the advertising world which I try to use as a different way of approach is simplifying your proposition. In most big advertising accounts, you’ll be presenting media research, creating the whole caboodle.  

The large agencies would come into the presentation with large presentation documents to leave behind, and so forth. My most successful one was when we presented for an account, a very substantial potential account which is a seller of cars. We left behind just a postcard. The postcard had the creative image that we wanted to get across. 

With the strapline, which happened to be “nothing on earth comes close.” Because the company also made aeroplanes, so “nothing on earth comes close” made sense for them. All that was on the card was the name of the agency and “nothing on earth comes close” – that was all. We did this because they would assume that we can do the other things as well as anyone else, but also that we were the sort of people who would communicate and resonate with them, and therefore with their customers,

I always insisted, that whenever we sell to new clients we produce a one-page executive summary, that really captures everything that we’re trying to get across. The other stuff you can stick it in an appendix. Either they can read it if they want to, or they can get to what they need to know and then check it out. But you want the proposition simplified and easy to access. 

Jamie: What difference in reaction have you seen when you simplify the presentation and present that executive summary?

Richard: Usually relief. I think. Relief because they’re going through half a dozen excellent presentations. I think in taking the UK advertising industry, particularly in my generation, the clients regarded advertising as an exotic, entertaining, and interesting world. It’s almost like a day out when you go to the agency and you’ve seen their presentation of their work. They want a bit of entertainment, they want to feel a bit of excitement. I think you have to play with that side.

What I found was that being brief and to the point got you rapport obviously and quickly rather than trying to be just like their internal departments; being very detailed and covering all the ground. They know more about what they sell than you could possibly know.  

Anything you produce to them is only based on your personal research and knowledge and understanding of the mind-set of their own buying customers. Isuppose, the conclusion for that is – understand your client. They are different and want you to bring a new perspective rather than repeat the things you think they want to hear.

Jamie: You mentioned a tender process. Do you have any sort of further advice, and things that you’ve seen work in those competitive situations?

Richard: That was the norm, that sort of beauty parade. It was pretty standard stuff. The first stage is getting on the list, getting to be seen. Part of that process is PR for your own agency, which something that Charles Saatchi was brilliant at.

I think in the early days of Saatchi, it was seen as a massively successful agency before it was. Then inevitably it became a massively successful agency. That’s a form of brilliance.

Getting attention. Getting on their radar. And then, clients might start to give you their business without a competitive presentation thanks to the power of the brand you’ve built for yourself.

But usually and for most agencies I guess it’s much the same as buying homewares, like carpets; you just aren’t going to go to one shop. I guess you would look at the number of different carpets, and so on. It’s a very natural human idea to compare, adjust, and choose the best for you. In agencies that comes down to people, because it is an intangible form of selling. The client has to believe that you are as good as anybody else at planning media, buying media, doing research, all those kind of things; these are just the mechanics of the business. So two things set the agencies apart. One, of course, is the creative work that they produce. The other is the rapport they can develop with the client. The easier it is to form that relationship, the easier it is to communicate the creative work and get it right. That is what you need to get across in presentations, when you’re selling an advertising agency.

All the other stuff you say, “Yeah, yeah. We’re as good as that. We’re as good as this. Whatever you’re asking about, take that for granted, we wouldn’t be where we are today if we couldn’t buy television time, or social media, as well as anybody else. If you really want to know all about that, here’s a big fat appendix in the document that we’re giving you.”

The key thing is the relationship you establish and the work you present and why it’s relevant. And to get there, you have to understand what their needs are. You have to interpret those needs. You’ve got to get on their wavelength and understand the client. You want to ask questions to understand who you’re selling to, even if it’s newspapers on the street. The only difference with newspapers is that it takes lots less preparation to sell.

Jamie: If you were trying to decide yourself which advertising agency to join nowadays, how would go about that process?

Richard: It would be the other people on the team I think. Because it’s a team business. You don’t want politics in the office if you can possibly help it. Again, I think it’s to have rapport with people. Plus you’ve got to believe that these are the people you can succeed with. A team can be greater than the sum of its parts. Of course, you do need different talents. It’s a game with many talents. You do need creative flare, of course, but you also need more. Sometimes it might be clear that they’re looking for a certain type of person to make the team whole.  Could that be you? Could you fit into that team and create more with these people with whom you can form a rapport?

Jamie: We talked previously about how your successes come from helping people find that right role and building a great culture. How do you do that?

Richard: I think by not being remote; by a lot of physical presence. A lot of talking, and setting standards, and communicating those standards, but not lecturing and preaching. When you’re a relatively small agency, it’s important to have a family feel about the agency, if you like.

Understanding the personal circumstances of most of the people that work for you. I think that was quite important. If you’re merging companies together, you’ve got to join those people, as well as the company. The mechanics of the company are quite straight-forward, but you want the people to feel that they belong to this new entity.

For that, I used to find parties very successful. The way I’ve done it. Social at business get-togethers, if you like. And so, for instance, you congratulate a team within the company whenever you win something. Those little celebrations start to build a sense of belonging and shape the culture.

Managing big companies which have lots of working parts around the world. Just being there quite a lot is quite important. I would travel around and try to bring people from different places with me as well. Training is good for building a sense of belonging. I brought people from different parts of the world which were particularly creative and more developed than others. 

