Where are they now: BB Partners, Boldspace, Hard Numbers, Inflect Partners, Look After Group & Made By Giants

In this two-part series, PRWeek investigates how PR agencies that launched during the coronavirus pandemic are getting on.

Where are they now: BB Partners, Boldspace, Hard Numbers, Inflect Partners, Look After Group & Made By Giants

More than 50 communications agencies launched in 2020, the majority during the worst global health crisis for 100 years.

Although it may appear illogical to set up a business at a time when the economy and the PR industry is in decline, many have cited the pandemic as an opportunity to reset business models and provide better value to clients.

A new report by Wadds Inc and a session from this year’s PR360 has found that COVID-19 can be a great leveller for start-ups competing with more established businesses.

PRWeek has approached several high-profile agency start-ups of the past year to find out how much they have grown, the challenges they have faced and lessons that have been learned along the way.

BB PARTNERS

Launched: July 2020.

Agency leaders: Co-founders Gosia Brzezinska and Hannah Barlow (pictured below).

Describe your agency.

BB Partners is an ‘Advisory for Changemakers’. We offer a new way of working with clients that reflects the nature of their mission and gets better results. We do this by embedding specialist teams for our clients, and by only taking on briefs where we know we can drive a big impact.

How much have you grown?

We have won a new brief every month and financially, we are meeting our targets. Clients include Malaria No More, Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, and More in Common, to name just three. In terms of the team, we recently welcomed Hannah Vaughan Jones, who joined BB Partners from CNN. This brings us to nine consultants and an advisory council of four.

Why did you decide to launch an agency during COVID-19?

We had a pipe dream to launch our own advisory some time before COVID-19 hit. The pandemic wasn’t a factor in starting the advisory business, but it provided the opportunity for fresh thinking and a new approach to strategic communications. This year has demonstrated how important communication is to deliver outcomes. COVID-19 has changed the way people communicate and created new opportunities. In this way, we’re bringing a new offer in a time of mass change.

What has been the major challenge in launching and running an agency during COVID-19?

Ah, there are many! To pick out two, we’d say: building a rapport with clients and recruiting the right team. Both of these things are more difficult when you can’t meet face-to-face.

What has been the major opportunity/surprise you've encountered?

Perhaps not a surprise, but a positive outcome of how much support there is for women-led businesses. We are grateful for the recognition and support we have received so far, and we are proud to play a small part in transforming the communications industry.

What have been the key lessons of your journey and what advice would you offer others looking to launch?

A key lesson that we’ve learned is that what[ever] you think is going to happen, [it] always plays out differently. For the better and, sometimes, for the worse. So, resilience and adaptability are critical to success (as well as personal sanity).

Our advice would be to invest in good technology, a good accountant and good operational support from the start. We hired our operations manager, Aleks, on day one. In addition to that, it’s important to think about your immediate support network and people who know how to help you rationalise situations and provide perspective.

Finally, don’t be afraid of making decisions, even if they are the wrong ones, because there will always be a way to right them. It’s crucial not to sweat the small stuff and to keep your eye on the big picture.

How optimistic are you about the year ahead?

We are very optimistic. The pandemic has demonstrated just how important communications is to delivering business and organisational objectives. We’ve always believed conversations on communications should happen at the C-Suite level. That’s now a reality more than ever before.

BOLDSPACE

Launched: February 2020.

Agency leaders: Co-founders Mike Robb and Nick Ford-Young (pictured below), head of data analytics Therese Moriarty and creative director Matt Weston.

Describe your agency.

We unite brand-building, communications and analytics – tracking a client’s earned, owned, social, and paid media in real-time and overlaid with key conversion metrics in our proprietary analytics platform BoldLens.

How much have you grown?

We have 14 full-time employees and an advisory panel of eight. Clients include Silverstone, Exizent and the Healthcare Workers’ Foundation. We are on target to triple our fee income in our second year, taking us well over £1m.

Why did you decide to launch an agency during COVID-19?

We didn’t – we saw the opportunity for an agency that delivers data and creativity in equal measure well before COVID-19 had escaped the confines of Wuhan.

What has been the major challenge in launching and running an agency during COVID-19?

I’m sure most founders would say ‘remote working’ and ‘hiring people without meeting them’, but for us the key challenge has been executing against our ambition to place data at the heart of everything we do. A second iteration of BoldLens, launching next month, is the exciting manifestation of that.

What has been the major opportunity/surprise you've encountered?

