Carl Hopkins started out in the world of marketing in 1984 as a junior designer. In fact, it’s partly thanks to an economic downturn similar to the one we’re witnessing now that Carl got his big break at that agency. He’s well known in Manchester as the straight talking ‘Uncle Carl’ and was watched by millions as he went undercover taking on the role of community warden for Channel 4’s The Secret Millionaire. Carl Hopkins is the first person to admit he is just an ordinary guy. So how did he go from ‘notorious council estate’ kid to Channel 4′s Secret Millionaire? WorkLife speaks with Carl to find out…
What did you want to be as a child?
I realised the thing I enjoyed and could do quite well at a young age was draw, so at seven years old, I decided I wanted to be an artist.
What was your first job?
I am not going to do the ‘rags to riches’ story but there were six of us in a council house and we didn’t have a lot of cash. So if you wanted anything extra, you had to go out and find the money yourself. As a result, when I was about eight years old, I tried to charge kids to come and watch me do magic tricks in the garden, 5p a time – that didn’t last long. Then, when I was about thirteen I used to paint logos of Adam and the Ants and punk bands onto cloth and sell them to kids in the school yard who sewed them into their jackets or their jeans – that was when I realised I could draw and paint a bit. Then, when I was fourteen I actually started working at a butcher’s, every night after school and then all day Saturday for £10. So, if you ever need anyone to make beef burgers or plait sausages I can do that!
It’s quite fashionable and sexy to go into the creative industries, certainly in Manchester, in fact there’s a whole part of the city dedicated with the Northern Quarter. Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the creative industries?
I didn’t even know there was such a thing as the creative industry…when I was thirteen to fifteen years old I realised there was a thing called design. I’d look at magazines or cars and think ‘hey, someone’s got to design this’. When I was fifteen I had a girlfriend and I remember walking into her house and there was a friend of the family over, who was much older than me, and she was drawing, so I went over and said ‘what are you doing?’ She said she went to Leeds College of Art and wanted to be a graphic designer. Now at my school, if you were too thick for anything else, you did art so I’d only ever drawn for myself and experienced art classes at school. So when I found out there was an art college I decided that’s where I wanted to go and I secretly worked towards that goal. Now, the art course I eventually joined was focused on design and advertising. I grew to quite like the idea of selling things so then my goal became getting my first job in advertising and marketing. I started to educate myself not about design but selling and that was all a stepping stone into my first job in marketing.
And what was your first role in marketing?
My first (and only) job sadly wasn’t the job I really wanted. I remember applying to a company called Elmwood (still going strong now) in Leeds. I was rejected with them saying ‘no – you’re not good enough’. – And I probably wasn’t.
Then my mother found a little advertisement in the evening paper which was advertising a shitty job. It was with a backstreet printers in Bradford; it wasn’t a great job and my tutors and my friends said I shouldn’t take it. I was on £40 a week, working six days a week and my first working day lasted 36 hours! I slept for about half an hour under my desk!
But the place I had joined was producing work for a lady called Judith Donovan (JDA). I thought that the work we were was simply adverts and leaflets but we were putting them into envelopes and that was the start of direct marketing. So as the direct marketing industry grew in the 80’s, so did Judith’s profile and therefore we, as her little four man agency, also grew. I eventually bought that business after 16 years. That was the only job I ever had and I was there for twenty-three years.
In terms of what you have achieved, here in Manchester, you are well known and well respected, we know you as ‘Uncle Carl’…you were one of the judges at the How-Do awards and there are other things which you have achieved which is an inspiration.
Well, I think one of things I’ve always known is how average I am. I knew I was a very average student. I was a very average guy at Art College. I managed to raise my game each time and do whatever I needed to do to get to that next goal, and it was about breaking my career and my journey down into small steps. I was an average creative-guy, and I realised that within about six months of starting work. In the first two years the business grew incredibly quickly and I looked around me and I didn’t see any old designers; the only old designers I knew were the ones at college who had taught me and I thought they were tw*ts! I did see lots of older freelancers though but I thought what a hard way to make a living, as a freelancer.
As the business grew so quickly, one day my manger came up to me and said: “Right Carl, you can either carry on doing the work or start managing the people that do the work?”. So, at 22, I started to manage other people and in the space of three years I’d gone from being an artist to being a designer, to being a salesman, to being a manager. And I became a ‘businessperson’. I guess, from that point I was always more interested in being in business than simply being in an agency. As ‘Uncle Carl’ in my agony column for creative businesses I answer issues that, in effect, any business faces – not simply creative businesses.
We’ve actually held a debate on that very subject – T-shirts and Suits – Do you think it’s changing? Do you think creative agencies are getting more business savvy and they are investing now in people and behaviours?
