Spoiler alert. There’s a scene in Avengers End Game in which Ant Man, Paul Rudd in an impressive suit, flips in a millisecond from being tiny to being massive, then quickly taking out the bad guys in a PG-sort-of-a-way.
Twelve years ago I set up a business in a garden shed. I had two goals: to create a business that would span capital markets, corporate and consumer PR – and to eventually sell it.
I’ve sort of done both and I am still with the business and I would like to explain why.
Lots of people set up businesses because they feel passionate about something. I did and I still do. It’s the sort of passion that got that shed-based business through the door and working with more than 100 great brands, many of them household names and some of them global brands. The philosophical question, though, was whether it was a business – and if not, what a business really is.
Had I continued the way I had, I would never have sold it. Most of the inspiration and the creativity was resident in me. I worked with some talented collaborators and colleagues along the way, but the core of the work was always me.
In much the same way that Ant Man, as far as we know, will never be able to ‘scale’ from the size of an ant to the size of King Kong, I was never going to be able to do the same alone. I could put on more weight, go to the gym. But I was always only going to be me – and I couldn’t sell myself. I was no Dr Faustas. I needed to build a team of like-minded, committed people around me.
The tone of voice of the business back then was all mine. The strategic direction, insofar as there was any, was all mine. The growth, in terms of winning clients, was all mine.
“All mine. All mine.” The ultimate recipe for stasis. The best recipe for failure.
I realised this wasn’t going to work the way I’d always assumed it would about a decade into the process. It’s interesting to me that while I pride myself on being able to listen, understand and constructively critique a client’s business and some of the choices a client is considering, I found it very hard to do myself.
I realised, eventually, that no one owns a brand. They might embody it, but the only way to really grow something is to share it and to figure it out as a community of like-minded, distinctively different and passionate people. Brands grow by being communities alive and open to catalysts.
Today is a real turning point. We have a new brand and a new ethos. Today I work with a community of whip-smart, committed, insightful and professional people who I respect and who now share the trajectory of this brand. That means more voices, more opinions, more insights and better work. It also means more fulfilment.
I can’t claim that getting here has been easy. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve had to work hard to unpick some of the patterns and habits that I’ve developed, but I couldn’t be happier that I’ve done it. But there’s another truth, which is that in order to stay with something, it has to retain something of you. It’s the Washington’s Axe story – or the Ship of Theseus. Every part might have changed, but some part of it remains true to its origins and always will.
Today, we’re Houston.
I won’t lose my passion for the incredible achievements of the Apollo programme as we approach the 50th anniversary. They inspired me to create the brand. But Houston is more than a platform for exploration and achievement. It’s a complex metropolis containing multitudes. Public relations is still at the core of what we do, and there is now much more to us than that. Our growing number of capital markets mandates, a blended mix of work that spans many elements of the communications and marketing mix, a new insights platform that we’re road testing and will launch soon, intelligent social engagement and ideas, ideas and more ideas.
Key to this is listening. Someone once said to me that I should use my ears and mouth in the proportion that I was given them. It was helpful – and they were wrong – or rather, not fully right. We should all use our eyes, ears and mouths in the proportion that we are given them. Watch, listen, understand, think and then speak. That’s the secret to true collaboration and great work and that’s at the heart of Houston.
50 years ago, the world watched as Neil Armstrong touched his foot on the moon. The world was looking outward. Today, against the current of insularity, borders and turf wars, Houston also looks outward. Communications are intended to clarify, resonate and inspire. That’s our collaborative mission and it’s the mission for all successful entrepreneurial businesses. Now, if you’ll excuse me, we’ve got work to do.