E21 The Unlock Moment: Brett Sammels – Forging a Future in the Family Business
In this episode I interview Brett Sammels who worked his way up through the family business LAW Creative, helping to build it into one of the leading European independent full-service marketing agencies. He talks about managing the weight of the family name, building a distinctive culture and eventually taking the hot seat as Managing Director. I do a significant amount of coaching work with family businesses preparing the next generation to take over leadership in the coming years, and Brett articulates many of the unique characteristics and responsibilities of proving yourself as a member of the founding family.
LinkedIn: Brett Sammels
Gary Crotaz 0:02
My name’s Dr. Gary Crotaz. And I’m a coach and author of The IDEA Mindset, a book about how to figure out what you want, and how to get it. The Unlock Moment is that flash of remarkable clarity, when you suddenly know the right path ahead. When I’m in conversation with my coaching clients, these are the breakthroughs that are so profound, that they remember vividly where they were, who they were with, what they were thinking when their Unlock Moment happened. In this podcast, I’ll be meeting and learning about people who have accomplished great things, or brought about significant change in their life, and you’ll be meeting them with me. We’ll be finding out what inspired them, how they got through the hard times, and what they learned along the way that they can share with you. Thank you for joining me on this podcast to hear all about another Unlock Moment. Hello dear listener, and welcome to another episode of The Unlock Moment podcast. Today, it is my great pleasure to welcome Brett Sammels to the podcast. I met Brett last year when he hosted me on the Open Mic Marketing podcast. When he’s not in front of a microphone, he is the Managing Director of LAW Creative, a leading European full-service marketing agency, and now part of the Selbey Anderson Group of companies. Brett has been in marketing since the age of 11, when he helped out in the school holidays in his father’s business. He is a graduate of Loughborough University and worked in sales and marketing at a global multinational. In 2006, Brett joined a startup family advertising agency that he quickly helped to build into one of Europe’s leading independent marcoms businesses with many blue-chip global clients. Brett is a business survivor with one global financial crash and one global pandemic behind him. And in a more understanding world where ‘it’s good to talk’, he claims to have been honed in businesses and in a business family where failure and self-obsession were never really agenda options. I can’t wait to find out more. Brett, it is my great pleasure to welcome you to The Unlock Moment.
Brett Sammels 2:11
Thank you very much for having me Gary, it’s nice to do the return leg!
Gary Crotaz 2:15
Exactly and lovely to be, yeah, to have our roles reversed. So business survivor – something that you feel defines you?
Brett Sammels 2:23
If you’re in the game long enough, there’s probably some things that you will, you will experience as you go through that. For me, as well as all the, you know, the usual ups and downs that you have running a business, the two big ones have really been the financial crash in 2008, and then the more recent pandemic. So, yeah, coming out the end of those and still managing to be successful, I guess makes you a survivor.
Gary Crotaz 2:50
And there’s something in your DNA, you think, that that makes you suited to this kind of uncertain environment?
Brett Sammels 2:56
I think, you know, from a, from a very early age, my father had, had always had his own businesses. So I think you grow up around that. And you see all of the trials and tribulations that go with that. I, you know, I didn’t get to see him that often because of the hours that he worked and saw all of the, the difficulties that went with that. And I think resilience is probably a key element to kind of getting through that, you know, getting knocked down, dusting yourself off and getting back up again and moving forward. And I think that’s something that has certainly defined, defined my working career.
Gary Crotaz 3:40
So bring us into the early part of the story when you first graduated from university and how you first got into your career, what kind of things were you doing?
Brett Sammels 3:47
Sure. So I left university. I joined a major global multinational that was in the printing business. And I had worked for them in a marketing role during a kind of year in business as part of my degree. So it felt quite natural to go back there. I knew, knew the business, knew some of the people in the business, so it seemed like a good fit. I did that. I came back in a sales capacity. Something that Clive Woodward and I share, so he went to Loughborough and then worked for the same multinational … I haven’t had the chance to win the Rugby World Cup yet but you know, maybe, maybe, maybe one day! So yeah, worked, worked in sales, really good grounding in, in sales. But I think I always felt like a very small cog in a big wheel. There was a lot of bureaucracy and red tape and challenges. It was very difficult to get things done, it was you know, big, a big oil tanker to have to kind of turn around. And I think my, my kind of career came to a crossroads there where I could have moved on. And I think with that particular company, you know, if you were there much longer than a few years, you were there for life, you know, they were kind of 30, 30 year-ers and, and I think, you know, that would have been okay. It’s just that it didn’t really excite me. And I just felt like I wanted to do something else. So that, that really came as a crossroads for me.