I would take some talents from those places and take them to the other places. For instance, taking South East Asia, which is now really well-developed in terms of advertising, but it wasn’t in those days. I took people who proved they can do it elsewhere, and met the local people to present the way they do their work for particular types of products and clients training skills and people, that gave them some reason to be part of the great world empire, I suppose, rather than just their own small corner of the world. That paid great dividends, in terms of jobs and their careers for them but also in terms of getting the best options for the clients.

This sows a seed in all your other companies, so each company around the world understands what it needs to do. It’s a matter of training and constant personal interaction to make each agency office, big or small, realise it is part of a larger entity which shares an approach – a culture, if you like – and is there to support in times of need.

Jamie: What considerations would you take into account when deciding whether you’d like to work for a large agency or a small one?

Richard: People I worked with did tend to go in one of two directions. I went the start-your-own-company direction. Why? I suppose I like to be in charge. I like to make my own decisions. I like to be independent. I’ve probably always been that way.

Whereas other people pursue their careers considering big industry the best way to get on, with the major companies and clients. So they did it that way.  I suppose in some ways it’s because I’m lazy or something, I’m not always interested in doing that sort of slog work, those things which you had to do when you’re bottom of the pile on a big account. 

Who succeeds in the long run? I would say generally the entrepreneurs – If I look around people who are, in my view, successful on the business side, it’s the people who have done their own thing.

Not necessarily people who have gone to be the junior guy on the biggest account on earth, and they then worked their way up to be a medium guy and, et cetera, et cetera. Because that’s a very long slog. And it happens a lot in the States. When I look at companies in the States, I find that people just spent their entire life working on one account in one agency. The guys are in their 50s, or whatever. Sometimes it’s dangerous to put all your eggs in one basket like that.

I can see that works for other people, but that’s more of civil service or insurance industry, that sort of approach. I think the entrepreneurial approach in my particular industry of advertising is good. Things might be changing now because the reward system is different. When I started, it was, you took a percentage of what you spent on behalf of your client. Now, it’s much more time-based, almost like lawyers or whatever. So money was easier to make in those days if you were successful, and there were more peaks and troughs and so on. Now, I guess it’s more regular, and that may well require a different skill.

Jamie: What advice would you have for aspiring salespeople, specifically?

Richard: As I said before, think about who you’re selling to. That’s the first thing. Obviously, you need to be satisfied that you’ve got something that’s worth selling. But think about who you are selling to, think about who is mostly going to buy. And it sounds very obvious, isn’t it? It’s a personality and communication thing,  how you tell them your vacuum cleaner picks up more dust than any other vacuum cleaner. 

Why is that interesting to those that I’m talking to? And what’s in it for them? That is, I think, the approach. People make buying decisions on irrational grounds sometimes.

A mixture of rational and irrational, I mean. There is a human response factor in there which is to deal with – relationship, and likability, and things like that. Trust. The other thing is trust, of course, building a reputation for honesty, not over selling the product as well.

But in the end, I think I would say, is to do with personal chemistry. And that’s something that is not entirely about chance. There’s a little bit of planning; a little bit of manoeuvre and preparation involved in that. 

Jamie: If you had your career again, for what would you do differently?

Richard: I tell you what. Wishing is very easy with hindsight, saying “that was a mistake, or that was a good thing.”  Anyone who says “I wouldn’t change a thing.”, is talking complete nonsense. I think in one or two cases, I would like to treat one or two individuals with whom I had certain differences less antagonistically.

 But without those mistakes, without the difficult business, without those flaws I might not have seen the other side of the coin which is success and enjoyment. You know, one is made up with a lot of complications. Yes, there are a few things one would change with hindsight but that’s a bit like saying, “if I had complete hindsight, I’d know the winning the lottery numbers” or something. “It’s so easily done, when you buy shares at the right time.” These things are silly. I think one would like to be remembered is someone who tried to help other people and build something. Rather than someone who just got really greedy, and pushed their way through. 

Jamie: Can you tell me about a time when, perhaps you were pitching for business, and it didn’t go well, but you realized why and it taught you something?

Richard: Of course there are specific times when I might have gotten things wrong, or someone else had a better tag line and I guess you gradually learn from these near misses.  Right in the beginning, for example, we failed to land a particular drinks account, which I thought we had in the bag. We had quite a decent pitch; we were a small agency, but pretty good with presentations. Then the other guys came up with a brilliant strap line and won the business.

Ironically I ended up taking over that other agency and inheriting the strap line. If you can’t beat them, join them.

Jamie:  How has the selling in the advertising world changed in your time?

Richard:  Of course it used be quite traditional.  

In the early days, you could jump in the cab on a way to a presentation, and make it up most of what you were going to say on the spot.  The business was and still is, full of quite quick-thinking people who didn’t want a particularly conventional life. But those who really succeeded did a little more preparation, and that is certainly necessary these days. 

They thought through what they are going to do just a little bit more. As I said before, you’ve got to think about why these potential clients are interested have you come and see them in the first place. I think too many people when they are selling just make the same presentations to everybody.

That doesn’t work nearly as well as understanding the guys who are going to see you. Everybody, every client, is a slightly different client. Sometimes they want a lot of help in their own business. Other times they want a quite superficial change on their profile.  Without knowing what they are looking for you won’t make a sale.


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