Entrepreneur Interview: with Brett Jacobson, MediaWorks

Posted on the 25 June 2015

Entrepreneur Interview: with Brett Jacobson, MediaWorks

Sitting in the fashionably-specced Team Valley offices of MediaWorks, waiting to meet chief executive Brett Jacobson, it’s easy to think you are in a building that is destined to be the firm’s headquarters for decades to come.

However, within minutes of meeting Brett, only just 30, it was clear that this is only short term accommodation for the current phase of hugely ambitious growth plans.

Established when Brett was only 22, with support from Express Engineering chairman Chris Thompson, the company now provides specialist digital marketing services to a number of major companies.

Originally from Jesmond, Brett met Chris in the pub for an introductory meeting, before they were finished their second pint, the pair were hatching a plan that would eventually build today’s multi-million pound business.

Now, living in Killingworth, with his fiancé and two young children, the sky remains the limit as Brett aims to continue the firm’s expansion.

So, Brett, how did it all begin?
I set the business up pretty much straight out of university. I did an honours degree in applied computing at Northumbria University, which was pretty generic and gave me a good understanding of all different parts of IT but no defined career path, so I was looking for the right opportunity. I had always been pretty ambitious, always wanted to run my own business. I was introduced to a local entrepreneur, Chris Thompson, through a friend of mine, and I went to him for a bit of advice, over a beer. By the second pint, we were setting a company up.

Where did you get the funding?
It was 50/50. I lent a bit of money from my dad and Chris put his hand in his pocket. We ran a pilot for the first 12 weeks, with a couple of Chris’ companies. Then, basically, after knowing each other for 12 weeks, we decided to go into business together and set the company up in August 2007. 

I had done a module on SEO, and Chris had been looking to procure some SEO services for his businesses and found it quite difficult. We realised there wasn’t really anyone doing it, so it was a case of the right place at the right time for us to meet. He asked me if I knew about it. I kind of lied and said I was an expert at it, then spent the next two weeks reading every book and blog I could then got back together with Chris and managed to convince him that I knew enough to run the pilot. Then I spent the next three months learning what SEO was and what I was getting into, and learning about the market and what the competition was and where the opportunity was. 

My dad always encouraged me to look to IT and computers. He appreciated that was the future. From a pretty young age, I just messed about with them and had an interest generally in IT. I wasn’t by any means a geek, or a total brainbox. I was just a pretty normal kid and I felt that IT was just where I wanted to form a career. With the Internet and Google going nuts, it felt like the right space. 

Do you come from an entrepreneurial family?
Dad was an electrician by trade, just from a normal family in Benwell in the West End of Newcastle, but he managed to carve himself a fairly entrepreneurial-led property portfolio and a construction company and put that entrepreneurial spirit in me. I had a nice upbringing; I didn’t want for things but was encouraged to appreciate the value of money and to work for what I got. I could’ve gone into the family business, but I was encouraged to make my own way, to do my own thing and be successful in my own right.

Tell me what it was like starting your own business at 22.
In terms of the early days, I was being thrust into everything. Prior to this, I‘d only had one job, in the Next store room, other than helping my dad with his businesses, but that was mainly things like sweeping up the warehouse. So, I had to learn not only technical SEO but also sales, recruitment and management skills. I had never seen a P&L before, or a balance sheet, I didn’t know about tax. I had to learn almost everything there is to running a business pretty much immediately.

I had a good support network; Chris and some key advisors who I had a good relationship with and they supported me, and there was my dad, I had a lot of questions for him, from the very early stage until he passed away.

It was interesting and exciting, but a little bit daunting. It’s pretty much never stopped, to be honest, I’m still learning every day. I received a telephone call yesterday about something I have not experienced before in the last seven years, which I’ve just had a meeting about. No day ceases to amaze, which is good, interesting.

When did you start to employ people?
I took on my first person within the first three months; that was a technical role, someone who had a little bit more experience than me, technically. I knew that my role was going to be getting out, winning new business, and developing the company’s brand, so I had a limited time to service clients. Therefore, the initial building block was to get someone back at the ranch to service the clients, while I was growing the business. The business then went through periods of rapid growth, followed by more stable consolidation periods. There was two of us, then six or seven months later we said ‘let’s go for it’ and recruited three or four more people, after that we did the same again and a year after that we did the same again. 

