As CEO of Dare & Chief Technology Officer of Inside Ideas Group, Michael oversees and leads the long-term technology vision of the group’s agencies (OLIVER, OLIVER Media, Dare/Dare West, Adjust Your Set & Aylesworth Fleming), and is responsible for the Group’s technical collaboration, industry thought leadership and advanced technology incubations. He also facilitates the technical community within Inside Ideas Group, harnessing the power of our specialist digital agencies Dare and Adjust Your Set.
For the past 18 years he’s worked as a creative technologist and technical director at Hyperlink-Interactive, BBC, Radley Yeldar, U-dox, Creative Partnership and Havas. Before his current role, Michael was the Head of Technology and Innovation at Havas from 2012, where he was responsible for creating the Havas London in-house technology and digital team, including leading both Havas London and Work-Club technology teams.
He’s been honored in Creativepool’s Top 100 influencer 2016, The Drum’s Digerati 2015 and has been a guest speaker at events such as the Cristal Digital Festival.
In his spare time Michael mentors at the School of Arts and Communications 2.0 in London helping up and coming industry candidates and supports local communities in London through the Future First Alumi as a speaker, supporter and advisor.
Paul Kortman: Fill in the missing details from that intro and tell us something about your personal life.
Michael Olaye: Thank you. It’s pretty full. I try to wear many hats. In my day job my specialty is technology over the last fifteen years I’ve been helping run agencies and departments.
Paul Kortman: And with your hands in so many different agencies, I just want to clarify that we’re going to be focusing on Dare West. What is your agency’s top line revenue?
Michael Olaye: I’ll give you a bracket. It’s between 30 and 50 million pounds a year.
Paul Kortman: What’s the typical price to work with you (Median or Average)?
Michael Olaye: We don’t really have one. Unlike most agencies we don’t behave in a way where we think of minimum spent. Obviously everyone likes a good project, but we also look at projects that may change or impact. That may change to the client themselves. So we’ve got some clients who have a great vision and have a roadmap of how to execute that vision and they might not necessarily have the budget to do that right now, but we take those kinds of jobs and we take it on in different ways. Some clients we take it on in good faith, some we do as pro-bono, but recently we do a lot of stuff with startups, where we support them in terms of strategy, maybe sometimes even the technology itself, and business planning, and then in return we take a cut from any acquisitions we help them make or we take shares in the company. So we’ve got different models that we’ve been working with the last two years and how we can help clients run services and always have it to be based on pure revenue or budgets.
Paul Kortman: But if you were to put some sort of bracket or some sort of number there, what is the number that you know that most clients fall into?
Michael Olaye: I’ll give you brackets. So the usually lower side are £30,000 and up. The medium range we tend to work around, which is a lot of project based stuff we do, is between £200,000 & £500,000 for a project. And then the transformational projects which we do quite a bit on the infrastructure-type projects, they tend to be £750,000 upwards.
Paul Kortman: Describe your staff/team, how many do you have? What are their specialties?
Michael Olaye: So in Dare, there are 130 of us, and we’ve got quite a unique structure compared to many of the other agencies I’ve seen. We have the engineers, and in there sits quality assurance and data. We have experience planners which are the second thing which makes us unique. We have the design team and then we have declined services teams. So that’s the typical structure of the agency. Coming back to the experience planning part is we differ a little bit to your traditional technology or digital agency in that our discipline is around strategy planning and the works. They fall on the experience planning, which itself is based around behavioural science. And we have a strong USP in our business which we don’t approach product development or strategy the same way as some agencies would have in the past, so we don’t look at stuff like customer journey or user profiles. We tend to work more on the behavior side of things. So that’s a really one-two mindset. That would be more the user experience side.
Paul Kortman: And those 130, are they all full-time employees, or do you work with contractors?
