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2020 has gotten off to a pretty rocky start. We’re not even out of Q1 yet and the entire world is on lockdown.

At Wilderness, we’re working on continuing to support all of our clients as well as each other during this challenging time. But we’re also looking back - 2020 isn’t just the year that everything went mad, it’s also the year that we as an agency turn five. We had a team party back in February which is our official birthday month and it got founder and MD Tom Jarvis (TJ); strategy director Jamie Maple (JM); and head of client services Ali Mannering (AM) talking about where they started, how far they’ve come, and what’s next for the agency.

 

The beginning of Wilderness: The origin story

TJ: The idea for Wilderness came off the back of an ill-fated venture that had just ended. I’d started that venture with a good friend and when it ran its course, I felt like I had unfinished business. I was tying up loose ends with old clients, but knowing that there were still the beginnings of an agency that had just never gotten off the ground. I wasn't ready to let that go. 

To make this idea work, I knew I needed to hire someone brilliant to come in and deliver for clients in a way that I never could. Finding both Jamie (to take on our first high-profile client, Sony), and Ali (to work across everything else) was like striking gold.

AM: The date was Friday 14th November 2014. It was about 11am on a bright but chilly morning in Golden Square, in the middle of Soho. I’m pacing up and down the fairly empty Square, rehearsing exactly what I’m about to say in my interview for Enter the Wilderness, a digital marketing startup. Did I mention that I’m bricking it? I’m absolutely terrified. Why wasn’t university this hard? Eventually, at 11.57am exactly (not too early, but not late) I press the buzzer for MeWe360 at 4 Golden Square and ask for Tom Jarvis. That is where my Wilderness story begins...

JM: I heard about the possibility of a job at a possibly agency through a mutual friend of Tom and I. The elevator pitch was too good to be true: you’ll be doing digital marketing for films. For me that was it and I was in! Tom and I had only met fleetingly once or twice at a party and bumping into each other at Glastonbury - so sitting down with him in Soho Grind and having him focus all of his attention on me was a bit overwhelming. He gave me both barrels of information about the agency and where he imagined it going. Something about his vision appealed; I had a feeling about this northern powerhouse. My gut instinct is pretty accurate as it’s been five and a half years that I've been here and it's been without a doubt, the best decision I ever made.

AM: I’d just graduated university and was looking for an internship so asked around and my sister got back to me with news that her husband’s friend from school knew someone with some part time work available. Enter Tom Jarvis and the rest is history.

TJ: I had completed a consulting gig to bring in some extra money, which was also a big lesson in how founders tend to run away with their own vision. From that moment on, I solidified in my mind the need to include the team in major decisions - as I thought this was key to success. 

JM: Accounts of when Wilderness officially began diverge from there. I started in September 2014 with the initial plan to head to Brighton to work on familiarising ourselves with the publicity team that work across Sony Pictures. Tom and I were due to meet together beforehand but at the last minute he called me up to say, ‘actually I’m not going to be there today - you’ve got this. Bye!’ It was a key learning moments in my career, one that made me just get on with it after realising just how much faith Tom had in me. He’s a great believer in saying ‘I think we should just crack on’ which is exactly what I did.

TJ: My first day was equally as strange. I'd had an early meeting with the founder of the business I was consulting. I'd told him that I intended to step back and focus on my own business but upon leaving, I was immediately shut out of the company email without saying goodbye proprerly to the team. I headed back to the two desks we shared in Golden Square at the time and knew that this was a blessing in disguise and that I had to make Wilderness work. 

 

We’re here! Oh the places you’ll work....

AM: We’ve worked in various workspaces in our five years. MeWe360 had all the usual things you expect from a modern office: lots of light, funky furniture, a kitchen with all the mod cons, and more Apple laptops than your nearest Apple store. 

