Andrew Dobbie: Fortune Favors the Brave

By Brett McKenzie on Apr 26, 2022

One Club Member + MadeBrave founder looks back — and foward — on his agency's journey


Hey One Club community! What are your top five Scottish ad agencies? Hmm, okay, name your top three Scottish agencies. Hmm, can you name any Scottish ad agency?

Scotland is a country that punches well above its weight on the world stage. Think about it: it has only about 5.5 million people, and yet just about everyone on earth can envision elements of Scottish culture. But even with that near-universal, near-instant recognition, the international ad industry hasn’t often peeked over Hadrian’s Wall to explore the scene in the northern reaches of Great Britain.

Enter One Club Member Andrew Dobbie.

Andrew is the CEO and founder of MadeBrave, a Glasgow-based agency that just celebrated its tenth anniversary — an important milestone for any creative shop, no matter where you are. But Andrew isn’t looking for MadeBrave to be known only in Scotland, or even in the UK (although they do have London digs to support their two Scottish offices.) No, Andrew has nothing less than world conquest on his mind… or at the very least shining a spotlight on his corner of the globe so that the industry takes notice.

We had an opportunity to sit down with Andrew to discuss his unique entry into the ad industry, what he’s learned throughout the years, and just what MadeBrave is all about.

 


Whenever I chat with people in our industry about their careers, I always like to start at the very beginning, because no child ever wanted to be an art director or copywriter when they grew up. So what type of life did the young Andrew Dobbie live before even considering what you are today?

Hmmm... Well, I was adopted and was very fortunate to be adopted into a family that spotted and really nurtured the creativity in me. When I was young I was always entering those coloring competitions — that’s how I won a mountain bike when I was in primary school! My mother always sought out opportunities for me to be a little creative. In high school, I continued to draw, as well as picked up the guitar, playing in bands, and so forth. 

But then high school came to an end, and I had to really start thinking about how I was going to earn a living. I remember seeing a brochure or something for a multimedia course in university. It had a picture of some kid in front of a computer with colorful graphics on the screen. [laughs] I think I picked that course based off of that picture, it looked like so much fun! This was the late 90s when the internet was still trying to figure out what it was, and websites were mainly designed with tables and Macromedia Flash. I very quickly realized that I was more of a creative ideas person than a web development person!

At the end of school, I was one of a few students in my class that were lucky enough to land a job in our field right away. The great Scotland and Celtic football captain Paul McStay had retired a number of years earlier, and he brought me on to help develop content for him, initially in the form of DVDs to help coach children. I ended up working with his company for eight years, working my way up to lead creative of a team of about seven or eight at any one time. Throughout it all, I taught myself design and photography and basically built up a set of skills while staying loyal to the company that gave me a chance.

It was 2011 when I discovered that my wife Pamela was pregnant, and with the baby on the way and her stepping out of the workforce for a time, I knew that we’d need some more money to pay for nappies. And so, with about £1000 in the bank and baby Finlay about two weeks old, I left my job and started my own company. And that’s where the MadeBrave story begins!

That’s a very appropriate name, considering that you didn’t have the experience of working in an ad agency.

[laughs] I don’t think I even knew how an ad agency really ran, to be quite honest. In that first year, I was still doing design work while also taking advantage of the fact that being a new father opened my network to opportunities to do baby photography. Basically that first year was sort of a game to see which activity took off first. Fortunately, the advertising side got really, really busy, and I discovered that I really enjoyed the business side of things. I got a real buzz of energy from going out to find new business and discovered that’s where my strengths were to be found.

 

"I got a real buzz of energy from going out to find new business and discovered that’s where my strengths were to be found."

