I recently appeared on the “You Want To Do What” Podcast. It was great speaking with Dan about my history, The successes and challenges of building Digital Ethos and what the future holds for Digital Ethos and Tobin Capital. It has been quite a journey over the last seven years so it was great to share my take on the elements that have come together to help make it a success.
Prefer to read? Enjoy the transcription below.
You Want To Do What? – Entrepreneur – Digital Ethos
LUKE: Hi Dan. Good to see you.
DAN: Pleasure to have you on the podcast. Mate. I think we’ve, you know, we’ve been going backwards and forwards for a little bit, , you know, trying, trying to get this, all organised, but it’s, it’s a pleasure to have you on. I think, , you know, a bit of news came out recently that you’ve actually just sold your agency.
LUKE: I have indeed. Yeah, I have
LUKE: Thank you very much. Thank you. Yeah, it’s been a bit of a journey, but it’s nice to, definitely, nice to realise some value and take a little bit of weight off the old shoulders. I know, it’s good.
DAN: Yeah. Amazing. Luke, should we jump straight in and do you wanna tell everyone a bit about what you do?
LUKE: Yeah, absolutely. , so I guess the primary thing that I’ve been working on for the last seven years is, is a marketing agency Digital Ethos. , scaled it from just myself, , and a few freelancers I had dotted around the globe, , which had its challenges trying to, trying to work with freelancers at different time zones and all the rest of it to then, building up from 2018 with our first employees to around 55, professionals now, in the UK, a couple in the US we got a Toronto office, also an office we opened in Germany.
LUKE: Through to the acquisition. So yeah, very much a marketing agency,
DAN: This always amazes me about marketing agencies that you, you all seem to build. Offices in a lot of different countries. Is that, that’s quite a common thing, isn’t it, in marketing agencies and just off the top of my head, why, why do you guys do that? Apart from the sort of obvious answers to that?
LUKE: For us it was quite opportunistic really. We had clients that were based in those markets and they wanted local presence and we wanted to make sure we kept the relationships. So we put some feet on the street, but, you know, I know a lot of agencies do it from a cost base employee perspective. You know, the UK market’s been quite hard and very competitive for staff, so I think that’s probably been part of it. Mm-hmm. also looks nice to have a few dots on the map, but obviously, you know, if you can service clients and understand those localised challenges, it definitely goes a long way.
DAN: Sure. And then you’ve got another sort of business you have called Tobin Capital, right.
LUKE: Exactly, yeah. Tobin Capital is, my funding accelerator for scale up and startup businesses. I’ve been doing that for a few years. It’s quite nice actually. The day-to-day at Digital Ethos is, you know, from a CEO perspective is, is, is quite intense and certainly starts to kill a little bit of that entrepreneurial spirit, whereas Tobin Capital allows me to still focus on, on that side of my personality.
DAN: So how did that sort of, that part come about then? Because that’s a really interesting sort of, not side business, but a different business for you to get involved with because I think maybe the marketing skills are very different to investing into startup companies.
LUKE: Yeah, absolutely. , I mean, I think first and foremost I’m entrepreneurial. So I’ve had, I don’t know, half a dozen businesses throughout my life. Marketing has just been the more recent one, , and, and the most successful, luckily , But, , but yeah, Tobin Capital really is, it came about because of my love for, for, for startup businesses. I started getting opportunities. Having the marketing agency is quite handy because you get a lot of, , scale up companies that come to you and they’re interested in a bit of sweat equity or is there anything we can do on the pricing?
It’s like, well, no, we can’t do it on the pricing, but, you know, there might be a bit of advisory work or, or whatever. So, It sort of led into just, again, opportunistic really. I, I sort of realised that I had a bit of a knack for it, a love for it, and, , and started then doing some, some sort of exchange of service as well as some, some cash-based investments.
And a couple of those have, have, have luckily been very successful.
DAN: Yeah, that’s a great way to do it, isn’t it? Like you say, being approached with opportunity, but some agency owners may have turned that away, but you’ve taken it and turned it into another business, which is obviously a very entrepreneurial thing to do. But, but taking this back a little bit, how did you first get into the world of marketing?
