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Q&A: Matt Isaacs of £160m-turnover marketing agency Essence

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It boasts 111 per cent growth year-on-year. We catch up with Essence’s CEO, who’s been nominated for Entrepreneur of the Year

The world of advertising and marketing has experienced a seismic shift over the past ten years.

A world once preoccupied with print media and television has been gradually pushed in the digital world, a world in which analytics have made the success of campaigns very quantifiable and there is a thirst for constant innovation.

While some companies have struggled to come to terms with the changes, some agencies, that have grown up in the digital world, have excelled.

One such agency is Essence, the success of which has led a place on numerous fastest growing companies lists and swathes of awards nominations, most recently for CEO and co-founder Matt Isaacs who is up for Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award.

I caught up with Isaacs to find out what makes the agency so unique and what makes a successful digital entrepreneur.

Congratulations on the award nomination Matt – were you surprised by it?

Ha ha well there’s quite a long process before the final, we have the regional results in June and then find out who goes on to the national stuff in October.

Was I surprised? In our sector we are doing very well compared with our peers, particularly over the last couple of years so we are always hopeful, but I would never expect anything like this.

So how did Essence come about?

There are three founders at Essence and we all worked together at Accucard, a new-style credit card, which was itself the product of an entrepreneurial business bought by Lloyds. We had the experience of working with a start-up environment, growing rapidly and selling out.  

Accucard was renamed as Create Services and launched an internal digital agency which in 2003 ended up managing accounts worth £13m. If we had been independent we would have been the third largest agency in the UK.

We worked in that environment until 2005 but when large corporates buy a company out the culture never remains the same and we knew that at some point we might do something ourselves.

So what happened next?

My two co-founders and I came up with the idea of branching of with our own digital agency and we luckily landed backing from Carphone Warehouse group.

We met Charles Dunstone of Carphone Warehouse through a mutual contact. He was not an obvious person to talk to but he’s a very successful entrepreneur so when someone says, Dunstone wants to talk to you, you go and have a chat with him.

When we first started we only worked within Carphone Warehouse Group but we came out of that agreement in 2006. Since then the business had grown very rapidly – we only have two offices globally but we run activity in over 40 countries.

You’re on many fast growing company lists, when did the swift growth take off?

Just over three years ago, in the year ending 2008 we turned over £8m and the most recent figure will be £160m.

So you have thrived since the recession hit in 2008?

We had already been in business for quite a while when the recession hit. But also it made large corporate companies examine their marketing budgets. Digital marketing is easier to track and measure because of things like analytics so, if anything, the recession helped us. There was a shift from offline media to digital – a huge shake up in our market – but we were already in a strong position.

So what makes you stand out from your competitors?

There are two or three reasons. The first is that we all come from a marketing background and are very client centric. I spent five years as a CMO and so we have lived and breathed what our clients do and understand them.

Beyond that we have always been involved in data analytics and technology. These are two things that are not the natural heritage of media marketing companies and were never skills that were required…until now.

Thirdly we have a large breadth of services to offer our clients which means we can have a very holistic approach. We can deliver services for mobile, design, social media etc. It doesn’t mean that we do all of these things for each of our clients but it means that when we need to move fast – we have the people to bring it to bear.

No one can afford to take a long time to roll new things out anymore – it’s a race against time to get services to market before your competitors.

Looking back, do you have any clients that were pivotal to your success?

Undoubtedly Google, Expedia, BetFair and Barclays however the one that was the major driver was eBay – we started working with them in the UK and went on to win their European account in 2009 which was the start of our massive acceleration in growth.

Without an office outside of London, how did you manage to land eBay’s European account?

We had the good fortune of having a senior team with a very international outlook. We have a very bi-lingual team with fluent speakers of French, German and Spanish. Since then we have gone on to recruit people who speak 26 different languages in total and this is unusual for a business based in London.

I understand you have an office in Manhattan now – how did that come about?

We went there completely speculatively with a hope to expand in the US. We’ve gone from zero to 35 people in our NY office, turning over £60m this year. One of our founders went over with a small team of four and built the thing from scratch.

We were already doing business over in the US with the likes of Google – we are their lead digital agency – so this was a significant driver for more business.

How do you intend to keep the impressive growth up?

We had an acquisition last year of social media agency Punktilio which has been a great success. We managed to leverage their services with our existing clients. Our ability to acquire a business and scale it internationally has given us a lot of confidence. We have an active M&A department the focuses on strengthening our geographical print.

Has London been a good place for the Essence HQ?

London is a fantastic  hub for the digital industry – there are places in Europe that are also strong such as Berlin, Stockholm etc. but London is one of the top places.

From here it is possible to hire people with international languages but most of all we have this huge crossover between technology and creative talent. These are two things that are essential in this space.

There are skill shortages in terms of coding, data, analytics and strategic planning but this is a reflection of how quickly the industry is evolving. Advertisers are now competing for the same talent pool as huge technology companies and internet start-ups.

Well best of luck in securing the talent you need and of course that all important Entrepreneur of the Year award!




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