 

As for the name, my wife and I spent a weekend with a copywriter friend of ours, and we were just thinking about how to actually name oneself — you come up with names for other people all the time, but it’s so hard to come up with your own identity! It just so happened that I was wearing a Diesel brand T-shirt with “Only The Brave” printed on it, and my wife said, “what about ‘brave’?” All that night I lay in bed just bouncing around different “brave” words in my head until “MadeBrave” just clicked. The next morning I came downstairs and our copywriter friend said “that’s it. Stop there. You’ve just made this very brave move, starting a company with little money. There’s your theme, your story.” And that’s how it began! 

I’d like to note that you’re also starting your agency in Glasgow, which doesn’t exactly have the cachet of London when it comes to the ad world. Now here’s your chance to tell me how I’m wrong. 

[laughs] Well, I was here, and with a young family, I couldn’t exactly make moves to the big city just yet! And while London is pretty close — it’s only about an hour and a bit by plane — it’s also pretty far away in terms of mindset. But from the very beginning, I felt that there was no reason why we couldn’t help put Scotland on the map. Scotland itself is a well-known brand on the global stage — perhaps it’s because of our liquor. And I saw that many other agencies and studios in Scottish cities tended to stick to relatively local businesses and clients, but I always wanted us to be an agency that just happened to be in Glasgow. And I can’t throw shade at London anymore, as we now have a London office!

Scottish fortitude and a bold name notwithstanding, you were getting into this business with little experience. How was that first stretch, where you’re needing to learn the ropes while making nappy money?

Oh, I can’t pretend it wasn’t tough! As I mentioned, I really loved the hustle of acquiring new business, but then you have to do the work. I didn’t come from wealth, so it’s not like I had much to fall back on. And after all of that work, I’d still need to be a father to a young toddler. I brought on a freelancer, and that person got more and more work to do. I also shared office space with a few other freelancers — I may or may not have pretended that they were my employees when a client came in!

 

"I also shared office space with a few other freelancers — I may or may not have pretended that they were my employees when a client came in!"

 

One of the other freelancers in the space was a designer who was far better than I could ever be. He had been freelancing for ten years, and he was getting fed up with the business side of things. He was even contemplating joining the police force. I asked him if he would instead come work for me full-time, where I would take on more of the business side that was burning him out. I couldn’t quite afford what he needed as a salary, but I asked him to give me three months to get things going, to see if we can work things out — this is something that can be done in Scotland, trial periods, so to speak. Anyway, I did it, and then I did it again with another freelancer, and by the end of the year, we were a team of six! Mind you, I was still trying to figure out how to deal with accountants and lawyers, but this was a great start!

Would you say that that was when you “made it,” when you knew this was for real and not the pipe dream of a new father?

I’d actually pinpoint that moment to somewhere in year two. The photographer in me made sure that we were chronicling our journey, and we started to use social media to tell our story. Back then, you didn’t see a lot of companies doing this; their Facebook and Twitter posts were more extensions of their websites’ ‘work’ pages, instead of showing off milestones big and small. Somewhere in that second year, the Scottish press started to take notice of our social media presence, leading one newspaper to do a feature of us under the headline “Fortune Favors the Brave.” It was at that moment that we realized that it was just as important to build ourselves as a brand as it was to build our clients’ brands. No matter what services we offered — and we rapidly had to expand our offerings — it was the MadeBrave brand that was getting attention. I’d say that was the moment when things really took a turn for the best.

I know that the pandemic has thrown the working world into a loop, but once upon a time, people had offices, and I hear you’ve always prided yourself on making MadeBrave an inspiring place to be…

I feel that the physical environment is very important when it comes to a workplace, We all know the feeling of walking into a beautiful hotel or a dreary apartment. One energizes you while the other drains you. Fairly early in our journey, I had the chance to visit the California offices of places like Google, Pixar, Dropbox and others. They had an energy that you just didn’t see in Scotland, so when I came back, I made it a mission to make our offices as cool as we possibly could.

