Where are they now: Play, Raised by Wolves, Red Lion, Shook and Where Eagles Dare

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

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

Yesterday, PRWeek profiled six of these agencies – BB Partners, Boldspace, Hard Numbers, Inflect Partners, Look After Group and Made By Giants – to find out how much they have grown, the challenges they have faced and lessons the founders have learned along the way.

Today, five more PR startups open up about how they have been tracking.

PLAY

Launched: January 2020.

Agency leaders: Co-founder and managing partner Rowan Adams (pictured below).

Describe your agency.

Ideas you can pitch in 10 words or less.

How much have you grown?

Play launched in April 2020 and we have grown staff numbers from five to 10 in the past year. Current clients include Craft Gin Club, Moonpig and Pioneer. Our turnover is about to hit £1m.

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

Play was brewing before COVID-19 came knocking – and a pandemic wasn’t going to get in the way.

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

The obvious answer is communication, team management and running that fine line between ‘nailing it’ and ‘burning out’. Looking back, I think the way we challenged old methods, while the world’s mental health does cartwheels, has been hard. If your client is worried about their job security, trying to persuade them to flip the table over and try something new has been a delicate but rewarding challenge.

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

There’s nothing like a ‘panny-D’ to level the client-agency playing field. There’s a bit of a power play when clients enter your office, or you theirs. We’ve pitched and won everything remotely from kitchens, bedrooms and the odd loo. There’s something about being let into someone’s home that means you can’t be arsey. It’s all very British.

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

Financial projections are a fickle mistress, and you think you need to respond to everything to keep afloat. Don’t do it. I have seen tonnes of really bad briefs this year, and we responded to some we shouldn’t have. But the most important lesson, as a boss: you can’t see staff body language, so making sure they are feeling confident and happy about work. Try to be there for them, but in the way in which they want to engage.

How optimistic are you about the year ahead?

We’ve just closed our second year’s first quarter, and we’re massively ahead on financial targets already – so from that perspective, I am very optimistic. I think the big challenge for all of us who have gone live during the pandemic is delivering the ‘tricky second album’. Can us newbie agencies shake shit up when we’re allowed to be less than a metre away from the big boys? Gird your loins…

RAISED BY WOLVES

Launched: March 2021.

Agency leaders: Co-founders Megan Leppan and Sophie Coyne (pictured below), and Jonny Tooze (LAB Group).

Describe your agency.

We elevate creativity in the corporate and sustainability space by blending a communications mindset and agility of service with an advertising calibre of creative output.

How much have you grown?

In terms of permanent headcount, we haven’t increased during our first six months, but we have grown quite an extensive creative network which we draw upon. We have had five clients.

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

The opportunity and mindset were right – we were approached by LAB Group, which shared the same vision for what an ‘agency of the future’ looked like.

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

Honestly, deciding whether to take on permanent staff and be responsible for their livelihoods during such an unpredictable period. We’re very clear that we want to grow in a responsible way, so we take our hiring process and model extremely seriously.

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

When you take a more entrepreneurial (and less traditional) approach to your agency, opportunities and ideas seem to gravitate towards you. And how generous people actually are with their time, support and advice.

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

Trust your instincts and intuition. Don’t be afraid to launch in an ‘untraditional’ way. And look beyond someone’s recognised discipline – putting people in structured boxes has a role in managing tasks efficiently, but it’s also a likely talent-limiter. Break out of the ‘so, you do that’ mindset and really understand where and how to best use people’s talents.

How optimistic are you about the year ahead?

Very. We’re seeing the demand for more creative corporate and sustainability communications increase as well as a shift towards a more marcomms approach. People are also continuing to carve out a new working lifestyle that hopefully, over time, will be better than the one they had before, which is huge.

RED LION

Launched: March 2020.

Agency leaders: Co-founders Corinna Field and Ellen Durrant (pictured below).

Describe your agency.

Big agency polish coupled with the hustling, nimble culture of a start-up.

How much have you grown?

We've seen a 214 per cent increase in revenue on last year’s numbers. Our client base has grown 233 per cent with wins including Habitat, Chase Distillery and OnePlus. Our headcount has increased by four, alongside freelance support.

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

We didn’t so much decide to launch during COVID-19, it's more that COVID-19 decided to arrive during our launch. We always expected curveballs, but that had to be one of the biggest.

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

Driving new business when suddenly our tried and tested methods of networking and face-to-face contact were no longer an option. Never have we needed more tenacity and sheer determination to identify new opportunities to grow the business. Nurturing our young team virtually has been a challenge; we’ve needed to be creative in how we build a welcoming and nurturing agency culture at a distance.

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

As they say: out of crisis comes opportunity, and we certainly have lived that the past year. We decided early on to go after sectors that were adapting well, from online retail [to] delivery and subscription services. As a generalist PR start-up, we could be nimble, and we took advantage of that.

We started seeing a greater inclination from clients to try new routes to success; trusting us with creatively reaching their audiences in ways that they wouldn’t have considered before the pandemic.

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

It’s OK to say no. Be firm about what you need to deliver something that does your agency and your client justice. As a young, passionate team hungry to succeed, we have at times jumped through hoops to accommodate an opportunity, only to find that the business in question wasn’t serious or didn’t value our time and counsel.

Keep finding ways to step outside of the endless to-do lists and ensure you stay curious and creative. Getting the right balance of working in the business versus on the business when there are only so many hours in a day is crucial to keep front of mind.

