Tamara Haddow, the "accidental" entrepreneur who founded event staffing leader Black Diamond Agency

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Tamara Haddow, the "accidental" entrepreneur who founded event staffing leader Black Diamond Agency

From what began in 2010 as a modelling agency "undercutting everyone on price" to get ahead, Black Diamond Agency has evolved into a premium event staffing agency that rosters the best fit for the job and takes a firm stance against discrimination based on looks, gender and age; a bold position when it comes to experiential marketing, but one that has attracted top-tier clients nationwide ranging from Stockland to Paramount Pictures to Mad Mex to A-League Football.

Founder Tamara Haddow was once like the 650 casual staff on her company's books. She tells Business News Australia about the sacrifices made to build her national business, the critical steps to making Black Diamond stand out from the crowd, her growth as a leader, and how championing a diverse workforce with genuine care through compliance and culture leads to better performance.

Most founders will have at least one story from the early days of their business as they struggled to make an impact in the market, drawing on whatever reserves of tenacity and energy they had left to make everything appear seamless even if it came at a cost.

For Tamara Haddow, that moment involved a long, loss-making drive to Coffs Harbour.

"As an example of the extent that I used to go to, I had a client needing two brand ambassadors to promote Carlton Mid in a pub in Coffs Harbour. I was living in Newcastle, two staff for three hours was all I needed, and I couldn’t for the life of me find anyone to work with this shift in Coffs Harbour," says Haddow, who was a finalist in the 2023 Sydney Young Entrepreneur Awards

"So I drove up there and did the shift myself and somewhere along the way I managed to find one other person. I drove six hours to Coffs Harbour to work one three-hour shift, and I think I was being paid $25 an hour, and I had to pay for accommodation to stay there overnight.

"The next day I drove six hours home all because I did not want to call that client and say 'I could not find staff for you'. It just wasn’t an option."

It was an endeavour that required a certain mentality that Haddow already had in spades. She had become a business owner by accident but was already a self-confessed "workaholic", having fallen into the world of promotional marketing as a model herself while balancing uni and a full-time job at a bakery.

"The agencies I was working for were all Sydney based and they really struggled to find staff in Newcastle. I was saying 'yes' to as many shifts as possible and cramming it into my schedule, so it meant that I had multiple agencies asking me to find them staff for their shifts. I would pull in all my friends," she says.

"I didn't have time to do all of that. I was already struggling with the workload of how many shifts I was taking on, so I said 'I’ll do it if you pay me to do it'. And they agreed.

"It was 100 per cent unexpected – there was no part of my mind that thought they would agree to that, so I decided to charge per hour per staff."

This meant that at least her time was covered in doing the work to find people, but what started as a very local hustle in Newcastle quickly became national as one agency would only agree to take her on if she could find staff all around the country.

"Immediately I had to find staff in other cities, and had to go out and get an ABN, business name, and away we went," she says.

"There were a few job industry boards for actors and models and promotions, so I really just started to post on there. Obviously in the beginning it wasn’t many, so it was easy to find some core staff in the areas that they needed.

"We were calling it a promo modelling agency because back then in 2010 that’s what it was. For me to get a start I had to join a modelling agency, and brands only booking staff based on what they looked like. They wanted people, usually female, to fit a certain criteria and that's all that mattered."

Black Diamond's transformation from modelling to a more diverse, experiential marketing agency

Haddow says that for several years clients requested the agency book staff based purely on certain looks.

"But sometimes I would get negative feedback like ‘she didn’t perform very well’ or ‘she didn’t hold conversations’, and so when some of the key staff weren’t available I would go to some of the others who maybe weren’t exactly what they're after but I knew they were going to do a great job," Haddow says.

"Then I would get raving feedback about these other brand ambassadors who maybe wouldn’t have been their first preference.

"As time went on, the briefs started to change and clients started saying, instead of this is the look that we want, this is the look that we want but they must be very outgoing, engaging, have the ability to hold conversation, have a background in XYZ, and so there was this additional layer."

This evolution led Haddow to put new processes in place for Black Diamond Agency, before a few years ago making the firm decision of telling clients the following: 'You can't request. We can give you profiles of staff, which include a headshot, but it will be after we've booked them, because we will book the best fit for the job'.

