The Evening Standard on We Are Social


Robin and I were recently interviewed by Gideon Spanier from London’s Evening Standard, who have kindly let us republish the article below. As Gideon says, We Are Social would not have been possible until a few years ago, but it would also not be possible without all the incredibly talented and hard-working people who are part of the We Are Social family. From those with us in the early days described in the article (especially our favourite Frenchwoman, Sandrine), to people who have joined more recently in all 8 offices around the world, the success described in this article is shared with you, too.

Nathan and RobinWe Are Social could not have existed until a few years ago. Robin Grant and Nathan McDonald only founded their marketing agency in 2008 when they saw how Facebook, Twitter and other sites were revolutionising the way people communicate.

The two former advertising execs felt traditional agencies were not coping with this new world, where consumers wanted to have conversations, not be bombarded with brand messages.

“Most of these agencies were set up in a very traditional way to tell stories,” explains Grant, sitting next to McDonald in their bright offices in Farringdon, complete with table-tennis table. “It’s not the way people behave online. You have to look at what existing conversations there are and try and join them and provoke new conversations. That requires a totally different mindset.

“We call ourselves a conversation agency,” he adds, explaining why their start-up differs from an advertising, public relations or digital agency. “They all come with baggage.”

Not having baggage has worked. Turnover has leapt from £400,000 in year one to £1.5 million in 2010 and £4.9 million in 2011. In the last financial year to June 2012, it was £12 million.

Winning international clients including Adidas, Jaguar and Heineken fuelled growth. We Are Social opened its first overseas office in Paris in 2010 and now operates in Milan, Munich, New York, Sydney, Singapore and Sao Paulo. Staff numbers have soared to 270.

Grant, 39, grew up in Herne Hill and studied aeronautical engineering at Bristol University. McDonald, 38, is an Australian who studied sociology in Sydney before moving to London.

They met as colleagues at digital agency Tribal DDB nearly a decade ago, but their separate experiences of working during the first dot-com bubble before that were crucial. “We’ve seen hubris get to you — signing ridiculous leases, having boardroom tables made out of aeroplane wings,” says Grant.

So when they decided to launch  We Are Social, they agreed a lean approach. They had some savings, recalls McDonald, so all they needed were “a couple of laptops and a broadband connection”.

They got a flying start as they landed Skype, the video-conferencing website, as a client. “Skype were predisposed to this kind of thing culturally — they were a start-up themselves,” says Grant.

They set up in a corner of Skype’s office in Tottenham Court Road, so the fledgling agency didn’t have to pay rent and had no bank debt — just as the economy was tanking. “Recession is a great time to start a business,” declares McDonald. “Clients wanted to come to an agency like us that was nimbler and more cost-effective — without massive overheads.”

Marmite was an early client. We Are Social came up with the idea of a secret club of ultra-Marmite fans, called the Marmarati, to spread the word about a special extra-strong limited-edition range. “People were asked to prove how much they loved Marmite by uploading content, photos and poems,” explains McDonald.

That was a watershed. “Lots of people were buying social media as an add-on to an existing campaign —Marmite was the first time when someone came to us and said we want to launch a product through social media.”

Another hit was a campaign for Heinz, which built on the nostalgia that people feel about soup. Users could buy a can of “Get Well” soup for a sick friend or relation with a customised label and then send it — all through Facebook.

We Are Social’s expansion overseas was natural as one of their first hires was a Frenchwoman, who then wanted to return to Paris. Each new office is treated like a start-up, to control costs.

They are confident that social media won’t go out of fashion, even though Facebook’s stock-market float flopped. “The inherent thing is people are social beings,” says Grant, who believes it’s a fundamental human desire to express oneself. “That’s unlikely to change. Social media is relatively young, and new services will pop up all the time that will fulfil other needs. Tumblr and Pinterest are good examples of that.”

Despite social media being fun, the agency’s founders are quite serious and like to use data. As McDonald says: “We’re always making sure we understand the business objectives behind it. I think that’s why we’ve prospered.”

We Are Social

Founded: 2008

Staff: 270

Turnover: £12 million

Business idol: “Sir Richard Branson, because he understands the power of the brand and he never runs away from a fight.”