News Analysis: Rob Morrice
Bigmouth is back
Bollington-based business-to-business agency IAS Smarts is not the highest profile of agencies. And one would be forgiven for thinking its chief executive Rob Morrice is the shy and retiring type as well.
You would be wrong. Morrice cut his teeth in the hurly burly scrum of Scottish marketing where he gained a name as a controversial player – one who likes to shake things up.
“I have deliberately kept my head down for the last few months,” he tells The Drum.
But now he is putting it above the parapet and indulging his habit of shaking things up. From 1 March IAS Smarts, part of the MediaSquare group, is to be the subject of a wholesale restructure.
At the moment the group includes a PR network, a general ad agency in Edinburgh as well as IAS itself, which is based near Macclesfield. It is to be effectively split into three.
“Our Edinburgh agency is to become part of The Gate Worldwide – another Media Square agency – while our PR operations in Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast are to become a standalone network under the Smarts name.
“Meanwhile IAS Smarts, will revert back to being IAS, and will focus on business to business.”
At the moment Morrice is responsible for the entire IAS Smarts network. However, from March he will simply be in charge of IAS – with the current MDs of the PR offices reporting directly into Media Square director Philip Gregory.
It is understood an early priority for this new PR network will be the acquisition of a London operation to complete its UK coverage, although Morrice declines to comment. His focus is very much IAS, and he does confirm that he is not only looking to expand the current office, but perhaps launch into the Capital as well.
“We are currently number three in the UK business-to-business agency market – behind Gyro International and McCanns. In five years I want to be number one. In ten years I want to be number one in Europe.”
And Morrice feels the company has the financial momentum to get there. “This agency is already the most profitable part of Media Square – contributing around £1m in profits. The new structure is all about playing to our strengths.”
This is a theme that Morrice returns to again and again. He felt that under previous chief executive Jeremy Middleton, the group lacked direction and focus.
“Our new executive chairman Roger Parry has made a huge difference to Media Square. He has the ability to see the big picture, but also to encourage each part of the business to focus on its key strengths.
“Too many of the large acquisitive groups lack a clear strategy – and we were guilty of that for a time.
“In fact so lacking in direction was the group that I was thinking of chucking it. But under this restructure real focus has returned – and I am looking forward to a more hands-on role.”
Morrice, aged 50, first appeared on the marketing radar when he launched arguably Scotland’s first fully integrated agency in the early 90s. The company was then acquired by Incepta, before being merged into Huntsworth to form Citigate Smarts. When that strategy seemed to fail, the business was sold on to Media Square which effectively bought all of Huntworth’s non-core business as a job lot for £70m.
Morrice was left responsible for the hotch-potch of agencies that even included a sales promotion business in London. While he concedes that creativity was not the hallmark of IAS in the past, it is something he plans to change. “Smarts in Edinburgh had real creative heritage, and we are bringing that here,” says Morrice.
But of course there is more to B2B than pretty pictures he adds. Research suggests that in the world of consumer advertising 80 percent of purchasing decisions revolve around emotional factors – such as packaging and brand position. But in the B2B trade only 18 percent of purchasing decisions are driven by emotions. Buyers demand harder facts and figures.
“Our clients are the sort of people who sell products you don’t even know exist,” says Morrice. And these products include building insulation and floor-coverings for buses.
IAS – which originally stood for Industrial Art Services – has built up a substantial business that has 60 employees and revenues of around £6m.
“At the moment we are particularly strong in construction,” says Morrice, “One of our largest clients is Rockwool. But in order to grow we need to build in areas such as finance, professional services and high tech.”
It is clear Morrice is running a business that fits his original model for Smarts in Edinburgh – a model from which his old Scottish rival could learn a lot.
Reflecting on a decline in the market north of the border he says: “I think in order to sort Scotland out what you should do is find all the people who have any connection with that old, famous agency Hall Advertising and put them out to grass. Scotland needs younger people and new ideas.
“Too many people in Scotland are still trying to emulate the glory days of the 80s and 90s. The work Scotland is producing has not changed.
“The big agencies are just playing lip service to new disciplines and have not really embraced areas such a digital and direct marketing.”
It is a classic Morrice rant – which was a reminder of another question. Why has he been so quiet of late? “I simply wanted to prove I could keep my gob shut.”