In the eighth floor of the WeWork co-working space on London’s South Bank, the Houses of Parliament can be glimpsed in the distance on the other side of the river.
It feels appropriate to meet Rose Lewis, founder of marketing and advertising accelerator Collider, here considering the repercussions the Brexit vote could have on attracting the best talent and start-ups to the capital.
A couple of hours after Campaign’s meeting, thousands of protestors gathered by parliament as part of a "London stays" march against the European Union referendum result.
About 35% of start-ups in the Collider programme have international founders and Lewis says she
"cannot emphasise enough" the value of London’s global reputation in helping to attract the best start-ups. Will the Brexit vote impact that?
"It is very early days, so you do not know what is going to happen," Lewis says. "If we have freedom of movement, we will continue to attract the very best start-ups without question."
Lewis set up Collider, which specialises in connecting start-ups with brands and agencies, four years ago with Andy Tait and David Prais after she identified a gap in the market for an accelerator that focuses on the marketing sector. She met Tait during her days at early-stage investment fund Pembridge Partners and knew Prais from her stint in ad sales at publishers including Ziff Davis and Emap.
London’s successful financial-technology sector and the plethora of accelerators show how powerful the accelerator concept is, Lewis points out.
Collider invests up to £100,000 in eight to ten start-ups a year and acts as a matchmaker between them and the brands it works with. For the 2016 intake, Lewis claims Collider received more than 250 applications from about 40 countries.
Lewis says she is picky about the brands she works with – they must have buy-in from senior people within the organisation.
Unilever is a long-standing client and, although they enjoy a fruitful relationship now – about one-third of Collider’s start-ups are working with the FMCG company – the collaboration got off to a difficult start.
"When we first worked with Unilever, we took in nine start-ups and worked with them for about nine months and, at the end of it, they ended up working with one," Lewis says. "I was getting worried about my hypothesis that involving these brands early is going to result in fantastic things for start-ups."
Fortunately, Lewis and Unilever sat down together and worked out how Unilever’s brands could collaborate effectively (see box).
Collider has built on the learnings from the early Unilever partnership and now works with the company on its Foundry start-up hub.
The accelerator has since signed up other brand partners and, this month, unveiled a deal with the Financial Times to help instil a start-up mentality among its teams. Other Collider clients include Campaign’s publisher Haymarket, BBC Worldwide, Exterion Media and DigitasLBi.
"They come to us because we can help support them in their efforts," Lewis explains. "It allows brands to have a framework for working with start-ups rather than just going out with a blank sheet of paper."
Collider’s initial funding came from government body Creative England – it was this seal of approval that allowed the accelerator to secure investment from high-net-worth individuals, the vast majority of whom come from advertising and marketing.
Lewis believes emulating the private-investor model that is so popular in the US could help the UK develop the next Facebook, citing PayPal founder and early-stage Facebook investor Peter Thiel as proof.
"Silicon Valley entrepreneurs reinvest back into their sectors and we need to encourage high-net-worth entrepreneurs to reinvest their money into the nascent start-ups rather than buying a yacht," Lewis stresses. "Thiel made loads of money and just piled it all back in, and we do not see that often enough in the UK."
Lewis also argues that corporations could invest more and does not shy away from calling them out: "We do not see the corporates doing it either. WPP does not invest in UK start-ups."
At a time when there is talk of advertising being commoditised, engaging with start-ups is one way for agencies to gain a crucial point of differentiation.
"They are continually on this pitching conveyor belt, so how do you set yourself apart?" Lewis says. "By immersing yourself in the tech landscape, you are going to be able to have different conversations with your clients."
Moreover, working with start-ups will make brands more adaptable in a fast-changing environment. "Most brands have not got a clue about Snapchat," Lewis continues. "They have only just figured out Twitter."
No stereotypical entrepreneurs
Four of the most successful outfits in the Collider experiment are user-generated content app Seenit, social media content aggregator Miappi, image-analytics company Pixoneye and video insights outfit LivingLens.
Collider’s portfolio, Lewis believes, is dispersing the preconception that accelerators are filled with stereotypical 24-year-old entrepreneurs. Instead, their founders come from "very diverse backgrounds and ages" and it is this diversity that the advertising and marketing sector needs to embrace post-Brexit.
Lewis suggests that if the industry comes together to build scalable "mad-tech" (marketing and advertising technology), its halo effect will benefit all in the community by continuing to attract top talent.
"With respect to Brexit, London will continue to be the global lead on many big brands if it has a great marketing and ad-tech ecosystem," Lewis says. "For a long time, we have been able to attract talent here – but we need to continue to do that with the tech innovations that are currently disrupting the ad marketplace."
And with that thought, Lewis gets up to leave so she can join in the pro-EU demonstration and make her voice heard.
"The key thing is how senior the mandate is," Lewis says. "If you have a brand manager saying this sounds like a great idea, but the chief executive or chief marketing officer is not involved, then it is hard to make innovation happen." Lewis highlights how Unilever chief marketing officer Keith Weed has been a great champion of start-ups.
It is vital for the whole organisation to be geared up to bring innovation to life. Lewis recommends replicating the agency model of staff dedicating 20% of their time to innovation.
Change the KPIs
After its first collaboration with Collider, Unilever decided to change KPIs to ensure a brand manager undertakes trials with a start-up. It is now part of their job to experiment. Lewis stresses: "A trial has to be measured and timely, and you need to know what happens at the end."
Lewis argues that a £10,000 trial may no longer be worth it if it has to be put through a traditional procurement process. The Unilever Foundry has pioneered a procurement process for start-ups.
"Start-ups cannot do a trial and then be put on 90-day payment terms, because they will probably go out of business and then you have wasted your bloody money," Lewis explains. She recommends 30-day payment terms or even upfront payment.