As part of The Drum’s 20/2000 Visionaries in association with Precedent – profiling 20 digital shops launched prior to 2000 – iCrossing UK CEO Paul Doleman recalls the pivotal moments in the agency’s evolution.
1997 was a big year for UK news: Tony Blair swept to power in a landslide general election victory; the Princess of Wales died in Paris; Scottish scientists cloned a sheep called Dolly. And in Brighton, Arjo Ghosh recognised how difficult it was to find brands on the web and launched Spannerworks, one of the UK's first search marketing companies, from a home office. “By 1998, the dotcom bubble was firmly underway, internet access was growing rapidly and companies were discovering how to use the web for more than just email,” says Paul Doleman, UK CEO of iCrossing. “From the beginning, Spannerworks set its sights on tracking customers from banners to websites to help measure the successful conversion of 'eyeballs' into sales.”Meanwhile, in Scottsdale, Arizona, a search engine marketing company called iCrossing was launched, based on founder Jeffrey Herzog’s belief that search would change the advertising landscape forever. “It was years before iCrossing and Spannerworks would unite, but it’s clear that the two agencies shared a vision from the start,” says Doleman.Post-bubble boom
Doleman joined Spannerworks in 2000, having previously spent time with Microsoft and a major media buying agency, convinced by the vision of a digital future with search marketing at its core.“Google had launched in 1999 and it was immediately clear that this was something powerful,” recalls Doleman. In 2000, Spannerworks created NetworkSense Tracking, its own search campaign measurement tool, shortly before the dotcom bubble finally popped. With the heightened client need for quantifiable results from digital spend, Spannerworks’ performance marketing model went from strength-to-strength.The early noughties saw an explosion in paid search and online media buying and now familiar disciplines such as SEO and natural search became increasingly popular. Interestingly, Doleman believes successful campaigns from that period provided strong hints towards a content-led future.He says: “What we call connected SEO or content marketing today was known as ‘stickiness’ in those days, but even back then it was clear that the brands being found online were those with a good content strategy. The realisation was that content had to be relevant and timely and be found in the right places to stand the best chance of engaging a target audience. In 2014, of course, that concept is everywhere.” Social mover
When Google Adwords altered its proposition to introduce the self-service cost-per-click auction business model, a whole new world in paid search raced out of the blocks, with Spannerworks continuing to reap the benefits.2006 saw Spannerworks voted No. 1 agency in a host of influential media titles and launch a new social media division, one of the first of its kind in the UK.“If anything, we moved a fraction too early, long before Google and others were folding in social signals into ranking visibility,” says Doleman. He remembers that in the early days of social media some clients were so wary of social media that they seriously wanted to run the text of any social posts past their legal department: “It’s taken a while for some brands to realise that social is simply a means of having a real conversation with your customers. We told our clients to embrace it and be real.”Around this time, Bank of America approached Spannerworks to help leverage social channels to help lessen the load coming into their call centre. The move was purely motivated by cost saving, but the bank was in for a surprise.He says: “They discovered that there was a new generation of customers who actively wanted to communicate with them via social media, rather than via the primary website or a call centre. Given the potential savings involved and the higher levels of engagement possible via social channels, this was a revelation.”Twice acquired
After acquisition offers from “a few others”, Spannerworks was acquired by iCrossing in 2007 and became iCrossing UK.“I was with the founder when we met iCrossing for the first time and pretty much fell in love at first sight,” says Doleman. “We spoke the same language, just with different accents. That was the start of an incredible journey.”Over the next few years, iCrossing UK would establish itself as a leading global digital marketing agency, taking top honours for both its paid search and SEO current offerings in Forrester's Search Wave Report in 2009. Another twist was just around the corner. Four years ago, iCrossing was approached out of the blue and acquired by global publishing giant the Hearst Corporation.Doleman says: “It was a cold approach from Hearst but it was clear that they had been observing us for a while. Hearst has been around 125 years; they don’t make impulsive buys. They had seen how digital platforms and devices such as smartphones and tablets were reshaping the way that people consume media content and brought us on board to help with the general transformation of their wider media business.”Future thinking
Given that iCrossing already has several big name fashion retailers on its books, Doleman also believes that there is massive potential for audience crossover and data sharing as part of the Hearst hook-up.“Our plans for the future focus on exploiting the full potential of our relationship with Hearst and its publishing heritage,” says Doleman. “We’re investing heavily in our research and insight team, in our third-party and proprietary technologies as things move towards programmatic buying, as well as seriously investing in our creative capabilities.“We’ll stay as agile and responsive as always, reflecting how people now use a variety of channels (such as YouTube or Twitter) for search as well as the primary search engines.”Today, at the ripe old age of 17, iCrossing employs 150 staff in the UK and 900 staff globally across offices in the US, Europe, South America and Asia. Not bad going for a company that began life as a one-man Brighton start-up.This feature was first published in The Drum's 14 May issue, available for subscribers to download here. If you're not a subscriber you can purchase a copy of the latest issue here or subscribe here.