Episode 39 - Sean O'Meara - MD Essential Content

The Transcript...

Speaker 1: Hello and thanks for coming along to… and we have an Office Dog, the digital agency podcast, where we talk to agency owner directors and learn more about what makes them tick. From the things that make them similar to the things they’d rather have known sooner. Where they’ve had success and where they’ve learned some hard lessons. All will be revealed with your host, Chris Simmance, the agency coach. And he’ll be talking to a different awesome agency person in each episode, asking them four questions and seeing where the conversation takes us over the next 25 minutes. Okay, so let us begin. Over to you, Chris. 

Chris Simmance: Thanks voiceover guy. And on the podcast today we’ve got Sean, the MD of Essential Content. How are you doing? 

Sean O’Meara (Guest): I’m very good, thanks. How are you? 

Chris Simmance: Not too bad, thank you. Thanks for coming along. 

Sean O’Meara (Guest): Pleasure. Absolutely. 

Chris Simmance: So Essential Content, does it do what it says on the tin? What is Essential Content? Give us a little plug. 

Sean O’Meara (Guest): It pretty much does do what it says on the tin. We like to think we do the boring but important stuff really, really well. So we are a comms agency that specialize in helping businesses in regulated industries communicate better with their customers. 

Chris Simmance: Oh, wow. So literally the most boring area. 

Sean O’Meara (Guest): A lot of people think it’s boring. 

Chris Simmance: I mean from an external perspective, regulated industries, they’re immediately red flags for fun. 

Sean O’Meara (Guest): Regulated industries are cool. I won’t have it any other way. So regulated industries did used to be, I guess, by definition, quite boring. And then I think it’s the likes of Monzo and people like that that have livened the space up a little bit. The reason we specialize in that area is purely a function of my background before I founded the agency. I’ve had a weird career that led me into doing personal finance, public relations. 

Chris Simmance: Okay. Tell us how you got into building the agency and how long you’ve been going and things like that. 

Sean O’Meara (Guest): So I had no intention of getting into public relations or comms in any way. And when I was about, I want to say about 21, my brother offered me some work proofreading. He was a dog trainer and he’d set up a dog website years and years ago. And while I was proofreading some of the articles that he’d written, he got some investment and he turned it into a fully fledged magazine, which ended up being a really, really good title. They had Mariah Carey on the front cover. They interviewed her [inaudible] famous. It was a lifestyle magazine for dog owners, and that kind of got me into journalism via the back door. So, a combination of luck and nepotism got me into journalism. And the funny thing about writing about dogs is that they are a gateway into pretty much every sector you can think of. If you think of dogs as a consumer product, the associated consumer products are things like insurance, nutrition, supplements, clothes, hats. Dog owners are a almost recession proof demographic. 

So that’s kind of how I got into journalism. And then I went into consumer affairs and then I did, I used to call it doing a Max Clifford, but I try not to associate myself with Max Clifford anymore. And went from journalism to public relations and was in-house a few places and kept bouncing around in-house roles that were sort of adjacent to personal finance in some way. And then what I realized was that the agencies that these companies I was working for were in [inaudible] getting work that always got stuck at the compliance stage because of the regulations. So I had a theory that industries that were regulated were throwing money away by picking the wrong agency and briefing them badly. So, had a bit of friction in my own career and just thought, “Right, I need to do this, I need to…” And by friction, I mean I got sacked from an agency right before Christmas. And I just had this moment where I thought there will never be a better opportunity to try myself. So I thought, “I’ll go freelance, I’ll just see if I can survive for a year.” 

And that was the back end of 2014, and I’m now running a proper agency. And it’s taken me years to feel comfortable saying I’m running an agency because I was listening to your chat with Carrie from Rise at Seven, and I’m basically the opposite of her. Her business has scaled and grown rapidly and deliberately quickly, whereas I’ve been deliberately slow in how the business has grown. But about two years ago I decided it was at a stage where it would stagnate if it didn’t start doing bigger and better things. So I sort of took the breaks off and thought, “Right, let’s do it properly now, let’s think as if we’re a business rather than a little gang of consultants together.” And that’s been really disorienting and weird. But also lucrative. 

Chris Simmance: Yeah, I suppose when things pivot so lightly like that, you’ve got to move with it, you’ve got to stick to it, but also you’ve got to appreciate that other people in the business need to get with the new narrative, I guess. 

Sean O’Meara (Guest): Yeah, there was a bit of that and there was a bit of… So I’m really financially conservative as far as the business goes and don’t take any risks and don’t agree to do anything unless I’ve got the money to pay for it there and then. I’ve still got that freelancer mindset of it doesn’t count until the money’s in the bank, which has served me pretty well. And I still try to do that. I still try and make sure all the basics are covered months in advance, but that, it kind of hampers growth a little bit because you’re reluctant to commit to things. So yeah, there’s that side of it and then there’s the sort of taking yourself a little bit more seriously. 

