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Episode 84 – Seb Mackay – Soba: Private Label

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Episode 84 – Seb Mackay – Soba: Private Label

Chris Simmance (00:52.686)
Thanks, Voice Over Guy, and I’m really pleased to have Seb. Seb from Soba Private Label. How are you doing?

Seb (00:58.771)
I’m good, thanks, man. How are you doing? It’s great to be here.

Chris Simmance (01:00.366)
Not too, not too bad at all. Not too bad at all. First of all, Seb, just before we get into agency conversation and private label, it’s not a, it’s not an adult club. It is an agency, correct?

Seb (01:13.899)
Yeah, yeah, that’s correct. I wish it was an adult club. I think that could have been a better and more fruitful career path. But you know, what it’s like once you start an agency, you get in too deep to leave.

Chris Simmance (01:20.27)
Ha ha.

Chris Simmance (01:25.902)
That’s it. That’s it. So, so give us a bit of an intro to yourself. First of all, you know, how have you gotten into this industry? Where, where, where, where do you, where do you come from? What, what got you into agency?

Seb (01:37.451)
Yeah. So I used to be an in -house marketer and I was a career in -house marketer, climbed all the way up to the top, you know, head of marketing teams, all of that kind of stuff. The thing is, is I’d always wanted to work at an agency, but I never could get a job at an agency because agency owners were like, well, not agency owners, but like hiring managers and stuff where like, well, you know, agency life is really different to in -house life. You won’t be able to handle it. If you do come in, you’ll need to get, you know, a huge pay cut based on your kind of what you’re used to as a head of marketing, like all of that kind of thing. And making that transition was really, really hard.

And then when my last job finished, my last head of marketing job, I just thought, I’m just going to do this. I’ve always wanted to work for an agency. I’ve never been able to get a foot in. So the best thing I can do at this point is build an agency and start an agency. And I think if I’d realized that then yeah, an adult club might’ve been the way to go.

Chris Simmance (02:21.838)

Chris Simmance (02:26.766)
And, uh, tell us a little about a bit about, uh, about sober. So what’s why private label? I’m intrigued. I’ve had a little look at the site, but naturally the listeners may well not have done. So give us a bit of a rundown. What, what do you guys do and, and, and how’s it all come about?

Seb (02:45.163)
So Soba focuses on positioning and copy for agencies, right? When we were starting an agency, we being myself and Dan, my business partner, we knew that we wanted to work with agency owners because we’d been in -house marketers both ourselves for such a long time. We’d seen everything. We’d had pictures, we’d fired agencies, we’d worked with agencies, like all of that kind of stuff. And one of the things that we found that was really, really hard was working out which agencies were better than others when you had to go through a process.

Chris Simmance (02:50.254)
Mm -hmm.

Seb (03:14.635)
of figuring out which ones you actually wanted to pitch to, you know, wanted you to pitch to. And we knew there that we had a lot of that skill that could help people because we’d been on that front line so much. In terms of private label, there’s a really long history and heritage of things like supermarket brands and stuff, private labeling goods and services. So if you think about like your Tesco or as the branded like baked beans, for example, that’s going to kill me for likening us to baked beans, but that’s fine.

Chris Simmance (03:36.918)
Mm -hmm.

Seb (03:43.851)
We knew when we were going to agencies saying, we’ll help you with your positioning, we’ll help you with your copy, your advertising, and all of that kind of stuff, they wouldn’t necessarily want to tell people that that’s what they do. It’s hard to be an agency who then uses what’s effectively an ad agency to get more clients. And so Private Label for us was to sort of signify that we understand where that fits in the market and to signify that it’s okay that people don’t want to talk about using us and that we’re here to…

Chris Simmance (03:59.566)
Mm -hmm.

Seb (04:13.419)
you know, have that support and be supportive. But we’re not without explicit permission going to shout from the rooftops about all of the people that have worked with us.

Chris Simmance (04:22.158)
Yeah, fair. And the thing is, I guess, it’s, this isn’t, it’s not easier. It’s a bit easier to deliver to clients than necessarily to see inside yourself and do it for yourself. So there is a, there is a good use case and a good reason for, for, for, for a business like yours. You know, well,

Seb (04:46.919)
Thank you. Yeah, we hope so.

Chris Simmance (04:49.102)
I’ve spoken to hundreds of agency leaders, a couple of nearly 200 on this podcast. And I know that they wouldn’t like to admit that they aren’t good at positioning their own businesses. And half the time, I’m sorry, agency leaders who are listening to this, you don’t really know what you sell because you’re just good at doing the thing that you sell. So listening to people who are happy to help you and not take the credit, so to speak, are worth their weight in gold. So speak to them and work with them.