When you grow rapidly, it is sensible for a business to have consolidation time to reflect, take a stock, make sure that the infrastructure can support your growth and then get ready for the next period of rapid growth. This type of growth cycle has followed us right through to where we are now, having spent time investing in processes, recruiting the right staff and developing new services we are ready to grow once again. .

How have you found the right staff for the business, to grow so strongly?
From a very, very early stage of the business it became very apparent that we weren’t going to be able to find experienced people because SEO was so new. Six or seven years ago, there was nobody who was experienced in it, which was a blessing and a curse, because it meant we couldn’t go and put our hands on experienced people, but in a positive way it forced us to go and grow our own. We put a lot of faith in graduates, apprentices and just generally bright, young, intelligent, ambitious people, who want to get on the train and head where we are going. 

Typically our new recruits will be regional graduates or sub-25-year-olds, maybe in their first or second role. We have developed very intensive, bespoke training programmes. We have structured the business in a way that allows us to recruit fairly inexperienced people and train them up to be highly skilled in a particular part of our business, so we don’t really have many generalists. I don’t know if this is through Chris’ influence, with him primarily being engineering and manufacturing, but we almost have a factory approach, a quality line with how we deliver our creative work, which is a bit unusual for the digital marketing and creative industries. We invested really early on in very robust systems and processes to develop a quality service. It allows us to have five people each doing one thing as part of a brilliant team, rather than having one person doing two things alright and three things not so well.

However, as the business has grown past the 70 staff mark, in the last 18 months I have recruited a financial director, an operations director and we now also have a technical director. We have also invested in strong team leaders. In essence we have spent the last 18 to 21 months putting a lot of structure throughout the business, so that we are ready to scale beneath that structure, we now have a very good senior management team and an experienced executive team above them.

To help grow the business nationally, we’ve also grown our Finsbury Square office in London to five staff. These staff are front-of-house, sales and account managers, who are winning and looking after clients in the south, with the technical work being delivered from the North East. 

Where were your first premises?
Originally, we were in Hoults Yard, before it got all trendy. I like to joke that we were responsible for that. There were sheepdogs running up and down the corridor playing catch with their owners when we were there, and we had a padlock on the office door that only I had a key to. It wasn’t exactly snazzy. We were probably there about 18 months.

We then came to Team Valley, in a 30-man office for around three years, then moved here in September 2012. We now have 70 staff. We’ve got plans to double that, hence there is an office move that needs to happen probably after Christmas.

We’ve always leased, just because of our ambitious plans for growth. We didn’t want to tie ourselves down, we didn’t know how big we were going to get. We still don’t.

You set up at the start of the recession. Was that madness, or was it inspired fortune?
We pretty much set up August 2007, right when the world ended. To be honest it actually helped us because at that time there were a lot of businesses that really had to look after every pound and penny of what they were spending.

Marketing is generally a big area, traditional marketing, I mean, where there was a lack of visibility over the ROI you actually got. Newspapers, TV, radio, it’s difficult to tell what you actually get from that. The beauty from digital and online marketing from our perspective is through things like Google Analytics, we can tell you about every single pound and penny invested, every ROI you got back from that, it was the absolutely measurable investment for a business. What we found was, businesses at that time were looking to move online, looking to market smarter, look after every pound and penny and we provided an avenue for them to do that and to win new customers they hadn’t been able to reach previously, because of the Internet. So, it kind of answered a lot of every business’ challenge and the fact we can work with pretty much anybody with a website meant we had a pretty limitless pool of targets. Geographically, we are not limited. We have run campaigns in probably 16 to 20 countries, we have currently got nine languages covered in house and we are supporting clients like GSK, House of Fraser, and many similar clients with national and international campaigns.

How do you market your own services?
We have got an ability, which not a lot of other businesses have, of being able to look in through the window and spot opportunities where we can help businesses. Because of the way that Google works, for our main service SEO, we can look at a website and instantly spot maybe ten problems that are hurting that website, hurting that business and, if fixed, could obviously help that business win more customers and improve, so we can generally approach businesses cold with a pretty solid argument for why they should speak to us. 

Our new business opportunities are therefore split between referrals, brand recognition though award wins and case studies and self-generated new business opportunities. As a result, for the first five years, we pretty much doubled the business every year. 

It also helps that businesses have a real desire to acquire our services. Everyone wants to be first page of Google, nobody goes past the first page. There are 99 billion results for every search, so if you are not in the top ten of those, you are kind of invisible.

