Reflecting on 30 Years in the Business

A lot can happen in 30 years, especially in an industry like ours, with constant change and development. Stefan Lepkowski, Managing Director of Karol Marketing, takes us on a journey that stretches back to 1992, as he answers questions about his experience over the past 3 decades. From proud moments to valuable lessons learnt, you’ll get a sense of the true essence of Karol Marketing.

How did you start Karol Marketing?
Somehow, I always knew that I’d work for myself, in some shape or form. I had been working at my job for 6 or 7 years and I knew that I wanted to move on from it and take a chance on myself, so I made the decision to leave. I started working from my bedroom at home, and my first client was one of my flatmates who ran a car alarm and car hi-fi company. After 6 months, I got a phone call out of the blue from Reebok, who said that they’d heard good things about me and invited me to meet with them. I went to Lancaster, which is where their head offices were, and came out of that meeting with an agreement to look after the PR for their outdoor division. So, I got a contract with Reebok and that was the start of everything.

What is the story behind the name ‘Karol Marketing’?
I have ancestry that is Polish in origin, my mother was English and my father was Polish, and Karol is my middle name. The reason I chose it was not because I liked it, but because I didn’t have any spare money to invest in researching great names for the business. I had grown up being incredibly embarrassed by this name, because everyone said that it was a girl’s name, and I would say that it wasn’t and means Charles in Polish. But I thought that no one else would have registered that name, so I would be in safe territory and not be stepping on anyone’s toes.
Because I’d been qualified in marketing but working in PR, I wanted to make sure that everybody knew that I could offer full-service marketing support. So, that’s how Karol Marketing came to be.

It developed brand equity quickly and I was told it was a memorable name, so that’s why I ended up not changing it. It’s ironic, when brands come to us now wanting to form a new business and need a new name, we spend a long time researching and developing ideas – I did none of that. I just picked a name that I thought nobody else had and that was it.

At what point did you feel like you had established yourself/“made it”?
I’ve never felt that I have established myself or “made it” because you don’t have to look very far to see people who are much more successful than I’ve been. But if there are milestones that I’m proud of, it would be the moment I hired my first employee, that was a moment where I thought I’m adding value to society in a small way. When we won an award was another big thing for me, it was a recognition that we were doing really good work. So, those are some achievements I’m proud of and we’re still carrying on 30 years later, but I don’t like to indulge in self-congratulations.

Carrying on from that, what else have you been proud of over the years?
I have many reasons to be proud of all sorts of things, and probably the thing I’m most proud of (and I’ve had quite a few goes at this) is building a good, well-rounded team, who are better at doing the job than I am. I’ve had a knack for spotting great talent, and I feel like, right now, I have a really good team.

What makes up a good team for you/what do you look for in your team?
I’ve never been a CV person; I think it’s more about the person behind the paper and their personality. People with positive energy, who aren’t afraid to work hard and take risks, who are hungry to learn, imaginative, set sparks off and challenge me – the rest can be learnt. I like people who are ambitious for themselves and their colleagues. I’ve deliberately recruited a mix of diverse talents and I’m not a great fan of trying to wedge people into a defined job description, so although we have titles and there’s a need to characterise roughly what someone’s role might be, I think the real opportunity comes when you can assess the skillset and talent of an individual and create the job around them rather than trying to make them fit the job.

What is a challenge you have faced and how did you overcome it?
There was a time when I was distracted by other things, and I was spending time on them for a while. When I started focusing on the business fully again, I realised that things had slipped. I found it hard to prioritise. The process of building a business seemed simple – it’s incremental, and it’s a bit like climbing a ladder. But when things start going wrong, it can be difficult. So, in this situation, I started to engage with mentors to help me get a fresh perspective and get back on track. Another thing I learnt was the need to trust people more, and I’ve found that in trusting people I got more out of them, and the business took on a life of its own.

What is a valuable lesson you’ve learnt since starting?
It’s fair to say, my whole life has been full of learning lessons. There’s one time that comes to mind that changed my perspective drastically, which unequivocally was when my little boy, who was 3 years old at the time, was in an accident. That day changed my outlook; I’d always been working, looking to the future thinking that the good days would come ahead, and chasing an undefined goal, but after that incident, and other personal circumstances such as my past diagnosis of prostate cancer, I suddenly realised that nothing else mattered and that’s changed me a lot.

When I look at my team now, I think of them and their families as people ahead of anything we do in the business. In the past I didn’t always think like this, I thought that personal matters should be left at the door when coming to work, but now I think that if it’s coming to work with them, they need support and a friendly face.

How has the industry changed over the last 30 years in the business?
Unrecognisable. The first thing to say is that the principles of marketing, good communication and consumer behaviour, that I studied are all true even now 30 years down the line. It also still pays to be different, the need to stand out from the crowd and communicate points of difference in a fresh and innovative way has underpinned everything we do, as it has in the past and will continue to do in future. However, the tools for doing it have changed dramatically, newspapers were once thick and hefty but now they’re wafer thin. In the past social media didn’t exist and now it’s well-structured with lots of different platforms and audiences, and it’s become very important.

How have you learnt to adapt to this change?
Mainly by being open-minded. Recognising that there’s a need for change is the first step, and then not trying to be that expert myself is the second step. Then building a team with strengths and skills in the different specialities that we need.

What are some things you learned about yourself during this journey over the last 30 years?
I’ve learnt that I can be unstructured at times. In some senses, when I’m focused on something I’m very committed – I take action and get it done. But I can get easily distracted, by a more exciting or urgent task, which can put me off track if I’m not careful. I surround myself with people who are great at what they do and they help me stay focused as well.

Where do you see the business/hope it goes in the next 30 years?
I’m not really thinking about the next 30 years, I’m thinking more 5 years. My ambition is to be a modest size agency, surrounded by a network of extremally good freelance specialists, and known for being exceptional. I want to work with people and clients who share the same values and I want to be appreciated for more than just the quality of what we do, but also for who we are. My father said to me once, the key to being successful is to employ people who are better than you. We’re a great team and I want them to experience the joys I’ve had in the business and take it on to even greater things.