Um, so the agency is relatively new, roughly what a year -ish or so old. What’s the, what, what’s the, um, what’s the biggest lesson do you think you’ve learned since you, since you kicked off?

Seb (05:23.499)
Yeah. Yeah. Just about a year.

Seb (05:30.379)
It don’t start an agency. I think it’s the biggest lesson. No, it’s funny you say that, you know, because when we started and we were thinking, okay, well, we’re going to have an agency. We’re both former in -house marketers. What does this agency look like? We also, for a long time, struggled with our own positioning. And that for us meant that we got to go through this kind of positioning process, this positioning exercise really early on.

Chris Simmance (05:31.788)

Chris Simmance (05:48.43)

Seb (05:56.939)
And so I think seeing how and experiencing how agencies can start as one or two people, then grow into a big organization, not that we’re big, without considering positioning was really interesting, you know, because we talked to a lot of agency owners about our product market fit and whether we thought that we would be useful. And so a good example is that, you know, you can often will come across an agency that started off as one person who was really good at one thing, say SEO, right? And then a…

potential client comes along and says, oh, you do SEO, that’s great, we need that, but can you also do graphic design? And the agency owner can’t necessarily turn it down, the work, when they’re just starting out. So they’ll go out and they’ll find a freelancer and that person will do the graphic design. And so things can start to sort of build and build and build. And all of a sudden, kind of five, 10 years down the track, you’ve got an agency that sells everything, but to no one in particular.

Chris Simmance (06:50.222)
tough. It’s really hard. And the irony of you, you know, making to have making yourselves make the effort to do the eat your own dog food aspect of this is is is not lost on me, should we say. And if you could go back then and go back in time and think thinking like throughout your whole career, I guess, because you being in house and wanting to be agency is probably just as as important as to you know, how you got here.

What piece of advice do you think you’d have given yourself if you’d like popped back popped into into existence a five years in the past, and you knew you were kind of in going agency direction? What What would you say?

Seb (07:32.875)
I would say don’t start an agency in 2023. As much as I kind of joke about like agencies being tough to run and how we shouldn’t have done it and all of that kind of stuff, we do really, really love it. And being, you know, two people that are on this kind of what’s effectively still a sort of startup journey before moving into a scale up journey has changed our lives in ways that we both absolutely love. Like when we started, we were like, oh God, we’re both crap at sales. What do we do? And we’ve had to learn to become…

Chris Simmance (07:42.508)

Seb (08:01.675)
good at sales and we’ve had to learn how to pitch ourselves. We’ve had to learn how to do things like go on this podcast and stuff. And so we’ve learned a lot of really important things. And so I think for me, it’s like, if I could give myself that advice, it would just be sort of simple things. Like make sure you have more money in the bank, make sure that you’re more aware of the kind of global financial situation and how that affects agencies before you start. And also looking at, you know,

Chris Simmance (08:26.99)

Seb (08:32.171)
really knowing and understanding that once you get into an agency, you’re going to be deep into an agency and you’re going to make a lot of mistakes and that’s okay. Like don’t lie and bed all night every night and beat yourself up over those things. Cause you know, these things happen along the way.

Chris Simmance (08:46.542)
And it’s good to have a co -founder founding partner in an agency because there’s someone to bounce ideas off of. And there’s also someone to kind of sense check that reality. You know, I feel like this, but also the reality is that, and you’ve got some bouncing off of each other there and the mirrors holding up and things like that. Where else do you look when you need kind of not necessarily advice, but you’ve got something that you want to, am I the only one that’s going through this kind of thing? Where do you look at that for that sort of stuff?

Seb (09:16.619)
It’s such a good question. When we started, we were really worried about saying to people, we’re two guys with a small agency and pretending that we were this kind of thing that was much bigger and much more experienced and focused than we were, right? Someone had gave us some advice and they just said, look, if you go in at the level where you sort of seem bigger than you are, then people will take you more seriously as agency owners. And so we did that for the first little while and it wasn’t really working for us.

And so being able to go in, being able to change our minds on that and think, you know what, we’re just going to own it. We are as good as our skills. And if someone says, oh, you’re too small to work with us, there’s nothing we can do about that. Right. Having that shift for us meant that we can start finding that help and that support in the startup community. Our ICP isn’t the startup community. We don’t work with startups and startup agencies, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t.

talk to those people and have those kinds of conversations and get that sort of support. And so we’ve just joined agency local and you know, we’re looking at joining a bunch of other sort of networks and events, but we do a lot of outreach and try to have conversations with people who are further on in the journey than us and say, you know, I’ve made all of these mistakes. Can you tell me which one to not make next?

