How to be nice and beat the rest - Peter Mead, co-founder of ad agency Abbott Mead Vickers, urges bosses to 'capture an unfair share of your employees' heads and hearts'. For, in a people business, anxiety stifles creativity. Matthew Gwyther reports

How to be nice and beat the rest - Peter Mead, co-founder of ad agency Abbott Mead Vickers, urges bosses to 'capture an unfair share of your employees' heads and hearts'. For, in a people business, anxiety stifles creativity. Matthew Gwyther reports - Nic

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Nice guys come second, right? If you have designs on the top, a streak of ruthlessness is essential - the bigger the streak the better. Some businesses even appear to encourage staff to stitch up their colleagues on the path to the top. In business, it seems, humanity is for wimps. Or is it? One man, swimming against the stream in the normally ego-driven, backbiting world of advertising, has proved that building - and sustaining - a humane working culture is possible. He even made a heroic, if forlorn, attempt to try it in the world of soccer.

If truth be told, Peter Mead is probably not temperamentally suited to running his business as a complete bastard. And he has turned this to his advantage. Sitting in a glass eyrie above London's Marylebone Road, in an office dominated by an enormous fish tank, Mead is an adman in the twilight of a long and fruitful career. The son of a window-cleaner from Peckham, he was one of the triumvirate that founded the Abbott Mead Vickers (AMV) advertising agency in the mid-70s - now Britain's biggest - and he has done very well indeed. Mead and his partners in AMV sold out to the Omnicom conglomerate 18 months ago and, although he remains vice-chairman of the worldwide group, he no longer has day-to-day managerial responsibility for the agency he helped create. The 60-year-old's card simply says 'founder'.

However, his spirit there is still apparent, wafting like his Silk Cut smoke through the building. (He still has the odd one, despite his wife's protests and being recently pole-axed by pneumonia.) 'I'm glue,' he says. 'Companies must have glue to hold them together. The glue I represent is hardening a bit round the edges, but it's still tacky enough to stick things back together every so often.'

AMV has always been regarded as 'a nice place to work'. It has a reputation for treating staff well in an industry more traditionally regarded as pretty bloodless when it comes to the caring side of human resource management. In the '80s, the Boase Massimi Pollit agency was described as a club, and Saatchi & Saatchi as a stable of competing thoroughbreds. But AMV was 'a family'.

From the start AMV established an image of dealing with its staff humanely and sensitively in a slightly Victorian and paternalistic sense. This fitted in with its principled refusal to promote cigarettes, South Africa or children's toys - in favour of rather civilised accounts such as the then eminently bourgeois brands Sainsbury's and Volvo. The ultimate source of this, some say, was David Abbott's serious-minded Catholicism (he recently, from retirement, launched a bitter attack on the coarseness of French Connection's FCUK campaign), but the ethical client policy was fully espoused by both Mead and Vickers.

'From the start, I had my own behavioural matrix,' says Mead. 'It was like a corporate comfort blanket. People say you need the courage of your convictions - that's not true. If you have convictions, you don't need courage. Without convictions, you have to be immensely brave because every decision is made in a vacuum.'

The most notable outward expression of this philosophy came during the recession of the late '80s and early '90s, when AMV held to a widely trumpeted policy of no redundancies - which cost them in the short term. While blood was flowing down the streets of adland, it fell to the bagman Mead to sell this unusual stance to a sceptical City and try to keep the share price buoyant. He explains: 'What I told them is that advertising is a people business. All we have is our people. Your job in such a business is to capture an unfair share of your employees' heads and hearts. If they spend 50% of their time worrying about their jobs, you need twice as many of them. People in this industry have to be creative. Creativity is one of the last remaining legal ways of getting an advantage over the opposition, and anxiety doesn't foster creativity.'

The stance paid off. When things picked up again, AMV was not handicapped by a staff resource shortage and profits went powering ahead. Mead was never so pious that he disdained money, but he questions the notorious Bill Bernbach maxim that 'a principle isn't a principle until it costs you money'. Mead contends: 'Bill was right in the short term but wrong in the long term. If you treat people properly, money and fame will follow.'

