An interview with WDA’s Lee Waterhouse…

Last week, business growth specialist Benjamin Brain interviewed Managing Director and founder of WDA on his automotive marketing agency growth, philosophies and experiences.

You can read all about Lee’s beginnings, the advice he’d give his younger self and how he stays motivated below. 


So, you have the two brand and marketing agencies, WDA Automotive Marketing Agency and WDA Branding, what’s the reason for both?

Well we were originally focused exclusively on the automotive industry. But, when the recession hit, this sector in particular took quite a tumble so I decided to diversify and look at the industries that weren’t so affected by the downturn, such as the legal sector. We managed to secure work on behalf of quite a few highly regarded businesses and it just really snowballed from there.

The success of the newer WDA Branding meant that even when the automotive marketing agency side started to pick up again, we thought why not just keep it going and we’ve been running the two side by side since.

And what was the reason for specialising in the automotive industry to begin with?

I believe that in business you have to care about what you do and have a passion for it. When I was a kid, I raced Motocross, Enduro and Trials at National level. My family also has a background in motorsport so it’s something that I’ve always been driven by and have been passionate about.

Before WDA, I was working at a multi D&AD award winning agency which specialised in the finance sector. I recognised how they had grown by focusing on one particular sector and thought why not become a specialist in the area that I’m most interested in, and so WDA Automotive Marketing Agency was born!

We know that starting a business is a big risk and a huge decision to make. At what point in your career did you realise that it was something you had to do?

Well, the large agency that I was a part of was bought out and I got hired by a much smaller agency. It was a great agency but it was way out of town and the work I was doing just wasn’t as fulfilling as my previous role and I only ever really saw that as a stop gap because I just couldn’t see a future for myself there.

The opportunity came when a good friend had left his own successful marketing agency to head up his fathers motorcycle distribution business (which is still operating to this day). As we both had a passion for the Automotive sector and were both designers ‘by trade’, we decided to join forces. As part of the deal I formed my own independent business and was appointed as exclusive automotive marketing agency looking after brands such as AGV Helmets, Spidi and Wolf. It was as simple as that really.

And at what point did you really think to yourself your new agency could become a success?

In the first year of my business I was very focused on sticking to the plan that I had created and being extremely careful in controlling costs.

So, whilst my projections may have been low, to actually hit them at the end of my first twelve months was a real achievement and that’s when I knew that this was the path for me. I’d set a challenge and proven myself right which gave me all the confidence I needed to continue.

I think a lot of people reading are going to relate to that. So in your illustrious business career so far what would you describe as your biggest success to date? 

One that really stands out for me is when we pitched to RBS. At the time, RBS were looking to switch agencies for their automotive insurance brands, Devitt And Churchill. Luckily for us, we went in and met a team who were very experienced in the world of finance but who didn’t know a lot about the automotive sector.

We pretty much blew them away with our automotive wisdom and the concepts we had created – and walked out that day with the account. It was a brilliant feeling and to know that the little guys had gone up against the big boys and won!

It sounds like a fantastic moment, but now I’d like to flip that on its head.

We hear a lot about business successes without hearing much about the times when it doesn’t go so well – which I feel is just as important. We won’t dwell on it but can you pinpoint a time when things didn’t quite go to plan and how you overcame it? 

To be honest Ben, there isn’t one in particular that stands out. However, for me personally I feel that each day in business is a rollercoaster of ups and downs.

For example, today alone we won a fantastic account which put me on a real high – twenty years on, I still get the same buzz. The way that I see it is that when something not so great happens, you just have to keep going and wait for the pendulum to swing back the other way, because it nearly always does.

If you could travel back in time and meet the Lee of 1997 who is just about to jump into launching WDA Automotive, what’s the one piece of advice you would give him?

My advice is particularly relevant to service and consultancy based industries is – to charge for value. If you can’t charge for value, charge for expertise. But never charge for time.

So I’m interested Lee, with all the ups and downs, highs and lows of business how do you stay motivated? 

I have a unique condition called the “This time next year we’ll be millionaires Rodney” syndrome. Joking aside, I have a deep inner belief that I will at some point make it “big”. I hold on to the fact that for the very few major successes in history, they got there later on in life. For example, President Lincoln took office when he was 56. If I’m not where I want to be by the time I’m 56 then I’ll switch my focus to someone like Colonel Sanders who famously found his success much later on in life and didn’t reach a billion until he was 88!

My own belief is that providing I’m still fit, able, healthy – I’ll keep driving forwards because I enjoy what I do and I have no intention of retiring. Ultimately, I can’t comprehend reaching my deathbed knowing that I have not been able to achieve all that I am capable of and that is a great motivator for me.

And when you maybe need an extra shot of motivation as we all do from time to time, who do you look to for inspiration?

I actually have a long list of people on my phone that I reflect on when I need some inspiration. You may well be on the list Ben! These people are mainly just people that I like to associate with because of their positive attitude and values. I always tell my sons that the most important thing in success is attitude.

Having said that, I can sometimes be guilty myself of slipping into a bit of a negative mindset which I’m very conscious of and thankfully can quickly snap out of.

I’m a very big believer that one major attribute extremely successful people have in common is a very natural, positive energy and outlook on life. In situations that most people would view as negative, they have an almost effortless capability to see the positive in these same events and take a completely different viewpoint.

If you could recommend one video, book, resource, software, tool or application, what would it be and why?

This would be “Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey. Some might say that given the length of time it’s been around, it might be a bit outdated but I personally think that the concepts are timeless. It gives you a framework not just to overcome business challenges, but any challenge that you come across in life.

You can apply that framework to absolutely anything whether it’s business, family or socially… by analysing the problem, re-framing it and taking a different perspective, I can feel positive about the situation very quickly.

So Lee, do you consider yourself successful?

No and I don’t think I ever will because I’m always striving to reach that next level.

How do you define “success”?

It depends in what context. For some it’s material possessions – houses, cars, watches etc. The problem is, the feeling you get when you acquire these things only lasts for a very short amount of time and then your focus is back on what’s next.

I would be surprised if anyone in business truly thinks themselves as “successful” unless they’re absolutely driven like crazy to get there and have amassed huge wealth by adopting a lifestyle that very few people would be prepared to. I think success is probably a label people put on others, for me career success is about being considered the best in your field by the people that matter (mainly the clients!).

So for those that are looking for the shortcut to becoming successful, what would you say?

It may sound oversimplified at first but when you think about it, there’s really only three steps that you need to take. The first is knowing where you want to be. Without that first ingredient, it’s like getting into a car and just driving with no destination. If you don’t know where you’re going, how are you supposed to work out how to get there?

The second part is calculating the price. And by that, I don’t mean price just in a monetary sense but look at what you’re going to have to sacrifice to get there – because you will have to make a lot of painful sacrifices be it financial, physical, social, emotional etc. and not everybody can do that.

For those that decide that they’re OK with that, the next stage is where it gets really hard and that is actually having to pay that price.

What is one philosophy you have adopted that you feel has affected you in a profound way?

A philosophy that I live by is that you reap what you sow, to an almost exact equilibrium. Yes, you might have some bad luck along the way so there’s peaks and troughs but I truly believe that a person’s current situation in all aspects of their life is a direct result of their combined efforts thus far.

The real question is, are you prepared to put in what is required to become a real success? Because it very rarely happens over night, it can take a lifetime of dedication.

Wow! That’s a powerful question and one that should be considered very carefully by anyone who’s about to go it on their own.

If you’re wondering how WDA Automotive Marketing Agency can help your business, just drop Anna an email here.

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