I looked at my LinkedIn profile this week and it dawned on me that it has been 10 years since I decided to take the leap and set up what started out as a specialist PPC agency. Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, wrote, “It is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation.” At the risk of hubris, this quote embodies the idea that inspired me from this agency’s inception. No-one actively courts failure and neither did I but I loved the idea of taking a bigger risk by building something unique rather than replicating what I had seen in the past. Hard work, dedication and excellence only have one variety so those were always going to be foundational values. But on top of them I wanted to build an agency that fostered innovation in every aspect of the business so that we could compete with the best in our own special way. To a very large extent, that is what TMI has done. Like most things in life, practice makes perfect and as I look back at the evolution of The Media Image, the evolutionary process of man learning to walk jumps into my head. It’s been an incredible journey thus far and I truly feel we are now walking tall and going from strength to strength. It has not been all plain sailing and the journey has been filled with many and ups and downs. As such, I am going to outline a few lessons I have learnt along the way and some pointers that I think helped me build a successful agency in one of the most sophisticated and competitive digital markets in the world. A very brief walk down memory lane is needed.
The Media Image was started in Durban, South Africa when I moved back to SA after having spent 10 years in London. I was very fortunate in these years to have worked at DoubleClick, Google and Havas. As Google’s 5th UK employee and first AdWords hire, I was at the coalface and birth of PPC marketing as we all know it today. We all remember our firsts and I can vividly remember the first client I won. I got into my car and drove a few hours to the Tala game reserve having prepared a deck on why they should be doing PPC but the owners then didn’t really grasp the many acronyms I used and we instead ended up having tea. I ditched the deck and layman’s terms won me the client.
TMI was on the road and I find it poignant that my first client was a game reserve in Africa. My monthly fee was only R500, which is £30, and yet I still remember it like it was yesterday. Fast forward to 2018 and The Media Image employees 35 staff across London, Cape Town and New York and we are just opening an office in Latvia. TMI has won numerous digital awards and featured in the Sunday Times Hiscox Tech Track 100 three years in a row, the Deloitte Technology Fast 50, had two listings in the Deloitte Technology Fast 500™ EMEA program, Inc 5000 and recently the FT1000. We now offer expertise in PPC, SEO/Content, Social, Programmatic Media and creative production. We are privileged to be working with partners that are household names, start-ups that become household names and partners that constantly collaborate with our teams to deliver gold standard digital marketing services. If I was giving someone advice on starting up an agency, or any business for that matter, I would highlight the following things I have learnt. They have worked for me but are by no means gospel and one thing this business/sector has taught me is that nothing is ever ceteris paribus and you need to constantly evolve and innovate.
Focus on what you truly are good at, innovate and excel
I started a specialist PPC agency as that is what I truly was good at and didn’t try and do it all in the early years. This helped TMI gain a reputation for delivering great PPC campaigns; the rest came years later as we hired and grew into other services. The old saying, ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’, springs to mind. The digital landscape in general and the UK in particular is very competitive and so in order to be truly successful, you need to stand above or differentiate yourself from the pack.
Honesty & Results
These two words are what drives TMI today. Advocacy speaks wonders for a brand and I am not sure if it’s just the evolution of TMI or a function of the maturity of this industry but the days of pony parade pitches seem to have become a bad memory. We are invited to pitch our ideas off referrals from people that we have worked with as well as our reputation, rather than us going out doing old fashioned business development. TMI was born in the direct response world and that’s how we approach all of our media types. Awards aside, as they can be subjective, we deliver results and that’s what keeps our clients happy and why clients want to work with us. We become part of our client’s teams and work alongside them facing all challenges as one unit. This collaborative approach combined with the results we drive for our clients are the secret sauces in our recipe for success.
