My cloak and dagger marketing coup

It’s ironic that Ian Millner's marketing group Iris Worldwide, which now turns over £30m a year, has rather cloak-and-dagger origins…

"Our business is built on trust," says 39-year-old Ian Millner, chief executive of marketing group Iris Worldwide. "If people trust you, they give you good opportunities." So it's ironic that Iris, which now turns over £30m a year, has rather cloak-and-dagger origins. In 1999, Millner had been working for marketing giant IMP for six years, and was frustrated with the limitations of working in a large organisation.

Several of his friends felt the same way so they decided to set up their own agency. "We went to see Ericsson, one of IMP's biggest clients, and said What if we were to pick the very best people, and work for you in a way that was quicker, better and cheaper? Would you back us?'."

Ericsson wanted to target a younger audience. It liked the fact that Millner and his friends were all in their 20s. The group agreed to drip-feed them projects for six months while they phased themselves out' of IMP with various excuses. "We had a guy who went into journalism, a guy who went travelling for a year and a guy who went to work for a friend in a digital start-up. All sorts of nearly credible" stories, designed not to raise suspicions.

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They moved into a serviced office in the Strand "a plug and play with a few small phones" after convincing a former IMP executive to invest £50,000 in their start-up. "You don't need lots of money to do an agency start-up if you're doing well, your clients are giving you more work and paying you promptly." And as he points out, it helps "if you're young enough that you don't need a lot of money." Living in a two-bedroom flat in Camberwell with one of the other founders, "we were not expensive people. No families, no big mortgages, so we had nothing to lose."

As the last of the "co-conspirators" to leave IMP, Millner's job was to snatch some more clients, which he duly did. Virgin and the Discovery Channel came on board, and Iris began growing by 50% a year. By 2003, it was turning over £5m-£6m, although much of the work was still on smaller projects. Then, "within six months, things fundamentally changed". Impressed by the work done with Ericsson, the Department of Health came looking for the agency's expertise to promote safe sex among young people.

Then oil giant Shell signed them up, again based on work they'd done on retailing with Ericsson. "Once you have blue-chip organisations, it gives you enormous stability. You're no longer eating hand to mouth," says Millner. "You have a better reputation and agencies are driven by reputation."

That same year they moved into America, securing deals with Adidas, among others. The group now has 40 staff in New York, Miami and LA. "It's just begun to build momentum," he says. "If we just get one or two cornerstone clients, we'll get it to the next level." As for the future, Millner has no plans to sell up like many rival agencies. "We want to build an agency that lasts way beyond our lives. That's one reason we called it Iris, and not after one of us. We want everyone to feel they have ownership of it that way we'll be able to continue growing because clients want to work with focused people."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.