Jon Wilkins

Posted on 07 November 2020

Jon Wilkins is the Co-Founder of Naked, the ground-breaking communications agency, and Chairman of Karmarama, the UK's most progressive creative agency now partnered with Accenture Interactive.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Good morning, it’s Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss.  It’s where the shapers of business meet the shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues. I am very pleased to say that my guest today is Jon Wilkins, Co-Founder of Naked, the ground-breaking communications agency and Chairman of Creative Agency Karmarama; two amazing names, plus Jon of course, in the first few sentences, pretty good.  Starting his media career he says by mistake, Jon was interviewed at Granada TV thinking he would be researching for World in Action, the current affairs programme, but he ended up being the king of audience and media expenditure reports.  Research and strategy roles followed at MTV and advertising agency, BMP and in the year 2000 Jon Co-Founded Naked, the communications agency which I used myself many years ago.  They sought to disrupt the agency world while hiring as Jon put it, ‘Brilliant misfits’, people that were the best at what they were doing but that felt constrained by it.  Fourteen years later when Jon left the company, Naked had grown into an international group with local and global clients including Coca-Cola and Unilever to name but two.  Jon joined agency Karmarama in 2014 as Chairman with his deep belief that in order to grow you must embrace creativity.  “When you get these brilliant ideas”, he says, “often now powered and accelerated through technology special things happen.” 

It’s really good to see you, especially during these times when we don’t get to see as many people as we would in person.  Thank you for coming.  It’s kind of hard to know where to start with you Jon because you achieve a lot in one go, as I look at your life.  You talked about your beginning in the media world as a sort of a mistake, you bumped into it.  Have you always been a guy that is fluid enough that things bump into you, is that your MO? 

Jon Wilkins

I think I like adventure and I like putting myself out my comfort zone, I guess, so if you are more open-minded then things happen spontaneously.  I think if you’re very closed and quite focussed, generally you don’t get that happenstance, so I guess, yeah, a little bit like that.

Elliot Moss

And tell me what you started to love about the media world and then tell me, in your own words, about why disrupting the industry, why creating Naked, was an important thing for you to do personally. 

Jon Wilkins

Well I think I have always been interested in media, communications, art, music, culture, you know, from a very, very early age, I’ve been drawn towards culture I guess generally and I think, you know, the explosion of kind of media, media channels, content, has always been something that’s been really interesting for me and I always wanted a career in it and I guess the changing, the industry, or trying to be part of moving things on is also deep in my psyche, you know I try to, somebody else said to me the other day, you know, “When did you decide disruption was your thing?” and I said, “I think it was when I was like a little punk”, you know, as a kid, you know, just having a sort of non-conventional outlook on the world, being quite contrary and you look at market places and to be honest you look at what’s wrong with them and then you kind of go well, I could disrupt that and I think that is definitely in my paybook when I look at all the things I’ve done, it’s like look at something that’s kind of quite big, work out what’s wrong with it, attack the things that’s wrong with it with gusto and then try and change it.

Elliot Moss

And that buzzes you obviously, that notion. 

Jon Wilkins

It does. 

Elliot Moss

Because, you know, sometimes you meet people who are contrarians and they are contrarians for it’s own sake whereas there are others who are quite methodical, I mean you just described a looking at it, taking it apart, putting it back together again.  Just again for those people that don’t know that aren’t in the, that haven’t been in the media world, the advertising world, Naked in the year 2002 was essentially a new proposition which said “We are going to help brands go to market in a different way.  We don’t think the old way works.” 

Jon Wilkins

Yeah, that’s right and I mean it was an interesting time really because 2000, you know, the internet was opening up so many possibilities, just new avenues, new ways of building relationships with brands I guess and most clients were misinformed as to how to use them and a lot of my friends in agencies either had a vested interest in not using the new and emerging channels or didn’t have the skills to embrace them so, you know, we saw a sort of market niche which was really about clients being able to create competitive advantage by using just new, more appropriate ways of engaging with audiences and it sounds so easy when you say it like that but it really was as simple as that. 