Gary Crotaz 5:34
And when you were younger, you know, you describe you were 11 when you first started helping out in your, in your dad’s business, there’s a little bit of the sort of entrepreneur experience there.
Brett Sammels 5:44
Absolutely a good, good way to earn some pocket money, but yeah, I am, I’d, I’d work in his, his agencies. In the, in the summer holidays, I’d be stuffing envelopes for for mailers, or I’d be doing kind of mail drops or just helping out in and around the business. So it was a really good grounding for me, I suppose, in, in what it took to run a business and the things that you needed to be able to do that.
Gary Crotaz 6:11
And we’re here to talk a little bit about this idea of an Unlock Moment. So moments of real clarity and change for you. And for you there was something about this time when you first joined the family business that you know, over time you now lead many years on. So tell me about that time? And where were you when you started first to explore joining joining this family business?
Brett Sammels 6:35
So I think, I think there were, there were two things kind of running in parallel at that time. There was working for the company that I worked with, I could remember they were they were running a sales incentive at the time where they gave you the money upfront and on the proviso that you would sell a certain amount of their products. And I was aligned with the field salesperson at that time, who was saying, Yep, Brett, we’re definitely going to hit this, you’ve, you know, you’ve got your pipeline, I’ve got this great deal that’s going to happen, we should go for the top amount. And, and at the time, the, you know, the money was, was a lot of money. And, you know, I trusted him and went for that. And of course, as I’m sure the story would, would play out, he didn’t get that deal. And so, and being the sort of young, foolish, 24 year old that I was that money kind of came in and quickly departed from, from my bank account. So I then spent the next 12 months repaying that. So out of every salary check that I got. And it was a fairly meagre salary at that time, it went back. And I think I just felt that the business that I was working for, it didn’t really align to my, my personal values. And, and so I started having a look around to see what was out there and purely by chance at the time my father said, Well, you know, I’m, I’m looking for an account manager, and, you know, is that something that you would be interested in? And I don’t think, you know, we we never really intended to work together. And I think there’s a lot of things that, that go with a family business, and you hear horror stories of, you know, people getting on, not getting on and falling out, and it just being an absolute car crash. And so I was, I was slightly hesitant, and I was actually hesitant because I’ve got a really fantastic relationship with my father, you know, we’ve, we’ve always got on incredibly well, he’s been someone that I’ve, I’ve really looked up to, and so there was an element of hesitation there. But I think, I just, I think I thought, well look, let’s try it. Let’s see what happens. And we’ll go from there. And, and I think, you know, as well, joining a startup, the business hadn’t been going that long, I think there was, there was four people when I joined. You know, there’s a lot of things that come with that as well. So it was, it was kind of a double whammy really of kind of personal family things and start up as well. So it was definitely a leap into the unknown, but one I’m very pleased that I did.
A bit different, the sort of holiday pocket money job and then proper contract PAYE you know, it’s your career ahead of you?
I think so, I think, I think as well, you know, there’s the, you know, father’s son in the business and, you know, preferential treatment. I actually think I got treated worse than everyone in the business at the time. But I think that’s, you know, that was fair enough and, and a good, a good way to be on my father’s part, but yeah, it was just, you know, going into a business that I was somewhat familiar of, and having done marketing elements in my degree and at the previous company as well, it doesn’t quite prepare you, I think, for the for the real world. And all of the lectures in the world can’t really prepare you for, for that. And it was just, you know, I was very fortunate that there were some great people in the business that I could really learn from and, and try and just soak up everything that I could to try and be successful.
Gary Crotaz 10:27
And you said in your, or I said in your introduction, honed in a business family where failure and self obsession were never really agenda options. What do you mean by that?