Michael Olaye: We work with contractors as well, but the 130 are full-time employees. The way we’ve got it set up is, because we’re part of the Inside Ideas Group, which as a specialty, that we help clients build onsite agencies where required, we have certain hubs that are not in the main office, so you’ve got two main offices. The first one is in London and we’ve got one in Bristol which is in the Southwest, about two hours by train from London, and then we go a couple of hubs via client requirements, so onsite agencies. We’ve got one in Nottingham, one in Birmingham, one in Manchester and we’ve got some teams in Amsterdam, some in Melbourne, some in Dubai, a couple in New York, and we’re currently talking about putting one in Canada. So altogether across the hubs, there’s about 130 people. In the London office, there’s currently about 80 people, it’ll probably grow by the end of January to about a hundred, but as of now there’s about 80 people. In the Bristol office there’s about 25. So those are the main two hubs.
Paul Kortman: How many contractors do you work with? How much of your labor costs are contractors?
Michael Olaye: For every nine employees there’s about one contractor.
Paul Kortman: What’s the average salary of your employees?
Michael Olaye: About £45,000 to £60,000 a year.
Paul Kortman: What is your employee’s percent billable time, and what is the target you guys shoot for?
Michael Olaye: So utilization-wise we like to work on the 70/20/10 rule, so 70% of it is big client work, 20 percent of it is client work that could end up being paid, so innovation work 10% there’s no charge. So 80% is what we utilize in terms of billable hours for every employee we have.
Paul Kortman: What average markup do you have per hour?
Michael Olaye: Well, we don’t really charge by the hour. We charge by the day. It varies depending on the requirements. The average is around 40%.
Paul Kortman: How many clients does your agency have?
Michael Olaye: We’ve got two types of clients. We’ve got retainer based clients and we’ve got project clients. The retainer clients we make sure we’ve got about 70% of the business made up of retainer clients, and they range from financial services to telecoms companies. And we also do a few small startups as well. The project based clients are a little bit more simple. We do about three or four a week and they’re usually on the executable side of projects so activation work, CMS work, fixing existing platforms or other agencies. The retained clients we have fairly long term strategic ongoing projects that are usually one to three as long, and we’re in the phase of just executing the next stage.
Paul Kortman: So how many long term retainer clients do you have at a given time?
Michael Olaye: About nine.
Paul Kortman: What verticals or industries are your clients in?
Michael Olaye: Financial services. We’ve had a founding client who was a financial sevices client. We also do a lot of clients in the apparel industry and the insurance industry. We’ve got clients in the automotive industry, clients in the fitness industry, we do a lot of clients in the telecoms industry as well.
Paul Kortman: What services do you offer for your clients?
Michael Olaye: So our proposition is based around digital design engineering and what that basically means is to build digital products. That could mean anything from an application to an installation. I would say we sit more on the marketing side than the app side. We do digital comms sometimes, but our corporate positions around building digital experiences.
Paul Kortman: And what specific service in there does your agency specialize in?
Michael Olaye: Digital strategy, and that’s across social or brand or technology. We do a lot of design work. When we say digital, that spans all the way from web property to offline properties. We do UX & CX as well. We also do technical maintenance and use Google solutions. We’re very heavy on content at the moment, but not content in terms of films, but content as in terms of understanding digital properties and what’s effective, analytics, tracking, that kind of stuff.
Paul Kortman: How do you find good clients?
Michael Olaye: I really believe in that in the digital industry you’re only as good as your last piece of work. Most of the work we do are based on ongoing relationships so we really, truly believe that we are close to our clients, we are more partners than we are agency, and we work a lot of values from the clients. So a lot of the brands we work with, we work across multiple sectors for them. So with some brands we only get invited to do the initial strategy, but then we end up doing the platform build, we end up doing the design rebranding and end up doing the content scoring, we end up doing the analytics and the tracking. And in today’s world its very hard to just build something and walk away.
Paul Kortman: Describe your agency’s ideal client.
Michael Olaye: We like clients that are bold, that want to try new things. Clients who don’t just want to follow the crowd. And we believe that the clients who show their boldness, we to be able to do much more challenging and impactful work for them. So obviously some clients just require business as usual stuff and we’re really good and really happy with those clients. But where we really we use our USP and drive is where clients really want to change the way they see digital and the way they use digital and where they really become more customer-centric. And also employee-centric so we’ve got some clients who are really focusing on the people side of their digital properties and that’s where we really can come into our own.