Chris Simmance (10:27.374)

Chris Simmance (10:32.91)
Yeah. And it’s from a, from, from a shipper point of view of someone who’s been there from a building agencies point of view and now helping agencies to grow. I can, I can honestly tell you that everyone has made all of the mistakes and in future, they will all make them all over again, unless they help each other, which is exactly what these communities are good for. People always want to sort of share, but I think I saw it, where did I see it? I think I saw it on Twitter that said,

If you want to get an answer to a question really quickly, post the wrong answer on Reddit and see, see what happens. Um, that might be another avenue for, for, for some knowledge there. Um, so what do you think that, you know, as early doors, lots of things probably change and shift because, you know, you’re still settling in as it were. And what’s something that you did like day one that is, is, is like a mainstay and probably.

Seb (11:07.755)

Chris Simmance (11:30.286)
hopefully will be something that stays current for the whole duration of the agency’s life.

Seb (11:36.139)
We set up a productized service with its own individual brand called Sober Bento, which we got into really around the start of the agency and starting around figuring out what people wanted to do. Because I joked before we were recording that I own three business books and I’ve only read one of them. And this was in the one that I’d read. And it was talking about how agencies need to have productized services and should focus on having two to three brands. So you have the agency brand, you have the personal brand of the founder, you have the brand of the productized service.

We were very late to the game and talking about personal brand and signing up to a personal brand, which we can talk about later if you want. But having that productized service and making sure that it had its own brand and its own thing that could stand on its own two feet has been really good for us because it’s allowed us to have some ownable IP, show people that we can do the thing that they need in a processed and systemized kind of way.

and that they can effectively buy this thing off the shelf that’s designed to help with their copy and positioning. And we’ve worked through it enough to know that, you know, it works. It’s built for purpose. It’s fit for purpose. Instead of having people come to us and say, oh, we need help with positioning. And then us saying, well, I guess we have a rate card. You know, we just wanted to get that all out of the way right from the start.

Chris Simmance (12:52.622)
Yeah. So people can metaphorically knock on the door and go one, one bento, please. And you can wheel it out and deliver the service, I guess. And, and, and part of, um, part of running a digital agency is, you know, understanding that, um, the thing that is being delivered, the service that’s being delivered is often quite invisible. Um, and you very rarely, especially when it comes to what you’re offering as well is obvious from the immediate outset that it’s worked.

Um, so yeah, you’ve got your positioning sorted and you’ve got the copy around it sorted. The website is live and all everything where your positioning is shown and, uh, is in place. And you’ve got your pitch ready for when you go to meet people at networking and all that sort of stuff. And you know exactly who you are and what you sell still months before you know, whether it’s any good. So buying some kind of tangible say productized thing, or if you’re running, uh, like long -term strategies in SEO or PPC having a kind of methodology.

makes it heck of a lot easier to not only sell it and it’d be tangible to the buyer, but also makes it easier for once the buyer has bought to know at what point they are in the journey and then feel kind of happier throughout that, that, that kind of thing. What’s, what would you say then if, you know, if someone does, you know, ping you an email or, or, or get in touch with you on LinkedIn, how do you know that they’re the right fit for you? Do you, is it just, Oh Christ, I have no idea.

what they’re trying to sell, they must be a fit. What do you how do you qualify your your lead? You said no startup, so presumably that’s an immediate qualifier.

Seb (14:29.195)
Yeah, we have a pretty strict ICP. We work with companies that are between 10 to 12 people that are around the kind of 800 to 900 ,000 mark. And usually these people also don’t have a niche. One of the things we offer with server bento is a niching process. So that’s like the second step of the process is you get a niche. So they need to hit those three sort of criteria. And then once we know that they’ve done that, we will get them on a discovery call and talk to them more appropriate, appropriately and properly about their…

Chris Simmance (14:45.07)

Seb (14:59.157)
their struggles and make sure that we can actually help. One of the things that we never do is sign up to something we don’t think we can fix, because then we just look like dicks and then they waste money and no one wants to be that guy, you know?

Chris Simmance (15:05.134)
Yeah. Well, especially if you’re selling something which is only necessarily as good as the thing, the last project you did, um, because referrals and that kind of quiet net marketing is, is essential. If, if, if you can’t shout about it, um, and use it in your own marketing, then you have to do a good job and you have to.

You know, it’s really easy for agencies to look at the bank balance and go, oh, we could do with another three clients. And then three terrible opportunities come along and you say, yes, straight away. I think, you know, the balance between taking on lots of business early doors just to, just to make, to pay the bills is, it’s hard to say no sometimes, but you kind of have to when, when you want to remain honest and true to what can you do, how can you do it and so on.

