Soon after we moved into the Woodstock offices, there would be a major turning point and a challenging new entrepreneurial test for me.
A swashbuckling raconteur of an Englishman by the name of Thomas Boyd approached me with an opportunity to pitch for a major multinational, continent-wide account. The company was Philips. Philips was a biggie — a well-known, established, multinational technology brand with a market cap of about €35bn. Even though it had lost some of its lustre in recent times, it was one of those coveted brands every agency wanted to work with.
On its own, Thomas’s agency was too small to go for the account, so he suggested we team up. I was particularly attracted to that account, as Native — our next-door neighbours — had been doing some work on it, and I thought it would be great if our scruffy upstart agency won it right from under their noses. I don’t know if Native cared about our interest in that account, or if they were too big to care, but I cared. I cared a lot.
Thomas is fantastically erudite and articulate in the way only an upper-middle-class Englishman can be. But he and I had a strange relationship. I had known Thomas since my days at the M&G, where he had tried to sell me an e-mail service.
We’d had a disagreement over contract terms, which had put me in a foul mood. I was leaving a message on his phone to call me back when I was interrupted by a staff member who asked me, “What’s wrong?”
I put the phone down — but not properly — and told him exactly what was wrong, laced with a machine-gun barrage of expletives about what I thought of Thomas and his changing contracts.
A while later, in one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, Thomas called me and said he had heard what I had to say about him. I apologised unreservedly for my shocking behaviour and the mistake I had made.
That was now all water under the bridge, because Thomas and I were about to team up to pitch for one of the big fishes. The problem was that he had come to me less than two days before the pitch. We needed to gather a team, form a strategy, create a pitch presentation, book flights and fly to Joburg in practically no time at all. I told him, “Tom, it’s impossible — you have come to me too late with this. We just can’t do it.” And this time, I ended the call politely.
This was to be a major lesson for me as an entrepreneur. After the call, I stewed over the lost opportunity for the rest of the morning (while also losing valuable time to prepare for the pitch). I realised that I was not behaving like the ambitious entrepreneur I aspired to be.
My core philosophy as an entrepreneur, which served me well in building the company, was to be “completely opportunistic” — that is, to follow up on every opportunity no matter how big or how small. It drove my staff crazy, as they felt I was chasing everything indiscriminately. But I was not. I reasoned that business is a series of pathways, doors and relationships.
You can only get to door 10 if you start at door one. Every door you open leads to other doors and pathways. A small client may lead to bigger clients, or a small client may become a big client. A new client may allow you to open up new services in your business and transform it. You will only know if you follow up on the opportunities presented. I would take almost every meeting with the understanding that a meeting could lead to a big idea or client lead. That doesn’t mean I was indiscriminate or undiscerning; the opportunity had to be within our broad skill set. But the key here is that I was always open to trying and I treated every potential interaction as if it could transform my business.
My point is that you are not in control of what the world does out there, but you are in control of creating or scouting out opportunities and putting yourself in a position where you can make the most of those opportunities. And I made sure, to the best of my ability, that I was continually putting myself in a position where an abundance of opportunities surrounded me.
In the case of the Philips pitch, I gave myself a pep talk and decided — as Melissa would always put it — “to put on my big girl panties” and just go for it. I called up Thomas and said “We’re on mate, let’s do it.” He was thrilled that I’d had a change of heart and we immediately began plotting and planning.
Because my staff were consumed with servicing current clients, I decided not to put them under pressure to do a last-minute pitch. Instead, I would do it myself. I did a quickfire brainstorm with my top people and worked that night and early the next morning to put together a presentation for the next day.
I knew Philips was a business-to-business play, even though most people thought of it as a consumer business. Philips presented an interesting challenge as it was a very well-known and innovative tech brand, but it belonged to the old era, not the internet age. It was your “grandfather’s technology brand” as opposed to the tech brand of Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs.
My presentation was full of business-to-business marketing techniques and ideas, and packed with stats and graphs. It was not your typical marketing agency presentation. The presentation was focused on editorial content as a means of marketing, backed by a business strategy, as opposed to the typical traditional agency fare of “creative ideas”.
Thomas and I flew to Joburg together in business class. We were doing this gig in style, with Thomas reading out inspirational passages from the book Confessions of an Advertising Man by the great David Ogilvy himself, on how the famous advertising agency won their pitches. We were inspired, motivated, and we were going to kick ass.
We were the second agency to pitch, and midway through I didn’t feel it was going well. At one point, the Philips marketing director, a stylish and well-groomed Kenyan by the name of Julieah Muthama, who had been strangely quiet throughout the presentation, stopped me mid-sentence to let Thomas and I know her thoughts. She said, “You know, I have a problem with professionalism in your industry.” I thought to myself, “Here we go. We just wasted a late night and a business-class plane ticket.”
After an awkward pause that seemed to last a year, Julieah added, “But your agency is different.” I don’t know why she was being so cryptic. I think she secretly enjoyed the game, the suspense, the anticipation, and putting us through the wringer. She told us how impressed she was with our pitch. We were the only agency to actually answer the brief and refer properly to her company’s business-to-business target market.
The meeting went so well that we ate into 45 minutes of pitch time by the next rival agency, World Wide Creative. I’ll never forget passing that agency’s creative head, Fred Roed, in the corridor, fresh from his pitch.
“Oh, so this is how you do business, Buckland?’ he asked wryly. He was half-joking, half-irritated that I had eaten into his time. I gave Fred a wink and said, “Good luck, mate.” Later, we were told that we had won the account. What is more, we had beaten some very reputable agencies, including much larger ones that had been in the game far longer.
A major lesson for me in this is that, as founder and MD of the company, you are also the “seller-in-chief”. Whether you like it or not, you need to sell — and you need to do the deals.
When mentoring or investing in startups, I always look for that commitment, either in the founder or in his or her team. I am extremely wary of startup teams who lack a strong business development personality. No-one sells your business or your concept better than you. It’s something that the founder team needs to own and control completely, especially when the company is in the nascent stages.
Winning the Philips account was transformative for our company. Business-to-business marketing was an area that we intuitively understood and were good at, and the size of the account was a landmark for us.
• The above extract is taken from So You Want to Build a Startup? by Matthew Buckland, published by Tafelberg and retailing for R295.
• At the time of his death, Matthew Buckland was a columnist for Business Day