LUKE: I worked in the commercial side of marketing, so more of the business development, sales side. , probably on and off now for around 15, 16 years. , a mix of software and marketing agencies direct and online marketing. 10 years ago, I worked in an agency, absolutely fell in love with the digital space. , Google and all the main publishers were really thriving and starting to take a lot of momentum, and I just fell in love with it and I thought, God, I, I just really would love to, , to one day have my own agency and, you know, look at some of the challenges that I think that sit between. Clients and agencies, there’s often a bit of no man’s land that sits in between where there’s kind of a bit of mistrust and they don’t always seem to connect as well as they should. And you know, I saw an opportunity there too, to do that a bit differently and, and that’s how I founded Digital Ethos.
DAN: I find this really interesting because there are thousands upon thousands of marketing agencies in the UK these days.
LUKE: There is.
DAN: But what do you, why do you think your marketing agency was successful over others?
LUKE: It’s an extremely competitive space. I actually read somewhere recently, and I think it was on the dr, there’s like six and a half thousand agencies in the UK.
It’s phenomenal, and let’s be frank about it. You know, we’re all selling the same stuff. , we’re all offering the same services. , so there is nothing really Unique about talking about PPC or SEO anymore. However, I think. If you go into it and, and certainly this six year climb for, for me to, to this exit that I’ve done, I went into it with a different angle. It was very much business consultancy slash with, again, coming at it from an entrepreneurial side, you know, I’ve been a business owner. I kind of felt the pains of trying to deal with agencies and we’ve tried to cut for all the noise and first of all, we are understanding strategically what that client’s trying to do. And then secondly, we just so happen to offer SEO, PPC and social media and they are the channels or the, the, the ways that we go out there and we, we get the growth for the client, but they are secondary to the front end, which is really aligning to those, those goals. And I guess it’s a business strategy really. And that sort of sets us apart because most agencies still go in and they pitch SEO, PPC, social media, and you know, , everyone’s heard it a thousand times.
DAN: Yeah, it’s interesting. I did a very short stint in the world of marketing. , but personally, I came from a bit of background, sort of, broker essentially. Yeah. , and I found it really difficult to actually understand, and this is, you know, not putting anyone down. Understand what they were talking about a lot of the time. There was a lot of jargon, there were a lot of buzzwords, and I was like, okay, but what, what are we actually doing? Like what? What is this all achieving? Mm-hmm. . And I think the people that could clearly articulate what it’s achieving opposed to what it actually does are the ones that stand out.
LUKE: Absolutely. It’s gotta be tangible, right? And I think the beauty of digital marketing is that, you know, you, you do have that tangibility, that pound spend should show you what that pound return has, has given you. , but yeah, there’s a lot of noise in the space and you have to, you have to cut through it. And I think it’s extremely challenging for clients. To do that. , and again, it’s, I often joke with people that the industry’s become like the double glazing industry of the nineties. You know, everybody jumps in and starts with a marketing agency. You know, there’s people, you know, coming straight out of Uni and setting up, , marketing agency, which is amazingly entrepreneurial and fantastic. But then there’s, you know, I think there’s hundreds, hundreds and hundreds being set up all the time. , but a lot going pop as well. You know, I think it’s, it’s, it’s not as easy to get the scale, , as people think, you know, and, and clients can be, can be challenging as well. So there is, there’s a lot to think about.
DAN: So for anyone listening to this that thinks, you know, I’d really love to get into marketing, what’s some kind of advice? I mean, we’ve had quite a few people from the marketing industry on, and we’ve talked about University versus going straight to work. And I’ll be honest, a lot of people have. I probably wouldn’t have gone to Uni, you know, knowing what I know now, I’d have gone straight into a job and unlearned it there because a lot of the degrees are outdated. Mm-hmm. , but what’s your kind of take on that?
LUKE: Yeah, I mean, I didn’t go to University , and I’ve never looked back and regretted it. , I think those extra few years getting into the workspace actually, if anything, just made me a bit more commercially astute and aware. I think my advice would probably be, and look, some people need that, that period and that level of maturity that it gives you and that freedom and whatever to , to go through it. And some of our best employees, you know, , , it would be really hard to pick between them. You know, we’ve got some incredible grads and we’ve got some incredible people that have just gone straight into the workspace. , I think it depends probably on, on that, you know,on the person, , and what, what they’re needing, but There is plenty of Opportunity out there for people that go out with a little bit of, , a little bit of additional drive. So I’ve taken on, this is probably a good way of explaining this. I’m talking around the houses a little bit, but I took on three people in the last year that just approached me directly through LinkedIn.
