Henry Dalglish
Henry Dalglish
A view from Henry Daglish

Bountiful Cow: what we've learned from start-up to third birthday

Henry Daglish wrote a 'Diary of a start-up' column for Campaign when he began his media agency. What has he learned since 2016?

I have been told that, at three years in, you’re no longer a start-up – and, to be honest, that seems about right to me. While I hope we’re never wholly mature, we’re most certainly established. This cow is here to stay. 

It seems simultaneously no time and a lifetime ago that three of us sat in a dark WeWork cupboard with no clients, no space and no money wondering exactly how we would go about disrupting an entire industry armed with just passion and pens. 

We set out to challenge the media status quo, the bad practices, the "bloat" and fatigue that so, so many people feel from being run through the industry machine.

We’ve put people above process and championed our craft as a creative one, rather than a runt cousin of the banking industry.

We’re extremely proud that it has resonated; we’ve been a regular fixture in Campaign’s top 10 media agency new-business league, we’ve got a wonderful list of clients, we’re soon to be 25 people and, importantly, we’ve never taken a single "gimme" from the7stars (which backed our launch but operates separately from Bountiful Cow).

It has been a brilliantly unpredictable three years. 

Digital was a curveball

When you launch a business, you try to reassure yourself that the plan you lay for yourself will be the one you stick to. Of course, that’s rubbish.

Prepare yourself for a ride and embrace the twists and turns that you’ll inevitably be thrown around. Trust me, these are what will define everything. Take it all in. Drink it up and keep learning. 

Perhaps one of the biggest curveballs was in digital. Surprise: it’s not everything.

Smart clients have built their own digital capabilities; they need you to work with them, not against them, but most importantly clients need agencies like us to build their brands and support organic growth.

If they want to obsess on justifying everything within closed data gardens and self-serving metrics, there are two major media owners that can help them more than any agency.

If they want a partner to build genuinely impartial, sustainable and (dare I say it) traditional growth, the options are surprisingly limited. 

Working with independent creative agencies

The independent creative agency revolution is the best thing that has happened to our industry in recent years.

Working with these brilliant businesses requires a fine art; a unique skillset that gets them, respects them and properly understands them.

It’s not about some hackneyed process, showcase events or mashing a convoluted opposing media strategy with a creative strategy; it’s simply about like-minded folk getting on and working together to make the product better. We get it. 

To this end, one of my first, biggest and best decisions was to take on Graeme Douglas as our chief strategy officer at launch; someone with deep experience and talent across the creative side of the business.

As a result, I genuinely believe we now have a better, more open and fluid relationship with creative agencies than any other media agency and this is starting to pay back both in terms of new business and in the standard of work we produce. 

Flexible working isn’t a PR gimmick. Amid the so-called automation of everything, the human element is more important than it has ever been. Building diversity, getting the best from the younger generation and striking a good work/life balance are perpetual challenges.

But if you start with getting people to take responsibility for their own performance, allow them to set their own conditions and support them to do so, you can’t go too far wrong. Operating in this way isn’t for everyone, but when it works it really, really works. 

Feeling liberated, loving your clients and transparency

The most liberating thing of the past three years has been the autonomy in being able to say no.

Our business comes first and we aren’t right for everyone. We pitch less and win much more.

We’ve won 11 pieces of business in the past 12 months; three from pitches and the rest from direct referrals (the latter account for more than 80% of the billings/income, by the way). 

Love your clients. I mean really, really love them. Erika Mari, the third partner and our client lead, is the best in the business at this and I can’t overstate its importance. It’s all well and good bringing clients in and dazzling people with strategy, but if you’re not delivering and keeping your promises, you’re nothing. 

Another lesson: transparency doesn’t matter (stick with me on this).

Much to my own surprise, being completely transparent has probably made it harder for us; it’s the quality of the work and the commitment to our clients that have made the biggest difference 

Transparency should now be table-stakes (all of our clients are on the ISBA contract and we’re the only agency that can say that), but doing what you say you’re going to trumps everything else. Honesty really matters.

"Just get it in and worry about it later" is the most dangerous and destructive mentality you can ever adopt as an agency – we still see it happen among our rivals and it is not something we’ll ever do.

And finally…

You cannot scale a media agency without the buying, however sexy it sounds.

I always thought it was just about strategy; but, in reality, strategy is nothing without execution.

Being able to control the delivery and execute a strategy in the way that it was truly intended is a hugely powerful and surprisingly differentiating thing. 

Most importantly, true independence is liberating. It’s a state of mind as much as a state of business.

Freeing yourself from the shackles of other people’s worldview, ideologies and commercial practices means that, for better or worse, the reality you create is the one you and your team choose for yourselves. It’s real. And it’s a hell of a ride. 

I wouldn’t change a minute of it. Here’s to the next three years.

Henry Daglish is founder of Bountiful Cow