So, what is it that makes somewhere a nice place to work? And how do you create it? In practical terms, AMV people work under good terms and conditions; their pay is in the upper quartile for the industry and they get good benefits, including a generous maternity agreement. There's free breakfast before 9am and a subsidised bar. The company does not go in for voguish concepts such as hot-desking because Mead thinks that makes staff uneasy and they prefer their 'own nests'.

Neither is Mead big on personnel departments. AMV's is small because Mead believes that those who hire staff should have a large degree of responsibility for their welfare. This seems akin to bringing a child into the extended family, but what of the time- wasters? 'Of course, the downside is that some people will take the mickey and think they're here for ever. That was certainly never part of the philosophy. But the personal responsibility of managers should make it hard to fire people.'

A possible downside is that staff have to work very hard. AMV is probably leaner than other agencies, but it has one of the best staff retention rates in the business. So, does Mead reject the idea that a certain amount of unease can spur action? 'Totally. There have been management gurus who have claimed that conflict and anxiety create energetic synergy. It's complete nonsense. I really believe that fear paralyses rather than spurs people forward. Just look at how downsizing is now discredited.'

Do these convictions stem from his own adverse experiences as an employee? 'Well, not really. In fact, the reverse was true. I actually experienced many exponents of treating people properly. I think my philosophy came as an assertion of what nice people did rather than as a reaction to being treated badly.'

You don't have to get Mead down for sessions on an analyst's couch to see that he has been moulded by some adverse events. Abbott and Vickers went to Oxford; Mead came up the hard way. As a young man eager to get ahead in advertising, his first job was dispatch work at J Walter Thompson (JWT) in Berkeley Square.

The agency had a canteen, they told him, but on his wages he would not be able to afford it - so they suggested he eat sandwiches in the square outside. The Peckham boy did not like this, turned the job down, and remembered the slight. Forty years later, when his company became Britain's largest advertising and marketing group, the chairman bought himself a baguette and sat in the square opposite JWT to have his lunch.

He took an early job at SH Benson and was unfortunate to be the first redundancy from that agency. He did not look forward to going home that day to face his father, whom he describes as a slightly forbidding figure: 'I rang the bell and dad opened the door. 'I've been sacked,' I said. He put his arm around me and said: 'It's their loss, son. Have a cup of tea.' I had another job in a fortnight.'

This can all sound a bit folksy but the point is there - the contrast between family and an unkind world outside. Mead tried taking his corporate comfort blanket and principles along in the other great adventure of his life. A loyal Millwall supporter since childhood, Mead bought into the football club when he became rich. He became vice-chairman, then chairman.

Millwall was an ugly institution by reputation, but Mead believed he could change the culture. 'I thought I could improve things in Abbott Mead-style by some open, friendly ideas,' he says. 'Well, I now have the unenviable record of being the only football club chairman who was top of the division in December and relegated in the following May.'

Worse followed as financial crisis hit and the club went into liquidation. Reports suggest Mead lost pounds 3 million in the debacle, but he is still vice-chairman. It's a textbook case of the truth that there are businesses ... and businesses. In advertising, the carrot works, but in football the stick seems to be the only understandable incentive. 'The main problem was that, as a boss, you were completely removed from what happened on the pitch,' he says. 'It's bloody hard to influence that. It's a brutal business, where people get used to being abused.'

Mead concedes that the experience 'dented' him. (It cannot have been helped by the fact that his son Billy was in the Millwall team for a while.) 'I tell you, if you think institutions and the City are impatient masters, try facing football fans in the car park.'

It is interesting that after this experience Mead agreed to be patron of the Andrea Adams Trust, an anti-bullying charity. A London Chamber of Commerce report recently suggested bullying causes 19 million lost working days each year, costing pounds 2 billion.

Mead, who has seen people in offices reduced to tears, finds the issue deeply troubling. 'Philip Larkin said: 'Life is a beginning, a muddle and an end.' I don't think work should contribute disproportionately to that muddle.'


Six tips for creating a civilised workplace

1. Have a firm set of principles and beliefs - nothing freaky, but something understandable and worthwhile.

2. Make profit a consequence and not a principle.

3. Don't make staff anxious about their jobs but healthily concerned, as a group, for the company's success.

4. Never allow complacency. Every business - not only retail - is detail.

5. Hire well and take responsibility for your people. If you fire someone it's your failure as well as theirs.

6. Don't act the role of manager and, when in doubt, be nice.

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