Paul Kortman: Describe your agency’s worst client.
Michael Olaye: So if you have a client has a challenge and they want to work with us to find a solution for that challenge, we don’t see it as a vendor. If you have a client who has a requirement and they’re not sure if that requirement meets the targets they want, but they want to go through with it any way and you’re not really allowed to question the validity of that request, then we feel as a vendor. So as a vendor you are happy to do whatever the client wants regardless of whether it’s needed. So if we have a brief and we look at the brief and the client has a challenge and we feel the brief doesn’t match the challenge, we as an agency find it respectful enough to flag that the client and we like clients that can take that on board and if they have to go away and re-evaluate the brief, if they have to work with us to evaluate the brief, we like that,as opposed to making something that doesn’t quite work but getting paid for it anyway. That’s a vendor.
Paul Kortman: What’s the worst part of your job? Why?
Michael Olaye: I think the worse part as a CEO is to make sure that the people that work for me are happy. Unhappy people make me unhappy, so I’d say that’s probably the worst thing as a CEO.
Paul Kortman: How do you find good staff?
Michael Olaye: I believe people that understand what Dare stands for do approach Dare and I think when we go out and we look for people, there’s a certain quality we look for in terms of what they stand for, so you know required to get material in how we work. We have a hierarchy in terms of operation because you need that but we don’t really have a hierarchy in terms of how we treat each other. So we like people who understand, not flat structure, but understand no egos, understand collaboration, understand shared values and helping each other and literally understanding that we actually give a crap about the stuff we make and stuff we do. So the people we look for tend to have those values and the agency’s culture we have is very strong and Dare has always had a strong culture. And what we’ve done is define that culture into a very positive environment.
Paul Kortman: How do you staff a project?
Michael Olaye: So it does fall down to how teams are built. So when we are working on a long term project, for example, transformation project for our clients, we concentrate very much on making sure that we have a fixed core oversight lead team. But then we make sure that people in the company have the opportunity to grow and sometimes even change roles. So we’re quite flexible with people who want to actually execute the work. So the way we set up, which is probably different from some agencies, is we have a core lead team that remains constant, but we flex the teams underneath. So if I’ve got a junior designer, I would like her or him to be able to build these concepts across multiple types of projects, whether that’s web, installation, retail, or app. And I will move them around different projects at different times, and that helps the person grow as a character, because they meet different requirements, they see different challenges, and they learn to think outside the box as opposed to just being only your web person or only your social person.
Paul Kortman: Do you offer continued training to your staff? What does that look like?
Michael Olaye: So as part of a group, we have a training program and as part of Dare we also have a training program where I have a £2000 budget that I release at the end of every month, and any one of the staff can dip into that money for training, kits, software, events, whatever it is that helps them personally grow. It’s very well planned, its mainly going to events. I think 25 of us went to a Fit-Tech event last week, and it was quite good. We had people from design, tech, client services, and we all went down after work and we spent two or three hours listening to a founder of a tech startup in the UK, and for me that’s also training because they get to speak to other people, and then we have training where people by themselves can take courses or go coaching, and then we have training courses where we train people, so we have a management training course internally at Dare where we bring in coaches and they spend six months training up-and-coming tech leads or design leads to become heads of department and vice versa for departments to become partners. We do that quiet regularly.
Paul Kortman: What do you do when a team member/staff fails at a project or their job?
Michael Olaye: I personally don’t have a fear of failure if the person’s trying, and previously I mentioned the culture in there. So what I’ve tried to do, and I think it’s working, is we’re not really a finger pointing culture, we try and support. But when a project fails, that’s where I step in. I have to make sure that the client is still serviced in the right way, even if that means we don’t make any profit, because like I mentioned, reputation is ore important than money. So when we have a person who’s trying or failing, that is not a bad thing, we help them. Where we have a person who doesn’t try and things don’t go well, then it can’t really work at this company. This is not the right place for them.
