A while ago, I read a story from Australia: ‘Digital agency Holler loses 23 staff and its largest account. We have every reason to be terrified,” it said.
“Wow – how refreshing,” I thought. “A digital agency brave enough to be honest.”
Well, to mark the fact that we’ve been going for an entire decade, I’d like to do the same. It’s time to spill the beans on what it’s really like owning and running a digital marketing agency in Birmingham, and why we felt the need for change.
Behind the sCEnes of a digital marketing agency
Before Brew, we were Connecting Element (CE for short), and we always saw ourselves as honest, transparent, and down-to-earth. I’m sure most clients and suppliers would have said the same. But our image always maintained a polish, a positive spin, and an air of professionalism at all times.
Under the bonnet, I operated in a different world; one of uncertainty, incredible fluidity, and constant change. Like Holler not too long ago, I had every reason to be terrified, but in a funny way I also welcomed the constant evolution that’s so common to this industry.
The rise of digital and our agency
I started this agency as Andrew Rastall Ltd about 11 years ago, responding to a need from a large UK hospitality brand – a digital need which at the time was, “we’d quite like a website that could help our business.”
From that point we rode the wave of brands seeing the advantages of digital and wanting their own websites, along with further digital support to drive people to those new websites. We were taking budget from traditional marketing agencies like nobody’s business as investment realigned to digital marketing, based on the cost efficiencies, the tangible metrics and an element of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ that came with investing in digital.
I’d based the agency on a virtual model to begin with. Everybody worked from home and as freelancers. It seemed the natural model given the nature and the fluidity of the work coming in, which enabled us to dial-up and dial-down as demand fluctuated.
A few things changed this.
The sheer volume of work coming through our doors combined with the introduction of the IR35 tax laws made it an excellent time to transition a proportion of our freelancers to permanent staff. We migrated to a hybrid model with a permanent core of staff whilst maintaining some of our long-standing freelancers who continued to work for a number of clients.
Alongside this we re-branded to become Connecting Element – a name designed to illustrate how we pulled together various digital marketing channels to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Oh, and did I mention I bought a web development agency at the same time? This meant that we could offer a full-digital service all under one roof.
Our agency grew to the point where I needed some serious help. At this point, I appointed a Managing Director to run the agency as we grew past 60 staff and settled into an office in Birmingham. We were looking like a proper agency.
We created specialist teams – web development, content marketing, design, social media, email marketing, search engine optimisation, community management – you name it, we could do it. Things ran well for years; we were operating smoothly, driving forward new initiatives and opportunities, and making a profit margin that we mostly invested in improving our team and workplace.
The story doesn’t end there…
Previously, this is where we’d stop the story and people would be none-the-wiser, but the reality was that the market changed, and we started handing large chunks of work to internal teams at our biggest client.
The increasing accessibility of technology meant that it was much easier to employ less technically-skilled people to do the basics of their digital marketing. Since then, many large companies have followed suit.
As this point, we were overly-reliant on one core client, meaning that every bit of “we’re taking it in house” news would have a significant financial impact, even as we tried to counter this by winning new business from other sectors and brands.
As we had grown before, we now started downsizing and preparing ourselves for a very different world ahead. It was a stressful time for the agency, but it wasn’t the end.
The change from one paradigm to another took some helpful external advice and a moment of clarity to look at the situation through a different lens. Agencies would give their right arm to have the people, clients, and working relationships that we had.
My passion for the business that had been built on what had gone before was re-focussed on the quality we had now and what we could become. We had people who were talented and loved getting up in the morning to do their work, plus, we had clients that really liked us and enjoyed the working relationship…
The question was, “What do we need to do make the most of this new landscape?”
Digital marketing isn’t how it used to be…
Previously inaccessible technologies are becoming easier to use every day; brands can now create websites with a few different drag-and-drop platforms, set up their own email campaigns, and throw up an Instagram and start snapping away with ease.
We no longer exist to only help people be on and in digital channels. Our expertise doesn’t just lie in building the channel assets any more, but in how we can help clients optimise these platforms to achieve the specific goals. We need to understand less about the code and more about the psychology behind the people who consume in the digital space and understand, predict, and deliver the kind of content they want to see.
We’re not just digital creators. Not anymore. We’ve been to our lowest point and back again, and what’s left are profoundly-experienced digital marketing consultants with the skills to deliver the best-practice strategies they recommend.
I’ve often wondered what might be coming next and looked forward to the inevitable changes. This agency has always been lucky to have a group of individuals who have been capable of working out what’s going on and doing something about it.
So, as we hit a period of calm, with our new client base becoming more stable and additional work coming in from new brands every month, it’s become clear what needs to happen next.
Brew: The start of something new
Connecting Element (CE) is no more. We are Brew.
Something radical needed to happen to our structure and approach in order to show the digital marketing agency we have become; a re-brand that puts our values and people at its core, along with giving us a bold, modern platform to make an impact on the industry.
At the heart of the agency, we’re still the same people who love what we do, but now we’re ready to shout about it.
My name is Andrew. I own a digital agency, and everything has changed again…