Peter Grech is one of those people who just seems to be good at everything he puts his mind to. Leading a business. Performing in a band. Running marathons (that’s an understatement). Raising a family. Regardless of the topic at hand, Peter always comes to it with an ease and unaffectedness that makes him a pleasure to chat to and a radical to look up to.
It’s no surprise then, that Peter plays the role of visionary at the branding agency he set up in 2006 with co- Founder Kris Vella Petroni, BRND WGN. The duo was later joined by two other partners, Chris Knights and Gareth Sciberras.
Peter describes himself as ‘the guy who collects data and sets the course’, adding that he loves empowering and enabling the vision he and his team come up with so that it can ‘become something’. “‘Dream it, make it, create it, and make it happen’ is the ethos we live by,” he says of his 28-strong team. But Peter didn’t always know he was going to run a business, although he has been walking the path towards a creative career for some time.
When he was 13, he was part of a four-person team that published a supplement in The Malta Independent newspaper, called Teen Talk. “We wanted to give teens a voice,” he recalls with a smile. “It may have been a little project at the time, but it started my love affair with advertising. I saw it as an opportunity to get a message out there and found myself fascinated by the arts, design and communication. I remember considering three career paths: architect, journalist, or advertising executive.”
“The three are still pertinent as I do think I will write a book one day, and I would also love to go back to university to study architecture. As for the interim, advertising and branding it is!” One thing led to another and Peter moved from job to job in the advertising sector, starting at a magazine and then joining an agency. “I was the youngest kid in town and they made me cut my hair for that job,” he laughs.
With both agency and corporate experience behind him, Peter realised he wasn’t keen on working on ‘just one brand’ and left a job in the drinks sector to start a network of creative freelancers, which he really enjoyed for a while. That’s when BRND WGN came to be.
“It was probably the first proper branding agency on the island,” he says. “I originally got into it because no one else was doing it, and the industry needed to be fixed. Brands were crying out for guidance and I knew I could bring the right people together to help. “Back then there were just six of us, although things grew quickly. There were 42 of us when we were at our largest. Now there’s 28, and that feels right for now.”
Peter says he and his fellow directors built BRND WGN on a foundation of three main principles: challenge everything, be brutally honest, and have fun. “Everything comes back to that,” he continues. “Leadership is all about setting a vision and making it actionable with the right people. I wouldn’t say I am a great leader; I know I am a good leader for the company at the moment, but I might not be in the future. Leadership is about inspiration. If it can inspire people to be better and to fulfil their purpose, then that’s a job well done. It’s not about fame or ego; that’s irrelevant.”
Last year was on track to be a big one for the company. In 2015, the team sat down to draw up a vision for 2020, and it has since been the year they were working towards.
“That vision was very important to us as it got us out of the weeds and changed us as an organisation. We worked on so many things – like making sure we could all work remotely while supporting our employees at the various stages of their lives (such as while studying or raising a family), and we were crafting a space known as the Creative Campus to invest in new ways of thinking. We planned to earn more and pay more, while also investing in new business ideas we believed in.”
So, when 2020 did come to pass and the pandemic hit, Peter admits the company was shocked to the core. “The good news is that we had achieved some of the things on our list a while ago. But we had also made investments along the way that we believed would pay off in 2020, and of course they didn’t.”
While the BRND WGN team did anticipate an economic downturn of some description, nothing could have prepared them for what was to come. “I’ll never forget 9 March 2020, when we brought the whole team together to assess how best to support our staff and clients through what was to come. Some clients thought we were making a fuss, but we realised then that challenges were on the horizon and we had to hit back head on, so we did.”
One of Peter’s only regrets of the period is that the company did have to let some of its newest recruits go. “Pre-2020 I was always adamant that we would never make anyone redundant,” he says. “And I’ll never forgive the fact that we had to, but I can justify that action. We helped to find them new jobs and have remained close to them, but I still feel bad about it. The sad truth is that no one could have seen this coming.”
Meanwhile, BRND WGN’s leadership team met to tackle the challenge head-on, slashing what they could in terms of budget and pulling back in anticipation of what was to come. “We set up a daily leadership call, and that lives on today,” he says. “It’s been so good at bringing us together and helping us to monitor the highs and lows, and react to everything as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, the CEO says he stayed ‘sane’ by running and training every day, something he has long been passionate about. “My wife Gabby and family were fantastic as everything developed, and so patient. Like in so many households, Gabby became headmaster while I was head of tech, and we pulled together to home-school our three children. My training time made all the difference as I was able to get outside our four walls and think; plus I got to see Malta like never before, with no cars on the road and far less pollution. That opportunity definitely led to better leadership.”
Now Peter and the company are putting 2020 behind them and reflecting on the new opportunities it has created. “They’re huge,” the CEO says. “We’ve never been closer to our clients and have been able to support them in so many ways. Plus, we were able to pivot and become so much more agile than we were, which helped us.”
“The world has changed and, for those ready to embrace that change, the future is extremely bright. The fact we are now remote-first means we can work with anyone and hire from anywhere, and that’s so exciting. Already we are working for clients across the globe, from the US to Australia and it’s fantastic.”
Peter also says the end of 2020 wrapped up the agency’s ‘big reset’ and the leadership team are now focused on what really matters – clients they want to work for and projects they know they can take to the next level. “I love the fact that 2020 has shown us what really matters. I for one am never going to forget the lessons I have learnt,” he concludes.
This interview is part of a serialisation of 50 interviews carried out with Malta’s top CEOs, featured in the bumper edition of MaltaCEOs 2021 publication, which was recently released. Despite the many challenges of 2020, this is the largest edition to date.
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