The way I see it, so much of one’s life is spent at work, so whatever we can do to make that fun, we do. On our seventh anniversary, we turned the office into a giant ball pit. We always go all out in making these videos about ourselves at Christmas that let our creativity run wild and show the world what we are like. They do a great job of attracting the kind of people and clients we want to hire and work with and do an equally good job of repelling the kind of people and clients who wouldn’t fit in.

More MadeBrave brand building right there! You also host a podcast. I find that agencies and ad people like the idea of having a podcast, but the reality of one isn’t as exciting. And yet you’re about 30 episodes deep on yours.

Yes, it has been a nice bit of branding for us, as it gets you known to the people that we feature. Furthermore, there’s a bit of selfishness involved, as it gives me the opportunity to chat with the likes of Debbie Millman and Marty Neumeier, people I’ve personally always wanted to have a conversation with and learn their thinking. But it’s not just what I want; I ask my staff to name some of their own heroes and we see if we can make them guests. That’s how I wound up in the living room of Michael Wolff of Wolff Olins fame. 

But before you run off and start your own, let it be known that it’s a whole other beast to produce and brand and promote. We have an army of about five people who put the work in each month. It’s very rewarding work… but it is work. [laughs]

What were some of the other lessons you learned — good and bad — while trying to grow MadeBrave over the years?

I’d say one of the first lessons that I learned, and one I often share with others trying to do as we did, was knowing when it’s time to give up creative control. When creatives start businesses, they tend to want to hold onto creative power — being creative is what they’re good at, after all. I find that’s when creatives who start businesses struggle the most. When our team reached about 16 members, I knew it was time for me to stop trying to be a designer, to stop feeling that I need to put my fingerprints on every project. I put a creative director in charge and saved my creative outlets for the MadeBrave brand, rather than client work. 

 

"When creatives start businesses, they tend to want to hold onto creative power... I find that’s when creatives who start businesses struggle the most. "

 

Another important thing that I had to learn was to focus. A lot of entrepreneurial people are like magpies, attracted to every shiny little thing. I know I certainly was. Every little sparkly thing that caught my attention, I wanted to do. I even tried starting my own whiskey brand! But over the years I’ve learned that it’s better to focus on one or two things and do them extremely well than to flit about trying everything out there. 

As I’ve matured, I’ve also learned that my role as a leader is to provide the best possible work environment for my team. The older I got, the more cognizant I became of my team’s hopes, dreams, wants, and desires. And so it is my goal to help them become better versions of themselves for the eventuality of them leaving MadeBrave to chase those dreams. This is definitely one of those things I wish I knew earlier on; as magical as things were, I think they could’ve been even better.

Now that you’ve hit that decade milestone, what do you say has been the biggest difference between those bright-eyed, naive early days and today? Conversely, what is something that is as true today as it was way back when?

[laughs] The biggest change? All the gray in my beard! I think I’ve aged twenty years in those ten years, and that’s a testament to being willing to grow and change and learn. Also, because of when I started the company, the desire to be with my young family didn’t always match up with the opportunity to be with them. That’s why today I’ve tried to foster a culture where people can have a life that doesn’t suffer because of work commitments. While there are the occasional late nights, our team has the flexibility that we could hardly afford in our early years.

But if there’s a constant, I’d say it’s a passion for inspiring creativity in others. I truly believe that everybody is creative, they just have it at different volume settings. If I’ve done my job right, from back in the room with those freelancers that weren’t really mine to today, I’ve been inspiring and nurturing a creative streak in everybody I’ve worked with.

Let’s hop into a DeLorean and have this little chat in 2032. What can we expect to see out of you and your company on your twentieth anniversary?

Hmmm… MadeBrave New York, maybe? [laughs] Hopefully we will have succeeded in putting Scotland on the ad world map by then! So many of our clients are international brands, so it’s only a matter of time before we become one ourselves. So if this conversation marks the first time you’ve heard of MadeBrave, in ten years’ time you’ll know us as that truly global and yet unmistakably Scottish creative agency.

 


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