Some of the greatest heroes have been defined by letters; think the X-Men, bond gadget maestro Q, and, err, Mr T? So what of the inimitable Mr B (& Friends, of course)? Founded in 2006 by Simon Barbato (the Mr B in question), the digital creative marketing and branding agency has expanded from a bedroom operation to a 26-person, global concern. Not to save mankind, but to save brands in need. We caught up with Simon to find out more.
TS: The first thing to ask is about you, where you come from; a bit of background really.
SB: I’ve been in agency work all my career. I studied marketing at university, graduated in 1991 and cut my teeth in advertising and integrated marketing with the BBDO Group. From there I went to Ogilvy & Mather Direct in St John’s Street, London and learnt about direct marketing and direct response TV, although I’m not sure it really suited me.
TS: How so?
SB: Well, I have a slightly more maverick approach, and when you work for a massive marketing machine like Ogilvy you’re simply a number in a box against the profit and loss sheet and I just wasn’t able to exert any influence. So I left and joined the international brand consultancy Light & Coley, based in Fulham where I threw myself into branding, brand management and brand strategy.
B creative: Founder Simon Barbato has created a branding agency that matters
After six years in the industry I’d moved up from account manager to director and decided to go it alone. I set up my own company in Richmond, London called the-field, age 27. There were only 10 of us but we had some really nice clients including Fulham Football Club, Sky, and a couple of big financial services organisations.
In 2004 that was integrated into a bigger marketing services group. As part of the deal, I had to stay for two years.
TS: And that’s when you started Mr B?
SB: That’s right. For one, a lot of people can’t pronounce my name so I was known colloquially as Mr B. But the idea behind the business was to create a virtual agency. I would act as the account manager and strategist and then I would bring in specialist teams to work on various creative projects such as branding, direct marketing, TV and advertising; hence the ‘Friends’.
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It was at the time when the country was going into a horrible recession and the virtual agency model, where you could ‘pay as you go’, seemed to appeal to a lot of clients. Within the space of a year, business was booming. I was working way too many hours but what we had achieved was a really solid relationship with a group of good, blue-chip clients. We had some traction and forward planning in the business.
“I was working out of that bedroom approaching half a million pounds worth of revenue. It was amazing”
I say ‘we’ but it was just me at the time. I was acting as a business rather than an individual, running the whole thing out of my bedroom in Hampton. I was working out of a spare bedroom approaching half a million pounds worth of revenue. It was amazing.
TS: So how did you move out of your bedroom into bigger offices?
SB: Steve Richardson, the second partner at Mr B & Friends, joined from New Zealand. He was Interbrand’s Creative Director in Auckland and I persuaded him to leave and come here, during which time I’d moved to Bath. Between us we said, ‘let’s grow the agency’.
Over the course of the next two years (2008-2011) it was very slow, organic growth. And then we met Will Cooper, originally our Director of Digital, now our Commercial Director, and the business just accelerated. We went from eight staff to 26 in the space of two years.
TS: That’s quite an impact, what did Will bring to the table?
SB: He closed the gap. Before we were very comfortable doing brand and creative work but we always had to outsource our digital work. Will brought in a digital proposition and a team we didn’t have. It was a calculated investment and it paid off instantly. I remember his impact on the agencies billing was within the first three months.
Name in lights: Mr B & Friends now manages contracts across the globe from its offices in Bath
As a result of that clients could put all of their business through Mr B & Friends, rather than hiring two or three agencies. It strengthened all of our client relationships and as a result, the snowball got quicker and quicker, bigger and bigger.
So he was a massive catalyst but he walked into a business that was ready to grow.
TS: Why the move to Bath?
SB: That was a lifestyle move, to get away from London. I was at that sort of age where London, socially, wasn’t that important to me any longer and business-wise, Bristol and Bath was the next creative centre in the UK as far as I was concerned.
What I like about this area is that it’s really well served by a couple of outstanding universities, transport links to South Wales, the Midlands and London are really good, and it also happens to be a stunning city to live in; it’s got a real pull.
TS: What are the biggest successes you’ve had so far as a business?
SB: There’s not one specific client, but there are three or four that we have won in the last year or so which have marked our own step change in terms of moving up through the gears.
“Bristol and Bath is the next creative centre in the UK as far as I’m concerned”
There’s SSE PLC; a FTSE30 company. We pitched against two large London-based agencies and won the pitch comfortably according to the client. Then Unite Students; a FTSE250 PLC who provide student accommodation for 42 universities across the UK. We were up against some serious competition; huge, named agencies. And Principality Building Society in Wales who came to a unanimous decision to appoint Mr B and Friends over seven or eight competitors for a lead agency role
We’ve won contracts which I think demonstrate where we are as a business. For me, certainly, it’s the greatest source of satisfaction because we’ve grown an agency that matters. And it matters to clients that are looking at us saying ‘we’d like those guys to work for us’. It’s a sense of where we’ve got to on our own journey rather than one particular incident or client.
TS: What’s the future for the agency?
SB: We’ve just launched CXCo, our sister company. Customer experience is becoming hugely important as a measurement for success for companies so CXCo helps clients to maximise that, measure where they are, and improve on it.
Putting the B in branding: The Bath lifestyle suits both Simon and the business
In terms of Mr B, we’re looking at exporting our services to China. Will and I are on a trade mission there soon which is going to be really interesting. We’re also active in India with a Fortune 500 company called Tech Mahindra, a huge, global outsourcing business. We’re working with them on a global brand for 12 months. We’re also active in Russia and the US.
And we’re potentially looking at some acquisitions in the next two years to help us grow.
TS: One last question, when you started Mr B & Friends what was your dream for the business and has that shifted at all over the years?
SB: I think I’m living the dream actually. I’ve got a very dedicated partnership with Will and Steve. I’ve got a business where clients really like working with us. And I’ve got a business which is moving forward so I couldn’t wish for more really. I just hope it continues in that way.