Ask most people how they got into this industry, and you are normally greeted with a shrug of the shoulders, followed by the words: “I just fell into it.”
But, for Nick Davies, managing director of ‘localisation’ agency EMO, it was no accident – by the age of eight, he’d already mastered the hand-enclosing machine at his grandfather’s mailing house…his career had chosen itself.
You see, the Davies family has a rich DM heritage. His grandfather ran a mail-house, inherited by Nick’s father John, who subsequently became chair of the Direct Mail Producers Association (a forerunner of the DMA).
John’s brother Dick joined him from IBM and between them they developed one of the UK’s first personal data businesses, eventually sold to Colourgraphic. Nick’s cousin Helen Davies has also worked in the industry, having spells at WWAV Media in the Mike Colling era, as well as Prager Proximity, Carat and Havas. You could say they are almost the Waltons of DM.
So, fresh out of university in 1989, it seemed only right for Davies Jnr to follow the family way. And, where else but WWAV – at the time the largest agency in the land?
Davies stayed at WWAV (now Rapp) for over six years, then spent time at Tullo Marshall Warren, Junction Group and EHS Brann before rejoining WWAV as managing director of the Bristol agency in 2004.
Having worked with many of the industry ‘faces’, who stands out and why?
Davies says: “I worked with John Watson in the pioneering Nineties, when he was leading the industry from the front with conviction and not a little success. Terry Hunt also has an infuriating ability to distil everybody else’s thinking into a single, powerful insight – that ability to walk into a brainstorm, say his piece and leave you to rewrite it all…”
Time to go it alone
By October 2006, Davies had decided to take the plunge and he co-founded EMO. Just over five years later, the agency now has 120 staff and two offices, and an impressive client list which includes no fewer than eight car accounts – BMW, Rolls-Royce, Lexus and Jaguar to name but a few – in addition to Tesco, Department of Health, Holiday Inn and the InterContinental Hotels Group.
Part of the Creston Group which also owns TMW, EMO positions itself as a local marketing agency. According to the company blurb, it “helps brands engage with customers and communities at a local level. Why? Because it delivers better results”.
He explains: “I truly believe that consumers have crossed a tipping-point – that they distrust global and want to see brands genuinely re-engaged at a local level.
“EMO, as the UK’s only localisation agency, is dedicated to doing great work for great clients in this space. Yet being first means we have to be ambassadorial too – and margins are tight…”
But with most of the big agencies starting from humble beginnings; does he think it is possible for a start-up to grow into such a force these days?
“It’s possible,” says Davies, “great agencies rise from having something new to say or an exceptionally talented top team and whilst genuinely new approaches are few-and-far between, there’s talent in abundance. But I don’t think it’s probable. I’d question whether any new start-up today has an ambition to be ‘big’. Better to be fluid, consultative, and fleet of foot – that’s hard when you’re big.”
The challenge of change
Not that being fleet of foot doesn’t present its own challenges, as Davies explains: “We are changing all the time – modern agencies have to. The present rate of technological and social change forces innovation – expensive if not properly recovered and this against a backdrop of austerity.
“I suppose the most constant, most pressing, challenge is being able to charge appropriately for value delivered. If I could move away from charging time to charging for value, that would be a change I’d make tomorrow.”
So, where do agencies go wrong? “They don’t invest enough time,” Davies stresses. “They get distracted by new business or internal process, they stop listening; they become presumptuous. They don’t re-invest when people change.”
However, he believes client marketers suffer from similar issues: “Clients also don’t invest enough time. Poor communication (strategy, briefs, KPIs, agency reviews) leaves the agency guessing, which burns precious time and hurts performance for both parties.”
Agencies no longer have upper hand
But gone are the days when agencies held the upper hand when it comes to expertise, Davies maintains. “Expertise lies in individuals and well-conceived teams. But where those individuals and teams are sat, bought and paid for is definitely changing.
“The trend of pulling expertise into client organisations (rather than contribute to third-party profits) continues but there will always be a threshold that, when crossed, stifles creativity and ultimately commercial success.
“I think what this trend means that, for tomorrow’s agencies, they will have to have a purity of expertise – less functional delivery, an upskilling of suits, less administrative support and more outsourcing of specialist functions for guaranteed margin.”
And the rise of digital? “Some brands and agencies face challenges around ‘social’ campaigns – are they meaningful or interruptive?, Davies ponders. “Facebook simply doesn’t work for some. Contemporary integrated campaigns, comprising social, direct, experiential and promotional elements are predominately digital in delivery, but which bits work? Digital activity presents a better analytical opportunity but unpicking meaningful results remains time-consuming.”
Death of the DM agency
So, is the old-school direct marketing agency – the kings of the much-maligned ‘shit that folds’ – long gone?
“The agency delineation simply doesn’t exist in the way it used to – DM agencies of old have repositioned as digital and ad agencies have won awards for direct mail,” asserts Davies. “And that’s because today we’re all multi-channel, integrated marketing communications businesses. There will always be a place for well targeted, well executed direct marketing – but as part of an integrated effort. I believe that ‘broadcast’ in all its forms is wasteful and under scrutiny, so on that basis, anyone still reliant on high volume mail isn’t being sufficiently inventive and – well – shit sticks.”
But away from the stresses and strains of running a business, how does he wind down. True to his mail house roots, Davies is not averse to getting down and dirty himself. Like many of his generation, he spends plenty of his spare time on two wheels exploring forest, fell and moorland.
“I’m that rare thing,” he concludes, “a mountain-biker who’s not succumbed to the roadie trend. Muddier and less social – but definitely more interesting.”