Brett Sammels 10:36
So my, you know, both, both my parents, but my, my dad in particular came from very, very humble beginnings. They were a very, you know, poor family, my dad had an incredibly difficult childhood and upbringing. And I think everything, everything mattered so, so much, you know, that failure was never really an option. And of course, you know, in your working career, you, everyone fails at things. And actually, you, you kind of, well, certainly I have had my best learnings from, from the things that haven’t gone right, but, but, you know, we could never lose the war, you could lose a few battles, but you had to win the war, because there wasn’t any other alternative. And I think, you know, we live in a world now where there’s a lot of introspection, and I think that’s good, because I think, you know, that, that helps people with their careers and their life, livelihoods, but I suppose, and you’ll know this Gary, that it’s, it’s the balance, you know, between thinking and doing, and if you’re not doing the doing, then you never really get very far in your career. So, you know, my family was always incredibly supportive and open, but you just got on with stuff, and you just had to do it. And, and I think that gave me a sense of purpose and a sense of drive and a sense of responsibility that, you know, has, has served me pretty well then when it, when it’s come into later life
Gary Crotaz 12:14
And the weight of the family name, when you, you know, you came into the business and you’re in, in the business for a long time. What did you have to do to navigate and manage, you know, how you operate as part of the team?
Brett Sammels 12:29
I think there’s, there’s two sides to that. You know, the, the, the wonderful thing about my, my father has always been that he has always listened and respected my opinion. And that’s not always the case with family businesses, you get the kind of, the Patriarch in the family who thinks they know everything and doesn’t want to listen, doesn’t want to take advice, and, you know, it’s their way or the highway. And so that, that always massively helped. And I think, you know, my father has always been able to stay very current with things because he’s accepted, you know, advice from, from other people. So that that massively kind of helped me but I think as well, you have to prove yourself, you know, very, very early on in my career in the agency, I brought in some, some decent sized accounts into the business, probably three or four. And, and that kind of, I think sets the, sets the bar, you have to, you know, you can’t live, live in a shadow, you have to do things your way and prove yourself and do that. I, just going back to my, my previous company, a very quick story. So I was working in sales at the time for that company. And I can remember, having handed my notice in, there was a couple of us actually, we were having a joint leaving do. And I said to a couple of the senior managers of that company, oh, you know, we’re, we’re having a leaving do, we’re going to such and such place, we’ve got some live music, and it should be a really fun evening would love, love for you to be there. They said, Well, Brett, if if that’s the way you you sell, then I really worry about the next company that you’re going to! Now having probably done 10s of millions of pounds worth of sales since that, that always kind of sticks in my mind as, as something that’s always driven me and and something I kind of go back to but, you know, just going back to your question, I think, I think in a family business, you have to add value and have your part. One thing I haven’t mentioned in that business there was also my my stepmum as well. So there was three of us, my father, stepmother, and and me and we all brought different things to the table. My, my father, very, very creative. My stepmum, amazing at the kind of client relationship side and the running of the business. And for me it was around the digital side and bringing that in. When when I first joined the company, it was a, more of a design business. And we kind of moved that a lot more into the realms of digital. So we kind of each played our part and added our own value to the success of the business.
Gary Crotaz 12:43
And how did you compartmentalise work family and family family?
Brett Sammels 15:42
Genuinely, Gary, I don’t think I did. I don’t think I did. You know, we were very, we’re all very close. And we would, you know, eat sleep and, and work business. And so I don’t think we ever did that particularly well. And I suppose you can see that as a good thing or a bad thing. But I think, I think we were all just very aligned. And there was a level of trust there that has been, you know, the cornerstone for the business. You know, my, my father had previous agencies, told me some awful stories about things that people did in those, those, those businesses and, you know, lack of trust. And I think we were really fortunate that we all trusted each other. We were all aligned. So, you know, around the dinner table on a Sunday, you didn’t really mind talking about business too much. And everyone managed somehow to maintain a really good kind of working and personal relationship as well. It’s not always easy.
Gary Crotaz 16:49
And what did you have to do to keep the non-family members feeling as engaged, because obviously they’re not around your dinner table?