I draw a parallel to the property market. We can all think of ourselves as having been property developers over the last four or five years; if we bought houses and painted them and perhaps knocked down a wall, because property prices in general were inflated, we were all ‘look at me, I’m a developer, aren’t I clever’. But we’re not, because even if you’d have bought a house and done nothing, the prices would have risen anyway. I think a similar event has happened with the agencies over the last four or five years, especially in the digital sector. Anyone with an Apple Mac and a web programme thinks they’re an agency, and they might have done okay with a few clients under their belts, but this year will be the test. I’m not debating how good at design you are or how good at client servicing, but if you are not a good business, you will get found out this year. Just like all these people who think they’re property magnates are being found out now. Over the last few years the digital market has naturally risen and a lot of the players this year will get found out.
Many people know of you from The Secret Millionaire… What have you taken away from that experience and the people you met on the way?
I think the inspiring thing about the programme is not the people they ‘drop in’ like myself, but the recognition that people like Jimmy, Cyril and Scott who are getting up every day for no personal gain or reward to help others get. It should remind us all that those people are there and a lot of those people need help. They do not always need financial help; they may need time, resources or simply advice. It’s not always about ‘the money’. It now makes me more aware that there are people like that very close to us all if we take the time to look. After the experience on the programme I now spend more time with charities and schools than I ever did in the past. Now I’m not stupid, and I know that I am fortunate that I do have control of my own time so I am able to give that time freely. I spent two hours yesterday at a children’s hospice looking at ways to help them raise more money. I’ve recently been into schools talking to the kids, so hopefully they know they don’t have to be a victim of their environments. It’s made me more open to giving up my time to helping those kinds of people. Hopefully the programme will inspire others to do the same.
I’m sure a lot of people from Manchester will know you better as ‘Uncle Carl’ from your regular contribution to The Drum, however, the persona that came across on The Secret Millionaire and your new journey as a Social Entrepreneur with Jumble Aid, seems quite different to the straight talking agony uncle we know, which is the real Carl Hopkins?
I write the article for people who own agencies. When you are doing that job, what you want to say and what you can say, are usually two different things. Now I’m not tied to an agency anymore, all I do is write what those agency people are thinking but cannot say; I know this because that’s the feedback I get all the time. At the same time, perhaps my extreme point of view makes whoever is writing in think about the position of their boss, their supplier or their colleague. I have to exaggerate to add some humour but somewhere in there is a real answer.
When did you know you’d “made it”?
I don’t believe I’ve ever thought ‘I’ve made it’. I have maybe thought that I have been close, for example, I thought it was great in the 80’s when I was driving my company car, wearing my shiny suits with my brick of a mobile phone but I knew there was more to do. Becoming managing director and holding shares in the company, made me think ‘yeah, fantastic’ but it also made me realise that there was even more to do. I hadn’t ‘made it’ as I was still not in control of my working life because someone else owned the business. Then when I finally bought the business, I still wasn’t in control – I had banks, partners, venture capitalists and 48 members of staff. So in effect, I had 48 bosses because my job was to keep them in a job. Therefore you still don’t think you’ve ‘made it’, you just keep pushing on. When I eventually sold the agency I thought ‘it’s fantastic’ but at the same time I was sat at home thinking, ‘well I’m 42 years old, that can’t be the end of it, can it?’ And wondering what else I can do, and almost ignoring what I have done drives me on; I am just as mediocre and thinking I need to succeed keeps me going forward. I don’t believe I will ever think ‘I’ve made it’- they’ll bury me and on my headstone it will say: “What? But I’m not finished”.
What’s the biggest risk you have taken?
When I took my biggest personal financial risk, the one of buying my business, I was already massively in debt. I was a couple years out of a divorce so I was paying maintenance and had no equity and I’d also spent a load of money buying myself a new house; one I couldn’t afford. So I was in a knee deep hole of debt and it was then I decided to buy JDA. It didn’t strike me as ‘risk’ as I was already so far in that I thought I might as well get a bit deeper. I know I still needed to climb out, which I guess is where the risk was, but I think if you’ve got control over your situation you reduce your risk.
If, for example, I had given my money over to someone else to invest in a business then that would have been much more risky. I didn’t do that, in essence I was investing in ‘me’, and I believe in ‘me’, so at the time it didn’t feel like a risk, it felt more like taking control. I would add, however, that there is another sort of risk, not financial. My first marriage suffered because of the amount of work I did in my 20’s and my 30’s, all for someone else too. So you may risk relationships because you lose sight of what’s really important. I think people should bear that in mind.
I now create, and follow, opportunities and I try to do what I do really well; then there is a fantastic chance that I may make some money along the way. The big risk is that we can lose sight of the foundation that allows us to go and do just that (by foundation I mean your wife and your children, your family). Then you run a risk of losing that and I’ve lost all of that once and I don’t intend to do it again.
WorkLife magazine is an equal offering of workstyle and lifestyle. Have you found the balance between work and your personal life?
