In 2003, advertising insert salesman Jim Lewcock sold his car and founded a business; today that business has billings of £108 million.
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The Specialist Works founder Jim Lewcock has grown, diversified and consolidated his business during a tumultuous period in the advertising sector. Yet while others went to the wall, the Specialist Works has grown globally for nine years straight.
Introduce us to your business
The Specialist Works is the performance network for growth brands. In simple terms it means that we plan and buy advertising that works. WE DON’T DO FUGAZI.
Where did the idea come from?
The idea came to me when I was selling advertising leaflets (inserts) at IPC Magazines (now Time Inc.).
I got fed up selling to clueless people in Agency land and decided to become an insert specialist filling the industry skill gap.
During the previous year at IPC, I had won sales person of the year and with that came a brand new car.
I decided to sell the car and use the cash to launch The Insert House in 2003. I hasten to add that we eventually became IPC’s biggest spending insert customer.
Jim with his ill-fated motor
How has it developed over the years?
It began with one man and his barking dog (my dad as part time FD) with a single rented desk on London’s Brick Lane.
The Insert House championed ‘doing one thing well’, and with a relentlessly focussed team we soon became leaders in our market. In a given year we booked over 1.5 billion inserts in to newspapers and magazines.
The results were great for our clients and they still are now (although we also put leaflets in to amazon boxes to drive online customers).
To keep growing we knew we needed to widen the net, so we recruited business leaders specialised in different channels (Press, Digital, TV, Creative, Mobile).
At one point we had 9 trading brands which became a serious headache for our FD!
So, in 2016 under the clean up we called ‘the mighty oneness’ we got rid of most of our brands and The Specialist Works became the mothership. One big kicker in amongst all this was the acquisition of TRT media who gave us “TV wings” and helped double our profits in the last 2 years.
From one bloke on Brick lane with a bee in his bonnet about inserts – we have grown to 150 people, £108m billing, multinational offices and a big chunk of fast track clients (Dyson, Boohoo, Screwfix, White Company and Ovo Energy).
How would you describe your sector?
There are not many independent media agencies around with scale in the UK.
Those that do come to the market will arrive with a digital only approach. At The Specialist Works we appreciate the value of offering a mixture of ecommerce and digital. We monopolise the channels that really work.
There is plenty of appetite out there for Performance media and we hope to serve it globally.
Have you experienced bumps in the road?
Somehow, we have wangled growth for 14 consecutive years.
How have you marketed the business?
From the man that used to market wimpy restaurants on Lewisham High St, adorned in Beefeater costume (complete with white gloves and tights) – I don’t have much self-consciousness.
To give you a flavour of my approach some years ago to give print a chance I held a ‘bed in’ dressed as John Lennon with the beautiful Yoko Ono (Parry Jones our COO). The half cut 5-minute interview can still be found somewhere on our website.
One of Jim's legendary alternative marketing campaigns
What the hardest thing about running your own business and what makes it fulfilling and fun?
Two sides of the same coin. You have the freedom to work longer hours.
What frustrates you about politics affecting business in the UK?
I am not in to politics, but I think taxes should be paid correctly by companies trading in each country. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you e.g. your staff or customers that live there.
What is your biggest mistake?
Being the sole angel investor of a start-up Health Screening Company. We thought we could play agency and client at the same time. It sounded great – no need to take ourselves for expensive lunches and we could control the growth through the marketing channels that we knew so well.
Plus, we really trusted the guys who needed the investment.
What we didn’t realise was the importance of outside factors. The major one being the impact in market when just two competitors are in the same space. We were seriously wiping each other out.
It reminded me a little of high stakes poker. We were nearly £3m in and if we left the table we lost the lot, or if we stayed in another round it was another £150K.
Unlike a real poker game or night at the casino where you set your limit (for me usually about £50!) – my mistake was not being firm from the outset about our maximum ‘bet’.
However, in amongst all this madness I had absolute faith in the product and the people running the business. We kept innovating the product (adding B2B to the B2C model) and making everything super lean.
We kept clear heads, had no big arguments and most importantly, we kept our customers happy with no short cuts and this started to build repeat custom.
As it turns out the VC investors of our competitors had less faith (we think they we losing more money than us) plus they had a successful version working in the US. So they shut up shop in the UK and almost overnight we started making a profit.
Now nearly four years in, we own a profitable Health Screening business and I am proud to say we that we really do save lives. I would love to say that my instincts to spot a winner served me well but that’s not entirely true! We got a little lucky.
My key learnings are to be entrepreneurial but in a field you really know and go to the casino with a maximum bet in mind!
What makes your business different/better?
The culture is dripping from the walls and there is a real sense of purpose here. When clients visit the business they are shocked by our will to deliver the goods.
We also provide a different strategy as we tend to do the opposite of what the market is doing - following the tills of advertising performance and not the dizzy trends.
We also invest in fun too with big staff get togethers in castles or hotels which I feel is key to help them remember our story and to write new ones.
How did you recruit and retain people?
We have created a learning environment with an open plan office which I believe leads to an open culture. No one here is too big for their boots and everyone is accessible as an example I have no office, or desk for that matter. We didn’t mean to be like that, but that is how we started and it felt natural.
The Specialist Works roof terrace
I also think inspiration and loyalty should come naturally too and truly believe it just exists and flourishes in happy, unrestricted environments. If you think that’s bollocks, let me tell you last year we raised over £1m of free advertising space for charity.
It wasn’t created to be cool or famous or to win our staff over, it came from no brief, no job function, it was an inspired collective action in a place where you just do things because they are worth doing. There are not many agencies who can say they gave more ad value away to charity than they earned in rebate last year!
We don’t incentivise people to stay loyal I think that can come across a bit desperate. However, we always try to improve ourselves as an employer every year simply because we can.
Do you rate government support for businesses?
I am the wrong guy to answer this because I have never looked externally for support.
I have never looked at a government support website and neither have they knocked on our door. You can start a business with incredibly little providing you are prepared to slum it a little and patiently grow organically. You can learn a lot from your own mistakes.
Anyone looking for help at the start is probably the wrong person to start a business. You have to have the right mix of ego and naivety just to get on with it! (let the advice come later). And you have to build a team around you very quickly that know their shit.
My dad as FD, probably did more than I will ever appreciate and the Directors here are relentless in their thirst for ‘being better’.
Funnily enough, as I have mellowed, I have become more gracious about accepting advice –although I can’t say whether I am better or worse for it! (still a naïve and arrogant sod then!).
What's your advice to new start-ups?
Just one bit of advice that most people will ignore.
Start something seriously uncool where the competition barely exists. The staff will then be drawn to the greater purpose and it all becomes sort of cool (and successful).