Elliot Moss

I was mentioning before the point about the four Naked truths which I did look up and I mentioned also that I actually was a client,Will, one of your partners was my person when I was working with an agency called Leo Burnett, which I did for many years, and the client was Scottish Widows and we did a whole bunch with you many years ago.  Everything communicates, Naked truth number one, and even if you are not in the world of advertising or comms, if you just think about this for a moment it’s such, it’s sensible stuff which is what I like, everything communicates, number one.  People are your partners, don’t patronise them, talk to them normally, number two.  There is a better way which is to your point Jon about being a contrarian, why not look at it and go hold on a minute.  And number four, see the full picture.  Four eminently sensible things which I imagine the three of you, the other Jon and Will and you sat down and go, “That makes sense.”  Do you think they still inform your approach to your life today or the life of work today?

Jon Wilkins

Yeah, I think so, I think when we wrote them down we were very keen to sort of work out what we stood for and also to try and codify it because at the time when we wrote that we were expanding around the world and we thought it’s great having these ideas in your head but if you don’t start writing things down, how do you expect…

Elliot Moss

Yeah, New York, Australia, they just kind of do their own thing. 

Jon Wilkins

…that’s right.  How do you expect anybody else to understand it so it’s part of the codification but I think those sensibilities are now broadly adopted by the industry, you know, it kind of makes sense, you know, we’ve moved from a world where companies broadcast their message in a very one-way to now, you know, having instant feedback on everything a company does so, you know, everything communicates makes sense and, you know, we live in a connected world where, you know, if you want to engage with a product they might have beautiful advertising but if they employ children in another part of the world on the cheap or if they, you know, every part of the anatomy of a company is interrogated so I think they do hold true, I just think that at the time they were sort of common-sense but quite radical whereas now they are sort of common-sense and I would say broadly seen and adopted.  

Elliot Moss

Well you know when it’s a good idea when it becomes main stream. 

Jon Wilkins

Yeah. 

Elliot Moss

When it was weird and hokey, whether it was climate change forty years ago which is now obviously real or it’s this.  In terms of the journey and Naked and then selling the business and obviously Karmarama has sort of aped that journey as well.  Firstly, what was it like in those first couple of years at Naked?  Was it the best time you ever had or actually looking back was it really tough and you wouldn’t want to go back?  And then, secondly, what was it like actually selling?  What happened psychologically to the Founders?

Jon Wilkins

Yeah.  I think the first couple of years I am sure, you know, you have loads of entrepreneurs on the show, you know, it’s a rollercoaster, anybody who tells you isn’t is not telling the truth, you know, incredible highs and incredible lows because it’s ultimately very personal, you know, you’ve…  the company you’ve created, you co-own and the pain points are awful and the successes are euphoric, you know.  I think, you know, every business has a cycle and for us at Naked moving towards the sale was really around global expansion and trying to not do everything off literally our own money so at the time of sale, you know, again you’ve definitively got mixed emotions having done this twice now.  On the one hand you want to fulfil the ultimate ambition of where you think your company could get to and sometimes that needs extra impetus and extra resources, on the other hand you are aware that you are saying goodbye to some of the freedom of being able to manoeuvre the way you have done when it’s absolutely yours, so mixed, mixed emotions.

Elliot Moss

Stay with me to find out a lot more from my Business Shaper today, Jon Wilkins, talking about rollercoasters and there have been a few people alluding to the fact it is a bit of a ride.  But right now we are going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions and they can be found on all of the major podcast platforms.  Mishcon de Reya’s Jon Baines and Adam Rose are going to be talking about data protection, privacy and how GDPR has played out in two years since it came into force. 

You can enjoy all our former Jazz Shapers and hear this very programme again by popping Jazz Shapers into your podcast platform of choice or if you have a smart speaker, you know the drill, you can ask it to play Jazz Shapers, it will oblige, and there you will find many of our recent shows.  But back to today and Jon Wilkins, Co-Founder of Naked and Chairman of the creative agency, Karmarama.  I mentioned, I asked the question about the sell and you said you give up a bit of freedom but there’s obviously room to expand.  The people are critical in all of this.  When you are building a business like that and you said it feels very personal, how do you ensure you find those people because if you are breaking the mould of an industry but you are looking inside the industry to find the people to break the mould, by definition it’s quite hard to find them, isn’t it?

