"We are making sure to hold ourselves accountable, not just patting ourselves on the back for creating values, but also listening and learning from our team to spot where we need to invest focus," says Oliver Budgen.
Oliver Budgen, Founder and CEO, Bud (pictured above) – an integrated communications agency for challenger technology brands, is not your typical business owner.
Having founded the agency in 2020, the leader shares his experience: "I'm a bit of an outlier, in that, most who set up a public relations agency are already seasoned industry veterans, who have already built their reputation and rolodex of contacts. I launched our Bud without contacts or prior leadership experience which felt like a disadvantage at first, but meant we had to focus on delivering better work than anyone else and building the trust of our clients. It made us humble, hungry, and motivated to build something better for the market.”
Talking a little more about his passion, he acknowledges technology's role as a lever in widespread changes around the world — whether it's a smartwatch capturing health data, a games publisher launching a new AR product or a platform helping businesses are make smarter decisions. "I found that change incredibly intoxicating. I also felt that Southeast Asia was the centre of gravity for a lot of that change, which made it the right place to be.
"So Bud started with the idea to create an agency that specialised in businesses using ideas or technology to change the world, who need a kinetic partner focused on delivering measurable outcomes."
While this was so, he started out the journey without a long-term view of where he wanted to get to. "If I'm very honest, it was me working with a laptop in a coffee shop, just thinking, ‘Can I pay the bills? Can I just get a few clients on board and just enjoy the work I'm doing?' But I quickly saw that there was a real opportunity to do something special here."
Since then, the Bud team has grown to a total of 16 team members across Southeast Asia.
He reflects: "In hindsight, what was probably naivety at the beginning – I hadn't started a business before, I hadn't run an agency before – was, in many ways, a real strength for me, in that I didn't come with prescribed ideas or notions about how things had to be, but I actually came with a sense of curiosity and a sense of collaboration where I really relied on the team around me to tell me what they think we should be doing and how we should be crafting our journey."
Today, he believes his role as a leader is to define the outcome and what the end destination looks like, then work with the team collaboratively to help get them there.
"What was initially like a weakness, is what I’ve come to realise has been a good strength."
In this interview with Priya Sunil, Budgen talks about how the company built camaraderie in its early stages amid turbulent times, why listening, acting, and iterating are so important in keeping the culture moving, and, as a bonus: lessons in life we can learn from his Goldendoodle, Nanook.
Q That's a very inspiring story! If I may also ask, was the name 'Bud' in 'Bud Communications' a play on your last name?
This is a question I always get, and yes, it’s partly that, but the idea for the name was inspired by the types of clients we work with. Our clients are often young, optimistic businesses with their growth years ahead of them, and our role is to help them thrive. ‘Bud’, I think, is a nice encapsulation of that relationship.
Q Having launched the agency in one of the most turbulent periods in recent times, you may have faced challenges such as in forming a team and building camaraderie. How did you tackle these?
A lot of people have been impressed with me for launching the business during the pandemic and I feel a bit of a fraud because we were far more resilient than larger businesses at the start as our costs were so low. We started from a laptop on a hotdesk, things could only go up and couldn't have got worse.
In many ways, yes, of course, we had to protect our staff and we had to look after our clients; things were by no means guaranteed or safe for us. But I think our mentality was a lot more playful because we were still building the business and trying new things. We were playing with different ways of keeping the team engaged. We were very playful in terms of making sure that we were pivoting our client servicing to be reflective of what our clients needed and in line with their urgent priorities.
So yes, we're an ambitious business and yes, we are growth-focused, but it's always through the lens of culture and making sure that that isn't compromised and doesn't compromise on our values either.
Q Fast forward to today, how do you continue to adapt your people strategy to ensure that you continue keeping the culture going, keeping your workforce competitive, keeping them engaged, and eventually retaining them?
I'm very outcome- and objective-focused, and I always like to have a goal that I'm working towards. For us, we've got a simple, but ambitious goal of being the best PR agency to work for in Asia. That's a really ambitious one because there are some amazing agencies out there that have been around a lot longer than us, but at Bud we like big scary goals.