I think balance is an easy word to use but a hard one to create. Does anyone achieve it, really? I think those two things, work and life, have differing time priorities and we simply swap and change those priorities all the time. You might think ‘I’ll concentrate on business in the week and spend the weekend with my wife and kids’. We all do it. We are all guilty, at some point, of over-committing and disturbing that ‘balance’. I still over-commit all the time, even now. My wife asks ‘why do you do that?’ But it’s what drives you isn’t it? I do need to be more disciplined with myself but I like doing lots of new things and meeting new people, it’s so interesting.
As a successful businessman, do you still have to budget?
Yeah – all the time.
You know I’ve got money tied up on the stock market and as the market’s down on its arse, there’s nothing I can do about it so I think ‘let’s forget about it for now’. ‘Worry about the small problems and laugh at the big ones’ is not a bad mantra to have right now. I budget – I get uptight when someone tries to over-charge me; I’m delighted when I save a few quid or unexpectedly find a coin in a suit pocket!
I aim to manage my embryonic businesses on a micro level so I know they’ll take care of themselves on a macro level. I make sure that my income is greater than my outgoings on any of my ventures; either with shareholders or when I act as a ‘consultant’. Spending money is a hobby, making money is a business. I have to be concerned about my other shareholders and protecting their investment too so I sweat about the little numbers. It’s about being disciplined and concentrating on the small things really. So I do budget and yes, in tiny amounts, you just have to – but then maybe that’s the Yorkshire side of me!
How did you find leading the management buyout at JDA?
Back in 1992-1993, in the midst of a recession, I saw that business being managed by other people. I watched the management team and saw that the business was heading for a potential £50,000 loss. When I look backed at it, it seems the management had simply started to believe our own PR. We were massively over-staffed and not grown our client base or expanded into new sectors. Yet we did manage to turn that potential loss into a profit. So in effect, that was an early lesson for me; I simply learnt from their mistakes.
A similar event happened two or three years before I bought JDA. I saw the then owners try to sell the company. I believe they did it badly, basing the whole success of the business on their roles within the business. I thought when I build my business, I’m going to avoid that and when I come to sell it, I will hopefully have built a business that I can demonstrate doesn’t rely on me. That is why I was able to sell and walk away the same day. Watching and learning from other people’s mistakes is a lot cheaper, quicker and smarter than making your own.
What luxury would you never give up?
Ah this is really boring isn’t it…but I don’t have any ‘luxuries’. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs, I don’t gamble. I’ve had a couple of Porsches so I’ve got over that! I’m not really one for long holidays, I get itchy feet and need to do things and not sit around. I don’t ‘do retail’, in fact, I never even pay more than £10 for a pair of sunglasses because I’ll just lose them or sit on them! I would struggle to give up things like hot baths, listening to music, tea, sofa time with my wife – comfort things I guess, not ‘luxury’.
Would you ever be able to give up investing?
Yeah I think so.
It can be quite addictive though…
Yes it can. But I do it because I love other people’s passion for their own ideas and want to get involved to support them. I never get involved or invest into something I’ve not been ‘invited’ into. I do not want to have to push people – I want to have to keep up! As well as my own motivational speaking, business consultancy and agency recruitment company, I have two non-executive roles, three investment businesses and two more in the pipeline – all of which I was asked to get involved with by some great people.
The best piece of advice you were ever given…
‘Trust everybody once’ and ‘never invest more than the other guy’ – I like to know that they have more to lose than me – it keeps them focused.
What is your secret ambition?
Not particularly secret – I would like JumbleAID to raise millions of pounds for UK charities. I’d like JumbleAID to be so big that e-bay would have to buy it to help their brand positioning. I would also like my new book to be in the loo of every agency in the land! On a personal level, I can’t wait to be a dad again, and the ongoing desire to embarrass my fourteen year old son is a constant ambition of mine.
What’s next for Carl Hopkins..?
By the middle of the year, before the birth of my new son I would like to have started two more businesses. Also, I hope what comes next is that I see real growth in a gloomy economic climate for my other interests of
Joblink-Systems.com, Sporting-Supplements.co.uk and JumbleAID.com.
I also have a recruitment business called Agencybods.co.uk which I have big plans for that this year and I am looking to re-launch in February – a whole new model. Plus I have a book coming out called ‘The Gospel according to Uncle Carl’ which should be a giggle. I am now a ‘Make Your Mark’ global ambassador so hope to be speaking to more school children and future entrepreneurs.
And finally… (one word answers only allowed!)
The Entrepreneur: Nature or Nurture?
Is PR a load of b*llocks?!
Work or Life?
It can feel like life is work and we all have to work at life.
To find out more about Carl Hopkins and his business ventures visit:
To read the online version of the magazine visit http://www.nxtbook.com/nxteu/Rejuvenate/worklife2/