One of them had dropped out of Uni. Two of them had decided not to go to Uni and they asked if there was any work experience, you know, could they come in and just because they’d been pretty proactive. So there’d been a LinkedIn message. , one of them had actually come to the office. , and dropped off a CV and asked whether they could have a conversation with me. That sort of, you know, tenacious attitude goes a long way. And I think, , I’ve got a friend at the moment, I hope you wouldn’t mind me saying this, but you know, he’s, he’s been outta work a few months and I sat down with him the other day over a beer, and I said, look, just. Are you just sending your CV through Indeed, or, or, or how are you, how are you approaching this? Like, just go directly to the source. If you wanna work for a company, make them aware of you. , don’t just wait for a job opportunity to pop up, make one. So I think it’s, it comes down to character, but you know, if, if, if people, , it’s tenacious and they want to get out there, then, then I think that’s the best way to go.
DAN: That’s, that’s brilliant advice. So, I mean, we’ve heard this, , sort of in different versions from a lot of founders. It’s the people. Stand out that don’t just send an A4 CV in, , and expect to hear an answer back. Because to be honest with you, they’re almost getting to the point of being pointless for that initial stage because it’s difficult. You know, people haven’t got time to read thousands of cvs, but a message or, maybe you’ve created content on LinkedIn, you’ve engaged with someone that is so valuable.
LUKE: A hundred percent. We’re living in a time where, you know, you can access people, , in different ways. You just have to just think of something a little bit outside the box. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I properly read a cv. I get sent CVS by recruiters all the time. And when we are hiring for people, I ask ’em just to send me a couple of bullet points in the email. Don’t, don’t bother sending me the CV Cause I just, I just, I physically don’t have the time to get through my own inbox, let alone trying to read. Cvs. So it just, it just doesn’t, it doesn’t really make sense in the modern world.
DAN: Mm-hmm. And what kind of personality traits do you think someone needs to kind of succeed in the marketing industry?
LUKE: I think you’ve, you’ve gotta, I often say to people that come from the sort of clients I, I’ve worked in-house and then they go to a marketing agency, the same thing. I think you really, certainly from an agency perspective, cause they are a bit different, it’s a slightly slower pace, quite often in-house. , but if you are stepping into the marketing agency world, you’ve gotta be good at being organised and, and being quite autonomous and working that way because you are gonna have to spin plates. I hate that saying, but you are gonna have to spin a few plates. You will be jumping from, you know, different tasks and different clients, , sometimes on, on the hourly. So yeah, being able to adapt and being quite fluid and agile, I think makes a big difference. And from a personality perspective. You are always learning. So it’s, you’ve gotta, you’ve gotta be willing to, to understand that there’s always gonna be something new to, to learn and, and you know that the industry’s evolving at such a pace and constantly, , that yeah, you’ve gotta be willing to just keep putting in those, those extra hours to, to keep yourself, , up with the pace a bit.
DAN: And is that a case of maybe reading industry news or actually keeping on these social medias and, and doing it as yourself as well? Like a bit of practical, practical work. Maybe, maybe trying to run a small account, maybe on social media or maybe trying to increase traffic to a small website you have. Is it a case of trying these things actually practically or, or theory?
LUKE: Yeah, I think so. And again, it comes down to the what, how people learn. I mean, for me, I’m definitely a practical learner. We have, you know, we have little workshop sessions within the business now, ideation sessions once a month where different departments can mingle with other departments. And they brainstorm, they work through things that are happening that make a big difference. And I think, you know, again, personally, some of the, the people that progress the fastest within the business, they. They do a lot of self-learning. , we’ve got an industry news channel within our Slack account and that’s constantly being populated by different people within the business. And I probably learn four or five new things every day just by having a look in there because there’s so much going on. So, , yeah, I think just really being willing to, , to put in the work and, and, and constantly, , upskill is, is really, Important.
DAN: What would you say has been the biggest positive of your journey so far? You know, starting this marketing agency through to, you know, selling it?