You turned over nearly £3 million in your last financial year. Tell me a bit about where you are positioning MediaWorks now.
That’s slightly down from last year, and that was pretty much on purpose. This last 18 months’ transitional period we’ve purposefully concluded some of the less profitable customer contracts and freed up our resources to service higher value opportunities. So, in the past six months, for example, we’ve won Yorkshire Water, Scottish Power, Stagecoach, GlaxoSmithKline, FTSE 100 companies, and that’s because we have massively changed our approach to servicing clients. We used to be very product led, whereas now we are far more consultative. We’ve brought a lot of different product options in, put a little bit more agility around our service offering, so that we can fit more customers’ needs. We were pretty rigid in how we used to service customers because we were always looking for the perfect customers, and we were pretty naïve in some respects in terms of how we could win large accounts. We have strengthened our sales team with some high calibre senior recruits and restructured our sales and new business team, so that we can go and win the higher value accounts. 

What are the USPs that are helping you to achieve this success?
I think our biggest USP traditionally was always that we were specialists in what we did. A lot of our competitors tried to offer what we offer as a bit of a bolt on. Google’s algorithms change on almost a daily basis, unless you are immersed in our sector and you are right at the absolute leading edge then you just get left behind. The minute you are left behind, you put your business in jeopardy of doing the wrong things that Google, and other search engines, don’t want you to do. There are many case studies of high profile websites not following best practice and having their online presence, and in some cases business, wiped out overnight. That’s a big threat to businesses out there, they have to make sure that the agencies they work with are specialists at what they are doing and that they retain that cutting edge focus.

The other core USP for us is our commercial focus. There are a lot of agencies out there that are either very technical or very creative, very few can offer both, which we can. Even fewer will umbrella that with a commercial focus before they even think about the technical or creative element. Before we engage in any project, we invest in understanding what the client is wanting to achieve. Where are they now? Where do they want to be? And once we understand that, then we plug in the creative and the technical elements. I don’t think enough agencies ask clients “why?”

Tell me about your own motivation?
For me, no two days are the same. MediaWorks has phenomenal growth potential and I think we just want to continue growing and see how big we can get. We have just won the European Search Award. Two months earlier, we won the Northern Digital Awards Agency of the Year, so we are getting recognition. We are in a report as one of the top ten feared agencies, in terms of our competitors. We are starting to work with the likes of Glaxo SmithKline, and there is no bigger business. We are going through this new phase of competing with the best, globally, not just nationally. We want to be recognised as one of the leading players nationally, and I suppose then it’s where do we go from there? We’ve already been recognised in Europe’s elite, so it’s exciting.

How does that motivation compare with the motivation of 22-year-old Brett, fresh out of university?
Twenty-two-year-old Brett’s motivation was the next pay packet. I’ve now got a young family. I’ve got certain personal objectives I want to achieve and MediaWorks is a vehicle that will help me achieve those personal objectives. We will be ten years old in the next 24 to 36 months, and it might be time then to look at where we fit strategically in our industry and what opportunities are there for us to scale even bigger and quicker.

We’ve considered acquiring businesses in the past, but we have always grown organically, and that’s all we’ve known but I think there is a real opportunity in the digital marketplace; there are not many independents left of our size with the right management team, the right structure, the right client base that could get out there and start acquiring other businesses and develop something bigger than we could even dream of. We’ve got a great location, we have five universities in the region providing a constant stream of talent, a very well structured business, a great new business team, all of the pieces of the puzzle are slowly moving into place to allow us to do what we want to do.

How do you keep your staff motivated?
My biggest realisation in the early days was that we are a people business, first and foremost, and happy people equal good work. So, I give them a nice building, incentivise staff very well with an annual bonus scheme, where we share out the company profits among all the staff, regardless of their position within the business. 

We also make sure that they are involved in the success of the business, two of our apprentices were part of the team that collected a recent award, this feeling of ownership and pride in their work is very important.  

We have a young, active, social employee base and invest a lot in social and sporting activities that keep them engaged in the business.

Finally, where does the future lie for MediaWorks?
We have an aggressive 36 month growth plan that involves more than doubling the current staff base. I absolutely believe that’s achievable. We know where our key strategic opportunities and threats are, and the biggest challenge for me is finding the right people. The right people, and the right balance of people, too much youth, energy and inexperience can lead you to running around like mad hatters, so, it’s finding the right balance of experience and innovation.