Chris Simmance: And that from experience, I can tell you is very hard. 

Sean O’Meara (Guest): It is, it’s disorientating because I guess most of your guests talk about a little bit of Imposter syndrome and I think a little bit of that’s good, that keeps you honest. But something happened to me during lockdown, which was the Imposter syndrome I’d been dealing with, was telling me that one day all my clients at the same time would go, “Oh, okay, this guy’s a fraud, we’re going to cancel everything.” Just had it in my head that one day, that day would come, I’d get a tap on the shoulder. So my big fear was that I’d lose all of the clients roughly at the same time and the business would fold. And everybody I shared that fear with said, “Well, could always lose one or two clients. You’re never going to lose your whole client base. It’s just unrealistic to worry about that.” 

Chris Simmance: So if you were to go back in time to the founding of the agency and speak to the younger version of yourself, what one piece of advice would you give yourself? 

Sean O’Meara (Guest): I think I would say, “Take yourself a little bit more seriously sooner.” For a long portion of the business’s life I’ve been quite happy with just doing the basics and that’s fine. But there was always a lot of unmet potential within the business from myself and from the people we hire. And I don’t know what was holding us back, whether it was anxiety or a little bit of complacency. But I would’ve said, “Start thinking about growing and competing with bigger businesses sooner. You don’t have to spend four years solidifying yourself as a small agency.” 

I think there was a whole mindset problem in the early days where I didn’t know if I was a freelancer working with other freelancers, if I was a consultant. And once that lockdown happened and I had to deal with all the uncertainty and I came through it, I thought, “No, I’m running a proper business here.” Cash flow has got us through, we’ve kept all our clients, we have scaled back some of the work. We also picked up new clients and we did it actually grow a little bit by the of end of 2020. And then through ’21 we grew a lot. So I think I would’ve just sort of started putting my foot on the throttle a little bit sooner. Yeah. 

Chris Simmance: Do you think you’d have listened to that feedback? 

Sean O’Meara (Guest): Probably not. If I’m being honest, I never really planned to run my own business. I’d always planned to… the goal was to be a sort of self sustaining freelancer and then what I was doing was just becoming overworked and then panic hiring people. And the same amount of money that I would’ve done had I hired them properly and precisely. So I just thought, right, there’s an opportunity if I want it, I just need to put my big boy pants on and start telling myself I’m running a business rather than just trying to pay bills every month. 

Chris Simmance: Yeah. Yeah. Is there something that you did at the early stage that you feel has kind of really set you up now for future success and growth? 

Sean O’Meara (Guest): I think I did do a few things that I think have… The pieces are falling into place now. So one thing that I was really keen to make sure we always did was cover that compliance thing. So, because I think that is the difference between working with businesses that have a regulator and businesses that don’t. And I just knew from being on the other side of that fence that if you can earn the trust of the compliance team and the legal team within a big organization, you’re already ahead of much bigger competitors. So that was something that we just… I’ve always said we really need to be hot on things like FCA regulations and it sounds really dull, but now, I mean, this year we hit a milestone in that we got our first PLC client and survived the onboarding process, which I just never thought would happen. I just didn’t think we had the resources to do it. 

And now we’ve done that and I heard informally that we’d beaten Capgemini to a pitch, which I just thought, if we’re doing that, we’re doing something right. The goal is always to… Hopefully the work speaks for itself and then it’s up to the client to think can they handle the boring but important stuff that we live and die by, which is, it comes down to so many things. And if you don’t know it, you don’t know it. And I think that’s where the anxiety is with our sort of archetypal client, is that they’re petrified of spending money on something that comes back. And then they either use it and the regulator spots it and doesn’t like it, or somebody in the business spots it and they’ve wasted their money. So those processes and that attention to detail that we insisted on in the early days is now intuitive and natural to us. So, I think that’s what makes us different as a business. 

Chris Simmance: Yeah. I think it sounds, not to joke about it, it sounds boring to say be good at the boring stuff, but if that’s the niche that you’re in, you’ve got to be experts in it. You’ve got to be able to hold your own in a client boardroom to talk about specifics. They need to trust that you know what you’re talking about. And most content is built for marketing purposes, for selling things or for saying things that are a little bit fun or just purely for SEO fodder. And that’s stuff you can get away with. “Oh, we’ve done some keyword research here, we’ve done some audience analysis there.” But the second any kind of compliance comes in, you’ve got to be able to stand up against the best for that. 

