This is a short story about my company’s journey from a tired idea to a vibrant brand with a fresh proposition, fire in its belly again, and a glint in its eye that says “we’re ready to take on the world”.
In September 2018, my agency, iThinkMedia turned 10 years old. We had grown to a 25 strong team and worked with giant brands like eBay, Gumtree, WWE and Mothercare along the way. It was great to celebrate 10 years in business and we’ve achieved a lot, but something was really bothering me.
The iThinkMedia brand had become the neglected child of a busy agency environment and a victim of our own success. We were suddenly becoming lost in the crowd of search marketing agencies around us that all looked and sounded the same. Stand still and the market catches up, I knew to survive another 10 years and beyond we had to up our game.
The number of agencies out there today is far greater than in 2008; thousands of ‘fully integrated digital marketing agencies’ that offer every service to any industry, B2B or B2C and call themselves specialists. The problem faced by many agency owners is the fear of missing out, so they simply offer everything to everyone.
In my opinion ‘generalist’ agencies are a dying breed, there is so much choice now that clients can choose to lean on an agency that has experience in their field and offer a market leading solution for each channel. Only the biggest agencies can reasonably offer the full suite of digital marketing services and provide genuine expertise across the board.
Search engine marketing, in particular, has evolved at an incredible pace in the last decade. 10 years ago, SEO was still very much a dark art and clients were generally upsold this by large agencies already managing their paid media or their site’s developers as an add-on. It was deemed safer to put this budget in a trusted, existing provider than a smaller, less established, specialist agency.
SEO today can be dissected into multiple disciplines including technical SEO, copywriting, UX, local search, CRO, content marketing, and digital PR all requiring specific skills. Multiply the techniques and strategies used for each industry and you have a lot to cover as an SEO agency if you want to effectively service everyone.
I was keen to narrow our focus even further and really pick a niche. Our previous experience was largely weighted around retail and we have a strong base of automotive clients. I want my team to live and breathe these two industries; not be scared of not appealing to everyone.
With a narrower focus the team can have more clarity on what’s important for them to do, follow and learn. The agency will have a stronger appeal to potential clients in these two markets. It also allows the business to be more focused on where marketing, technology and training budget is allocated and gives us a much clearer objective on where we need to be visible, what we need to learn and which software and development we should invest in.
What happens if a business comes along from a different sector? Do we just turn them away? The simple answer is no. If it works for them and they are a client that fits with our criteria, then they are welcome to join us. Picking a niche makes marketing, budget planning, recruitment and training much more focused. It doesn’t mean the service levels drop or the results won’t come for clients in other industries.
Therefore, we have three pillars of clients – retail, automotive and everyone else. Just like we have three services – SEO, Paid Media and Content. It means as a business we are more structured, all teams work seamlessly together as the three services are linked and we can plan and grow each specialist skill for each sector as we need.
We all fear the unknown. You can either stay in the shadows or embrace fear and use it to drive you forward. I was determined to create something special, I wanted to create a brand that had meaning and something that staff and clients alike could buy into. Above all, I wanted something I could be proud of again and be excited about.
I don’t like to label myself as an entrepreneur, but I am prepared to take risks. Back in 2008, I had the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy from my position of Search Marketing Manager at PC World. SEO was relatively new back then and I had an impressive CV and portfolio of highly competitive page 1 keyword results. It also coincided with my son being born prematurely so getting a job and commuting to London every day wasn’t exactly appealing.
I took a risk and went alone. I settled for the name iThinkMedia (probably not long after an iPhone release!), found some robot light bulbs on a royalty-free image site, put them in Photoshop added some typography, got some stationery printed, built myself a website and hey presto – A search marketing agency was born.
My first client was ELC, a UK toy shop, and good work there quickly won me the SEO account for the parent company, Mothercare. My second client was the outdoor retailer Blacks Leisure Group. It set the tone for the size of clients we have continued to service since then.
Within two years, iThinkMedia were a team of eight and in our own offices, a converted barn in Hertford about 15 miles north of London. We were a proper agency now, so we got a proper designer (one that does it for a living) to come up with some refreshed branding, the light bulbs went and with our new logo came a new sign for our board room.
