Interviews

Frances Dickens: "Our delivery-first approach transformed perceptions"

10 min read

17 April 2013

Deputy Editor, Real Business

Leading Astus Group through a period of fantastic growth, Frances Dickens gives us an insight into parts of her strategy.

Name: 

Frances Dickens

Role and company:

Chief executive and co-founder of Astus Group, the UK’s biggest media barter company

Company turnover:

In 2012, we made £106m

Employee numbers:

38 across the UK, Asia and Australia

Growth forecast for the next three years:

Astus has experienced a fantastic level of growth in the last three years, doubling our turnover in that period. This growth has come from existing clients as part of our continued strategy to consolidate and nurture our core business through service and delivery.

The next three years will be interesting for us. We expect continued growth of media barter in the UK, however, not at the same level as the last few years. Our international operations are beginning to flourish. We believe these factors, combined with continued focus on our core values, will naturally lead to further growth.

In fewer than 50 words what makes your business distinctive in the marketplace:

When Astus launched ten years ago, our delivery-first approach transformed perceptions of media barter from a niche activity into a mainstream business practice. Our core values of accountability, transparency, integrity and delivering on promises are what differentiates us.

What is the big vision for your business?

In the UK, we want to continue providing exceptional levels of customer service to  agencies and clients who work with us, so that they see us as the first port of call for all their media barter needs. Our focus is on giving our clients the best possible return for their assets while ensuring that we provide a bespoke solution for each and every new piece of business. Internationally, we aim to grow by consolidating our current operations in Australia and Asia and by rolling out our approach to media barter to new markets.

Current level of international business and future aspirations:

Astus’ operation in Asia Pacific is proving to be a success with significant growth since we opened in 2011. Our newest offices in India are attracting a lot of interest from new and existing clients. Looking ahead, we are keen to build our presence in this region while maintaining our market-leading position here in the UK.

Biggest career setback and what you learned from it:

In the 1990s I worked as the MD for a company responsible for providing public internet hubs to one of the UK’s largest airports. At the time, the technology was ground-breaking but prone to failure. The consumer experience was patchy, which was very frustrating. Despite being installed at great cost and with frequent upgrades, the technology quickly became out-of-date. The experience taught me to stay ahead of the game, not just in technology but in terms of what you are offering as a company and, crucially, what your clients expect from you. If you stand still you are on the road to nowhere.

What makes you mad in business today?

I get angry when people offer deals which will be impossible to deliver. Having been in the business for over 13 years, I know when an offer isn’t right. People will say things to win business that they regret at a later date when it becomes undeliverable. From Astus’s point of view this is a complete no-no! We impress on everyone we deal with that we only promise if we can absolutely make it happen. We are prepared to say no when we think that a barter solution isn’t right for a particular client.

What will be the biggest change in your market in the next three years?

Media barter is increasingly seen as smart business practice by companies ranging from SMEs to large corporates integrating their media and distribution strategies. As more companies understand media barter and how it can help them protect their media budgets without spending more cash, it will become commonplace. We are already seeing the beginning of this trend with most of the top 20 media agencies now boasting dedicated media barter teams – something that was unheard of five years ago. Currently, media barter in the UK is worth between £250-£300m and around two per cent of media billings. We expect it to grow in the next few years, although not at the same rate as we have seen over the past three years.

Can businesses in your sector/industry access the finance they need to grow? If not, what can be done to improve things?

Astus has been fortunate in that we had a private investor, who, along with the founding directors, was ready to provide finance from day one. Fast growth has meant that our leverage requirement has remained low. I understand the difficulty SMEs face when looking for backing from banks and I know that the cheap money that flooded into banks via quantitative easing is not finding its way to the entrepreneurs who are the future of our economy. 

My experience in other markets such as Hong Kong and Singapore has made me realise that our tax regime is punitive in comparison and should be urgently reviewed. Cut corporation tax, capital gains tax, employers NI contributions, halve business rates and the economy will start to fly again. Tax cuts will minimise fledgling businesses’ need for leverage. Just look at Singapore, corporation tax is among the lowest in the world which has enabled it to attract global investment.

How would others describe your leadership style?

I hope they would describe me as straightforward and inclusive. I suspect they may also say driven and obsessive about detail! I know it’s a bit David Brent, but I believe in flat management structure. Hierarchical structures always lead to division and do not allow for the free flow of information and experience through a company. Astus has an open plan culture, which helps even the newest arrival feel comfortable mixing with directors and sharing ideas. We encourage everyone to express his or her views without the fear of being wrong, or worse, being ridiculed (other than in the daily banter of course). Each of our employees has a degree of ownership through a generous share option scheme, which aims to foster loyalty, commitment, inspiration and innovation.

Your biggest personal extravagance:

Other than taking out a second mortgage to launch Astus, I guess my biggest extravagance was my recent purchase of a barn conversion in Somerset. It’s somewhere I go with my family to escape the demands of London life. I am hoping that the local council eventually gets around to sorting out the broadband so I can work more efficiently from there when needed!

You’ve got two minutes with the Prime Minister. Tell him how best to set the UK’s independent, entrepreneurial businesses free to prosper:

I would tell him to stop dabbling in job creation; it’s not up to the government to create jobs. Instead, they need to create the conditions that both encourage inward investment into the UK and in which entrepreneurs and SMEs can flourish. If conditions are right, millions of real jobs will be created. This can only be achieved through tax cuts and easier access to business loans for companies that need them. We need to review the employment laws in this country to make it easier for start-ups, not just in terms of hiring and firing, but by of eliminating the red-tape and the brick walls caused by prohibitive legislation. I’d also like a business secretary who is pro-business, but that’s another story!