Brett Sammels 16:56
I think that’s to do probably with culture for the business, I think you set, set that culture, ours was always a very, a flat structure. So it wasn’t very hierarchical. And I think people bought into that culture, we always tried to lead from the front, we’d never expect anyone to do something that we wouldn’t be prepared to do ourselves. And so, you know, whether, whether we made that as a kind of extended family, maybe, we’ve always tried to really look after everyone who’s, who’s ever worked with us, you know, you go through challenges. I mentioned before the 2008 crash, the pandemic where, you know, unfortunately, you have to lose people in order to save everyone else. And that can be incredibly difficult. But I think overall, we’ve always tried to lead by example. I think, I think in some rare cases, that can be challenging for people. I think sometimes in business, there’s, there’s those kind of corporate games where people try and, you know, side more with one person or do something, but we were always very aligned. So that was always pretty impossible for, for that to happen. So yeah, I think, I think setting the culture, making everyone feel included in the business, and trying to reward and recognise, you know, where people have done a fantastic job.
Gary Crotaz 18:29
And I think I’m hearing there that it’s quite a deliberate thing, you’ve got to think quite deliberately, because I can imagine that is quite easy to drift into not doing some of the things that you need to do because you’ve got this additional family dynamic that isn’t there in, in a non-family business. So was it something that you were mindful of all the time that this was a family business, and there were these additional dynamics, or did that, did it not feel like that?
Brett Sammels 18:55
I don’t think we ever treated it as a family business. You know, it was always very professional. You know, I would always call my father Keith, rather than anything else. And so I don’t think we ever betrayed ourselves as that family business. It was just three directors, you know, doing a good job, you know, building a business and growing that as successfully as we possibly could. So whether that was a conscious decision or not, I just think that, you know, when you’re, when you’re running a business, when you’re responsible for other people, and you know, we’ve been very fortunate to grow our business to 55 people, you know, I don’t think you can apply a family dynamic. It’s trying to take the best things out of being a family and not any of the bad things, and I think If you can do that, it’s a good recipe for a successful business.
Gary Crotaz 20:04
It’s really, it’s, it’s really interesting to hear how you, how you describe that. And as you know, I do quite a lot of work in coaching family members in family businesses, particularly the next generation, who are at some point going to potentially take on leadership of, of the business. And that happened for you. So at some point, you did take on leadership of the agency. So talk to me about the journey you went through from when you first thought this is something that might happen, I might want it to happen. How did you prepare for taking on that role? And how did that eventually come through?
Brett Sammels 20:39
There’s probably a correct answer to this, Gary, there’s probably, then there’s the honest answer to this as well, I’ll try to give both, they, they are kind of interlinked, but… so I joined LAW as an account manager. And I’d come from a sales background. So I was very keen on sales and bringing in new business to the agency. And it’s, of course, the lifeblood of any agency is new business and the ability to generate, you know, new opportunities. So I started doing that, you know, it was at a time when you had business cards and things, I just thought, no one’s taking me seriously as an account manager, I need to be an account director. So I got some cards printed with account director on. I got those out, I told everyone I was the account director, lo and behold, business starts coming in when you know, you do well, there’s no one else to work on that business. It’s a small company. So I’m the account director, I’m working on it. So, you know, the offset of that, of course, is in incredible impostor syndrome. Where, you know, I think I joined, I was 25. I knew a bit about sales, a little bit about marketing. And you kind of think, well, I don’t know if people are going to take me seriously, you know, how, you know, what, why would a marketing director want to talk to me? You know, they know a lot more than than I do. And so I think part of that development, and part of you know, my advice to anyone with with impostor syndrome is just to try and absorb as much information as you can, and that, that can take lots of different forms. You know, I’ve been very lucky in my career to have some really good mentors that I could talk to and lean on, you know, with the, the World Wide Web, there is so much information now that you can get and I think so the way that I managed to overcome that, at times, really not, not crippling, but just always there and tough and difficult impostor syndrome was to really try and educate myself as much as I could in the things that are important. And then I think beyond that, I think just time, you know, it’s always a really difficult one, particularly with, with, with younger people, and I know this from, from when I joined, that, you kind of, you want to get on and you want to know everything and you want to, you know, get somewhere as quickly as possible. But there is no substitute for time really, you know, in amongst all of those amazing wins that we had with, with the agency, there were crippling difficulties and, you know, pitches that I lost and mistakes that I made. And, you know, and I think learning from all of those has been an incredible part of my developmental journey. And then kind of longer term, by the time, you know, probably two or three years ago, now I was, I was, you