Jon Wilkins

Well, yeah, I think that’s really interesting, I think what you need to find is people who are brilliant but frustrated with the status quo and generally what I have found is many of the very high performing people in every discipline are kind of frustrated, you know with the… often their brains work very horizontally, they are very interested in everything and what’s happening is that they are forced into narrow silos, it’s certainly true in marketing so we set up a recruitment strategy deliberately to focus on what we call brilliant misfits and that was to find and sort of flatter people in saying, look you are at the top of your game but you are sort of straightjacketed by the environment you work in either because it’s a discipline like advertising or media planning or, you know, marketing and what we wanted to try and do was to give people a bigger canvas where they could use their brain expansively and feel a little bit more freeform.  So we always said look, you join Naked and it’s like diving into a pool without a bottom and, you know, it’s quite scary and then suddenly it’s very liberating because, you know, you can do anything within that environment, you know, and that kind of combination of a sort of misfit methodology meant that we hired people who were our architype if you know what I mean so it’s much easier to keep a band of misfits together because you’ve kind of got a common enemy which is the status quo whereas if we had hired complete status quo people we’d have really, really struggled I think. 

Elliot Moss

Although, I imagine it is, if you are all misfits then you all kind of, you know, you are lunatics in the same team as it were but managing and being a leader of a business like that where you’ve got to accommodate and indeed keep people feeling liberated but at the same time you’ve got clients, you’ve got a P&L to manage, you’ve also got a product to create, tricky though.  I mean, how did you personally manage that?

Jon Wilkins

I think we wrote everything down and codified the behaviours of the company, we celebrated the intelligence and the mischievous nature of the company but we also shared the company methodology with clients so we tended to attract clients who were also trying to change the game.  We had a chart that said we are appropriate probably for 1 in 10 clients out there and that 1 in 10 will know when they meet us because they will know that they also want to change the game and interestingly I went to Jeremy Dale, who was the CMO of Orange and one of our founding clients and ITV Digital and then went onto a big job at Microsoft, he wrote a book recently which was called something like The Punk Rock of Business and he was already in that dangerous 10% as a change agent and we just found that clients like that automatically got the attitude, accepted the rough edges, loved the honesty, loved the sort of slightly rebellious nature and it’s a sort of self-selecting prophesy.  It’s also the beauty of being a niche because when you are a challenger brand working with challenging clients trying to break things and make things better, you are in a much stronger position than if you are trying to appeal to absolutely everybody thus becoming slightly more vanilla and more catering for the middle if you know what I mean. 

Elliot Moss

And then going from there where you’ve created your own world is your own universe of Naked and the universal truths and the Naked truths and all that.  Now, then you move post it around 2014 to Karmarama working with the Founders, yeah, and that business had gone through some changes, there was some big personalities as I recall, people that have gone onto maybe be big part of Facebook for example, all that.  How is it being, not quite an employee because you are bit more, you are a lot more than that, you are management, but what’s it like when it’s not your own shop but you want to create some vibe which feels like your own shop?

Jon Wilkins

I’ve really, really enjoyed it, it’s just a different part of the evolution, you know, we talked earlier about new challenges and for me, you know, Naked was brilliant, it was just incredibly intense, you know, and incredibly personal and I think moving to Karmarama I still wanted to feel a deep sense of belonging and help shape and bring expertise but I found it really healthy to have that slight step of removal that I didn’t have at Naked and, you know, it was also an incredibly culturally strong agency so I could identify very heavily with their belief system, you know, and I had a few job offers at that time – not being big-headed or anything – but I remember sitting in the reception at Karmarama and they’d got a big sign there that says “What goes around, comes around” and they are very values driven and I just remember thinking I can just identify with this, this is easy for me to pick up and play because I believe in everything that they believe in and, you know, some agencies don’t stand for anything, you know, they stand for great creative work but they probably don’t have an ethos necessarily and thus it’s harder for me to bond in that way. 

Elliot Moss

So you come in as a Chair and you essentially want to do all the great things that you did in Naked in Karmarama, obviously on the terms that were appropriate for that business.  In 2016, when was the event with Accenture?

Jon Wilkins

Yeah, I think it was, actually I remember it was on my birthday, November, 29th 2016. 

Elliot Moss

There you go, November, 29th 2016 you took that business from its current state into this future state which is now where it’s at.  A huge beast, Accenture is an enormous company, half… how many people have they got?

Jon Wilkins

I think it’s about half a million people. 

Elliot Moss

Half a million people.  How many people were at Karmarama at the time?

Jon Wilkins

I think there was about 270 of us.

