Skip to main content

Working hard for brands

Martin Fullard meets Karen Kadin and John Birger, managing partners at Brands at Work

2018 was a good year for Brands at Work – the agency formed by Karen Kadin and John Birger in 2010. From a small core team in the early years, they achieved year-on-year growth expanding their client list by one or two new clients each year. 

But last year saw the agency grow by 125% as they won several big tenders and a number of new clients were added to their roster. All of this while ‘moving house’ to new office space in the heart of Belgravia. I met them in Fulham for a spot of seafood and a light chat:

How did you both get into the events industry, and how did Brands at Work come about?

JB: My background was in the theatre. I worked in stage management and then became company director for a number of West End musicals, while Karen was from a strategic marketing and advertising background. We met when we both worked for the same agency that was part of the WPP Group; Karen was in New York, and I was in London. Karen came over to the UK on a two year secondment to help grow the European business and we worked really well together. 

We left to set up Brands at Work because we felt there was an opportunity for events to be brought into the marketing mix a lot earlier, rather than as an afterthought. Brands at Work offered the sophistication of big agency thinking coupled with the personalised service of a boutique agency.

You’re an agency that still has your founding clients – how do you keep the relationship fresh?

KK: We are never complacent and we treat each of our clients as if we are still in the courting stage of the relationship. Each time we approach an event brief, we step up our game and find a new angle of creativity that will completely blow the brief’s objectives out of the water. Always building on the past experiences we have, we delve deeper and uncover new insights and gain a more crystalized understanding of the business and the brand which means that we can deliver more meaningful work. It is a balancing act though, and we are very self-aware; when I’d delivered the same event for a client for five years running I felt that I needed to ensure that the client didn’t think that we were taking the event for granted. I stepped aside and let a new creative team take the helm and spark new ideas. I was still involved – sharing my wisdom and experience – but the new team brought fresh eyes to the event.

Which sectors do you work in?

KK: When we first started out, we knew we were entering a competitive landscape, so we went after the ‘less glamorous’ companies in industries where the subject matter is more complex; we thought they would really benefit from an infusion of creativity. This approach led us into healthcare, financial services and professional services.  From a musical about chewing gum to a festival for professional services partners, we have a knack for transforming complex content into hugely creative theatrical experiences. 

Over the years our client list has evolved and diversified to include new clients and industries, including restaurant chains, tech and insurance companies.  No matter how simple or complex the subject matter, we have built our reputation on being able to deliver amazing event communications that resonate with any audience.

How are you involved in the content creation for the events you deliver?

JB: Business events are often created as a catalyst to evoke change, to build understanding of a new strategy, working practises or a shift in culture. The content or story of an event needs to be fully understood to have an impact, and to do this the audience has to relate to it. 

Every event and every audience is different but it’s about making content spring to life by telling stories in different ways using unexpected formats. This could mean using relatable metaphors to ignite the audience’s imagination or using theatre techniques to get the audience on their feet and involved. Video and imagery often play a role too, but to us, the content, the story and the way it is relayed is essential in creating a successful and impactful event. We start by challenging the brief using a framework that we call the ‘Four As’ – this enables us to look at the Audience, the event’s Ambition, the Approach needed and then the Activation.

How do you find the pitch process and do you think agencies should be paid to pitch?

KK: This is an industry that has for so long been an after thought in the marketing mix. There hasn’t been enough value placed on the ideas generated from our end of the marketing sector and so we need a more unified approach. We appreciate when potential clients recognise the time and cost of pitching, but it’s challenging when it comes down to intellectual property and who then owns the ideas presented in the pitch.

What does the future hold for you?

JB: We want to keep attracting great talent, growing our client relationships and make sure we keep enjoying the work we do. We are growing our international work too – especially in the US where we will be expanding our team and focus. 

Our priority is to retain and grow our existing relationships – here in the UK, the continent and in the US and secondarily, add new clients into the frame. First and foremost though, we want to continue to create a thriving agency culture and keep attracting like minded talent to our herd.