'I built my business by ripping up the rulebook'

Jenny Biggam has built the7stars into one of the country's largest independent media agencies by spurning corporate traditions.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 08 Dec 2016
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Entrepreneurs

Jenny Biggam isn't a fan of tradition. 

When she started her own media agency 11 years ago, she decided to throw out the rulebook and get rid of 'pointless rules' and 'unneccesary bureaucracy'.

Biggam quit her job as a director at media-buying giant Carat to start the7stars with Mark Jarvis in 2005. ‘We’d both been at Carat for over a decade. We understood what the big media agencies did well – and what they did badly,’ says Biggam. ‘While they had all the benefits of scale and resources, they didn’t always offer the best service or the smartest thinking.’

So the pair decided to set up an independent agency that focused on small to medium-sized advertisers in the UK and had better ideas, better deals and was a nicer place to work. They named the business the7stars in honour of the pub in Holborn where they hatched their plans.

Biggam, 49, admits that starting a business from scratch was no easy feat: ‘We’d both been part of the management team at Carat but suddenly we were making decisions about who we'd bank with, where we were going to base our office and which accountant we'd use. It was all completely new to us.’

She describes signing their first office lease as ‘absolutely terrifying’: ‘It was such a lot of money over a long period of time. Once we’d signed, we assumed we’d just be able to walk into the office, switch on the lights and get going. We had no idea that we were responsible for sorting out cabling, phone lines and electricity. We were so naive.’

They funded the business through personal savings and £200,000 from an angel investor, which they paid back within four years. ‘There are lots of VCs out there who will lend millions to start-ups. But, ironically, when you want to borrow a small sum of money, your options are pretty limited,’ says Biggam.

The7stars now turns over £209m, buying media space and measuring advertising campaigns for the likes of fashion chain Jigsaw, Virgin EMI Records, Iceland Foods and Gala Coral. It employs 160 people and has been named one of the Sunday Times top five ‘Best Small Companies to Work For’ four years running.

Biggam says they’ve built the business by spurning tradition: ‘Instead of thinking of all the rules we needed to follow, we asked what rules can we get rid of?’ They started by ditching job titles to create a completely flat and open structure, and they introduced equal profit share, meaning co-founders and school leavers get the same bonus.

They also banned bureaucracy and unnecessary paperwork, including holiday forms. ‘Staff get unlimited holiday. Whether you want to take time off for a new baby, a honeymoon, a trip around India or a floristry course, the policy is the same: take as much time as you need,’ explains Biggam. ‘People are judged on their output, not how much time they spend in the office.’

All the7stars staff spend a week doing a job-swap. ‘You have more respect for colleagues when you understand what they do,’ says Biggam. ‘I recently spent a week working on reception and learnt just how tough and overlooked that role is.’

Biggam is adamant that the7stars will remain independent: ‘We don’t have any external shareholders to answer to or global corporate guidelines to adhere to. That’s a huge advantage to us. If someone comes up with a great idea, we can implement it straight away.’

And, unusually for an entrepreneur, she’s wary of the business snowballing. Worried that the7stars would lose its unique culture if it got much bigger, Biggam and Jarvis launched a second agency last month called Bountiful Cow. ‘It has a separate management team, different offices and it’s more digitally focussed,’ she says. ‘The only similarity is that it’s named after one of our favourite watering holes.’

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