Simon Martin, CEO at OLIVER – Forbes Advisor UK
On leaving school at 18, Simon Martin began his career as an insurance clerk with Norwich Union, now part of Aviva. After 12 years, he set off on his own and finally launched the marketing agency OLIVER, a pioneer in the concept of creating internal agencies for clients and which counts Virgin Media, Samsung, Hiscox and AA among its clients. Born in Chelmsford, he and his family divide their time between London, Nottinghamshire and Switzerland
What set you on the path to success?
Aviva was my school and my entrepreneurial launching pad. It gave me a mindset to challenge the convention. It also gave me a great understanding of business, law, sales and marketing as well as the value of insurance and business to society.
After about four years, Aviva put me into their Global Executive Development Program (usually only graduates) with peers such as Amanda Blanc, current CEO of Aviva, and Jon Dye, current CEO of Allianz UK. I took residential classes every three months for the best part of 10 years. It was an exceptional training.
Aviva has proactively mentored my career development, leading to 30 different roles in almost every area of the business, culminating in general management. At 33, I was on the UK operating board and was responsible for 2,000 employees and £ 1.2 billion in revenue.
We were buying companies and merging them, and I inevitably saw layoffs. I wanted to take control of my career and had always liked the idea of running my own business. In 2000, I left to start an internet sourcing start-up, in what turned out to be right at the end of that particular dot.com boom.
My timing could have been a little better maybe, but it became my baptism of fire as an entrepreneur: a terrifying, but essential learning. I sold this business for a relatively small amount of money. It gave me the desire to leave and led me to create OLIVER. The rest is history.
Did you have a hero when you were younger?
My school sports teacher and subsequent trainer. He taught me the value of persistence and teamwork. It was because of him that I continued to play and coach volleyball at the national league level, which gave me my first glimpse into high performance thinking, management and culture development. .
Do you have one now?
I have so many. The Manchester United fan in me means Sir Alex Ferguson. However, I most admire Jacinda Ardern (Prime Minister of New Zealand) for her unwavering integrity and courage.
Giving birth to her daughter during her tenure illustrates her humanity and her determination to challenge the status quo for women. The way she responded to the Christchurch terror attack was also truly inspiring. An incredible leader, and one of the very few politicians I could mention here.
Are you bored easily?
Yes and no. My coworkers tease me about my short attention span. But I’m also very persistent, which is the most important trait for an entrepreneur. I tend to get bored quickly if I feel the balance between duration and value is wrong.
Who do you admire in business and in life in general?
If it wasn’t Ferguson in sports or Ardern in politics, then it would be other change makers like Akala or Greta Thunberg. People who have the courage and tenacity to make the world a better place.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I call it being a pragmatic perfectionist. You have to have the desire and ambition to do everything really well when in business. But you also have to see that perfection will permanently slow you down.
I don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, as I did at the start of my career. I also know that mistakes are the best way to learn, so I really encourage people to have the confidence to make them – as long as they share the lessons with everyone afterwards.
What are your ambitions?
Building a Leading 21 Marketing Services Companyst century.
Agencies have emerged and flourished over the last 40 years of the 20e century, relying on media and creativity to build brands. While these skills are still important, today’s world is extremely complex, with customers looking for technology, data, and agility for their growth. Our talent, our technology and our model exist to make sense of complexity, and I sincerely believe that we are the experts.
Do you believe in luck?
Yes. People say you make your own luck, and I kinda agree with that. However, there is so much in life that you cannot control, and this is where “ bad luck ” can hamper your efforts no matter how prepared you are.
That said, by working hard and honing the right skills, you will still be successful.
What qualities do you look for in your colleagues?
The desire to learn, persistence, passion, integrity, resilience and the inherent confidence to try new things. I realize that’s the whole list!
The main thing for me today is empathy. In business, we need to see ourselves better as people – fallible and sometimes vulnerable – and support each other.
Micro-management or the big picture?
Both. Micro-management has a bad reputation. In my opinion, the best way to lead is to focus on the big picture, but then get stuck in the details when there is a problem or people need help.
Micromanagement doesn’t have to be a negative experience if it is done in the spirit of getting the right result together. You just need to know when to turn off micromanagement and turn the overview back on.
Do you think the company is valued by society?
I think it is valued by society, but not enough.
Businesses are by far the dominant proportion of global GDP and the creator of wealth – jobs, opportunities, trade, etc. Yet there is a stereotype that all too often links it to greed.
Businesses have the power to change the world for the better. I sincerely believe it. It is only through governments and businesses like ours, which help businesses thrive, that they can be more valuable to people and the planet.
How do you think business will develop from 2020?
The world was changing rapidly long before the pandemic struck. The difference is that before the pandemic, companies were embracing digital transformation in balance with older and more traditional operational imperatives. They felt their way.
Covid-19 has changed the course so suddenly that brands have had to accelerate this overhaul and sprint to new models for everything from e-commerce to B2B sales and digital marketing.
Much of the behavioral change attributed to the pandemic was actually already in play – it was the immediacy that changed – which is good news, as we already knew a lot of what we needed to do.
We will come back to 2020 as a moment of almost instantaneous commercial evolution. Most businesses will be totally different in 2021 than they were in 2019. Now we need to transform on a larger scale, harnessing things that were previously considered marginal businesses.
How you like business going to change from 2020?
I would like to go back to the basics of understanding our purpose and his life. This now means putting people and their environment at the center of all business decisions. This will alleviate the historically fierce nature of business and help us remember that we are all in the same boat.
In the same spirit, we must make health and wellness a permanent priority. We cannot once again become subjected to the constant routine of climbing the slippery pole of the career. I hope that our work-life balance will remain forever changed and that we always focus on caring for ourselves, each other and our world.
Here is a magic wand – what are you going to do?
I would eradicate racism and prejudices from existence. We set out to make OLIVER an actively anti-racist organization, not just non-racist, and I am very proud to see this embodied by all of our staff.
Every business must be fully focused on building inclusive cultures where people are treated fairly regardless of their background, race or sexual orientation. Complete stop.
What is your favorite time of day?
Do you know that time around mid-morning when the full rhythm of the day was established? Huge amounts of energy are released and the real fun can begin.
Then we take the turmoil from last year and turn it into something really meaningful.
Despite the change imposed on us, there are many changes that, if we think about it, we will actually want to keep.
We are entering a time when humanity will discover how to deal with the negative impacts of Covid and start enjoying our lives again. This period could be three months or three years depending on the progression of the pandemic and our ability to control it. But one thing is certain, we need to turn the challenges – fear for loved ones, concerns for health, loss of freedom – into as many new positive opportunities as possible.
It means more time for family and friends, more focus on our well-being, more time to do what makes us tick in the morning.
It is my personal mission to work more closely with our staff and clients to maximize the benefits of the pandemic and try to bring more joy back to our lives.