know, a director of the business and had kind of worked my way up. And then it was about looking at potentially selling the business. So, you know, I have, I’d absolutely loved working, you know, with my, my father and my, my stepmum, and, you know, if you could freeze that, you know, particular moment in time, I’d have, you know, I’d have done that I’d have taken that in a heartbeat. And, but you can’t and time moves on and you know, my as I said, my, my father had been running businesses since he was 21. And, you know, had decided that he had wanted to take a step back as had my, my, my stepmother. We were probably right at the peak of our powers in terms of an agency, we were a top 20 independent agency in the UK. And it seemed like a good time to look at a potential buyer and go on a new journey. And I think for me, I’d done this for a long time. I was looking for a bigger train set to play with and so we we kind of looked at some potential buyers, selected one, it’s probably another whole podcast that I could talk to you about that because we had a deal on the table that was going to go through on the, on the 23rd of March. And instead of the deal going through, we went into national lockdown, and the deal got taken away, which was, which was tough. Another one you have to pick yourself up from. But I think, I think it’s been a, a gradual journey to that. And, and, you know, since the sale, I’ve become, you know, the MD of LAW, what a time to become the, you know, the boss! But, you know, it’s been a phenomenal journey, and one that I’ve loved, and just going back to that kind of switch from, you know, the kind of big change for me. You know, this, this business has been incredibly difficult, but, but ultimately, I’ve loved every second of it. And I think you should do something always workwise that, that you enjoy, it doesn’t have to be your biggest passion. Like I like sport, and I like video… well, I used to like video games before kids, you don’t get a lot of time for that now. But, you know, I had a lot of other passions. But, but but I really enjoy this, this industry, you know, no day is ever the same. And I’ve, you know, despite the challenges, it’s been an amazing career. And something that I’ve really loved.
Gary Crotaz 26:30
And do you remember. I mean, I think it was in the context of the, of the acquisition, that you took on the lead role, do you remember, the first time you stepped behind that, I don’t know whether you had an enormous wooden desk, but I’m imagining this enormous wooden desk and an oil painting on the wall and a high back chair and probably a white fluffy cat or something, you sat in that chair for the first time? What did it feel like on that first day, having been part of that business for all these years? To be the boss?
Brett Sammels 26:59
Oh, I wish, I wish I did have that desk and office. That sounds, sounds good. But yeah, it’s a lot more sort of open plan now, unfortunately! But I think there had been a gradual change, probably the years before, where we’d all had quite senior or significant roles, just doing different things. So I think I’d already had some of that kind of leadership experience and had, you know, worked on some big pitches myself, you know, solely that we’d won with, with, you know, as part of a team in the agency. So look, I’m not going to, you know, lie and say, it was not challenging and not, you know, worrying at times. But I think, you know, going back to all of those experiences, and, you know, putting yourself out there and not always winning at those and, you know, feeling success and failure, I think that, that built me to be ready for when I’ve taken over and gosh, you know, what a time to take over. But it’s been great. You know, it’s been a good journey. I’m lucky that we have a good senior leadership team, there’s some great people in the business, who have worked with me, and you know, we continue to grow and move forward now as part of a group.
Gary Crotaz 28:30
And if you were talking to your 25 year old self now, with all that wisdom and experience of the ups and the downs you’ve experienced over the years, what would you say to that 25 year old?
Brett Sammels 28:40
Probably not to worry as much. I wouldn’t say that I’m, I’m a huge worrier, but I think, you know, some of, some of those things that happen through your working career at the time, they feel like really big things. But, but the reality of those is that you, that is an experience that you will learn from. You know, I try and always say never to try and make the same mistake twice. But I think, I think as long as you give 100% always, you know, you go into everything with, with, with maximum effort. You, you try and do that in the most positive, decent way that you can. I don’t think you can go, you can go too far wrong. I was, I was… Very early on in my in my life. I think I was eight, I am, I started doing taekwondo. Well actually I went to one tap dance lesson. And the teacher was really horrible. And so from that, slightly strangely I then went to do taekwondo, which I did for I think three or four years, got, got my black belt. I was at the time one of one of the youngest in the country to get a black belt, I was competing and did pretty well at that. And I would encourage anyone to, you know, with children to get them into something like that, because whilst you know, it is about fighting and punching and kicking, you know, there are a lot of very good tenets that go with that. So in taekwondo, there’s five tenets. So there’s courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit, which is kind of, I suppose, having the courage to stand up for your beliefs, and always giving maximum effort. And I think, for me, that was a really good grounding into the way I wanted to kind of behave and act moving forward as well. So whether, whether I was talking to my sort of 25 year old or 11 year old self, I think it would be to kind of stick to, stick to some of those values. And, and then you, you can’t go too far wrong.
