An honest account of building the fastest growing B2B marketing agency
These last three and a bit years have been the most incredible roller coaster ride. Back in the Autumn of 2013 I decided to take the plunge and start my own marketing agency. I named it Pulse.
At the time, I didn’t think much about why I’d call it that, I was just keen not to name it after anything to do with my own name and I wanted something that sounded fast paced and dynamic. I didn’t really check whether many other companies had the same name or how easily it would be to find us on Google. Hindsight is a wonderful thing ????
Three wonderful years and a few grey hairs later, Pulse has recently been confirmed as the fastest growing B2B marketing agency* in our industry. I hadn’t set out to achieve this and in the first few months of the business being born it certainly didn’t feel like this was our destiny. Quite the opposite in fact. There were times when I questioned my own sanity and there were many “what if this doesn’t work” moments. But like anyone else reading this that may have started their own business (or set their sights on a challenging personal pursuit), you have to believe, you have to back yourself and you have to keep on going regardless.
This is a little insight into my own journey and an honest account on how we made it happen.
Getting it off the ground
Before Pulse, I’d worked in media buying for the previous 12 years, and towards the end of that time I ended up running a region of what had become a rather successful agency focussed in the tech market. So, I had a big grounding in tech, a lot of knowledge of media and rather a lot of experience in B2B marketing.
Using this, I knew I wanted to build something that was broader in service offering and I admired many of the B2B marketing agencies I’d met, worked with and often partnered with. I could see the trend in the industry, moving back towards a more integrated approach to marketing and away from singular or specialist service agencies, particularly in Europe. I also knew that there was rather a big gap in the market for an agency that combined broader content and marketing communication services with a real understanding of media, across paid, earned and owned channels. And so this is what I began to build and what Pulse has now become.
I was lucky enough to secure some funding to start and set about building a team of capable agency digital marketing and media and folk who shared my vision; that’s when the problems started. Why wouldn’t really good people give up their highly-paid jobs and structured careers to come and join a start-up agency to share the dream? I mean, surely that’s everyone’s dream, right? How wrong I was.
No one I spoke to would join. They were all very pleasant but the answer was always the same. So, I did the only thing I could do and that was to hire smart people and train them up. Sure, in the early days we also had several people who were already experienced in different areas, but for the most part I rolled my sleeves up and went back to basics.
Weeks went by with very little business. Much more money was going out than coming in, but I was determined for it to work, as well as petrified that it may not. I think a mixture of both these factors drove me in the early times, I was just never sure which was more powerful!
Fortunately, I’d been quite client facing for many years previously and my network was quite large. I told the Pulse story to as many people as I could and the business began to grow. I’m so very grateful now for the handful of people and companies who became clients at the start, for backing me and believing in our vision. We worked our socks off to deliver for them and we began to build up a nice portfolio of work to showcase to others. We got to the end of our first year in profit, with a brilliant growing team of people and a number of happy clients.
Building on a solid foundation
Year two was the time to get serious and to push on, by making sure we continued to deliver, but also investing further in more specialised folk internally. We’d delivered at least one project for every service offering we had in year one and we’d done this with many people who were very good at several different things, but not 100% specialised in a particular area. We needed to move from being generalists to specialists.
The nature of our client’s businesses, the marketing they need to do and the audiences they target, means that our agency is hugely digital in service offering. We had to now put the pieces in place to compete in all areas and at the cutting edge, so, that’s what we did. We hired more really smart people, some of them who hadn’t even started shaving as yet and some who were just brilliant in their chosen field.
The thing that we kept a real eye on, and still do, is probably the most critical reason for our success. When I started the agency, I built a service offering that was relevant then. Only three years later – and whilst keeping the core proposition the same – our services have had to evolve, some in a major way. To keep up, we make sure the talent we hire brings something we don’t already have, but we also spend a lot of time dedicated to understanding new and emerging techniques, as well as how technology and data can add value to what we do. This is applied across all service areas and it enables us to predict where we need to concentrate our current and future efforts.
Keeping it real and relevant
Our goal was to build an agency that was truly integrated in nature. In my opinion, there are very few agency categories now that can afford to stand alone in any specialist vertical, or part of their industry. That may seem like a very general statement and there are undoubtedly many examples where specialism in a certain area is a huge USP, but more often than not (is the best way for me to categorise this statement) clients do not have the budget, time, inclination, need or desire to manage multiple agencies, and the trend is for consolidation industry wide.
Digital specialism is now just a necessity; everything is connected through systems and analytics (or should be), more and more companies are needing to deliver end to end prospects and customer journeys and trying to do all of this without control or visibility of as many parts of the puzzle as possible is like herding cats. For Pulse, this had become our focus and many of our clients were starting to see the benefit.
As we were growing up, we concentrated on making sure we had our feet firmly on the ground. We are at the mercy of our clients and without them there would be no Pulse. In my career, I’ve seen many agencies lose sight of what made them successful in the first place. Those that have taken their eye off the ball, those that haven’t adapted and those whose ego was larger than the client that just left them. It’s always been important to me that we don’t become any of these things. Ego’s don’t fit in modern day agencies, in my opinion clients just don’t buy them anymore. Yes, you can have a figurehead, but we’ve moved on since the 60s – 90s. Good honest work, solid customer service, great ideas, a complete knowledge of your space and great activation will deliver all you need. That’s what’s worked for us.
And to a point about our people at Pulse. When building the agency, I had a certain view in my mind about the people I wanted working in it, as well as how I wanted them to feel about me and how they were treated by myself and their line management.
To get the best out of people I believe you must empower them to succeed, not rule them with fear of not doing so. I hear all too often of ineffective management because their style is not respected. Pulse has become our agency not my agency. Everyone makes a difference and all are made to feel that way. There’s no room for egos, no room for politics, but plenty of room to be recognised and be rewarded for the success of the agency.
Scaling the business
We finished the second year of the business in really good health. We were firmly on the map, had a growing reputation in our industry and clients were starting to find us, not the other way around. Year three was about pushing on, continuing to deliver for our clients and putting in place a solid management team capable of taking us to the next level. Some businesses stifle growth because they don’t recognise this last point, but for us it was imperative. We’d gotten to the stage where there were bottle necks across parts of the business and we needed a fresh and experienced view on specific functions. It allowed us to push on faster than ever.
By the end of year three we’d hit 30+ employees, had over 50 clients, I’d signed a lease on our first owned office – big enough to match our growth- and we’d been acclaimed as the fastest growing B2B marketing agency.
The future holds many aspirations for us. I never wanted to build something that was the biggest, but I did want it to be the best. Those who know me will have heard me say this so many times.
I owe a debt of gratitude to all that have worked in our business and to all the clients who have put their trust in us, as well as continue to do so. I think back to those early weeks at the start of the company; I’d quit my job, my wife had just given birth to our second child and she wasn’t working, I’d maxed my mortgage and I had no plan B. I was so nervous of failing but I knew it could be done. I had the support of good people around me and above all I believed there was a better way.
*Source: B2B Marketing’s 2016/17 fastest growing UK B2B marcomms agency benchmark report.