Last year, we came together as a whole organisation and we co-created our values. Rather than plucking some very nice sounding buzzwords from the Internet and painting them on our office walls, we sat down and thought, what does it mean to be a 'Buddy’ and what does it mean to work here? This formed our values which then informed the principles of how we work with each other.
We are making sure to hold ourselves accountable, not just patting ourselves on the back for creating values, but also listening and learning from our team to spot where we need to invest focus. We do this through annual employee surveys and an engagement measuring tool that allows us to collect weekly data on how engaged our staff are feeling, what they are having challenges with, and what needs support on. That’s a very valuable tool for our line managers to then use that information for their one-on-ones, appraisals, and support that is needed.
I believe an organisation has cultural equity, in the sense that, if you are a team of 10, every member has a 10% equity stake in the culture of the company. So, it really isn’t [just] my job; my job is to support it, champion it, and empower people to create that culture, while it is the responsibility of everyone in the organisation to be a net-positive contributor to the culture of an organisation.
Q Drawing back to your point on involving employees in the decision-making – it truly speaks a lot about the culture itself, and I believe goes a long way in why employees would want to stay with the company.
Yes. I think there are a few benefits that come from it and, as I mentioned before, one of them is that you will get ideas that you would not have thought of yourself. You are pooling the collective hive mind rather than just isolating the responsibilities into, for instance, the head of HR.
I think that works really well for us.
The second thing is, the actual process of co-creating something and having multiple stakeholders involved, — whether it's a new framework, a new process, or a new project, having people involved in the creation of that will give them a sense of ownership and they will want to champion it. They will want to see it succeed versus having something dumped on them as a ‘this is the new way we work. This is something you've got to do.’
Q You’ve shared a lot about what makes up a good company culture. If you were to zoom in on the most important aspect, what would it be?
You need to make sure that you have values, as an organisation, that inform principles and inform actions that you take, and hold yourself to account for that.
I think that's the most impactful part of an effective culture –being very, very clear about the values you have, then going beyond them to make sure that they inform actions and principles. If you do that, you will then identify and attract the right people. You will win loyalty from them because they all know that you've got their back even if that means tough decisions.
We've had instances before, where we've had to let go of clients because we felt there wasn't an alignment of values there, and as much as that was painful for us to say no and cancel the revenue that we needed as a small business, we knew that if we want to be credible as a values-based organisation then we would need to make some of those tough decisions. Sometimes, what it is is that, if you really, really prioritise culture, then it means making tough decisions like that. Whether that's a high-performing employee who you know is toxic – fortunately, we've not had that situation.
But in those scenarios, the research is very clear on the detrimental impact of having toxic elements on an organisation. Even if they are, on the face of it, net positive from a revenue perspective, it’s detrimental compared to if you're able to remove that part.
So yes, culture is about making sure you act upon proper decisions off the back of that. It’s not just about going for drinks at the end of the week or buying pizza for the team. That's not really culture. Culture is more measured by the integrity to consistently demonstrate actions that reflect it’s values.
Q To end this on a fun note, it’s time for our favourite question of the day: What is one stand-out quality you think you, and all of us, can learn from your Goldendoodle, Nanook?
This is a great question. I have got a very large Goldendoodle called Nanook, which means ‘king of the polar bears’ because he looks like a giant polar bear. This is a really fantastic question and when you asked it, for me, the answer just jumped out immediately. I think we can all learn to have an absolutely ravenous appetite for life and just an enjoyment of it.
If I think about the reaction I get when I come through the door after being in the office all day, and the greeting I get from Nanook – the happiness and joy he has and he gets that every day; and whether he is going for a walk or greeting me, just that sense of happiness and insatiable enthusiasm for life is something I think we can all we can all try and learn from.
I'm not saying we should all start jumping on the sofa and running around in circles, but whatever it is that gives you that joy in life, I think everyone should lean into that and really practise gratitude, find ways to celebrate, and feel the enjoyment of life. This is super important.
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