It was a challenge to the old adage of 'the customer is always right', because Haddow had experience on so many occasions of giving a client a shortlist of five candidates for a job, nominating her recommendation based on skills and personality for the brand concerned, but another was chosen based on a particular 'look'.

"Obviously the clients that didn’t like that just went to the other agency. And there are still agencies that operate based on modelling background and looks, and that’s okay. Now I just refer them on and say ‘we’re just not the right fit for you’," Haddow explains. 

It was a moment of maturity for Haddow to take this stand, and in sharp contrast to the agency's origins of undercutting competitors on price just to build a reputation.

"I made losses on so many jobs in the beginning, but it didn't matter because I was working full time," she says.

"No one asks if you if you made profit from a job. It's about which brands you get to to work with, and over time we built up this great resume of well-known brands we were working with, and others then decided to follow.

"From then until now that was a huge transition going from cheapest in the market to one of the most expensive in the market, offering much more of a premium service than when we began."

Sacrifice, delegation and leadership growth

Haddow admits that for a long time she was "really bad" at delegating, given she sees herself as a "perfectionist who wants to be across everything".

"I was a bit of a control freak. I wanted to be across all the details and do the very best job that I could. And I didn't in the beginning believe anyone could do a better job than me at getting deep into what I was doing," she says.

"After probably five years where I was working full time on the business and I was still working 14 hours a day, I was struggling on a physical and mental level with the workload because it's a fast-paced, high-stress kind of work in events as everything changes all the time.

"I was taking on all the sales, managing all the jobs from project to completion, hiring all the staff, managing all the issues that will come on site, as well as all the books and invoicing.

The entrepreneur says this lifestyle meant that she "physically broke" one day and decided that something had to change.

"I sacrificed friendships, relationships, my health, fitness, literally everything was sacrificed for the business," the founder says.

"There were two options - accept that the business isn’t going to be any bigger than me, or learn to delegate and hire people and grow the business.

"The first person I hired was one of our casual staff to do a few hours every week of admin. Her name is also Tamara, and she’s still an employee of ours and is an admin officer – she’s been with us for I think 11 years."

Haddow describes hiring the other Tamara as a "pivotal moment for the business" that "opened up a whole new realm of possibilities". Now Black Diamond Agency is a multi-million dollar business with six full-time staff, three part-timers, and 650 casual staff on its books, as well as more recently launched hospitality arm.

"Leading a business is about learning and growing, pushing yourself outside of your comfort zones, so delegation was just part of it," she says.

"To grow and scale a business, as a leader and a business owner you have to grow as a person, and you have to realise you're not the best at everything, or anything for that matter. 

"There are other people that I can hire that will do a better job than me. Get comfortable with other people taking on really important roles in the business."

Compliance, compliance, compliance

Haddow says that whilst that industry has come a long way in terms of the way it treats casual staff, non-compliance is still rife.

"We pride ourselves on really looking after our team from that perspective and arming them with their employment rights so they can take the knowledge to other agencies or employers and ensure they are getting treated fairly," she says.

"It was very common and is still common for an agency to pay their staff as contractors under an ABN even though the rules are clear - the way that an agency like us operates, that relationship is not one of a contracting relationship.

"When an agency pays staff as contractors, they're dodging a whole bunch of obligations like superannuation and insurance. They probably don't have labour hire licences and they're probably not paying withholding tax."

She says so-called 'sham contracting' is also common whereby casual staff are presented a contract that "says you're a contractor, but really you're not".

Haddow says taking an approach that's heavily focused on compliance costs a lot more money and takes a lot more time for administration.

"Because we do that, it means that our rates that we charge to clients are naturally higher than our competitors that are dodging their obligations. And therefore when it comes to selling, we're not on a level playing field," she explains.

She adds that a lot of people who interact with agencies might not know all of this, but there are ramifications and potential reputational costs of hiring an agency that is non-compliant.

"For us there are clients out there who genuinely care about these things – they give us their guidelines, and ask us if we agree," Haddow concludes.

"When you go from what is industry standard to what is legally required, they’re two very different things, and it means that staff are well looked after when it comes to pay.

"A lot of our staff are young and they have no idea about any of this, and some employers in general, but agencies as well, take advantage of the lack of knowledge that they have. I try to arm them with the knowledge that they need."

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