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How December 19 is making money without compromising on its principles

26 Apr 2018 By Eleanor Whitehouse

The boutique media agency is keen to retain a small-business philosophy even as it grows

Tucked away in a former vinegar factory a stone’s throw from Tower Bridge, the London offices of December 19 are as stylish as you would expect from a ‘boutique’ media planning agency. Set against a backdrop of rustic bare brick walls and glass partitions, modern monochrome furniture is accentuated by on-brand bright orange touches. Even the mug People Management is handed matches perfectly with the decor.

It’s the kind of thoughtfulness that has helped the agency get to where it is today. Set up eight years ago, in the throes of economic recession, co-founders Dave Barnett and Dan Pimm have always prided themselves on doing the right thing. “The idea for December 19 came from having worked in large media agencies that are almost at risk of losing their identity because they operate on such a large scale, as well as smaller outfits that are able to provide a more personal service,” says Barnett. 

“We realised there was an appetite for an agency that can manage big pieces of business, but still afford the same level of care and attention of a smaller company. It was no longer just about being the cheapest.”

Slice the agency in two and – like writing in a stick of rock – you’ll find this level of care and attention runs right the way through. Having both been made redundant and experienced first-hand the effects of putting profit first, Barnett and Pimm were adamant that December 19 would have a conscience. “We had a real sense of purpose to put our principles before our profit margins,” says Barnett. 

“If we treated our clients and our people right and developed those relationships, we would still make money, but in a way that meant we could sleep at night. And naming the company after the date Dan got made redundant in 2008 is a permanent reminder that good things can come from bad.”

It’s a philosophy that’s served them well so far. The agency has doubled its turnover every year since being in business, and was named Campaign’s best small company to work for in 2018 – an accolade awarded solely from staff feedback. “We want to do right by our people, and I think that’s reflected in how long they stay. The first member of staff we took on to do our accounts is still with us,” says Barnett.

Looking after those people day-to-day, the agency’s HR function is divided between Barnett, Pimm and two other staff, as well as an external employment lawyer for rubber-stamping when required. “It might seem piecemeal,” says Barnett. “But it works. None of us have run a business before, and we’re still learning. We want to treat people like adults and create a culture where everyone can be open and direct, rather than being too process-heavy.”

Despite being a workforce of just 16, the agency puts a huge emphasis on learning and development. “We use an 80/20 model – 80 per cent of each person’s time is spent on work, and 20 per cent on professional development,” says Barnett. “Everyone is busy and there’s always a reason not to go on a course or attend a seminar, but we don’t want them to feel guilty about taking time out for training. It’s more important in the long run.

“Our staff development programme is also backed up by our membership of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, which approves our training plans a year in advance.”

As well as offering ample opportunities to its employees, December 19 is keen to open its doors to new recruits who may not come via traditional routes. “I left school mid-way through my A-levels, having decided I was better cut out for the world of work than the education system,” says Barnett. “I fell into my first job selling advertising space for a small newspaper in Hertfordshire, and I’ve worked my way up from there.

“I’m living proof that having the right attitude is sometimes more valuable than what’s on your CV. When hiring, I would take the best attitude over the best qualifications every time.”

The company is now part-way through its second cohort of a digital marketing apprenticeship scheme. “We had two apprentices last year – one of whom stayed with us as an account executive – and two more this year,” says Barnett. “University isn’t for everyone so I really buy into the premise of the scheme, but the execution hasn’t been perfect. There have been issues with the training providers, including one going into administration, so we’re considering alternatives for next year.”

Keen to expose young people to the realities of work as early as possible, December 19 also offers a week’s work experience each year to two Year 11 pupils from team members’ former secondary schools. “It’s important for them to experience what it’s like in the real world,” says Barnett. “Rather than spending a week making tea or filing, we get them doing interesting, inspiring things that give them an insight into what they could do when they leave school.”

With more new recruits on the horizon and an imminent expansion into the office next door, where does Barnett see December 19 in the future? “The company culture is the most important thing to me,” he says. “That’s been our foundation since day one, and I want to make sure it’s still nurtured as we grow. If we were to lose that, I think it would destroy me.”

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