The Blueprint: Fergus Watts

ex-AFL player Fergus Watts has grown his agency, Bastion Collective, to employ over 150 people. We sat down to find out what makes him tick.
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The Blueprint Series is a rolling release of profiles on individuals from any walk of life, pioneers of what they do best. From athletes to artists, fashionistas to entrepreneurs, this series gives you a personal insight into the minds of masters at the apex of their respective professions.

Aged 18 and drafted pick 14 into the AFL by the Adelaide Crows, Fergus Watts had the footy world at his feet. Fast forward four years and Watts had just been delisted by St Kilda after a short lived career plagued by injury and a self-confessed lack of talent.

Venturing into real life adulthood at 23, Watts worked at a brand communications agency, and quickly realised there was a gap in the market for a group of complementary agencies that operated alongside a centralised business unit who took care of the administration side of things, allowing creatives and account managers to do what they do best, so Watts started Bastion Collective.

Seven years in, he's grown Bastion Collective to employ over 150 people across Australia and has further offices in Los Angeles, London and Shanghai. We chatted with the entrepreneur to find out what makes him tick.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

The development and creation of Bastion Collective. Although I don’t want to take credit for it, as it has involved many of us doing it together.

What are your three most treasured possessions?

I love my home. We just got a new dog who is pretty bloody awesome, and I love watching a movie on my Apple TV!

If you weren’t doing this, what would be your ultimate alternate career?

Can I say NBA player? I would love to chair a giving fund for sustainable charity

If you could be any age for a week, what age would that be?

27 was a lot of fun.

What words do you live by?

Only those who dare to truly fail can ever truly succeed.

Let’s chat about the link between failure, your professional sports background and starting out in the industry. How many hits did you take (metaphorically) before it started to get to you?

On the football field, you learn about failure. You get hit all the time. Whether it’s losing a game, not getting picked, negativity in the media or losing your career. Footballers get hit, by many people, you need to learn to pick yourself up and move on, otherwise it is too hard. In the AFL, I was a first draft pick twice. I was pick 14 to the Crows, traded for 15 or 16 to the Saints. I should have been much better than I was, but I wasn’t. It was a very public failure in a career I had dreamed of as a kid.

Being able to have a go at a business and take a risk is the biggest thing my football career taught me. Failure is okay and it does happen time and time again. But it’s about being able to adapt from that and keep moving forward.

Calculated risk taking is a big factor that undoubtedly contributed to your early success, how would you advise people to proceed at similar crossroads their lives? Anything you wish you had considered?

The best thing I did was start this business at 23. I had no idea how scary it was. I know a bit too much now about the personal risks we as Directors take every day, it is a reality of running a business but at 23 you have no idea.

One of the biggest challenges I have now is keeping that attitude I had when I was 23 and going at it head first. My top piece of advice to those thinking about starting a business is to be honest about what you know and what you don’t know. When I started Bastion Collective, I knew what I wanted to do, but I also was acutely aware I actually knew very little about anything. I set about finding business partners who complemented me, who brought the knowledge and experience that I was lacking.

To be honest there is nothing that springs to mind that I wished I had considered. I have made more mistakes than I can tell you about. Some big, some small. Some that have cost us plenty of money. Some that have cost us nothing. We make mistakes all the time and that is what makes us who we are. If you are not making mistakes you are not trying hard enough.

For many, finding the perfect work/life balance is the ultimate goal. These new corporate programs you’re implementing at Bastion Collective suggest, however, a refocus towards integrating work and life as one. Talks us through your logic behind this.

People talk a lot about work life balance, but it doesn’t exist. I’ve never met anyone who has it. At Bastion Collective, we believe you only have one life. In that life you work and play and it is all combined. If you don’t like where you’re working, chances are you’re not enjoying life. Nobody wants that. We create opportunities for our people to enjoy living. Full stop.

We work anywhere, at any time, in any fashion that works for, well, life. Thankfully, technology enables this. I started Bastion Collective because I wanted to create the kind of place where I’d like to work — one where people are happy to be themselves. As part of the recruitment process at Bastion Collective, we ask our candidates to deliver a presentation about themselves. This approach brings their personal and professional lives together in a seamless manner. So, it doesn’t feel like a clash of two worlds. It’s all just life.

When did you experience an overwhelming overlap between work, life and stress? Was there a single moment when you realised, alright, my system needs to change?

To be honest my life is completely overlapped and integrating. I am answering these questions on holiday in Byron Bay. My Dad and Brother are also on the holiday and are my partners in Bastion Collective. Tonight we'll go for dinner and talk about life and talk about work. It never ends for us.

90% of the time it is brilliant. 10% of the time it is good to be separated. We are very honest with each other about when those times are!

When trying to push a wellness program (especially emotional wellness) in well-established business environments, do you often get dismissive reactions to a concept that might come across as in the rigid corporate world as too abstract?

In an established business of a certain size it is impossible to implement a program of any description and expect everyone to like it or want to do it. We don’t want to push anything on anyone. We simply want to provide the environment and provide opportunities for all of our staff to engage in different activities.

More people are now realising the importance of emotional intelligence and wellbeing in the workplace.

One of the greatest benefits of understanding yourself better is you’ll understand others better too. Those with a high EQ have superior interpersonal skills and a greater capacity to influence those around them. It makes for stronger relationships with friends, family and partners. And in the professional world it means connecting with clients more effectively and having greater leadership skills.

How would you advise someone to control their ego in a competitive business environment?

A healthy ego is necessary for success to some degree. My advice to everyone is to ditch those corporate egos and start operating from spirit. The decisions that people make and the politics within businesses are often driven by insecurities and fear. That’s one of the key factors I think holds businesses back.

An immense self-confidence is vital. Ego is a killer. Believe you can achieve anything. When you do something and make a mistake that doesn’t mean you are not good enough, it simply means you did not get that one right. Don’t lose who you are. Believe you are unstoppable and you will be. Do things for their true reason - the ultimate desire to impact your soul and impact others. Don’t do things to look good, play politics or not do something because you are worried about looking bad. That is your ego talking and not you. Get rid of your ego. Find the right people and let them be the hero of your business.