MC&C: "We’re growing because of what we do to a client"

02 Aug 2017  |  Ellen Hammett 
MC&C: "We’re growing because of what we do to a client"

He's ambitious, he's moving quickly and he has very big plans. Ellen Hammett interviews MC&C's MD, Mark Jackson

"Relentless in the pursuit of growth" is how MC&C's managing director, Mark Jackson, describes himself. He says he wants everything fast and goes at it at 100 miles per hour. And his ambition is clear: to make MC&C the leading performance agency in the UK by 2020.

Jackson was brought in as managing director 18 months ago to transform the 16-year-old charity direct response business into a modern, independent performance agency that now has its sights firmly set on competing with the largest indy media agency: the7stars.

Since then, MC&C has almost doubled in size and is aiming to double again over the next three years, taking it to 150 people. According to the latest filings from Companies House, profit also doubled between 2015 and 2016 to £1.2 million - up from just £80,000 in 2014.

The agency currently brings in £57 million in billings, with longstanding clients including Royal Mail, Which? and Warner Leisure Hotels. Meanwhile, a £6.6 million private equity investment this year means MC&C is now ready to expand outside of the UK, with an international managing director set to come on board within the next six months as the London-based agency looks to create a global footprint. (While no other investment conversations are currently taking place, Jackson says they would be naive not to consider a merger and acquisition further down the line if the right opportunity arose.)

By comparison, the7stars, which launched in 2005, has a 160-strong team with over 100 clients. It is a multi-award winning business led by Jenny Biggam, who, with co-founders Mark Jarvis and Colin Mills, has expanded the agency with billings of more than £250 million.

Jackson's career began in a small direct response agency in London in the early 2000s, but soon realising he would never achieve his ambition of making MediaWeek's Top 30 Under 30 working for a business that cashed in on £4 per minute 0845 numbers ("people making a lot of money from 80 year old women knitting while talking sexily on telephones"), he took a job at MediaCom in 2002.

In 2009, Jackson made the list - before joining PHD that same year, where he stayed until he joined MC&C at the beginning of 2016.

There are two objectives on Jackson's imminent agenda as he aims to take MC&C to the top. The first is building a closer relationship with media partners to change how the agency is perceived within the industry.

I love what I do and if I can have people with my passion working in the agency then we will destroy it"

"Historically, as an agency, we’ve perhaps not been as close to media partners and we’re getting a lot closer to that," Jackson says.

"We know we’ve still got some work to do to shift the perception because it’s a deep rooted heritage of the agency and those things can’t happen overnight, but I think it’s really important that people who know the agency now know we’re not the perception...It's just not caught up with who we are yet and it’s my job to deliver that."

To put that into action, Jackson and his investment director are currently embarking on a roadshow that involves visiting over 30 media owners - including ITV, Channel 4, Sky, Time Inc, News UK, Facebook and Google - to explain to them why MC&C is a completely different agency to what it was two years ago and to invite them to be a part of MC&C's mission of growth.

The second, which Jackson says is also his biggest challenge, is managing that growth.

"I think there is a real risk in growing too fast," he says. "If you ask me what keeps me awake at night it’s management of growth as an umbrella because it means you need to keep culture and that’s very difficult.

"I want MC&Cers because if we don’t, then that cultural divide happens and that’s what happened at MediaCom [when it moved offices in 2006], albeit at a much grander scale. It's an important part of any people business."

(I ask Jackson what kind of culture exists at MC&C, and he tells me he's driving a culture of autonomy: "I like people to say sorry rather than please. I want people to do their own thing - ask for forgiveness and not for permission.")

Jackson might be losing breakout areas and Football tables in their Fitzrovia offices as he puts more desks in (another 15 people are set to join MC&C before the end of the year, including a new head of social), but there's one thing he's not losing: clients.

70% of MC&C's 30 clients have been retained for more than five years, and while new business continues to come in, Jackson says it is not a huge part of the agency's revenue build. In fact, 80% of MC&C’s income comes from clients who have been with them for eight years or longer.

"We’re growing because of what we do to a client: we improve their model, refine it and then scale it very quickly," he says. "A business win for us might be quite small in year one; it’s year two, year three, year four where we really scale that brand.

"We very rarely lose clients. I do not want to be a revolving door for brands."

A lot of brands that come to us are over-investing in digital because it was the Zeitgeist thing to "

What Jackson does want to be, however, is the agency of the moment.

"For me, independence means having the flexibility to change and deliver clients what they want right now. That’s what we try and do; we try and be the agency of the moment," he says.

"And we can do that. We can build a team here, we can restructure. I can restructure the agency in three days - it took me 18 months at PHD. It’s the speed of change that we can deliver that’s phenomenal so our clients get what they want."

Jackson might be willing to move at lightning speed to keep clients sweet, but what he isn't prepared to be is a commodity. As a media-neutral agency, Jackson tells me client money will go wherever it needs to go.

"If a client comes to me saying 'I want to spend £100,000 on TV', I’m going to challenge whether that’s the right thing first...If I think I can get them one sale more by spending it somewhere else, it’ll go somewhere else," he says.

"We work in a service industry but we shouldn’t be subservient. If we just sat there and did whatever a client told us to do, we’re not doing our job; I’m just a commodity then."

Jackson says a lot of brands come to MC&C over-investing in digital because it has been the "Zeitgeist thing to do" - a mistake, he says, because they will struggle to realise their growth potential.

"You can only invest so far and you’ll get diminishing returns very quickly," Jackson says. "It’s harvest and then convert; use broadcast and offline activity to drive interest in a brand, and then you capture those guys and use digital as a sponge to soak up the demand.

"A lean digital footprint to convert the demand as cheaply as possible gives you more money to spend further up the funnel and that will drive better returns."

Jackson swore he'd never spend longer than two years anywhere after he left MediaCom, but he spent the next seven years at PHD and, approaching his two year anniversary at MC&C, his time - by his own watch - is almost up.

But Jackson tells me he is far from ready to hang up his hat.

"We are only just beginning what we are going to achieve," Jackson says. "The mission is growth for all. That is growth for our people, our clients, our partners - the publishers, the adtech guys, the fintech guys, the media owners, the journalists. We want everyone to grow on that journey with us.

"I love what I do and if I can have people with my passion working in the agency then we will destroy it."

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