Paul Kortman: How do you actually provide success to your clients?
Michael Olaye: Obviously if it’s a project like a web project or infrastructure project, then the delivery of the project on time and on budget is how you provide success. Very rarely is it always based on that. If you based it on KPIs that show a business change, an organizational change that impacts customer retention acquisition, it’s usually based around that So KPIs that I set with clients for web build project they usually want to acquire more customers or they want to retain them. So it’s up to us to build products that allow them to do that. Some of our clients, especially on the transformation part, they are trying to change the way their organization works with digital. Some of the bigger clients we’ve got, we go on a two-three year journey with them, and we help them upsell digital within the organization and we bring them up to the standard of which they believe digital can help their business thrive.
Paul Kortman: What makes Dare different from your competitors?
Michael Olaye: One is, we believe that our approach to user-centered design, and that means making, thinking, and executing, varies, because we concentrate very much on the end user and not so much on the products, and the other side is the people we have working here have a real passion for what they do, which I think goes a long way to the work that comes out from the agency.
Paul Kortman: Why should I use Dare over a smaller agency?
Michael Olaye: So the expertise within Dare is a long standing one. In terms of rates and money, I don’t think we are that much more expensive than a smaller agency or a bigger agency. I think it’s the quality of work that the agency does that should dictate that. And in terms of actual track history of delivering good work for our clients, we’ve got that in spades. So the confidence delivers the work, the trust that the agency has the best interest of the clients is why most clients will pick us over other agencies.
Paul Kortman: Why should I use Dare versus a larger agency like Ogilvy?
Michael Olaye: I think Ogilvy’s an amazing agency, but they are very different to what we are. And we work with a lot of bigger agents and we’re not really egotistic in the way that we think that we have to own the idea. I think in today’s world, the idea can come from anywhere. If it comes from Dare, that’s great. If it comes from Ogilvy, that’s great. I think when clients really lean on us isn’t really our expertise. We are really good at design engineering, that’s what we specialize in. So if we were working with Ogilvy, where they would want to do the whole thing 360, and I’m sure they can, we can bring a much more ideation-focused delivery, focused on going around digital design engineering and we can work with whatever agency to execute that. We’ve got examples.
Paul Kortman: Do you offer a service, price or package that no one else is offering?
Michael Olaye: Yeah, we have a few. I’ll give you one. We have something called all experience vision, which is a session in which we have, with any business where we can find out where that business can find the most value in digital. It’s a thing we do with mainly part of the clients, but we can also do it with people that work on the ground, and the outcome of that we find allows the clients to have a much more holistic view of what digital can do for them and how to products that are built into digital can work harder for them.
Paul Kortman: And the Elevator pitch, you have 30 seconds, you’ve identified me as an ideal client, now convince me… and go!
Michael Olaye: Well, as you know, we’re there, we’ve been around 17 years, we have stron history in helping our clients providing meaningful impact to both their brands and their customers. We do this through our proposition of experience planning, using behavioural science to find the behaviour within people. From that behaviour we create the best services and grants that make business change.
Paul Kortman: What do you personally do for fun?
Michael Olaye: I’m really into my car and I’m really into capoeira .recently. I actually like to relax on a Sunday watching football, or soccer on your side. And I have a dog that I just spend time with, and I have two kids. I have a daughter who’s 14 and a grown son one to just remind her. I go to cinema or spend time with my daughter playing computer games. It varies.
Paul Kortman: You mentioned your car. What is it?
Michael Olaye: I drive a TVR Tuscan.
Paul Kortman: What does your staff or agency do for fun?
Michael Olaye: We have a great culture. We have 3PF, Three Pub Friday, where we pick a pub in the area every week where we go for an hour and a half to let our hair down. We have First Thursday, where we meet on the first Thursday of every month and we share our trials and tribulations with each other. We have Lemonade, which is an event that started off as a woman-only power thing to help people in the industry and has now become much bigger, it includes up-and-coming people, people who don’t have a chance to work in this industry. We have our own Braco monthly sessions where we open up the agency to Braco developers to come and spend the day here. We have our tech Tuesday when we talk about technology that’s affecting our industry and how we, as Dare, can play in that world. There’s a lot of stuff in terms of culture that we have at Dare.