Sean O’Meara (Guest): I agree. And what’s started to surprise me in a good way is that we’re actually, I think, because this is our bread and butter, we’re sometimes a little bit ahead of the clients as well. So there’s been a few times… You know when, in your day to day work, something just gives you a little bit of a boost and you think, “Actually, I’m not a blagger and I do know what I’m doing.” 

Chris Simmance: No idea what you’re talking about. 

Sean O’Meara (Guest): Yeah. So those moments. We had a situation with a client where, and again, boring but important, there was a tick box because we do a lot of UX for banks and insurance companies, and there was a tick box that wasn’t prominent enough and the declaration was passive, and this sounds so dull. But from a kind of legal point of view and treating the customer well, which is a sort of founding pillar of FCA regulations, treating the customer fairly, we flagged it up and said, “You’re asking somebody to declare that they’ve read and agreed to something that you haven’t yet shown them. And all of our research says that that will just get seized upon. You shouldn’t make it through your compliance and if it does, you’re going to have problems.” And this was a big organization that you’ve probably heard of. And we just felt like, okay, we’re adding expertise here, we’re not just overspill, we’re actually bringing something that they need, which made me feel really good and hopefully built trust with the client. 

Chris Simmance: So I mean, the trust is essential, especially building an agency internally with your team. They need to know how to trust you, but with the client as well. Both the client and the team are the bread and butter of the agency. No client, no team. No team, no client and trust go across the board there. And expertise comes hand in hand with that. If there’s one thing that someone who’s just starting their agency was listening to this podcast and hoping to hear as a piece of advice from you, Sean, what would that be? 

Sean O’Meara (Guest): Make sure you’re profitable. Early. And again, Carrie said the same thing. And it’s something that it actually really annoys me when I see other business owners pulling tricks. Things like, “Oh, we’ll pay you when the client pays us.” I hate seeing stuff like that. I think the number one purpose of any business is to make money and that’s at the risk of sounding like Gordon Gecko. It’s true. Without money you’re not going to pay the bills. We’re remote first, but I’m based in Manchester, so I’m sort of in the orbit of the bigger and medium sized agencies up here. And there was a story a while ago about an agency that was kind of a spinoff from a really well known agency and I think they lasted about 18 months and it was all because of cash flow. And the amount of people that just ended up out of pocket because of that. Because this agency were throwing expensive parties, they moved into expensive offices that were too big when they didn’t need to. And I’ve always been, “Let’s pay the bills first and then worry about the nice to haves afterwards.” 

The skill that I never had that I’ve really, really had to hone and figure out for myself is the running a business bit. I think I’m a good publicist and I think I’m a good communications consultant. But what I didn’t really have enough experience of is what do you do with the money and what are the priorities and how does it all work? And I had to figure that out by myself. I hired an accountant and I speak to people, but without that thing going on, without the money in the bank, you’re not a business, you’re a website or an office. Your staff and your suppliers aren’t going to thank you for having a good culture or having a lovely place to work if you’re late paying your bills or you’re not paying them at all. And with everything else going on, all things being equal, if the money isn’t coming in, and the figures don’t add up from day one, it’s going to be really hard. I know some businesses don’t make a profit in the first two years. I’m not comfortable with that. I think profitability is the most important thing. 

Chris Simmance: So, if you’re going to start a new agency, I suppose the key piece of advice that you’d say is to make sure that you get the things right that you need to get right. And one of those things is make sure that what you’re planning to do and how you’re doing it allows you to be profitable in order to get things done and be able to grow later. 

Sean O’Meara (Guest): Yeah, exactly that. And I think a lot of that comes down to fee structure and having the confidence to charge what you’re worth. I made this mistake very early on. It’s a little bit of chicken and egg, but in your early days when your days aren’t completely full with work, you just want the revenue. So you will low ball yourself on your fees and then you’re kind of stuck. You’re stuck with that rate for as long as that client wants to work with you. And what can you do? You can gradually charge other clients more and hope to make up that gap. But I just think if I could go back and change one thing, I would’ve had more confidence about what we were worth as a business to our clients from a earlier point. 

Chris Simmance: I think my only piece of additional advice onto that would be that in every contract that you have with every client, it should have a clause that you reserve the right to increase fees on an annual basis by say 10% or something like that. Then obviously you can increase the fees if it’s feasible and fair. But it does mean that you do have to have awkward conversations, which isn’t nice to do, but you should always be putting prices up at least annually in line with all the other prices that go up. Otherwise you become lots less profitable. 

Sean O’Meara (Guest): It’s true. It’s very true. 

Chris Simmance: So thanks very much for coming on the podcast, Sean. It’s been great to have you on. 

Sean O’Meara (Guest): Been a pleasure. Thanks for having me. 

Chris Simmance: No trouble at all. And in our next podcast we’ll be talking to a different agency leader and learning about the lessons they’ve had along the way. Thanks very much for listening.