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Success Case Study: Run Jump Fly

Jo-Lilford
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I’m Jo (Aaron) Lilford and I run Run Jump Fly, a strategic brand communications consultancy. I get described as being like ‘the Hotel Inspector for brands and communications’. So I look at positioning and strategy, rather than what your logo should look like. My clients range from passionate one-man-band start-ups to big global organisations and include creative agencies, corporates and charities. I work with organisations all over the world who have an opportunity to tell their brand story in a better way. 

Did you have a ‘day job’ prior to this? If so, what was it?

Yes. For more than 20 years I worked as a director/head of communications and marketing for brands including Getty Images, The Association of National Park Authorities, Principality and Atradius. 

What is the worst job you’ve ever had? 

A long hot summer spent behind the counter in a caravan site shop in Manorbier, Wales, where a boy with a broken leg used to come in and shove packets of Polos down his plaster cast when he thought I wasn’t looking. I remember listening to Boris Becker winning Wimbledon on the radio and watching this boy poke a pack of the fruity ones down his leg. Do they still make fruity Polos?

Other than that, my first brief foray into the not-for-profit sector was the worst job I’ve ever had.

By this time, I’d already been corporate marketing and communications director of Getty Images in Seattle, with a global team, working routinely in 4 languages. I thought the world of work was like that. Young, pacy, exciting, forward-thinking.

I returned to the UK and I suddenly found myself in a British male-dominated environment where the general assumption was that I was attending any given meeting to make the tea. I lasted 14 months before getting headhunted. 

To be fair, I make a fine brew.

tea run jump fly

What gave you the idea of setting up on your own? 

Three main drivers, I guess:

  – I found I could see ways to effect strong positive change inside organisations I worked for, but I was simply unable to implement them due to internal politics – it’s probably fair to say I’m not terrific with authority. Ask my Mum.

  – Working for people who truthfully weren’t up to the job, but were determined to ‘keep me in my place’ because they didn’t want to be shown up by me. It eats away at the soul, bit by bit. 

– I wanted to live in Wales but I’d been away for 15+ years and had returned to a nation with no apparent use for my skillset. The strategic, senior international roles I’d been in simply don’t (or didn’t) exist here. No-one cared about my international experience at the cutting edge of a global tech brand. They cared that I didn’t speak Welsh. 

How did you manage to achieve it? 

I’m the sole family breadwinner so there was always some pressure on. I had two kids under ten. But suddenly realising that there was enough in the savings pot to keep my family financially safe for a year delivered that ‘now or never’ feeling. I gave myself 12 months to get something going with Run Jump Fly, with the intention of going back to a ‘day job’ if it didn’t work out. 

I took on on anything I could get. I pushed myself a little further out of my comfort zone with each project I took on. I made a ton of idiotic mistakes – unequivocally the best way to learn and excellent material for the sitcom I plan to write one day. Things snowballed fast. It worked out. 

How confident were you that it was going to work? 

Good question.

Lady Luck was smiling on me as I skipped out of my day job with a lovely one year retainer in my pocket from my employer. The bastards reneged on it after 3 months. But it was a handy buffer for a little while and great for my confidence at least to begin with. Then I got asked to speak at a couple of business conferences and suddenly it all began to happen. There are always dark moments when you wonder what the hell you’re doing, it’s certainly not the easiest path to choose. But the positives far outstrip the negatives, for me at least. 

There are always dark moments when you wonder what the hell you’re doing, it’s certainly not the easiest path to choose. But the positives far outstrip the negatives, for me at least. 

Jo aaron Lilford, RUN JUMP FLY

What has been/what is your biggest challenge at Run Jump Fly? 

Imposter syndrome. Even now, the biggest daily battle I have is with myself. I never feel good enough at what I do. Then lovely things happen and faith is restored: two years ago I led the brand strategy for one of the world’s largest NGO’s. They have 65,000 people working across the developing world. They’ve just been in touch to tell me how much the work I did has transformed the way they think and talk about themselves and they’ve hired me again for the next stage. That’s when it all feels really worth it, the biggest buzz of all.

Then the other biggie that faces all self-employed people: looking after myself. Never underestimate the power of the to-do list that never ends. As a self-employed person, it can be very hard to leave the desk and you never truly switch off. But it’s absolutely vital.

(You can view my post about beating Imposter Syndrome here)

What have you learnt along the way?

  – Don’t undervalue your experience

 – Trust your gut

 – Everyone’s winging it – you won’t know if you don’t try.

I met a creative agency I really wanted to work with, quite early on with Run Jump Fly. When I told them my day rate it was met with derision: ‘You’re having a bloody laugh, there are people around here who’ll do it for less than half that!’ They were right, there are. But it depends upon what they want to achieve. They couldn’t see my worth to them. I’m not a regular copywriter, I have 25 years’ experience working strategically at a senior level inside global corporates. I’m not for everyone – and that’s fine.

As a self-employed person, it’s critical to realise that this says more about them than it does about you.

JO AARON LILFORD, Run jump fly

As a self-employed person, it’s critical to realise that this says more about them than it does about you. If a client doesn’t feel right for you, it’s because they aren’t. Walk away and have faith that there will always be other, better clients for you, because there will. I turn work away continually because I have more than I need or want.  

What has been your biggest achievement with your brand?

Well, winning the ‘Special Mention’ in the 26 Emerging Writer of the Year Awards in London last year is up there. That was against some super talented writers of all kinds, from all over the UK. My submission for Run Jump Fly was focused on my ‘thing’: making language work harder for businesses in order to tell their story in a more distinctive way. I was staggered to come away with that.

26 writers run jump fly

But the biggest achievement is also the most humbling compliment I could ever hope for: my clients stick around. They come back. Again and again and again. Some of them are people I’ve worked with for half my life now. Word of mouth has played a major part in Run Jump Fly’s success and I’m grateful every single day to people who share my details when they don’t even have to.

What has worked well for you?

I’m a no bullshit kind of character. Being straight up with clients and refusing to play any games: but not burning any bridges. There is a nice way to do even the toughest of things, it costs nothing to be kind. And I always make it a principle at Run Jump Fly to do a little more than expected. To offer to help with peripheral things where I can make a positive difference even if they’re outside the brief. A little free thinking can add a lot of value for your client.

The biggest achievement is also the most humbling compliment I could ever hope for: my clients stick around. They come back. Again and again and again.

jo aaron lilfield, run jump fly

What has not worked well for you?

Taking on work I wasn’t 100% convinced was for me and trying to shoehorn myself into it. In the world I operate in, the devil is in the detail. Strategy is a strange beast and not everyone gets it. Last year I won a lucrative retained contract but once inside the organisation I realised that I would never get them to understand that chucking money at glossier, flashier marketing plans was never going to work out without solid foundations in place. They went on to hire a tactical DM agency that did the same thing they did already. 

Then there was a brief period spent trying to be my own accountant. That was bloody hilarious. For the love of God, hire someone who knows what they are doing, it’ll save you thousands. Stick with what you’re best at.

Are you making more money than you did in your day job?

Quite honestly, it’s hard to tell really, with the accountancy lasers and mirrors and jiggery pokery because you lose some of the perks you might get in gainful employment…but you gain in other ways, like being able to run certain costs through your business. I’m definitely not worse off, put it that way. Though my office chair was rescued from a skip on a local trading estate.

Visit Jo’s website here

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