Changing the light bulbs at the heart of my brand became a perspex sign on a brick wall that lit up with an LED strip behind them. If we wanted to put a photo out in the press, on social, anywhere, we had to get that sign in. I was stuck with a brand name that wasn’t exciting, was difficult to market and we were too heavily reliant on referrals from my network.
In today’s market branding is so important, relying on word of mouth and referrals can only get you so far as an agency. The internet has brought with it a huge influx of businesses to every industry; branding is more important now than ever before to differentiate between your company and the competition. As such, a sign on a wall was simply not enough to build a marketing strategy around.
Fast forward to today: creating a logo and website can be done very cheaply and well enough to fit in with the crowd. A new logo and a website re-design was never going to be enough and we had tried unsuccessfully on a couple of occasions to refresh our website using external design agencies. The change needed to be complete and breathe a new lease of life into everyone in the agency; it also needed to come from within the business, not through an external agency.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to do this alone and after a lot of searching, I found a suitable Creative Director. I contacted Kevin Russell, a branding and communications expert, previously CD at world-renowned digital agency AKQA for 10 years. His award-winning work spanned multiple global accounts including Nike, Xbox, and Heineken.
Kevin joined in the summer of 2018 and the first task was to bring him up to speed on our culture, our personality and most importantly – what Search Engine Optimisation is! Between us, we wrote the creative brief that was to guide us through the next 10 months.
Coinciding with all of this, we were about to invest heavily in our historic offices The Old Barn and The Stables by combining them into one building; reaffirming our belief that we don’t have to be in London to compete with the big agencies.
This, in turn, meant a complete refit in the Stables, moving our boardroom into a bigger space, creating a new workspace for additional desks, a video conference room and creating more breakout areas. We even fitted a shower to encourage staff to get active during the day or ride to work.
A big part of our culture is our office building and location, it’s pretty unique as anyone that’s ever visited will tell you but I wanted to make a visit to our offices even more special. The centrepiece would be the new link between our two buildings; a glass area, similar to a large conservatory that would become our new reception area. This was an opportunity to give the agency a complete re-fit inside and out.
After a lot of good and bad ideas, brainstorming, planning, concepts, building works and design stages, we settled on a proposition we thought people could really get behind. Communicating this decision to staff, especially the senior team caused concerns. Changing the name of our agency was seen as a risk but once we showed them the new concept and branding people quickly bought in.
To symbolise my commitment to making this happen I decided to smash that Perspex sign in our boardroom with a sledgehammer. The costs, the stress, the doubts in the back of my head and the fear of it not working were a list of reasons not to see this through, play safe and stick to what we knew. By destroying this sign meant there was no going back. We decided to video this and make it a tease campaign ahead of our launch on social channels.
The planned launch of January quickly moved to February, then March. The delays were frustrating for everyone but everything had to be right and a lot of details needed to be in place before we committed. On May 22nd 2019, Honchō was finally born and we hosted a garden party launch event in front of agency friends old and new to share our new brand. Thankfully, everything has gone to plan so far and the day was fantastic with a great response.
Honcho is all about leadership and inspiring people to take the lead no matter what their position in life. Leadership isn’t a title but an action, a behaviour – a frame of mind. From someone going out of their comfort zone to doing something that helps others succeed or think differently.
We use the term #BeHoncho to celebrate an act of leadership and it is a prominent message within our branding. We see people being Honchō every day, so why not celebrate it? My favourite thing about our new brand is that it is a concept and meaning that could easily be applied to multiple products or industries.
The focus of retail as a niche played a major part in our branding especially with the use of the barcode in our logo and I was really keen to find a way of giving a retail experience to our visitors. So, we’ve created what is effectively a boutique shop in our reception with a range of Honchō merchandise including a clothing range that has become extremely popular. If you visit our offices, you can expect to leave with some quality goodies all packaged in a way that makes you feel you’ve just been to a boutique shop.
Rebranding my agency was a personal journey and I learnt many lessons along the way. It allowed us to really break down what was important to our business and what we stood for but more than anything it was about making us as good as we can be. We’re not the agency that looks like all the others anymore and hopefully this will bear fruit in the coming months and years.
I encourage any business owner that feels like they are standing still or losing their passion to take the courage and not be scared to change. From narrowing your focus to a more niche audience or taking the best bits and creating something new, it can spark a new lease of life into not only your business but also give you a fresh abundance of energy and enthusiasm to take your business forward.