Gary Crotaz 31:01
I love that. And it’s really powerful the way you describe it. So you sit here in 2022, leading in one of the top agencies in the country, what makes LAW Creative distinctive?
Brett Sammels 31:15
It’s really hard for, for agencies in, I would say, the current environment. So there’s probably 20,000 agencies in the UK, I think, a lot of the values that we’ve, we’ve put into the business, probably, probably family, family values, you know, around, doing what you say you’re going to do, you know, giving it 100%, you know, being respectful of others, of your team members, of your clients. I think that’s given us a position that we would go the extra mile for our clients, you know, I’m sure a lot of agencies would say they do that. But I think for us, you know, our average client tenure is 10 years, which in this industry is, you know, unheard of, really. So I think it’s the values that we have as a business, that we, that we build internally with our team, and then try to deliver externally on behalf of our clients that has stood us in, in very good stead for, for all of this time. And, you know, now it’s about being part of a group and, and, and kind of working with, with other agencies to kind of deliver that as well. So it’s a, it’s an exciting time for the business.
Gary Crotaz 32:37
And your kind of areas of focus or specialism?
Brett Sammels 32:40
Yeah, so again, we’re a full service agency. And again, that, that has its challenges. You know, we, you get a lot of specialists. But I think, what’s always worked for us, that’s always worked very well for us, and I’m not sure I, I like the term one stop shop, but I think clients tend to trust us. So we’re not a single service agency that’s telling a client, just look, you should do this, you should do this, because that’s all we do. You know, we will pick the right channels for our clients. And of course, you know, nowadays it’s predominantly digital. So we’ve got a performance marketing team, a social media team, branding strategy, a lot of kind of creative, big ideas. But I think for us, it’s always been about, you know, about culture and about delivery for, for our clients and you know, doing, doing things when when you say you’re going to do them.
Gary Crotaz 33:44
Fantastic. And where can people find out more about you and about LAW Creative?
Brett Sammels 33:48
Yeah, so there’s a few ways. So we’re LAWCreative.co.uk for our business website. We also during the pandemic got a government grant to build a really nice podcast studio, which is where I’m talking to you from now. So which is HertsPodcastStudio. We’re also doing a very interesting thing at a group level which, which people might be interested in. So Selbey Anderson is our our owner and parent company. They’re in the process of setting up something called Selbey Labs, which is going to look at delivering insights at a cultural, behavioural and data level as well. So it’s a really exciting proposition for us to be able to take to our clients because in effect, it will be clients coming in with with challenges, problems, difficulties and being in a safe environment with real experts in all sorts of different fields from business transformation to workplace strategy to creative to behavioural science, data science to really solve those problems. So Selbey Labs coming very soon and something that I’m really excited about.
Gary Crotaz 35:09
Fantastic. The Unlock Moment is that flash of remarkable clarity when you suddenly know the right path ahead for markets here and self-styled business survivor Brett Sammels. It was decided he wants to take the leap, follow his entrepreneurial instinct and join the early-stage family business. 16 years on, he’s still there and taking it from strength to strength. Brett, thank you so much for joining me today on The Unlock Moment.
Brett Sammels 35:33
Thanks, Gary. It’s a pleasure. Thank you.
Gary Crotaz 35:37
This has been The Unlock Moment a podcast with me Dr. Gary Crotaz. Thank you for listening in. You can find out more about how to figure out what you want and how to get it in my book, The IDEA Mindset, available in physical book, ebook and audiobook format. Follow me on Instagram, and subscribe to this podcast to get notified about future episodes. Join me again soon!