The appetite from clients for a far more agile and transparent model, with a clear need for real-time visibility of impact and being reactive to adding wider agency expertise to an account. In other words, greater agility and a far more efficient agency model.

What have been the key lessons of your journey and what advice would you offer others looking to launch?

If you’ve got an idea about something in our industry that could be done better – don’t think twice. But be different, don’t just launch something that seeks to be a marginally better version of what already exists.

How optimistic are you about the year ahead?

Very. The hardest step is undoubtedly the first, but, with a buoyant market that we have found first-hand is ready for new thinking, an exciting year lies in store.

HARD NUMBERS

Launched: May 2020.

Agency leaders: Managing director Darryl Sparey and creative director Paul Stollery.

Describe your agency.

We are a performance-driven marketing and communications consultancy, with a focus on delivering tangible, demonstrable return on investment for our clients. We create campaigns that drive pipeline, sales and company growth.

How much have you grown?

We're now at a headcount of 12, with some additional freelance resource, two of whom have been with us almost since our start and are part of the team (pictured below). Clients include software POS provider Phos, PR software business Propel, UK HealthTech pioneer my mhealth and conversational AI company HelloDone. We had more than £500,000 fee income in year one, and we're fast closing in on an annualised run rate of £1m currently.

Why did you decide to launch an agency during COVID-19?

Whatever the market conditions, businesses need to grow, and they need to demonstrate a return on the marketing investment that they're making. If anything, COVID-19 merely focused companies even more on this and strengthened demand for our proposition.

What has been the major challenge in launching and running an agency during COVID-19?

Creating and cultivating a first-class company culture at distance. We want to create a business which our team loves working at and helps accelerate their careers. We want to help provide best-in-class training, support and development opportunities for our staff, and to lead by example. This is a real challenge at distance, but we've done our very best to achieve this.

What has been the major opportunity/surprise you've encountered?

The core proposition of communications and marketing that drives sales and results has really, really played well with prospective clients. We thought we were on to something when we started this business, we didn't know just how in demand this would be.

What have been the key lessons of your journey and what advice would you offer others looking to launch?

We've been blown away by the generosity of other agency leaders in giving us kind words of support, advice and even new business leads. Particular shout-outs for Joe Mackay-Sinclair of The Romans, Kirsty Leighton of Milk & Honey, Andy West from Hotwire, Stephen Waddington of Wadds Inc, and Adam Clyne from Coolr. I hope we haven't missed anyone out there. You don't realise how generous the industry can be until you set up on your own.

How optimistic are you about the year ahead?

We have lots of big plans for the future. There are opportunities to expand both our range of services and the markets we offer them in. There is an opportunity to leverage core competencies we have within our group to launch, scale and commercialise businesses in other sectors, and build a first-class family of companies. Watch this space for more news from Hard Numbers soon.

INFLECT PARTNERS

Launched: December 2020.

Agency leaders: Founding partners Emily Wallace, Harry Shackleton and Carli Harper Penman.

Describe your agency.

We set up Inflect during COVID-19 to specifically focus on supporting organisations to anticipate and prepare for the challenges of the future.

How much have you grown?

We launched with nothing in the bank and no confirmed revenue, which was pretty scary. Six months later and we are paying three salaries and supporting three families. We feel pretty proud of that. We are also building up cash reserves to give us a reassuring buffer, and hoping to make our first hire later this year.

Since December we have worked with 10 different clients and are in the process of kicking off work with another two. The work has been more eclectic than expected. From launching Swallowfield Homes to working with the 14 NHS staff side trade unions on their submission to the Pay Review Body and helping Politico understand the UK Public Affairs market, it’s been pretty varied.

Why did you decide to launch an agency during COVID-19?

We knew that in periods of change, established agencies can struggle to adapt and that agencies with staff and overheads would find COVID-19 unsettling. We have none of those issues. We focus 100 per cent on delivering for clients.

What has been the major challenge in launching and running an agency during COVID-19?

The lack of networking has been challenging for getting out and talking about our new venture and generating interest and business opportunities. Online marketing and Zoom events are just not the same. As a team we have barely met in person. We met up in October 2020 to have pictures taken and then didn’t meet up again until last week.

What has been the major opportunity/surprise you've encountered?

The support we have had from former colleagues, clients and others in the industry has been a bit overwhelming; lots of useful advice and genuine well-wishers. We were not expecting that.

