Article | By Oliver Forrester with Suzanne Linton

Meet Suzanne.

 

Our founder talks people, culture and what sets Freestyle apart from other agencies.

We have a pretty unique culture here at Freestyle. When it comes to company structure, work-life balance and recruitment, we are recognised for our award-winning culture. Much of this is down to the passion and vision of our co-founder, Suzanne Linton. 

 

Suzanne has loads of interesting stuff to say about organisational culture, company values and the best ways to develop people. So we sat down with a bunch of questions and an iPhone, and got her to talk all things Freestyle. 

 

 

So, let’s start from the very beginning: how did Freestyle come into being? 

Freestyle started in the spare bedroom of a basement flat. Alan (Freestyle co-founder) and I wanted to do something different. We’d both had relatively successful careers but we wanted something different.

We were both interested in making money but not multi-million pounds’ worth of money. It was about having a good level of income but everyone else in the business also having a good level of income. 

We started with one client, Land Rover, and we used to have client meetings at our dining room table. And we also had a 2-month old baby, so when the clients used to come in, the baby used to go for a walk in the pram, round the block as many times as was needed. But the clients didn’t actually mind. 

 

“We started with one client and meetings at our dining room table.”

 

Where did your passion for achieving the right work/life balance come from? 

In the mid 90s, ‘agency’ was a dirty word. You had estate agents, recruitment agents and you had ad agencies – and they all seemed to treat staff terribly. They took talented people in, chewed them up with a ridiculous number of hours over a couple of years and when they were spent, they chucked them out the other side. And I felt we could do something different from that. For about ten years I refused for us to be called an agency because I thought it was a dirty word. 

 

“For about ten years I refused to be called an agency because I thought it was a dirty word.”

You’re a big advocate of having a flat structure with little formal hierarchy….

I’ve always believed in as flat a structure as possible in a business. I want everyone to work together in a team. I want everybody to be collaborative, which is why I’ve always rallied against people having job titles.

 

“I’ve always believed in as flat a structure as possible in business, which is why I’ve always rallied against job titles“

 

I think you should be whatever you need to be in a client meeting, so if I’m the MD but we need a cleaner in that meeting (or someone to do the coffees), that’s fine. It’s about the whole team coming together. If an account exec is acting as an account director in a meeting, there’s no reason why they should have a business card with ‘account executive’ on, it demeans them in that meeting.

They should be whatever they need to be in that scenario. I struggle at times with the way companies work. There’s a whole load of learned hierarchies that we have in our lives that we could probably, if we’d just be brave enough, dispense with.  

 

 

As a company we’ve been bigger, we’ve had a whole load of systems to measure what everyone is doing. But we’ve got a much better idea of what we’re doing now. We’ve gone back to basics in a very positive way. I think we’ve got a great bunch of people and we’ve learned from the mistakes we made in the past. We’re now better at targeting our efforts into the right areas. 

 

“We’ve gone back to basics in a very positive way”

How does leadership work at Freestyle? 

I recognise that leadership is needed, but it can come from many different places. It doesn’t have to come from one person and one person alone. A number of people throughout an organisation should also be leaders in what they do and provide that leadership to the rest of the team. And it could be different people in different circumstances, it could be the person who has hold of a pen at the whiteboard in that moment.  

 

How do you support people with the pressures of agency life and inspire them to grow and develop? 

Our world can be a stressful environment, and you ask an awful lot of people at times. In order for people to cope with that you have to give them control. You have to give them a sense of their own development, and their own ability to make a difference. And if that means their development is not to be in this company forever that’s acceptable, that’s ok. I think a lot of employers rally against that, which has always seemed crazy to me. 

As an example, when one of our employees came to us and said she wanted to do a counselling course part time, we let her do it. And she became a much happier person as a result. Much more fulfilled and she’s gone off to do counselling now which is brilliant. And ok, she’s left the business, but it wasn’t a bad experience.

I’ve sat in interviews and said ‘if your goal is to have your own business in five years, brilliant’. Come in here and we’ll teach you everything we can and help you become that. Because if you have your own business, you’ll probably work with us in the future anyway. 

 

 

“I’ve sat in interviews and said ‘if your goal is to have your own business in five years, brilliant’. Come here and we’ll teach you everything we can to help you achieve that.” 

 

 

What do you look for when recruiting new people? 

Over the last 18 months, we have absolutely recruited by our values. We’ve done it in the past when you recruit someone who is just the best person you can find at a particular time. But actually, you should want the person opposite you at an interview to be on your team no matter what, because you see something in them. 

Whenever I interview someone I’m not looking at the job title they’re going for but their potential. I’m thinking they’ll be perfect in that role, but they’ll also be perfect in the three roles after that, and that’s what I’m looking for. The person who’s going to be bloody amazing over the next three, four, five years. 

 

“Over the last 18 months, we have absolutely recruited by our values.

What makes Freestyle different? 

Our expertise and how we apply it is our differentiator. We’re solving client problems and business problems. It’s about the melding of expert voices into one common solution that hits the nail on the head as far as the client is concerned, and then makes the client look good. The ideal being that the client is collaborative in that. They buy into our values, they’re part of our team, and then they look bloody good when they go back to their organisation, and in turn, the work promotes their career. 

“The nirvana is where our clients buy into our values as much as we do.”

 

The nirvana is where our clients buy into our values as much as we do, so we can get the most out of the relationship. 

My skill is in bringing together experts in different fields, with different personalities, into one team that works really well together.

My skill is in bringing together experts in different fields, with different personalities, into one team that works really well together. 

 

freestyle

ADJECTIVE

Denoting a contest, race, or version of a sport
in which there are few restrictions on the
moves or techniques that competitors employ.

freestyle wrestling

Finally, why the name? 

Ten years ago, we asked people what ‘Freestyle’ meant to them. We had a session where people brought in props. Someone brought in a mountain bike, someone brought in a skateboard, because Freestyle means so many different things to different people.

Everyone was saying ‘Freestyle’ means this to me, and they were gobsmacked when they found out it was a swimming reference. But their reasons were all completely valid. The beauty of the name is it’s the fastest way of getting through the water, to a destination, there are no defined rules. Every other stroke in swimming has a rule, Freestyle doesn’t.

Alan and I are both swimmers and sport is important to us. There are important parallels with how you should run a team. You get all these business books now written by Clive Woodward and others who take sports management into business but that’s what we were doing 20 years ago, based on having had inspirational swimming coaches. 

 

“The beauty of the name ‘Freestyle’ is that there are no defined rules” 

Talk to Suzanne or book her for an event.

If you’d like to talk to Suzanne about culture, values and leadership, or you're interested in booking her for an event, please drop us an email.

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