How Matt Isaacs took his web business global
James McKeigue Feb 12, 2013
Building on success: Matt Isaacs
As an unemployed former strategy consultant, life could have looked bleak for Matt Isaacs, now 41, in 2006. Fortunately, he had a plan. A few years earlier, “a group of friends had started a credit-card firm and they wanted me to help”. Accucard had developed a technology that checked customers’ credit ratings and offered them a variety of personalised deals.
The idea caught the attention of Lloyds Banking Group, who snapped it up in 2002. “Being part of a larger group was great. It gave us the funds to explore exciting new areas.” But after a few years Lloyds began to lose patience with Accucard. “The business wasn’t delivering what they had hoped and eventually they decided to close it.”
Undeterred, Isaacs was convinced his experience at Lloyds would help him set up a digital agency. With two former colleagues, he contacted investors, but “our talks didn’t go very well – no one was very interested in the idea”. Out of the blue, he received word that Charles Dunstone, co-founder of Carphone Warehouse, wanted to speak to him.
“He wanted us to set up an internal digital agency for his firm.” So the trio’s new agency, Essence, began working for Carphone Warehouse. “We managed their website, designed their online advertisements and ran their online campaigns.
Because there were about seven or eight different brands within the firm it felt like we had lots of different clients.” After two years Isaacs renegotiated the contract to allow Essence to handle other clients. “We had grown so much that the original deal we had signed with them didn’t make sense any more.”
By then the agency was able to design and create a range of different digital advertisements in different formats (including videos and banners) and mount cost-effective campaigns that got exposure in a variety of different places on the internet. Its proprietary software could also analyse how effective advertisements were in meeting clients’ goals.
Their first new client was internet giant Google. “Google was not a big marketing spender back in those days.” In 2007, it paid Essence £30,000 to arrange a small banner advertisement campaign to direct internet users onto its homepage, iGoogle.
With Google behind it, Essence added clients throughout 2007. But then disaster struck when their biggest client, Talk Talk, a Carphone Warehouse brand, cancelled their contract the following year. “We had to cut costs to survive.” However, “when the financial crisis hit later that year we were in good shape as we’d already trimmed down”.
Hungry for new business in 2009 and 2010, they won a string of blue-chip clients, including eBay, which gave them responsibility for its European online marketing (“it sent us on the way to becoming an international company”). The agency quickly hired international staff for its London office, which now has native speakers in more than 25 languages.
These days, more than 70% of revenues come from outside Britain and the firm has topped The Sunday Times HSBC International Track 200, a league table of private companies with the fastest-growing international sales. Last year, sales hit £117m, and a confident Isaacs opened offices in New York, San Francisco and Singapore.
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