What have been the key lessons of your journey and what advice would you offer others looking to launch?

Possibly still a bit soon to be dishing out advice, but I would say it’s not as scary or as difficult as you think. Ask people for help, have three months’ salary in the bank and go for it.

How optimistic are you about the year ahead?

Currently feeling a bit giddy with optimism, but that might just be the anticipation of seeing people face-to-face again.

LOOK AFTER GROUP

Launched: September 2020 (was a non-profit initiative between April and September).

Agency leaders: co-founders Nic Young and Felix Henderson (pictured below), non-executive chair Graham Goodkind.

Describe your agency.

We combine a youthful team and a desire only to work with businesses doing good in the world. We suit and understand this new world well and feel empowered to shape a future the team believes in.

How much have you grown?

Since September, when the agency launched as a business following our inception as an initiative, we have grown to a team of seven. Client-wise, the three major clients we’re looking after at the moment are Wejo, a mobility tech unicorn; Hellenic Dynamics, a soon-to-be-listed medical marijuana business; and Jack & Bry, a plant-based food tech business in the UK. In terms of revenue, we’re expecting to generate over a quarter of a million pounds in our first full year, although our current monthly recurring revenue annualised would put us on track to double this next year.

Why did you decide to launch an agency during COVID-19?

In a strange way, there was no better time.

What has been the major challenge in launching and running an agency during COVID-19?

Not being able to get out there and meet people. It’s a people industry and the inability to go for coffee or a physical chat with clients, for pitches, for hires, or even between co-founders, was a challenge. It’s been a blessing to move into an office in Soho and begin to be able to meet people again.

What has been the major opportunity/surprise you've encountered?

We were overwhelmed by the support we received at the beginning. I guess the major surprise was how open clients have been to trying new things, the belief and trust they’ve shown in empowering young people and how well our agile agency approach has worked so far.

What have been the key lessons of your journey and what advice would you offer others looking to launch?

Where to start? We could give hundreds, but in one it would be: Don’t get too high on the highs, or too low on the lows.

How optimistic are you about the year ahead?

Couldn’t be more optimistic. This was our first year, shackled by a pandemic. Imagine the next, when we all eventually break out of the shackles.

MADE BY GIANTS

Launched: July 2020.

Agency leaders: co-founders Grace Keeling and James Beveridge (pictured below).

Describe your agency.

We help tech-powered brands become the giants of tomorrow.

How much have you grown?

We launched in the middle of 2020 and we already have £400,000 of committed revenue for PR, brand and social campaigns in 2021, spanning clients in the telco, fintech and data science sectors. We have five full-time employees, four long-term freelance partners and we are planning two other full-time hires to reflect our growing client wins.

In terms of client examples, we work on a pan-EMEA PR brief for a robotic process automation company called Kryon and deliver a social and influencer programme for a data science brand called atoti. We have developed a new brand identity for a data analytics company called ActiveViam and created a brand identity and communications programme for a retail analytics company called #HereForRetail.

Why did you decide to launch an agency during COVID-19?

Because we all need to adapt to what’s next, and tech will have a big role in what’s next.

What has been the major challenge in launching during COVID-19?

We all took for granted those precious social moments before COVID-19. Now we are all in a dystopian digital world, which impacts the ways we collaborate with each other, and our mental health. Keeping a brand new remote team motivated, while making them all feel like they are part of something (people who hadn’t met each other before until recently) is a surreal challenge.

What has been the major opportunity/surprise you've encountered?

The pandemic has broken down international walls of engagement; a lot of our clients are on other continents. We have had a lot of international inbounds, with tech companies seeking more expertise elsewhere. They don’t care where you’re dialling into a video call from. It simply doesn't matter anymore.

What have been the key lessons of your journey and what advice would you offer others looking to launch?

The energy you need to make things work (in the way you dream of) is beyond belief! Our key advice is to make sure you have a crystal clear proposition aimed squarely at your target market. The agency business is a people game, so having the right people by your side is also essential. Oh, and make sure you love roller coasters, because there are thrills and spills with earth-shattering highs that often happen in the space of 24 hours.

How optimistic are you about the year ahead?

We know things can change in the blink of an eye – particularly after the past year we’ve all had. But our client partners keep asking us to do more for them, our team is fully engaged and positive, plus we’ve won a few awards, which keep our spirits sky high.

In the second part of this feature, PRWeek catches up with Play, Raised by Wolves, Red Lion, Shook and Where Eagles Dare.

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