JM: I wasn’t aware that the concept of shared workspaces existed until Wilderness and I can remember thinking how wild it was that we had an address I could get Tom to order issues of Sight and Sound to. Our first place I barely saw - I was always working out of the other agency or client’s offices and so would only set foot in MeWe360 on Fridays where we’d gather to discuss the week.  

AM: The next office was located inside with creative agency, Forever Beta. It was trendy East London at its peak: a pool table; a loud interior design and a creative agency upstairs with enough beards to make it seem authentic. We had room to expand and the team started to grow. It was here that we established some of our key core cultural principles - openness, honesty and collaboration.

JM: We were the first company to move into the cavernous Betaspace and we occupied it for three months before anyone else turned up. The warehouse space was ours to command and we really started to spread out - to the point that when other companies started to arrive we got VERY territorial. Still Betaspace was amazing and it was an ideal place for creative thinking, sofas for communal working, an outside area for socialising in the sunshine.

AM: Moving to our own office on Leonard St in Shoreditch was a big moment. It felt as though we had finally progressed from a start-up to a fully-fledged business with over 30 people in-house.

TJ: As soon as I walked into the new office, I knew this was our space so following a month of hard slog, we were ready to share it with the rest of the team. It felt like a a real signal that we were growing up as a business.

 

Team building: Finding the people that make it special

TJ: In the early days, we made a number of key hires who all played a big part in the formation of our culture, ethos and work standard.

AM: James (xx) played a massive part in Wilderness' growth. He was there from the beginning and showed me the ropes when it came to the fundamentals of what we do: planning a campaign, devising a  great brand voice, and delivering all the above for a client.

JM: There have been many BIG hires for us as a company.

AM: We really do operate as a family here. At times, that involves some impassioned discussions, but the team are always motivated with the best intentions about continuing to interrogate our own work. They're always keen to improve.

TJ: It's amazing to see that those values that we instinctively worked on in the early days, and didn't codify, have been passed on. 

JM: As we’ve grown from two to four to 30, one of the constant pressures has been maintaining an open company culture. Tom has always been great at sharing information with the team about where we’re going as an agency and my hope is that the whole team knows how important they are to driving everything forward - that they can have an impact on the direction and vision of the agency. 

 

Our clients: Big wins and career highs

AM: The first client I worked on was Magic Light Pictures, a client we still work with to this day. So many people, past and present, have worked on the account and they’re a client that threads a lot of our history together. We’ve learned from them both the value of a long-term relationship but also the need to constantly push the envelope, to never rest on our laurels; which is something we carry onto any project we work on.

TJ: A real momentum builder and pivotal client win was 20th Century Fox. After winning a competitive pitch process, we secured ourselves onto their roster which was a huge validation of our passion and work ethics - which would carry us over the line against more established traditional agencies. GSMA was a funny one. Some opportunities kind of fall into your lap. One thing I've learnt over the last five years is to stay in the game, keep doing what you believe in and good things will come. GMSA was a great example of that. They approached us with an opportunity to work on an exciting global project for a major organisation who wanted a different type of agency. It all happened very quickly; it was probably just two or three weeks from the first inbound email to us pitching and securing the work. 

 

What’s next? - Planning for the future

TJ: This year, we're focused on building out the team in Amsterdam and delivering more award-winning work from our London office. We want to expand our clientele and continue doing great work with great people. Beyond that, I'm also excited about establishing The Wilderness Social Academy (WSA) and Pack. 

The WSA is our training and up-skilling service for existing and new client teams. As an agency we want to support our clients, teams, and people to deliver the highest standard of work across social channels. It's been months in the making but we've finally got a set of four in-depth courses on best practice. Pack is our growth partner ads offering, where we've got some big plans for supporting some really exciting scale-up businesses through performance marketing. 

Outside of these new product offerings, we'll be delving further into our creative offering and looking at supporting brands to create original video and audio. We are also going to be exploring further opportunities across paid media, with connected TV advertising coming into view and voice search becoming more relevant.

 

Jamie Maple, strategy director at Wilderness.