LUKE: I think really for me it’s, it’s been. Able to be part of something from, you know, the first one or two employees where we sat, you know, , all hours of the day and evening, you know, ordering pizzas in, you know, excited by this startup that we, that we, that we started to build. And then, you know, a few clients and those clients referred us to more clients. And I think that just being on that, that journey is, is incredible. But really when I look back now, the thing I’m probably most proud of is a lot of the personnel and the staff that we’ve had along the way, quite a few of them are with us. Some aren’t, unfortunately. , but I see the progression of the people and the types of clients we’ve been able to service as well. I think early on we, you know, we kind of would work with anybody, I guess too, to get us to get our name out there. Now we’ve got to a point where we’re actually able to be quite selective and there’s something really nice about that. And, you know, we can really. Really back ourselves to know that we’re gonna get results. And I think yeah, something, you know, to be really proud of there for, for myself, for the team and, and for the clients that are involved.
DAN: Sure. And then on the flip side, what’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?
LUKE: Oh my God, there’s probably about a thousand a day. I mean, you know what, what we’re going through, , challenges now with the change of the economy and businesses wanting to cut back on advertising spend. We had covid, we had gone without everything. , I. I think what I’ve realised is, the bigger the business gets, you know, the bigger the problems, but actually you always have problems and it’s about how you deal with them and how you evolve that that makes a difference. I think the biggest challenge has probably been growth, though, if I’m honest with you, we’ve grown at such a pace so quickly. , literally no employees in 2018 now, 55. , and we’ve grown at about 50 to 60% year on year. One year was 150% year on year growth, so, That growth. You don’t always have the processes, all the staff, all the experience, you know, my own experience at that time wasn’t where it needed to be to support that level of, you know, 20 or 25 new hires in a year, for example. And how do you bed them in? How do you have the onboarding processes, right? You just don’t. , so, you know, we made some mistakes along the way. We, you know, didn’t get it right for everybody, but, , you know, I. In hindsight now that’s allowed us to get it right today. So it, you know, all, all of these things lead to, , lead to, to a good place.
DAN: And what would you say to someone that’s sort of maybe thinking of starting their own agency? Any kind of advice for those kinds of people?
LUKE: I would probably say, If you’re looking to start your own agency, just make sure you, you do your research, look into, you know, your own niche, whether there’s, , you know, an industry or experience that you’ve had that you feel really confident with, , that you can approach. I think. Having a bit of baseline knowledge would go a long way. Also, if you’ve got any potential clients or people that you could approach, to give you that, , even if it’s some pro bono stuff early on, just to, to practise and make sure you’re, you’re in the right place. It’s not, not a bad way to go. , and probably the biggest thing I would say, I often look back now and, and think, God, I wish I’d gone even harder faster. I would just say, you know, take risks and be willing to, to go for it. There might be lots of agencies and lots of competition, but if you have a niche and a slightly different way of approaching things and, and presenting yourselves, there’s plenty of market share still out there. , it’s, it’s endless really. So yeah. , go for it, but make sure you make the right decisions.
DAN: Cool. And what does the future look like for Digital Ethos?
LUKE: Digital Ethos is, is now part of, a much larger group. , so we have around a thousand staff, globally. Wow. , and the real focus is to keep growing our UK proposition. , we’ll then probably look at some further acquisitions in Europe and, , Plan really from an agency perspective is, is to scale to a potential i p o in the next few years or, , or, or, or who knows. But certainly it’s, it’s growth led. , and we’d like to become one of the household marketing names, certainly in the UK, if, if not globally.
DAN: Wow, amazing. And any plans with Tobin Capital, more investment, maybe working with startups, things like that?
LUKE: Definitely. , yeah, I’ve actually had a few, really interesting conversations just this week. , and yeah, we’ll, we’ll continue to, to look for the right opportunity. I’ve got a real sort of focus on sustainability type clients and, and Ecotech and , had some really exciting opportunities there.
So, yeah, I’ll continue to do that, , as we, as we go forward.
DAN: Amazing. Well, it’s been an absolute pleasure chatting with you, Luke. , really appreciate your time. , where can people find you and find your business?
DAN: Amazing. Thank you, Luke.
LUKE: Thank you so much.