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The Road To Success Is Paved With Many Sleepless Nights: Learning From the OGs With Jonathan Akwue

For my series, I had the privilege to interview one of my friends, Jonathan Akwue, who has been recognised in 2018 as one of the top 100 most influential Black, Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) leaders in the UK tech sector. With over 20 years of experience and collaborations with brands such as Samsung, Facebook, and Google, Jonathan has been one of the leading entrepreneurs in marketing innovation and transformation. What follows is a verbatim transcript of our discussion.


Timothy Armoo: Hi, and welcome to episode 2 of Learning from the OGs, where I interview seasoned, experienced people from the world of marketing and advertising, with the aim of both inspiring you guys, but also educating my audience here about the ways they can crush it in the advertising industry. Today, I have the pleasure of having a really good friend of mine, Mr. Jonathan Akwue. Jonathan, I've known you for—what, a year or so?

Jonathan Akwue: Longer than that. We met maybe four years ago.

Timothy Armoo: Jesus Christ. The time I didn't have a beard.

Jonathan Akwue: Yes, true.

Timothy Armoo: But now I do. But yeah, we meet a pretty good friend of mine, Jonathan Akwue, who has done so much in the world of advertising and marketing, and we're just going to have a discussion about everything he's done in his whole journey, but also everything that he can impart to young people everywhere about how to really crush it in the world of advertising. As we always start these—we always start these with a 30-second introduction from yourself about who you are because I think it's always a disservice when I say it, but you can actually say it in the best way. So 30 seconds. The camera's going to start soon in 3, 2, 1. Who are you, Mr. Jonathan Akwue?

Jonathan Akwue: My name is Jonathan Akwue. I started life in South London. I'm from South London—actually from Brixton, and I've had multiple careers. I have done many things in my career. I started off as an illustrator and then a designer and then I got into marketing, but before that, I had a record label, I've been a DJ, I've been a consultant. What else have I done? I've been a strategist, creative director, and now I am a chief exec of an agency as well, and now I am a managing partner and a global client lead.


Timothy Armoo: So two questions. Firstly, what was the perspective of entrepreneurship at that age when you were starting up a design studio all those years ago? And secondly, because I know quite a lot of my audience here might also be people who are fairly creative, and they've often struggled with, "Do I do the creative stuff and then bring on someone doing business?"; or "Do I have to then do business and bring somebody to do the creative?"; How did you determine that actually, "I'm far better doing this than the other stuff?"

Jonathan Akwue: It's a great question. I think, for me, I've always had passion for creativity, so I've always known that. I've always enjoyed the idea of making and designing and thinking. For me, the one thread that goes through my entire life is kind of design thinking, which is about applying the principles of how do you solve problems using creativity? Be them business challenges, be them creative challenges. It's the same; you almost plug into the same kind of lateral ways of thinking. But one of the things that was clear to me is that I'm actually quite extroverted; a lot of designers and illustrators tend to be quite introverted. They tend to want to zone in on their work, they tend to want to focus in on the computer, and whilst I can do that, I enjoy meeting people, having conversations related to people, understanding where people are coming from. And so, it was the fact that I used to enjoy more the interaction with people. That was my first clue; I thought I wanted to be a designer or illustrator, but I get more of a kick out of meeting somebody, seeing what their challenges are, and helping them to solve that. And that was giving me more of a kick, and then I thought, "Maybe I'm better doing this than I am doing that." And that was it for me.


Timothy Armoo: What was the perspective of entrepreneurship around that time?

Jonathan Akwue: It's certainly not as en vogue as it is now. You didn't have Silicon roundabout, there wasn't this whole startup culture. There definitely wasn't the funding for it. Again, I was quite fortunate; I got a little bit of government funding to get me started, but when I say a little bit of government funding, I mean a tiny bit which was, basically, I think it was like 40 quid a week or something that you had, which was just basically making sure you didn't go onto the dole. You were unemployed, so they would support you with that. But finding the access to capital, all the investors—that infrastructure just genuinely wasn't there, and it wasn't as cool as it is today. But for me, the idea of controlling your own destiny, the idea of being able to make something for yourself, the idea of actually a salary for me back then was like—I couldn't get my head around it. I was like, "Why would I want to work for someone else? Why would I do that? I would much rather make my own fortune."And it was tough. First couple of years were really tough. The first year of my business—I remind people of this, particularly my own children. First year in my business, we made £6000; there was me and a business partner. We made £6000—that's not profit. Actually, that's revenue overall, and we split it between us. So I'm telling you, when I say it was tough, it was tough. But within a couple of years, we were making hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Timothy Armoo: Interesting.

Jonathan Akwue: But it was a—I used to work 24 hours a day, fall asleep in my office. You have to hustle when you're like that. And for me, that was a thrill, and I enjoyed it.


Timothy Armoo: What do you think was that change then? Was it just because you hadn't built up the case studies and everything before? What do you think—was there a mindset change between when you were getting £6000, etc. to when you actually started becoming a really successful company?

Jonathan Akwue: It was old-school word of mouth. It was about service, and it was about recognizing that if people could see that we were young, we were hungry—my business partner ended up leaving after a year because she was like, "I can't do this anymore. It's too stressful." She literally left a note on the computer saying, "I'm really sorry, John. I can't cope with this anymore" and she left, and I had to pick up all her clients as well and then just build the business. It's kind of mad, but people appreciate people that have a commitment to doing good work. And so for me, it was having to learn all those things. How do you recruit the talent? How do you find people and keep people? And as I say, I was really, really lucky in that I was paying a peppercorn rent. In fact, I don't think I was paying for the first few years; I didn't pay any rent, actually. I was being supported at an office. I was supported because I was housed in an organisation that was there to support young people like myself, who wanted to do things, wanted to be successful in business. So I think that's what helped me to take it to a high level. And then, as I got older, and as I started to approach the end of my 20s, I decided a couple of things: one of which, I wanted to go back to university. So I went back and did a Masters. It was like a creative MBA, because I did it at the University of the Arts, and they had a creative MBA programcalled the Master’s in Enterprise and Management for the Creative Arts. So it was like an MBA kind of curriculum, but for people like me—creative entrepreneurs, and it was brilliant. And so, that taught me more about the business end of how do you scale, how do you take things to the next level, how do you finance? And that's really what made some of the big changes when I started to go, "Okay, I need to do this in a different way to solve my business." I did some other things, and then I started going into kind of more proper advertising, off the back of that.

So there you have it. When Jonathan started out, there wasn’t a startup culture like now, so the hustle to find success was even harder. Success won’t come easy, and you’ll need to sacrifice many hours of sleep along the way if you want to achieve it, but if you are creative, show drive and hunger, then you’ll eventually be rewarded.

Timothy Armoo


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