Combining classic market strength with new world capabilities

Name: 

Matt Isaacs

Role and company

Founding partner and CEO of Essence

Company turnover (and most recent ebitda/most relevant profitability metric): 

2011/12 Turnover – £117,492,593;
2011/12 Billings – £170,014,240; and
Estimated EBITDA – £3,360,636

In under 50 words, what makes your business distinctive in its marketplace:

At seven-years-old we are an agency designed for the digital age, unhampered by legacy. We combine classic marketing strengths – strategy, planning, insight, creativity, delivery – with new world capabilities that today’s world demands – proprietary cutting edge technology platforms, enterprise data management, sophisticated analytics, entrepreneurialism and innovation.

What’s the big vision for your business?

To inspire moments of digital brilliance. To invent the marketing of tomorrow. To challenge, develop, nurture and value our people. To continuously create value for our clients. And in doing so become the category defining global digital agency by 2016.

Current level of international business, and future aspirations: 

We won our first international mandate in 2009 and more than 75 per cent of our business is now outside UK. Internationals sales have grown 570 per cent from 2009 to 2011.

We launched in the US with an office in NYC in October 2010. US business forecast is to deliver turnover over $100m this year. In September 2012 we acquired San Francisco-based Black Bag Advertising and there are plans for further acquisitions in the future, which are most likely to be on the West Coast of America, although we do also have plans to open in Asia in next 12 months.

I fully expect to open on other continents within the next three years.

Biggest career setback and what you learned from it: 

Closing the doors on the European arm of Mitchell Madison Group (MMG), the McKinsey spin-off that went from nothing to being the hot new strategy consulting house in the 1990s. MMG Europe was pushed into administration in 2000 after parent company marchFIRST, the US-based professional services business that had bought it out. At the time, NASDAQ listed 10,000-strong, marchFIRST was the largest corporate failure after Enron. MMG has since been reformed by some of the original MMG partners and is today a thriving consultancy again.

It taught me that:

  1. As well as having keen eye on commercials of course, the key to building a successful and sustainable business is having clarity of vision pursued with a shared sense of purpose and values. The relentless pursuit of growth at the expense of those common principles is a road that ultimately leads to disaster;
  2. It is easy to agree and write down values – it is much harder to consistently live by them and imbue a growing international organisation with them;
  3. The word “growth” has no place in any mission or vision statement; and
  4. Take your own hype with a pinch of salt. Belief is fundamental to the creation of entrepreneurial businesses but it can also make us vulnerable to extraordinary self deception – I just didn’t see it coming.

What makes you mad in business today?

The judgement/victim culture. Leaders being held to account (e.g. by media) for things they had little or no involvement or control over.

Also, leaders blaming “the market” or “external factors” for their own or their organisation’s behaviour “on their watch”.

Our leaders need to be the role models for tomorrow’s leaders. True leaders should be capable of seeing what the right thing to do is without “the market” telling them. But constant hounding is enough to break anyone. They need to be given the space (and forgiveness) to be their best. They are, after all, human.

What will be the biggest change in your market in the next three years?

Connected device proliferation (PC, mobile, tablet, connected TV, digital paper, connected glasses… you name it) and the challenge of how to create experiences and marketing that properly flows across those devices.

Can businesses in your sector/industry access the finance they need to grow? If not, what can be done to improve things?

Technology and internet-related businesses are fortunate in being in a sector that has always been served by a variety of funding sources. I think good businesses in our sector have no problem accessing finance.

How would others describe your leadership style?

Inspirational, direct, decisive, ethical, human.

Your biggest personal extravagance?

Four kids!

You’ve got two minutes with the prime minister. Tell him how best to set the UK’s independent, entrepreneurial businesses free to prosper:

Being a little selfish, I would invest in the  physical and human infrastructure to support our “new industries”. More tech hubs with high speed connectivity, more physical spaces for startups to get going in, more courses and training in all things digital, and a radical rethink of how our educational system can be reconfigured to help people become independent thinkers and more entrepreneurial.

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