Home Articles & Features People of the North: Rob Gray, Co-Founder & Strategy Director at Squad

People of the North: Rob Gray, Co-Founder & Strategy Director at Squad

Rob Gray & David Barraclough

Manchester based Squad is a brand-building firm that specialises in position.Since 2008, Squad has worked with: Brother, Environment Agency, Eurocamp, Halewood International, Hansgrohe, Information Commissioner’s Office, JW Lees, ZSL London Zoo, Martin Moore, Office of Fair Trading, PZ Cussons, Sanger Institute, Tebay Services and Umbro.

The new beer range Squad designed for North West brewer JW Lees
The new beer range Squad designed for North West brewer JW Lees

Squad’s Co-founder and Managing/Strategy Partner, Rob Gray pursued an early interest in design until his art teacher made plain that he couldn’t draw. Fortunately, he found his way into planning with the international advertising agency TBWA\, which provided the opportunity to think creatively about business, without having to draw. He became the lead strategist on global brands and won two IPA Awards, before joining a breakaway strategic consultancy where he advised Royal Mail, Sage and Asda among others. In 2008 Rob became a co-founder of Squad. Rob writes frequently for the industry press and delivers keynote addresses, workshops and talks for a range of events.

How long have you been running Squad and what does your Squad do?

Squad is built on the belief that world-beating brands are the ones who orientate everything behind a strong position.Our way is born of a ruthless conviction in making the whole process creative, harnessing a fusion of bulletproof strategy and creative firepower from the get-go.We partner with leadership teams to find and bring to life positions that beat the odds.

I was a co-founder of the business in 2008 and have led the strategic function since then.

I work with our clients’ leadership teams to unearth and articulate potent positions for their organisations or brands. My early dalliance with design gives me a natural affinity with our creatives when bringing positions to life.

What or who was the inspiration for the business current path you are on?

Ever since David (my business partner) and I went into business together, the idea of fusing high-level strategy with creativity has been at our core. I believe strategists have as much capacity to be creative as anyone else. And David is a creative who champions what designers and writers can bring to the strategic process. This belief has always been at our core bu twhat’s evolved over the years has been the way we use these skills to impact our clients. Much of our work now is about using strategy and creativity to help clients build their brands and organisations around compelling positions.

One bit of advice you wish you’d been given before you started Squad?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb said: “The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.” Coming from employment, it takes time to adapt mentally to your salary being your responsibility rather than someone else’s. Success is not a straight line. There are ups and downs; twists and turns. The mental strength to deal with this is as important, if not more important, than any technical abilities you may or may not have.

The one most important thing you’ve learned during the experience of running your own business?

Nothing happens until you decide.

What do you see as your future business challenges?

Navigating change. I left my job in advertising the year the iPhone was invented and at a time when Facebook had 58 million monthly users. It now has 2.4 billion. When Squad was founded, Instagram was still two years away from being started. These changes, and many others like them, have had a huge impact on our industry. Both in the way brands communicate and what clients need from agencies. This pace of change isn’t going to slow and so we need to stay ahead of it.

What would you like to leave as your business legacy?

I’d like Squad to be a business that people look at with respect and admiration for pioneering a different approach. We’re focused on our belief that building strong organisations and brands starts with the position they adopt. And we’re passionate about the need to fuse strategy and creativity when finding positions and then bringing them to life. One day hopefully Squad will take on a life beyond me and David, so that the culture, philosophy and ideas we’ve championed will live on and be taken forward by others.

What do you consider to be your biggest business achievement so far?

I’m going to pick one of the most rewarding rather than the biggest because it demonstrates what creativity can achieve. Wythenshawe Amateurs are a charity and community football club. They have women’s teams, men’s teams and children’s teams.

The people that run it give up their time to do fantastic work for a community with lots of challenges. Some years ago, they approached us to help them win a competition run by Budweiser and the FA. They were competing against seven other clubs to win £100,000.

To win they needed to secure the most votes in a Facebook poll. Unfortunately they had no money. We positioned them as a homeless football club trying to build a home. We begged and borrowed to help them tell their story. It captured the hearts of the media. They gained huge amounts of coverage, won in a landslide and are now building a home.

When you are not running Squad, how do you do to relax?

I’m a big advocate of exercise. Not only does it keep you healthy and relaxed, but it helps you think. In our business ideas are our currency, so making time to think is vital. I used to play football but my knees gave up on me.After my ‘retirement’ I read a brilliant book called Chi Running. Its enabled me to get into hill running despite my knees. When I’m out in the hills around our home, that’s often where I have some of my most productive moments.

Your biggest achievement outside of business?

Myself and my wife have always wanted to build a house.In 2013, shortly after our first child was born, we got the chance. We’d found the perfect place, out in the hills on the edge of the Peak District. There was a bungalow on the site, but it was completely wrong for a family home. My Mum was horrified! It had the most amazing views though. And we had a vision for how it could be knocked down and transformed into a family house. It was inspired by Scandinavian design and architecture, which we both love – natural materials, simple interiors, lots of light. We had to move out for 6 months, and in the first week of construction I broke my arm playing football, so then couldn’t drive between the building site and the flat. Just surviving with my health, marriage and sanity reasonably intact was an achievement, but we also managed to create a wonderful home that now has two more children in it.

What would you be doing if you weren’t running your business?

Thinking about the next one.


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