There has been a lot of hype about the large consultancies expanding their digital footprint. The likes of Deloitte, Accenture, PWC, etc, are making more of a play for the digital marketing space and actively acquiring agencies at a rapid rate. Developments in the space have a number of agencies worried. We don’t see this as a threat but rather as an opportunity. TMI has been operating a more consultative agency approach for many years and we feel comfortable in the role and as such have seen more consultative projects come to the fore, particularity in the last 12 months.
Like most businesses, people make it a success or failure. Running a business, especially as it grows, can be a tough and often lonely place so having people around you that can help shoulder the burden and celebrate the success is critical. If you do decide to start a business with someone or bring in people further down the line, make sure everything is covered by a contract and all parties are on board with its terms. Having attended many tech networking events and, through my own experience, I have learnt that at least 80% of founders fall out with or split from their business partners. It’s not an easy road and what starts out as a harmonious relationship full of promises and potential can evolve into a nasty divorce. Unlike a marriage where a prenuptial agreement is often frowned upon by the sceptics who think love is eternal, a business has the luxury of setting things out to protect all parties. When you do this, think of blue sky scenarios because you never know where your small start-up will end up.
This is what makes or breaks an agency in my opinion. Having worked at a few companies, I can honestly say that TMI has a unique culture and bunch of people. We encourage people to fly from day one. It helps that we have an amazing client base for them to learn and develop their skills on but we don’t hold anyone back and encourage progression as quickly possible. My philosophy is that we spend more time with work colleagues and at work than with our families so you need to love what you do and I think TMI’ers do. We do have some really great perks but more importantly, we have succeeded in creating an agency with a genuine family feel. I would very much like to keep this going as long as we grow. I don’t want to jinx it but we have a very low staff turnover rate and I think this is the proof in the pudding.
It’s often difficult when you start out as you are in cost saving mode but one thing I would advise is get your contracts, both commercial and HR, to be looked at by a qualified lawyer or someone with commercial and HR experience.
It takes time…
There is no overnight success – no need to embellish this point. I look around at other agencies that are successful in our space and I don’t see any overnight success cases. It takes time and my analogy of man learning to walk rings true. I think in today’s fast paced tech and work environments people expect things to be delivered in record time or results too quickly. Patience, hard work and good old-fashioned grit and determination come into play.
Success – never ending effort
Once you are up and running and achieving a successful result, however you define that, you can’t rest on your laurels or become complacent. The agency business can be a fickle one and TMI has been very lucky or perhaps we have made our own luck by building long term relationships with most of the clients we work with. That said, you need to constantly push the boundaries.
When you start and everything is frenetic it’s easy to get into the habit of working from deadline to deadline. You realise pretty quickly however that this isn’t sustainable and without internal process and process orientated management you run the risk of being trapped in the never ending deadline cycle. Agency life and start up life is chaotic but the value of structured work flow and process orientated services can not be understated. Without this, growth is much more difficult to achieve and service remains erratic despite the best intentions in the world.
Learn to delegate
Too often in the past, I wanted to be involved in everything. It is most probably the hardest thing to do when you are a business owner but as your business scales, it’s impossible to be involved in everything. This goes back to people; hire good people and this task gets easier. I like to know what’s going on across the business but have learnt to let others to make and be part of decisions. As you step back from the operational aspects of media management, you will need the advice and expertise that you get from the teams that are expert practitioners.
It’s easy to get bogged down in the stress and day to day ups and downs of running an agency. I count myself lucky that I genuinely love what I do and although I am not involved in daily operations, I have fun and enjoy what I do. This is possible if you do all the above and have a happy, experienced and productive team, great clients and a great company culture.
In Summary I will close with a quote from Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” This quote echoes the way I feel about being at the helm of TMI this last decade. The giants in my life, whether it was mentors at Google, colleagues with different skillsets to mine or a dedicated spouse without whose support I wouldn’t be writing this piece, have been integral to TMI’s flourishing. Through them I have the privilege of ushering TMI into its 11th year as a business – something which only 4% of start-up companies are fortunate enough to achieve. Our teams will soon be celebrating in style and raising a glass or many for that matter!