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‘Everything is people’: DRPG’s Dale Parmenter on growth, crisis and succession

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By Sam Anderson | Editor, The Drum Network

October 24, 2022 | 9 min read

Dale Parmenter is the founder and managing director of media production agency DRPG. We sat down with Parmenter to talk about 42 years at the helm of a growing indie, and his ambitions for what comes next.

The team of media production agency DRPG

The Worcestershire-based media agency now has a worldwide footprint / Image courtesy of DRPG

Despite a now-global footprint (with 420 people in offices as dispersed as Atlanta, USA and Cologne, Germany), the heart of media production agency DRPG’s operation is, as it always has been, Worcestershire, UK. It’s where founder Dale Parmenter was born, where he set up the agency that takes his initials, and where you’ll today find a 4.5-acre studio complex owned by the company.

An entrepreneurially-colorful early career saw Parmenter dabbling with DJing, gardening and finally filmmaking. The latter was the seed that contained his onward media career: after winning an award for the BBC’s ‘Young Filmmaker of the Year’ (for a “really stupid” story about a bridge in his hometown getting stolen overnight, featuring hundreds of local volunteer extras), he took a job with another national treasure, at the NHS’s in-house production unit.

When that NHS film unit was closed, Parmenter struck out on his own in the world of corporate video. “Back in 1980, if you wanted to make a corporate film, it would cost an absolute fortune – and it would be on film, not video,” says Parmenter. With cheaper video-format cameras just then hitting the market, “I went to a bank and said, ‘I want to invest in video equipment; this is going to be the next thing.’ The guy shook his head and said, ‘don’t be ridiculous. Nobody will make money out of video.’”

Still, after scrabbling together the money for that camera, DRPG was born as a one-man band, making video promos for smaller corporates. “I did the camerawork, the editing, the scripts.” The business’s first watershed came soon after, with Parmenter taking on more work at conferences and events. “Someone said to me, ‘why don’t you [run] the conference as well?’ I thought, ‘why not? Why not control the supply chain?’ I suppose, unwittingly, that was the start of multichannel for us: write and develop the content, make the film, show the film and run the whole length.”

Building the ship and weathering the storms

Setting up the business and pivoting to this “whole length” approach in his early twenties, Parmenter talks excitedly about DRPG’s entrepreneurial beginnings. “We were very much making it up as we went along,” he says.

“In the 80s and 90s, up until the millennium, we were having an awful lot of fun, probably a bit too much fun. But we had no idea, really, about business and how to look after the cash.” The business’s professionalization, as he tells it, was forced by the new millennium’s first major crisis. “9/11 happened. We were doing work for leisure companies, travel companies and airlines – we lost 60% of our business overnight.”

Struggling to pay the bills and faced with receivership, one member of the then 20-strong team suggested a company-wide pay cut to stay afloat, which was carried by a vote. “We then became a very close, very tight-knit team that was determined to get over this, and we did. It took us a year to do it, and that’s when we started to come to the fore.”

That meant cleaning up and buckling down: “We had great people, great clients, great products and awful business sense.” Breaking that habit meant making strategic hires and introducing formalized processes; doing so during a time of crisis gave Parmenter one of his ironclad business rules: “Invest in marketing and people, even during a downturn.” Yes, even during Covid-19. “We tripled our marketing spend.”

All of which leads to Parmenter’s overriding maxim: “Everything is people ... people have most of the answers to your business’s problems, so be honest, open, transparent and fair with them. Share cash flows, bank statements, whatever they want. They will have the solution.”

The best is not necessarily the biggest

Parmenter evokes his own four-decade evolution as “being in a helicopter getting higher and higher.” It’s a familiar story for founders: from making every decision to taking an increasingly bird’s-eye-style view. “Now there are people doing stuff that I have no idea where to even begin with,” he says.

Parmenter still owns the business, along with business partner and group creative director Richard Hingley (who joined the business decades ago on a work experience scheme). Recently, DRPG has hastened growth with six acquisitions in as many years (including, for example, London-based screen content agency A-Vision in 2021).

In some sense forged by crisis, the business is still focused on tackling difficult times. “I know that I’m responsible for an awful lot of people’s mortgages,” says Parmenter – but that doesn’t mean he’s paralyzed by fear. “I like the challenge of it; that’s what drives me now. How do we keep the business growing? How do we keep people employed? In the last year, we’ve employed over 100 people. Growth is important – we want to be seen as one of the best agencies, not necessarily the biggest. We’re creating a premium brand and premium offering.”

Naturally, with growth like that, Parmenter has fielded acquisition approaches – “we’ve had lots of offers, even in the last few weeks.” But where others talk about exit strategies, Parmenter conspicuously discusses “succession.”

“I’d find it very difficult to be part of an organization that’s part of a bigger organization – that’s the reason I started up on my own. To be independent. If we’re part of something bigger, would we lose the innovation that leads to creativity? We encourage people to fail, and to take risks ... Risk-taking is a big part of our business, and it feels like if you’re part of a bigger organization, maybe that gets toned down.”

Instead, with two of his children holding senior roles (one in support services; the other in resourcing) and “a lot of guys and girls who’ve been with me a long time,” Parmenter is more minded to explore routes including management buyouts. “Why don’t we pass it on to them rather than to some nondescript venture capitalists?”

“I still meet every new employee and take them through the culture of the business. One image I use is of a group of clients queuing up outside our front door, waiting to be interviewed to see whether they’re good enough to be our clients. We want to be the agency of choice. To even get close to that, we have to make the best people want to work with us. Then we have to offer the best creativity, value and solutions. We want to be the best and we want something that lasts.”

And getting there? Unsurprisingly, for Parmenter, “it’s all about people. You don’t get any of that if you don’t get the right people.”

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