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From pro bono to going pro: behind Not Fur Long founders’ new agency

Small World founders Dan Salkey and Harvey Austin

As the furlough scheme is phased out in the UK, the founders of Not Fur Long – a network of furloughed agency workers helping small businesses cope through lockdown – have launched a business of their own, Small World. We discuss their ambitions and why they won’t use the ’a’ word.

The British government’s furlough scheme, one of the most dramatic economic interventions by the state in recent decades, is beginning to wind down. But for Harvey Austin and Dan Salkey, the end of the scheme won’t mean a return to normal.

Furloughed back in March 2020 from sports agency Dark Horses, the pair used lockdown boredom as the fuel for an innovative project – Not Fur Long, which offered free marketing services to small businesses facing closure. But after an initial return to the creative shop that summer, they’ve decided to strike out on their own and turn their pandemic collective into a bona fide business.

Salkey gives the elevator pitch: “There’s loads of really exciting, innovative, high-growth businesses out there, who all need marketing.

“We’ve got all this amazing freelance talent – if we can figure out a new agency model to service them, we might be on to a winner.“

Austin and Salkey cooked up Not Fur long in the first weeks of their furlough and, before long, developed a network of hundreds of agency workers in the same boat. Austin recounts the tale: “In the first couple of days of furlough, I looked at doing a little cookbook – I thought I’d be the next Rick Stein. I soon got bored of that, though. Dan looked at doing a bit of magic... he got bored of that too. We thought, we’ve been doing our careers for five-ish years, we’re enjoying them, we don’t really want to stop.

“We read in the press that one in five small businesses were going to close: that’s your favorite pub, your favorite curry house, where you get your coffee. All the places we were looking forward to returning to. So we wanted to help them. We spoke to a few other people in similar situations – made a website, did a bit of PR. In the space of a week, we had 1,500 businesses sign up. And 900 volunteers, all pro bono.“

Over the next eight months, Not Fur Long pulled together a team of 80 regular volunteers working to boost the prospects of 40 businesses, pulling off out-of-home campaigns, TVCs and masses of work on social.

That summer, both returned from the break – but with the desire to take their pandemic project to the next level. While their fellow furloughed Dark Horses workers stayed on at the agency, Salkey says he and Austin “were stupid enough, or brave enough, whichever way you look at it, to take a punt“.

Having helped pull small businesses back from the brink, they’re now launching their own small business. As Small World, they aim to bring agency-grade brand building services to a market of early-days startups and SMEs who can’t afford to retain a big creative shop and who don’t have the time or knowhow to get the best out of freelancers. Salkey says: “We spoke to probably a few hundred businesses and founders in the six months we were planning Small World, and we really got to understand why they couldn’t afford marketing.

“They were saying: ’I’d love to have the talent you can get at a creative agency, I really think brand is important, that performance marketing is important – but I can’t afford a top agency.’“ While they expect to “iterate like any startup“, they hope to provide an “affordable and agile“ model that will suit smaller and younger businesses – in particular, startups at the pre-seed, seed and Series A stage – by cutting down on overheads such as physical premises or permanent staff.

Just over a month in, their first work is set to be unveiled soon. Campaigns created under their Not Fur Long umbrella included telly spots for vitamin brand YourZooki and Thanks & Praise, a ’social thanking’ platform.

Transitioning from a loose creative collective to a full-blown enterprise was a challenge. Austin says: “I was a bit apprehensive. We had a reputation for [pro bono] and now we’re not. But we spoke to loads of our Not Fur Long clients and they all understood that once the furlough scheme was over, we’d need to pay the rent.“

As well as shifting their target market, they’ve also had to rebuild their network of freelance contacts – a key strength of their offering. Salkey says: “[The network] sits at around 500... it covers designers, illustrators, animators, strategists, creatives, SEO specialists, CMOs, paid media specialists, social specialists.“

While the network gives Small World the ability to offer a range of services, he says the business will focus on strategy and creative. They’re using referrals to grow the network and access further capabilities. “Good people know good people,“ he concludes.

Notably, Small World don’t use the ’a’ word – agency – anywhere on their website. Austin says it’s a deliberate choice, one that reflects a different take on the business model of a creative shop.

“To be candid, that word has [certain] connotations and we’re trying to be different. We’re not an agency... we’re a community, a network, all those buzzwords.“

His business partner says Small World has its sights on digital freelance marketplaces like Fiverr, rather than ad agencies. “It’s kind of a wild west. Freelancers hate using these platforms, and businesses hate using them too.

“We believe in challenging the conventions of advertising. We think it’s amazing, we think it’s great. We’ve come from the industry – we just feel that for the businesses we want to service, there has to be a better way of doing things, both culturally and in an economic capacity.“

Austin and Salkey didn’t expect to become founders. But the pandemic has turned a lot of things taken for granted upside down. “We’re friends first, colleagues and founders second,“ says Salkey.

“We’ve worked in agencies, worked in advertising and marketing our whole lives, and we really liked working with those businesses. But this is a problem to solve... maybe this is our problem to solve.“

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