Why it's best to be a partnership
With John Lewis Partnership considering diluting its partnership model, the chief executive of The&Partnership argues it is still the best way to achieve successful growth
28 March 2023
The John Lewis Partnership has exalted status in our advertising circles, where its annual heartwarmers have become the benchmark by which all Christmas commercials are judged. But of course it’s not just on TV that John Lewis excels. For as long as I can remember, the brand has been a byword for superior customer service, its partnership model credited with incentivising thoughtful, knowledgeable behaviour from its loyal workforce.
Now JLP’s Chairperson, Dame Sharon White, is reported to be thinking the unthinkable, namely reducing the share of the business owned by its employees, or ‘Partners’, to open up new possibilities for investment. It may be exactly what the business needs - when you’re closing stores and cancelling Partner bonuses, you have to be radical - and arguably it’s JLP’s failure to reinvent over the last few years that has left this venerated retailer looking increasingly precarious. Nevertheless, its partnership culture is so precious, so intrinsic to its proposition, it will be the last thing they want to dilute.
I won’t presume to advise Dame Sharon on her business strategy. I would, however, urge the rest of the world not to give up on ‘partnership’ as a model for successful business growth. Our agency is called The&Partnership for a reason. Back in 2001, our three founding partners, Johnny, Simon and Charles, decided their partnership wouldn’t be a closed shop, but a Partner group that would grow with the business. The model isn’t identical to JLP’s - today our 1500+ people are led by 45 Partners across the globe, and we already have a major outside Partner in WPP - but I’d still argue that every one of us benefits from our Partnership approach.
Why? Because Partnership breeds loyalty. I feel emotional, as well as financial, ownership of this business and I know my fellow Partners do too. That’s why I’m still here, some twenty years after I started at the agency, and my long tenure at T&P is by no means unusual. This translates to client loyalty - Argos, British Gas, NatWest, NewsUK, Toyota, to name a few - many have been here almost as long as I have. Clients know we’re in it for the long haul, that our success is their success, and they reward our commitment with relationships that are uncharacteristically resilient in the context of our industry.
Partnership drives creativity too. We take great care to ensure that a lasting leadership team and stable client relationships don’t breed complacency, but instead instil confidence and enable creative risk-taking. Partners are encouraged to think like entrepreneurs, seeking out opportunities, chasing fresh talent, embracing new tech, and pushing the boundaries of where our work can take us.
And Partnership means we can plan. Make strategic choices that are in the best interests of our people, clients and business. Those choices can be easy - dialling up the pro bono work that gives us all a heightened sense of job satisfaction. Or they can be tough - making the salary sacrifices our Partners led during the 2008 crash and then the pandemic, to prevent wider redundancies in both instances. Many choices require real long-term investment - building mSix, our own media agency; pioneering bespoke integrated teams, often embedded in our clients’ offices; creating a new commerce practice to complete the circle of marketing performance. But because we’re a Partnership we can think long-term - none of these choices are dictated by the next quarter’s business results.
I don’t know why more agencies haven't pursued a Partnership model. It’s pretty ubiquitous in professional services, but our founder-inspired agencies tend to be gobbled up by bigger marketing holding groups, sometimes followed by a struggle to maintain momentum and culture. That T&P has managed to sustain our growth consistently across two decades may be down to luck as much as good judgement, but if there’s any secret to our success, it’s that so many of us are proud to call ourselves Partners.
Sarah Golding is chief executive of The&Partnership