Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Rob Webster: Thinking of starting your own marketing company?

Rob Webster is Founder of  Canton Marketing Solutions. He’s worked in the adtech industry since 2001 and is NDA’s monthly adtech columnist.

What’s great and what’s challenging 

Just over two years ago myself and an old friend of mine, industry veteran Nick King finally did what we had been talking about for years and founded our own business, Canton Marketing Solutions. Since then we have suffered the usual disruptions and the unusual with Covid and are so proud to have come through this period growing with new clients, it was the best decision we ever made.

Despite having worked at many great startup teams before doing it yourself is incomparable. I don’t want to claim to be a master entrepreneur, we are still very much in our training shoes two years in and humble about the journey ahead. However the experience of getting through Covid particularly I would say counts for longer and given that  disruption in our lives and the market I know many will be looking at starting their own companies, so I hoped my take would be valuable.

With that in mind I thought it worth highlighting the three best parts and the three biggest challenges we and other entrepreneurs experience in our industry. 

Great: Your Vision

If you’re anything like me you will have spent many years in other jobs thinking there is a better way. Now, in such a changing market there almost certainly is.

Recessions always are great times to remove businesses and models that are no longer applicable to the modern world. Starting your own business with likeminded individuals is the best and most satisfying solution for these times. If you think of the companies that are coming through right now they all have a clear vision from their founders. Our own belief that brands need to dramatically improve their internal online marketing skills is what allows us to stand out from the crowd. 

Challenging: Cash Flow

Cash is king as they say and never more so than in marketing in the 2020s. The unfortunate truth is that many companies like to demand unfair payment terms whilst the big platforms enforce 30 day terms and often prepay on new entrants. One of the first things you need is a plan for this dynamic which for us involved having a product good enough we could ask and get reasonable payment terms and picking your clients.

We have been very fortunate to work with some excellent clients who respect that small companies need friendier terms in return for the amazing work they do. Not everyone is so considerate and it’s an area I would ask the industry to look at if it wants to encourage entrepreneurs. 

Great. Your Team and Culture

Culture eats strategy for breakfast is the famous quite from Peter Drucker and its something I whole heartedly believe in. When starting your own business you get to build your own team and design your own culture. One thing I would massively advise is to only bring in people who have shown through their actions that they really want to be part of your journey.

Do that and no matter how good the teams you may have been jn in the past nothing will beat the culture you can build. For us it’s this culture that has helped us prosper through tough times this year and regardless of whether we are working from home or together continually be able to perform. 

Challenging: Procurement. 

One of the most dispiriting things you can hear as a small business is that one of your top prospects that loves what you do has a tough procurement process. With some major companies it can take years to get through procurement and this can be harder too in tough times as companies look to stick with what you know.

Having said that disruption also breeds opportunity to break down barriers. It’s so important as a small business that you can demonstrate to companies why they should go through the effort to add you to the approved roster, good is not enough you need to be exceptional. I also think companies need to recognise that a tough process can hinder innovation, innovation that could prove vital to succeed in a fast changing world. 

Great: Learning. 

Continuous learning and improvement is a concept known as Kaizen by the Japanese. One thing I have loved about starting a business is the increased opportunity to keep learning. From the fundamentals of starting a business to adapting to the ever changing market.

I have worked in sales and marketing for 20 years but only now when I have to apply it to my own business do I feel I really understand it. I can’t describe enough how starting your own business can reignite that learning drive that I believe has bee lost across parts of the industry. I can’t describe enough how wonderful it feels to be learning at pace every day. 

Challenging: Pressure

There is no hiding place when you start your own business, certainly in the early days. The challenges need to be met by the founders and starting your own business is widely known as one of the most stressful things you can do: running a small business in such disruptive times doubly so.

Because of this I am a big advocate for budding entrepreneurs to find a business partner or Co founder. Speaking from experience it’s great to have someone to share the load, and reset your perspective when you are stuck in the middle of an issue and without each other I am sure neither Nick or I would have succeeded or enjoyed the journey as much as we have.

Having a cofounder will also help you grow faster and scale as the business is not perceived to be about one person. I don’t think it’s an accident that so many of the most successful businesses in the world and in UK marketing came from strong Co founder relationships (Think Google, Apple, Microsoft and closer to home MediaIQ, Flashtalking, Essence).

Later as your team grows you will find others step up and you will know you truly have a company when a few different people step up to deal with different challenges in a short period of time. This is wonderful felling and something that happened at Canton over the Covid period and a sign that you are on the right track. 

BONUS great: Make a Difference. 

Writing this I didn’t want to end on a negative and it also made me realise perhaps the best part of all. Making a difference in something you care about. Too many people in larger companies feel that they can’t make a difference. As an entrepreneur you have the ability to focus on whatever is important to you.

For me as someone who has had such a great run in this industry its always been important to send the elevator back down. Developing young talent both at Canton with our superstar team, our new internship program (such programs are vital for a time when young people are struggling to get a foot on the ladder) and with passing on skills and expertise to our clients I am confident we are making a difference.

Looking around the industry I see so many other young businesses doing the same and am very sure that these businesses alongside the companies born during the crisis will radically change the space for the better in the near future.