E is for evolution: The Drum catches up with e3 as part of 20/2000 visionaries series

In the latest of our 20/2000 features, celebrating 20 UK digital shops founded prior to 2000 to mark the 25th anniversary of digital agency Precedent, The Drum meets Neil Collard, managing director of e3, and finds out why, in 2014, the agency now counts IBM and Accenture among its competitors.

Neil Collard, managing director of e3, is full of praise for the digital marketing agency’s founders, Stuart Avery and Mike Bennett. “When they started out in 1997 the internet was still pretty embryonic,” he says. There were only around 30,000 dotcom domains at the time, so creating a digital agency back then was brave – and insightful.”

Based in Bristol, Avery and Bennett founded New Generation Productions (the agency that would become ‘e3’ in 1998) as a video production company for the internet age, focusing on multimedia (ie CD-Rom), motion graphics and web. Initially they planned to film and edit digitally and stream the content online: ideas somewhat ahead of their time in terms of the tech available.

Collard explains: “At the time it cost them £10k for a 9GB RAID drive fast enough to edit video, however 9GB would only do 30 seconds of broadcast quality footage and you could only stream postage stamp sized video – think 14.4 kbaud rate!”

Despite this initial setback, the agency grew consistently over its first three years by developing CD-Roms and corporate websites, a period which culminated in e3 winning the contract to deliver the global website for Orange.

“Orange was still fairly new and different in the mobile market and one of the coolest brands around,” says Collard. “We'd made it our mission to work with them, threw everything at the pitch and won. It was a classic example of a small agency punching above its weight and the win forced us to grow up quickly. That we still have Orange as a client today says a lot about our response.”

e3’s new business success continued in 2002 when it picked up Kia Motors, who would go on to become the agency’s biggest client and, according to Collard, “probably the client that we are most famous for.”

Key challenges faced and overcome during this period included the limited availability of digital talent to support the agency’s rapid growth, the lack of any existing digital agency business models to learn from and the ever-changing technological landscape.

“Let’s face it, the pace of change is one of the reasons why we all love working in this space, but it does mean that the agency model has to constantly adapt to deliver new services and face new competitors,” says Collard.

Following the acquisition of London agency Butterfly Effect in 2004, e3 continued to win plaudits for its digital production work throughout the noughties, with the ‘Rocket 3’ viral video for Triumph Motorcycles and the third iteration of Kia’s global site (which picked up 10 major awards) among the stand-out projects.

However, in 2008, Neil Collard, who had joined e3 in 2006 from AKQA/Good Tech, started to plot a new direction for the agency that would recognise the growing influence and potential of digital.

He says: “We realised that clients’ digital strategy could help them achieve not only their marketing objectives but also their wider business objectives. Digital can solve a whole myriad of challenges for clients. It’s much more than just launching a product or boosting sales. It can also be about reducing costs, retaining staff and solving internal problems.”

Collard points to e3’s work with the Royal Navy as a great example of the agency’s expanded role. Having picked up the account in 2011, initially engaged as technical support, e3 would go on to become the Royal Navy’s lead digital agency and is currently advising the client on how digital can help to alleviate the homesickness experienced by RN staff while at sea, separated from their loved ones, a factor that can lead to many highly qualified staff leaving the service.

Collard says: “Due to the breadth of audience research that we do for our clients, we have a deep understanding of how users behave in the digital space. By combining this user insight with a strategic understanding of the business challenge and then applying brilliant creative, digital minds to create solutions, we have a pretty interesting proposition that starts to bridge the gap between a traditional digital marketing agency and the big consultancies that are entering the space.”

“The next 24 months is about ensuring that we can compete with the likes of IBM and Accenture from the strategic side and yet still marry those skills with a creative culture and the right technology.”

Appointed as managing director of the agency in 2012, after Stuart Avery stepped into the chairman’s role, Neil Collard has since overseen consistent revenue growth of 20 per cent per annum and staff numbers swelling to more than 65 (with a quarter of staff working in strategy roles). Having had its best year ever in 2013, Collard believes e3 is now in a strong position in terms of the new clients it chooses to work with.

He says: “Firstly, we want to work with household name brands. As a rule of thumb, if I need to explain to my mum who they are, we probably don’t want to work with them.

“Also, we need to be their lead digital agency. We decide what they should be doing in the digital space across a whole gamut of areas. We don’t necessarily provide all those services ourselves but we define what third-parties are doing, why they are doing it and how it fits into the bigger picture.”

The immediate future, says Collard, will be dominated by clients looking at creative ways to get more out of the customer data that they already own. “I heard someone say recently that ‘big data’ is a bit like ‘sex’ was at school – everyone’s talking about it but no one is actually doing it. However, many clients have invested considerable sums in CRM systems that have failed to deliver on their initial promise, so I think there is a really interesting role for us to play in providing data insight alongside creative marketing, delivering digital solutions to real-world problems.”

The decision of e3’s founders to create the agency back in 1997 is looking more insightful all the time.

This article was originally published in the 9 July issue of The Drum.

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