Elliot Moss

How do you retain that identity?  How do you retain culture, retain that sense of this is what it’s about when you get, I going to use this phrase, eaten?  You know or morphed and merged into a much bigger entity?

Jon Wilkins

Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, at the time we were trying to work out again where we could scale the ambitions of Karmarama and Karmarama also shared this sort of slightly anti-establishment vibe that I’ve always believed in and we wanted to change the industry again and we’d seen that consulting, technology and creativity were starting to sort of overlap as skills.  We’d worked on three accounts I think in 2015 very closely with management consultants so we could see what they were brilliant at and we could also see where their weaknesses lay and we could also see this sort of liaison so, to be honest the Founders and shareholders at Karmarama, again we wanted to be at the front of the next generation of change in the industry which is again deep in my DNA and that felt more appropriate than the classic holding company exit so, you know, within Accenture it’s a huge company but it’s also got many, many cultures, you know, it’s way too big to be a monoculture so actually in a funny kind of way, being the first creative agency into Accenture in a company that’s celebrated diversity and cultural difference at the highest level, it was in some ways kind of easier than going into TWA or somewhere where they had a book written on their philosophy and, you know, you had a global creative director telling you how to do your work, in a way we kept a lot of our freedom and really the feeling we had a the time and still have is that we’re at the beginning of the next reincarnation of the industry. 

Elliot Moss

And actually you said something which makes me think that you don’t think about management consultancy and creativity so what you’ve really done is you’ve, I mean in simple me looking from the outside and gone well why don’t we put creativity and consultancy together and see what happens, ignoring media and actually that’s… you’re right you can kind of pave your own way.  Is it also quite fascinating to you that there are all these different subcultures in this big trainset to sort of look at and maybe play with occasionally but certainly interact with, has that been quite nice?

Jon Wilkins

Yeah, I mean the, you know, learning to understand and respect the strengths of consultancy practices and for them learning, you know, where creativity can be a game changing key, I mean, really for me consulting is all about helping businesses to manage growth and in this age that we’re in, new growth comes from new ideas and a new idea could be a new product, a new service, a new brand or whatever, agencies have always loved to feel that they could be at the forefront of creating new ideas but had kind of often been pushed down the funnel into can you do us a new TV ad campaign?  So, you know, ultimately playing with new people, working on bigger canvases with bigger problems, with bigger clients has been intellectually really, really interesting. 

Elliot Moss

I guess it’s where business and brand come together versus sort of being on the periphery. 

Jon Wilkins

Absolutely.

Elliot Moss

Final chat coming up with Jon, my Business Shaper today, plus we’ll be playing a track from Jordan Rakei.  That’s in just a moment, don’t go anywhere.

Jon Wilkins is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes.  In talking to you Jon, it’s clear that you are full of common-sense, you say it how it is, you don’t use big words where you don’t need to, you work in an industry which is full of blaggers, I mean full of people that talk a load of old rubbish sometimes and now you are in the consultancy world which actually also having, you know, worked very close with consultants could be accused of the same thing despite the intellect and despite the underpin.  How have you navigated through that do you think?  How have you retained your sense of groundedness and common-sense?

Jon Wilkins

That’s a good question.  I think, I don’t know, I can only really be myself so I guess, you know, I was brought up to be kind of inquisitive and to ask questions and try and keep things simple and I think that’s quite deep in my psyche and I don’t really know any other way so, you know, that’s why I do what I do. 

Elliot Moss

And the special things though, the things that come out of the back end of the fusion of ideas, having the courage, being big hearted, technology, all those things that come together, how do you ensure that that recipe is there each time?  How do you make sure that those component parts are fused perfectly?

Jon Wilkins

Yeah, well I think some of it is very deep in your humanity, you can’t teach it, you can’t learn it, you either believe that, you know, in karma, which I do, which is treat people the way you expect to be treated yourself, most fundamentally I think being straight with people, being warm-hearted, being open.  I think the only thing that you can pass on, which I try to, doing quite a lot of mentoring, is to not be afraid of the new stuff so we talk about technology as the new stuff but I do say to everybody embarking on a career in anything to do with media, you know, throw yourself into the new stuff and don’t be scared of it because you are better off playing around early doors with new things and understanding it rather than waiting for it to sort of envelope your life or potentially make you into a dinosaur so I think being not afraid of the new is something you can attitudinally learn and it can make a big difference to your career. 

