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The deskless CEO

Rob Stokes’ leadership style ensures that his company will be around for a long time to come.

BY  Lesley Stones , 3 December 20120 comments

Rob Stokes, Quirk, says his company is run like a true democracy, with staff having a large say in decision-making.| photos: Karolina Komenderaphotos: Karolina KomenderaRob Stokes, Quirk, says his company is run like a true democracy, with staff having a large say in decision-making.

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If you ever apply for a job at digital marketing agency Quirk, you’d better be prepared to go through the most bizarre interview process imaginable.

It’s not aimed at finding out how good you are, but how likeable and team-oriented you are. Or as CEO Rob Stokes puts it: “I don’t care how brilliant you are, we don’t want you if you’re a jerk.”

Stokes is no doubt an unusual boss to work for, and he’s certainly brimming with the charisma needed to win ITWeb’s IT Personality of the Year 2012 award.

His tongue-in-cheek biography on Quirk’s website says he finds blissful enjoyment in late nights and hard work. He’s gregarious, inspired and dedicated to motivating and empowering people. He’s also a cricket fanatic who lounges around in tight white cricket shorts, the website says.

We don’t get around to discussing his cricket attire, but we discuss the past, present and future of Quirk and how its operations differ from more staid organisations.

Stokes is known as the Culture Captain because he sets the tone in how Quirk’s people interact with each other. In an industry that’s selling time and brainpower, the business with the best people wins. “It’s my job to attract and retain the best people, so we have a very rigorous recruitment process,” he says.

Quirk has eight or nine rounds of interviews, firstly with the junior staff, then with more senior staff. There are skills tests, and the Christmas party test, an informal session where at the end, the existing employees decide if there is enough rapport for them to happily sit next to the potential candidate at the Christmas party. “If one person says no, we don’t take it any further.”

Then there’s the ‘Axe Murderer’ interview to ensure the candidate doesn’t have a secret tendency to hack people into pieces, Stokes says. “It’s psychological profiling to test whether you are stable as a person and not a psychopath. Top-quality psychopaths will get through the normal tests because they are psychopaths and they know how to bend themselves.”

The gruelling recruitment process could be why Quirk finds itself short of skills, but Stokes won’t modify the picky approach.

“People spend eight to 12 hours a day here and I can’t expect them to work so hard if they have to work with idiots. We are not trying to grow a mono-culture. There is such a diversity of people here because it’s not about, ‘Is this person like me?’ It’s, ‘Do I like this person, do they have a good nature, are they keen and helpful and are they willing to be life-long learners?’, which is massively important for us.”

Itches to scratch

Few people survive the barrage of tests, but those who do feel right at home and as a result Quirk has the lowest staff turnover rate in the industry. “I also believe we have the best people in the industry and we invest millions each year in training and forcing them to learn.”

Quirk also appoints one graduate a month for 12 months of work experience that could lead to an internship, and typically gets 500 applicants for each post. The company recently whittled 500 applicants down to just three, and wasn’t convinced any of them were good enough.

Stokes himself holds a business science degree from the University of Cape Town and created Quirk in 1999. It’s grown to employ 300 people at offices in Cape Town, Johannesburg and London, developing marketing campaigns, platforms and apps for businesses and brands to reach consumers.

The digital agency is the heart of the company, with a few software businesses revolving around it. “We had itches that needed scratching, mostly driven by clients,” Stokes says.

One such itch is Brandseye, online reputation-monitoring software. “We needed to tell our clients where they were being mentioned online and we needed a better way of doing it than with duct tape and Prestick. So we built a piece of software that does it and turned it into a business.”

Another division is Idea Bounty, a crowd-sourcing platform born when a client wanted to open up the process of generating ideas to more people. About 30 000 people now contribute when a request for an idea is posted, and if the client opts to use an idea, the creator is paid for it.


I’m extremely good at being lazy but I don’t find time to do it.
Rob Stokes, Quirk
Stokes says his skills lie in innovations, not operations. “My job is to make sure the agency is relevant and valuable to our clients in five years’ time, so my knack is seeing new services we can introduce and invest in now, ahead of the curve. My skill is having some sort of foresight of trends in the future, seeing an opportunity that might exist in two years and preparing for it.”

He gets it wrong ‘all the time’, he says. “I’m very fortunate to have a good business partner. I think everything is going to work and he thinks everything is going to fail. That sounds like a conflict but when we agree, it’s powerful. He brings a dose of sanity and I bring the optimism.”

Stokes optimistically thought Idea Bounty would be much more successful than it is. Clients love it because they get access to thousands of ideas at a low cost. But some companies feel challenged by the concept of calling for external ideas and say their team is perfectly capable of idea-generation.

For the general working day, Stokes doesn’t have an office at Quirk. He doesn’t even have an official desk. “I sit wherever someone isn’t sitting. I don’t need a desk; “I have all I need in my backpack.” That nomadic behaviour helps him get to know everybody, as he’ll often sit in the middle of a team or with the interns.

Another thing that makes him different from other business leaders is that he takes himself a lot less seriously. “It’s about doing great work and having a good time in the process. A lot of South African business leaders love to run a dictatorship. Here, we have a democracy. We have a staff president elected every six months who sits on the exco and it’s their job to be the voice of the staff. If any decision is made and ten percent of the staff disagree, it goes up for vote and the business leaders lose,” he says.

“I believe this is the business model of the future because we are going into a different generation. Our parents lived to work and it was all about one 40-year career. Now, people work to live. It’s not about how much do I get paid and what are the security benefits; it’s about how much leave do I get and how flexible are the working hours.”

Despite being a workaholic, Stokes describes himself as the world’s most talented cricket watcher and also loves fishing. But he recently cancelled a fishing trip to Argentina because of work commitments. “I’m extremely good at being lazy but I don’t find time to do it,” he jokes. “I don’t take enough holidays. I have so much accrued leave, it really freaks out the finance department.”

The reason is simple, he says: he loves what he does so much that work is more fun than fun.


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