Paul Kortman: How does your agency incorporate fun into client relationships?
Michael Olaye: Lemonade, Braco sessions, and First Thursday are open to clients as well. We’ve had a few clients now. We also include agencies that work with our clients. We’ve had sessions where rival agencies come and spend some time in our office to see how we work with our clients.
Paul Kortman: Tell us a story about the most fun you’ve had working for a client or doing your job.
Michael Olaye: I guess this year at Cannes Lions was really good. I got to take four my clients and nine of my team to Cannes Lions. Now, realizing that we are actually a digital agency, Cannes really isn’t our forte. It’s more TV & film. But I think Cannes Lions has had a lot of technology input in the last five years so I took the whole team down to just experience it and some of our clients, and it was amazing. We managed to mix work with knowledge sharing and knowledge gaining and just relaxing. We were there for a week.
Paul Kortman: What are your goals for your agency? 6 months, 1 year, 5 years, 10 years?
Michael Olaye: I personally don’t have many set goals that change every three to six months. What we have done is we have a vision of what we want to be as an agency. We want to be an agency that goes on journeys, no matter what that journey is, with our clients, and the vision we’ve set, how do we constantly evolve, how do we not stagnate? So the challenges are the challenges I set for the agency. How do you push a management team, how do you push me to not stagnate and not just become a money-making machine. So there’s a lot of opportunities in digital, it’s ever evolving, it’s changing. Digital is growing up. I think it’s already grown up. And we’ve got to the point in digital now where it’s not just about building cool stuff or being innovative. It’s a combination of everything. It’s a combination of making impact, whether that’s cultural behaviour, whether that’s business-wise. And I believe where we are at the moment, where just at the beginning of all the other agencies of how we truly harness technology in today’s digital world. That’s where we are going. We’re helping that clients where data, with cognitive, or what is called artificial intelligence. But using data and using human behavior to build better products.
Paul Kortman: Has your agency been growing over the last 2-3 years?
Michael Olaye: At Dare we had a little bit of a dip about two to three years ago because we’ve evolved every five years. We went through a phase where we did a lot more content, digital comms. We’ve evolved again over the past two years to be a lot more technology/design focused and we’ve been growing. Currently I’ve got over 40 open hires within Dare, and they range from analysts all the way down to designers, and I think next year, 2018, is going to be another year of growth for us. We don’t want to grow too fast, anything between 10 and 15 percent growth in terms of personnel would be amazing. And anything between 25 and 35 percent growth in revenue would be good.
Paul Kortman: What does your new client pipeline look like?
Michael Olaye: Very good. We pitched a little bit ore next year, because as you know the world’s changing. Retaining stuff in digital is a lot harder to come by. Most clients who do digital transformation have have already been there and done it, and the ones that haven’t are very smart, now we’re hardly spending money. The CMO of today is a lot more clever than the CMO of maybe 20 years ago in terms of how to use digital, they’re very strong on the marketing side. So it’s about going on a journey that’s a little more long term. But you have to prove yourself at the beginning. So a lot of our clients would go in on projects, quick iterations, fast learning, fast feeling projects, and we’re just adapting as we go. And then once we create stability we can pick up more longer term work.
Paul Kortman: How long does it take for a potential client to become a client?
Michael Olaye: It happens quite quickly. If it’s a pitch that’s been called, it happens within two to three months. If it’s a, referral it can happen in a week. If it’s a meeting or a chat or an event you go to and you bump into someone, it can happen within six months. Usually most clients realize what they want, they just need somebody who can help them execute it well.
Paul Kortman: Tell us some shame, or gossip in your local market?