Elliot Moss

The other thing that is clear is your, as you said, deep inside, you enjoy culture, whether it’s music, whether it’s football or whatever but on the music side, you are involved with Gilles Peterson’s Business Worldwide FM, you are also involved with Jez Nelson, I mentioned both, both have been on the programme before, both quite well known in the world of Jazz and music and presenting.  What’s it like playing the semi-business person’s role for both of those people?  I mean both of those people are business people but they, that’s not their craft skill, they both come from different places.  What sort of differences have you observed or working in those different businesses?

Jon Wilkins

I think people who work in the arts and music and, you know, are very, very passionate about what they do, more passionate than straight up business people and passion is a drive and an energy but it can be, at times, an inhibitor of potential so I think having a third party that sort of shares your passion, I mean we all grew up together, we all went to the same clubs, we all love the same music, I zigzagged very early on when I was at MTV Europe.  I contemplated a career in music and I literally remember thinking I love it too much to do it and it will spoil my fun if it becomes my job, so I try and bring the skills I’ve got but also a deep understanding and appreciation of their passion.  If I had have just been a business guy without the empathy and love of what they were trying to achieve in their passions, I’d probably have annoyed them so, you know, just feeling that I can share the direction, I understand enough about their passions but I can bring a different point of view I think hopefully helps. 

Elliot Moss

Annoy definitely being a euphemism there in the world of creativity and music, I am sure.  It’s been great talking to you, Jon. 

Jon Wilkins

A pleasure, thank you. 

Elliot Moss

Really, really nice and good luck, not that you are going to need it, but enjoy yourself as you take this journey forward with Accenture and all the other parts.  Just before I let you go though, you have another song choice, Jon, we really are spoiling you.  What is your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Jon Wilkins

Well, I think it’s Donny Hathaway and, you know, we’re obviously living in difficult times and I think I’ve always loved Someday We’ll All Be Free, I think the song was written to sort of actually help him through kind of quite a lot of issues he was having with his mentality and health but actually it was then reappropriated as a liberation song really about from everything from Black Lives Matter through to the Civil Rights Movement in the States and for me it’s a just a song that is optimistic and it just says to everybody there’s a better way, get on with it and maybe things will turn out alright in the end. 

Elliot Moss

That was Donny Hathaway with Someday We’ll All Be Free.  The song choice of my Business Shaper today, Jon Wilkins.  He talked about the rollercoaster ride of being an entrepreneur and anyone that is will know that is absolutely true.  He talked about the importance to him and to the businesses that he has founded and now leads about challenging the status quo and finding people that are happy to do that.  Talked about treating people the way you want to be treated.  So simple and yet how many businesses don’t do that?  And finally, don’t be afraid of the new stuff.  As we move very fast into the future, it’s critical that all of us are open to learning.   That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a lovely weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You’ll find hundreds of more guests available for you to listen to in our archive.  To find out more just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to Mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Jon began his career in the market research department at Granada TV and went to MTV for several years before joining BMP as their Head of Strategy. In 2000, Jon, along with John Harlow and Will Collin, founded Naked which saw him work with a range of local and global clients including Coca-Cola and Unilever.

After 13 years at Naked, Jon joined Karmarama at the beginning of 2014 as Chairman. Jon has been a key part in developing the Karmarama integrated offer, increasing the capabilities of the agency in data and mobile and working with key clients, and also oversaw the sale of Karmarama to Accenture in December 2016. 

Highlights

I like adventure and putting myself out my comfort zone.

If you are more open-minded then things happen spontaneously.

From a very early age, I’ve been drawn towards culture.

Very high performing people in every discipline are kind of frustrated.

We set up a recruitment strategy deliberately to focus on what we call brilliant misfits.

It’s much easier to keep a band of misfits together because you’ve kind of got a common enemy which is the status quo.

We were very keen to work out what we stood for.

We celebrated the intelligence and the mischievous nature of the company but we also shared the company methodology with clients.

I can only really be myself.

What you need to find is people who are brilliant but frustrated with the status quo.

We’re at the beginning of the next reincarnation of the industry. 

For me, consulting is all about helping businesses to manage growth.

New growth comes from new ideas, and a new idea could be a new product, service or brand.

I was brought up to be inquisitive, to ask questions, and try and keep things simple, and I think that’s quite deep in my psyche.

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