From the basement of Vice magazine to Toronto, Berlin, Singapore – and now New York
Agency Tug is growing fast, angling for the status of “the only true independent performance agency with a truly global network”. As they open premises in New York, we sit down with founder Nick Beck.
Tug's CEO, along with new non-executive director Mike Dodds / Image courtesy of Tug
It’s a vintage founding story: Tug, the digital agency that Nick Beck founded in 2006, started life in the London basement of Vice magazine, surrounded by surplus issues.
Canadian Beck was by then in his early thirties, a veteran of the AmEx account at Ogilvy Interactive, the then ‘new media’ division of Ogilvy’s direct marketing arm, OgilvyOne. He’d “fallen into” digital marketing in the late 90s, first for a property company in Toronto and then in London for the proper dot-com boom.
During his tenure at Ogilvy, the nascent pay-per-click (PPC) field started to take shape; Beck recalls a “lightbulb moment" that it would become a lucrative business when one successful indie in the space turned down an eight-figure acquisition offer from his employers. A second lightbulb moment came when IBM asked Ogilvy to bring media in-house for their annual Wimbledon campaign to be “more efficient”.
With that growing drive to media efficiency, Beck says, he came to see PPC as “the first medium where media and creative were genuinely coming together. I looked at the separation of media and creative agencies that happened in the 70s for commercial reasons and suddenly, here’s a medium where if you change the creative, you can improve the click-through rate… you can’t just buy a bunch of media and wait six weeks to see how it went. You’re affecting it in real-time. I got pretty excited.”
Thus Tug was born, in that Vice basement – “I’m not even sure they charged me rent”.
A Tug in the right direction
“Our goal was to build an agency that clients wanted to work with and people wanted to work for. That was it. Everything else will look after itself.”
It’s worked so far: since that launch in London, the agency boasts over 100 headcount, with offices in Toronto, Berlin, Sydney, Singapore and – just this week – New York. They're set to announce a New York managing director soon, and have also recently signed up Mike Dodds, former chief exec at Proximity, as non-executive director.
We speak with Beck as a number of British agencies are opening presences in New York; each will have different reasons for doing so, but many are presumably looking for fast scaling despite tricky economic headwinds at home. Beck feels confident of Tug’s own “around the houses” entry to the big apple via Toronto and APAC. He hopes that it will help Tug to “speak to American advertisers looking to go global”, rather than leaning on those partners to help with Tug’s own US entry.
Beck is satisfied that Tug now has the global footprint it needs to win the work in its sights, but admits that “we’ve got a really good reputation in the market but not enough people know about us”.
Nevertheless, with the kind of growth that Tug has enjoyed, particularly over the last couple of years, surely the networks have come knocking? “We don’t have any urgency to sell… there’s so much more to do, and we’re still the masters of our own destiny” – ‘we’ here means Beck himself, who remains the company’s main shareholder, having bootstrapped from day one and never taken major investment, but also his management team, who now own about 15% of the business.
Never say never though; Beck does share that he’s recently taken a meeting with a “smaller network”. “I walked in with a ‘no’ in my mouth,” he says; but is coming to realize that though “I’m not on a trajectory to sell everything”, other options like selling a minority stake to enable a buy-and-build phase could be possible in the long run.
Either way, selling up completely to live out one’s life on a beach is clearly anathema to Beck’s approach to business. “The type of person that wants to make their own business is usually not the type of person that wants to lie on the beach all day,” he says.
“There’s all this pressure, when you own a marketing business, to sell. It's literally the second thing anyone says to you: ‘ooh, so you’re going to sell your business someday’. There’s definitely a financial reason I started [Tug] – one of the reasons I’m in this is to make money. But you can fall into the trap of ‘I’m just going to build this thing that WPP wants to buy’. There’ll be something else they want to buy, or you won’t get it right.”
Either way, Beck’s ambition for Tug is clear and unchanged: “to be the best digital agency in the world."
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