Michael Olaye: Well, it’s not really gossip, everyone kind of knows this, but we have a big diversity issue happening at the moment. I know it started with ethnic minorities being in the industry or people coming from lower income families, and now I think we’ve got to the oint where it’s gender and age. And I think there’s a few well-known people who’ve said some stuff that’s kind of come back to haunt them. And there’s a few agencies that have hired these people and sort of caught them because won awards or they were famous, so they get to get away with stuff like that. So I’ve think that in the industry over here, the same people talk about the same stuff,and things don’t really happen the way they should. I don’t going to go into any names or anything. Everyone knows everyone else that’s been in situations, and I think where we had gains as an industry, we’re starting to understand that that’s just not acceptable. And I think that as colleagues of each other, we are learning to stand up for the other. So in terms of gossip that’s kind of what I know is happening at the moment. Unfortunately I can’t go into any names.
Paul Kortman: What are the biggest challenges to working with your agency?
Michael Olaye: I think Dare’s got very strong legs. It’s one of the original proper digital agencies. It spawned up around the time of the AKQA and the big ones. And I think Dare’s gone through a few iterations in it’s time. And I think what’s happened is, the mojo has changed, depending on the timeframe, and this is a good thing. Dare’s always been an agency that I believe will continue to flex and change in digital, because it is a digital agency. So one of the hardest things is, everybody has an opinion of what Dare is. I go to a lot of events and people, and every time I tell I’m CEO of Dare, they always go, ‘what do they do now’ and so on. So it’s an agency that has a lot of heritage, a lot of culture. It’s got a very strong brand. So with any strong brand, you have opinions of what that brand stands for depending on what time of day you want to talk about. So I think that’s probably one of the hardest things as CEO that I experienced at the start. Everybody had their version of what Dare should be, regardless of whether or not it was profitable or if it was going to bring us to decline. They just had their version of what Dare should be. But I think as we go forward, it’s just a matter of, the people who work at Dare, both old and new, for them to create another era of what Dare stands for in terms of digital.
Paul Kortman: What are the biggest professional mistakes you have personally made?
Michael Olaye: Trusting the wrong person is probably the only one I would say. So I like mistakes. Mistakes are good. You grow as a person based on mistakes. No one’s perfect. But I had a situation for quite a long time where a decision I made with a partner backfired really badly. The only positive part is that by making the decision to do what I did, it actually put me where I am today. So not everything was bad. At the time it was shocking. So that’s one thing. So it’s just good to be aware of the people. On the journey it’s always very good that you cover and you stay close to people who are truthful and honest and don’t always say yes and really have the best interests of the agency, not me, but the agency, at heart.
Paul Kortman: What are the biggest mistakes your agency has been involved in?
Michael Olaye: I don’t think we’ve really been involved in any mistakes as such. We might have made some wrong strategic moves but like I said earlier, I think that could be applied to many agencies in the past and even some now. We work in an industry that changes really fast. Today’s flavor is tomorrow’s ichor. So it’s just a matter of making sure you learn to explore as an agency, but you also learn to exploit based on your knowledge and your experience. And if you can balance the exploring with the exploit you put yourself in a really good place. If you go to far on either one, you get into trouble.
Paul Kortman: What service do clients buy from you that doesn’t help their bottom line?
Michael Olaye: We are quite strict in how we believe that what we make is the best. Anything we make or do, at the end of the day, reflects back on us. So we have had clients who make requests that we believe are not the right moves. We tend not to want to carry on with that project. The client’s free to take it somewhere else. And for work that we’ve started, if we feel we’ve got to a roadblock, we usually strategically try working it out with the client. If the client still pushes for it to be done, sometimes we will reluctantly do it, but we make it very clear to the client that that’s not the decision that we would take. But usually, I believe not just for Dare but for many agencies, once you go down the road of being treated in that way, it doesn’t usually last very long if you want to be help your client and be an agency that innovates. If you just want to do delivery and you’re happy to shut up and just receive briefs and make a bit of money and cash out in a few years, that’s great. But if you want to build a brand that does good work, if you want to build a culture of people who do good work, you’ve got to stand up for what you truly believe in, regardless of whether it’s the clients.
Michael Olaye is on Twitter @magicTuscan
Dare West’s website is at https://www.darewest.com/