How optimistic are you about the year ahead?

Very optimistic. The past year has really brought PR to mainstream conversation. From the PR disasters and victories alike, never has communicating the right message in the right way been so valued. It’s great to see brands continue to embrace the industry and we’re excited to see what we can continue to achieve as life moves towards getting back to normal. We’re also equally cheery about the resurgence of the PR lunch and the return of air kissing!

SHOOK

Launched: June 2020.

Agency leaders: Co-founders Gemma Moroney and Damon Statt (pictured below).

Describe your agency.

Shook’s superpower of behaviour design and creativity makes ideas with impact.

How much have you grown?

We’ve grown to eight staff. Year-one revenue is six figures. We’re aiming for £600,000 fee income in year two. Clients include Smart Energy GB, Onken and Bother. We broke even from month five and we’ve grown every quarter consistently, turning a profit of 20 per cent, and 57 per cent of business has been won without a pitch or at creds stage.

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

We didn’t. We merrily resigned from our jobs in November 2019 to fulfil a long-held ambition of starting our own agency, thinking the biggest challenge might be Brexit.

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

Probably the same as for anyone running an agency – except we were also starting ours at the same time. We learned we can do our best work remotely as well as together.

What’s been interesting is how the world’s been stripped back so clients buy purely on people and thinking. It’s also allowed us to work globally – with two major US brands and seven time zones. That may not have happened BZ (before Zoom).

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

There are three:

  1. The opportunity to do the broad range of work we wanted, from defining the purpose of a billion-dollar company to vision, mission and values work and campaigning for charities (it’s why we wanted to start our own thing).

  2. 4 January seemed to mark an influx of opportunities from brands that had grown during lockdown – it gave us a great kick-on for 2021.

  3. The support of the industry – not necessarily a surprise, but people have been even more generous than expected. We’re shook.

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

If you’ve got something different to bring to the market, do it. It’s so much fun. Yes the highs are higher and the lows are lower, but just buy a light-up disco ball to celebrate the good times and play Tubthumping as required.

How optimistic are you about the year ahead?

Quietly optimistic. The past 12 months showed curveballs can come from anywhere, at any time, for anyone, but we’ve got a great team, great clients, great pitch opportunities and a healthy business. And we believe we’ve got a superpower no other agency in the market has.

WHERE EAGLES DARE

Launched: August 2020.

Agency leaders: Co-founders Richard Tompkins, Adam Leigh and Ella Dorley-Brown (pictured below).

Describe your agency.

Created for a changed world, Where Eagles Dare places integrity at the heart of its approach – building positive brands that people can believe in and depend on; that don’t just take from consumers, culture and society, but are able to put something meaningful back in.

How much have you grown?

From a standing start, with no backers or founding clients, we’ve grown to a team of seven (five full-time and two part-time), have already billed half a million in revenue (on course to hit £750,000 in the first year) and landed clients including Bidfood, Casillo and innocent.

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

We’d planned to launch the agency for some time, and so it was less a decision to launch during the pandemic and more a coincidence. But like everyone else, we worked hard to make the best of non-ideal circumstances.

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

Of course, as we were planning to launch (Sept 2020) we had to evolve and adapt our working practices, so you could say that although COVID-19 wasn’t the reason we launched when we did, it did influence our approach.

Not surprisingly, remote working has been by far and away the biggest challenge for us as a start-up, when you are trying to establish the right systems and processes, as well as some sort of company culture. The simplest things take much longer; those serendipitous conversations and ideas generated through office interaction have been more elusive, no matter how many Zoom drinks and informal catch-ups you try to build in.

Flexible working is great in many respects – and we’ll make sure we don’t revert to the old office presenteeism in the future – but the benefits of daily face-to-face contact with colleagues, clients and the wider world are, and have been, much missed.

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

One thing that has been a surprise of sorts is just how receptive clients are to our point of view on the world. We wouldn’t claim to be out-and-out revolutionaries, but the way we approach things definitely challenges a lot of traditional agency orthodoxy. It’s been amazing – and very gratifying – to discover so many like minds. A real validation of the reasons we set up Where Eagles Dare in the first place.

Although it’s fair to say that there have been curbs on business growth thanks to COVID-19, on the flipside, we’ve avoided many of the usual agency start-up costs, which has enabled us to expand the team and grow our capabilities faster.

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

First, be bold and stick to your principles. Keep sight of why you’re doing it and the difference you’re looking to make to the world. It’s tempting to say yes to every brief when you’ve got staff and their salaries to look after, but not all clients are right for all agencies and vice-versa. The freedom to say no is powerful. After all, there are only so many hours in the day, and you want to spend them on things that matter.

Second, be your own toughest client and sweat the detail relentlessly. Get the administrative set-up right, with advisers and specialists you can trust. Take time to think really carefully about your positioning and how to bring your unique skill set and perspectives together with what the market actually needs. Guard your brand jealously and don’t do stuff just because everybody else does. Hire well.

How optimistic are you about the year ahead?

Honestly? Very. We’ve proven our concept and approach works for clients and are pushing forward hard – both in growing the company and revenue. So while we’re taking nothing for granted (the big lesson for everyone from the pandemic), we’re confident that more and more great opportunities will find us, and that we’ll be partnering more and more brilliant brands doing work that makes a difference.

Read next: Agency startups: 'COVID-19 has been a great leveller'

Listen to: PRWeek podcast – Launching an agency during COVID-19

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