Business is about giving everyone a share in the future

Why Alistair Schoonmaker gave all staff a share in his business via the Enterprise Management Initiative
Alistair Schoonmaker
Real Madrid shirt

Winning as a team just hits different. Be it a big new piece of business, an award or the Monday night pub quiz - doing it as a collective makes victory even sweeter. And losing more bearable.

We saw that in the recent Champions’ League quarter final tie. Real Madrid beat Manchester City on penalties and it was a match full of tension and intrigue. Antionio Rudiger scored the winning penalty but watching the squad celebrate in front of their supporters showed it was a true team effort. The talk afterwards was of the team collective. The sacrifices they made as a team. What it meant to them as a team.

I’ve always felt that the ad industry is effectively a team sport - experiencing the highs and lows together. So why not take that further?

A share of the score

The agency I co-founded, Ultra Brand Studio, strives to avoid sameness. But to do that, we need the right people on board and to work with the right clients. Sure, the work we do is exciting, and we give our people the tools and autonomy to be as creative as possible. But we’ve also got to be realistic and actually go beyond the usual corporate rhetoric. As the saying goes - money talks.

So to bring our team on the journey we decided to give everyone a share in our business. Actual monetary shares. By doing this, we have been able to attract the best talent who understand our collective goals and help them plan and shape their lives. Most importantly, give them a feeling of being part of a team where success is shared, where creativity is rewarded and the guys at the top aren’t just piggybacking off the success of others.

This approach has always been fundamental to Ultra. Back in 2020, we were new to the world and wanted  to offer something unique for talented people in the industry. How do you do that and give them a reason to be invested in what they’re doing? We decided to do something rare in ad agency land - we introduced an employee share scheme.

So what does that look like?

The enterprise management incentive (EMI) is usually reserved for businesses whereby you have talent but you can’t pay the mega CEO/CTO rates. You give staff part of the business in return for taking less than the market value on your salary. This scheme isn’t unique as a financial vehicle (they’re popular amongst tech start-ups) but it’s a bit unusual to be deployed in an agency setting. Typically agencies are founded by partners and that’s where all of the shares sit.

How does it work at Ultra? Again we chose to be different and do a non-exit only scheme and for any staff who have stayed with us for two years, they receive share options that start vesting until they become fully invested by five years. Crucially, we don’t demand that people pay for shares when they join.

Protecting our people’s future

I have this genuine desire to feel like we’re all in the same boat, pulling the same way. It’s deeper than a culture where everyone gets along. We want to take it a step further and ensure people feel they are building something, and having a stake in the future of Ultra. If people commit their time  with us then they will feel the wins and losses as we would as founders.

This began as a way to get good people into the business. When I meet someone new I want to know what motivates them because there is only so much a boss can motivate you to push yourself and do great work. When you’re putting in the long hours, you might ask ‘why am I doing this’? At Ultra, I want people to answer that question with ‘because I’m building something’. And there are few better ways to motivate people than by giving them a stake in what they’re building. 

As an older member of this industry, I feel like there needs to be a duty of care to the younger generation. There is pressure everywhere on Gen Z right now with the cost of living crisis. It will be the first generation in decades that will have less financial power than the generation before them. We need to find a counterpunch to that. We are a smaller business than the tech giants and megacorps, but we can affect a few people’s lives - to provide younger people a financial foundation. If it means someone can put down a deposit on a house, or have the safety net to start a family, then I’ll be delighted.

Our approach flies in the face of how agencies are set up from a shareholder perspective. But I’d much rather celebrate success with other people. We are a team - we win and lose together. We don’t have a fixed path in where we take the business but at Ultra, we want to make sure that the people who have helped grow it can have a stake in the future.

Written by
Alistair Schoonmaker
Written by
April 19, 2024