Seb (15:56.491)
And also I think a lot of our credibility comes from being able to do that. I did a post on LinkedIn a few days ago about how I turned down enough work to mean that we could have both taken the summer off. This guy wanted to white label us to write copying content for his B2C clients. And we really thought about it, you know, and we thought, damn, this is good. Like this, you know, there’s some, some good scratch on this, but we also realized that we couldn’t on one hand be saying to…

all of our prospects and all of our clients, you need to have a niche, you need to have a strong position, you need to be focused, all of these kinds of things. And then quite literally with the other hand, go out and type out, you know, copy and ads for B2C clients, right? We, like you said, we’re only as good as our, sometimes we can only be as good as our next piece of work. Like I understand where that perception comes from, but we also have to be able to show to people, prove to people that, you know, we do drink our own Kool -Aid.

Chris Simmance (16:51.086)
Hmm. And you have to, um, I try my best with OMG to do the same, had a conversation with someone the other day and they said, Oh, you should try doing this. And I’m like, that’s literally what we do. What have I done wrong here? And this is a sample size of one. Hopefully I’m not completely off track, but, um, you, you do have to, you know, if you, if you, you’re living and breathing something like that, you’ve got, you’ve got to, you’ve got to be willing to, to, to, to adjust if you need to, but do, do what you.

Eat your own dog food, drink your own Kool -Aid as it were, all day long. Otherwise, no one’s going to believe that you know what you’re doing. So someone’s knocked on your door, metaphorically, hopefully. And they’ve said, hey, Seb, I know it’s early days, but you’ve been around the block a little bit in this industry. So I’m thinking of starting an agency as well. What piece of advice would you give me just before I kick things off?

Seb (17:31.275)
Yeah, please don’t come to my house.

Seb (17:47.883)
I think making sure you have enough cash in the bank is a big one. Business is going to be harder to come by than you expect that it’s going to be. New business is tough and it doesn’t mean anything until the people have signed the contracts. So also make sure you have watertight contracts. One thing that we learned really recently as well is set up direct debits. And if people are uncomfortable about signing a direct debit for the work that your agency is going to do for them, just say goodbye.

Chris Simmance (18:15.662)

Seb (18:17.419)
because those are the people that when your invoice comes out aren’t going to pay anyway. So I think those things, know that sales is going to be harder than you expect. Have enough cash in the bank, set up direct debits and have some watertight contracts because those last three things are going to help you not just at the start, but the whole way through building the agency.

Chris Simmance (18:35.79)
Yeah, absolutely. And it is good advice. Not to shamelessly plug, but to shamelessly plug. There’s a few good guides on the OMG Center website. First of all, how to find the right clients. Second of all, how to get the right clients and get them as easily as possible and, you know, onboard them as quickly as possible. And then most importantly, if not completely, way more importantly than actually getting them is how to keep them. So, find, get and keep.

And there’s some really important pieces of content there. So if you’re listening to this and you’re thinking Seb’s advice is great, but how do I start? Well, there’s some great content on the OMG center website for you to have a look at. And Seb, what do you think the future holds for Soba? Since it’s early doors, it’s really nice to, you know, some, some agencies I’ve spoken to have been sort of 10, 15 years in a few years in, and, and that vision for them is, is kinda, they’ve either realized it or they’ve changed it 10 times. So.

What are you looking at three to five years time? What’s your vision?

Seb (19:38.955)
complete will domination in our space, I think is that, yeah, we, you know, we had a really big conversation at the start about we being Dan and I, about make, whether we wanted a lifestyle agency or a growth agency. And we both came down on the side of growth agency. And so everything that we’re working towards is making sure that the agency grows and grows into a strong and useful business. We’ll always be in the agency, the agency space. That’s not going to change for us. We have a good niche.

Chris Simmance (19:40.334)
Ah, easy, totally easy, yeah, doable.

Seb (20:07.851)
And some good services that we offer people. So we’ll be continually focusing on that and going deeper in that niche and becoming, you know, the, the people that you come to when you have questions about positioning or copy or, you know, selling your agency, what kind of adverts you should be writing for your agency and that kind of thing. So for us, it’s very much like we’ve got the mission. We’ve agonized over it already. The next three to five years are going to be just, you know, honing that, that mission and vision and keeping.

building and just keeping plotting along. And I think also reminding ourselves that like there’s no such thing as overnight success. There might be several months we just have to grin and bear it, but you know, that’s what will stay on the track.

Chris Simmance (20:46.19)
Yeah. Yeah. Overnight success takes years. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast, Seb. It’s been great to talk to you.

Seb (20:51.529)

Seb (20:56.523)
Thanks so much for having me man.

Chris Simmance (20:57.966)
And in our next episode, we’ll be speaking with another agency leader to hear their story and the lessons they learned along the way. Thanks very much for listening.