Ian McAteer: No-one Owes You Anything. Getting People To Trust You Is Hard. Never Owe the Bank Money

Ian McAteer of The Union.

Where in Scotland are you located?


Tell us about yourself?

Born in Kenya to a Scottish father and Seychellois mother. Lived in East Africa for 20 years.

Schooled in Scotland, university at Leeds. Started out as a barrister in London, but realised it wasn’t for me. Joined Saatchi & Saatchi London in 1984 and loved it.

Worked on top accounts and rose to be a Board Director. Moved to Scotland in 1992; and in 1996 co-founded The Union in Edinburgh.

Been running the agency for 26 years and love it. The best bit is the team we have here which is awesome. Also makes my job super-easy.

What lessons has being an entrepreneur taught you?

No-one owes you anything. Getting people to trust you is hard. Never owe the bank money. (Always keep a strong balance sheet.)

Don’t suffer toxic people.Teamwork does make the dream work. Hubris is dangerous. (Look what happened to the Bismark.) Trust your people, and delegate, delegate, delegate. Promote people before they expect it. Be consistent. The longer you survive in business the easier it gets; but you must never relax.

Never brush problems under the carpet. Communicate 100% more than you think you need to. Always speak from the heart. Admit your mistakes. Apologise for them. Let others take the glory.

Keep people on their toes; don’t become predictable. Make sure to have fun at work. Not having a boss is very scary.

If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what piece of advice would you give yourself?

Learn to let go.

A lot of entrepreneurs find it difficult to balance their work and personal lives. How have you found that?

Hard. Worked seven days a week for the first 12 months. But sometimes survival depends on hard work. However whilst the sacrifice was hard in the early years; nowadays things are much better.

What is the inspiration behind your business?

Keeping things as they are is easy. Change never is. It requires bravery. Curiosity. Ambition. Ideas, inventions and movements are born in the cauldron of change. Change is the state that fuels progress.

Change is what our clients need. In sales. Product. Culture. Behaviour. Outcomes. At The Union we make change happen. Through strategy, data insight and creativity. For our clients, for society. For the better. That’s what motivates us and drives us. We are Agents of Change. We are The Union.

What do you think is your magic sauce? What sets you apart from the competitors?

Our culture.

How have you found sales so far? Do you have any lessons you could pass on to other founders in the same market as you just starting out?

Don’t do it. (Only kidding.) We’ve grown over 26 years to 85 people with sales of £12 million.

We’ve survived almost failing after 6 months; the dot-com crash; the financial crash; the death of our MD; losing a huge client; the pandemic and Brexit. (So far.) But we’re still strong and robust; simply because we never allow ourselves to get too big-headed.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far in your business, and how did you overcome it?

Starting the business. We had no clients after six months and almost went bust. We overcame it through grit and determination; plus a £20k loan from the granny of one of the founders.

What do you consider are the main strengths of operating your business in Scotland?

We’ve been around for a long time; Scotland’s longest existing independent creative agency. Our reputation, record of awards, great clients and the quality of our work are all key strengths.

However our biggest strength is our team; 85 hugely talented and motivated people covering all marketing communication disciplines; all working collaboratively under on roof. That’s unique in Scotland.

What if any are weaknesses of operating your business within Scotland?

Size of the market.

What influence does being part of the UK have on your business?

Gives us more opportunity.

What do you want to accomplish in the next 5 years with your business?

Don’t want our competitors to know that.

How has Brexit impacted your business (if at all)?

Yes. Harder to recruit. Can’t even employ remote workers in Europe without all sorts of red tape.

And finally, if people want to get involved and learn more about your business, how should they do that?

Email [email protected] and address to Ian McAteer, Gus Chalmers or Louise Killough.

Follow The Union on Twitter or Linkedin.

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