Greenlight: Warren Cowan
How Warren Cowan has made sure search engine marketing agency Greenlight has stayed a step ahead
The search engine marketing industry was a very different place when Warren Cowan founded Greenlight seven years ago.
“I remember being in a meeting with a huge advertising agency, telling them that pay-per-click and search engine marketing really worked. They boldly agreed to trial 50 quid on it,” he recalls. “Now people spend half a million on AdWords without even thinking.”
Being a step ahead has been a crucial element in the success of Greenlight to date, and a focus on research and development means it is likely to take the agency to yet greater heights. Cowan was working as an “SEO gun for hire” when search engine marketing was something many people had heard of, but few were using to its full potential.
“I was looking at the market, and simply couldn’t see how search engine marketing wasn’t going to be huge,” he says. “It was a very nascent market and people weren’t really joining the dots.”
As a result, Cowan went on an educative mission with his new agency. “Education is the best form of sales and marketing,” says Cowan, who took full advantage of the fact that digital marketing was an area many businesses were anxious to know more about.
By posting on forums, providing helpful, insightful advice on his area of expertise, he started building awareness of his agency. “We were trying to make it easy for people to gravitate towards us,” he says.
However, a scattergun approach to attracting clients was never part of the strategy. Despite the fact that the agency began life in a bedroom on a computer borrowed from his girlfriend (now wife), Cowan was convinced that knocking on the doors of small companies on the high street wasn’t the way to put the agency on a long-term trajectory to market leadership. Instead, he decided only to go after large accounts.
Thanks to an understanding of the marketing strategies of these larger companies, Greenlight’s first client was mortgage broker Charcol Online. Before long, Cowan added accounts such as Expedia and divisions of Microsoft, and today the list includes fashion retailer New Look and travel business Thomas Cook. Such a client list is testament to how well the business has capitalised on the opportunities afforded, counter-intuitively, by the recession.
“It has created more budget inside digital, because people have taken their money out of harder-to-convert mediums, such as print and broadcast,” explains Cowan. “Search specifically has done relatively well in the last few years.”
Fast growth inevitably brings challenges, but financing Greenlight’s expansion hasn’t been one of them. Cowan’s business has achieved a £16m turnover without taking on debt.
“I’m very proud of that, but at the same time I do think that maybe making some of those investments, taking on debt to finance growth in a more ordered and catalysed way, would have probably been beneficial in hindsight,” he reflects. “But I’m pleased to say that we’ve got a stable cash base and the business itself is actually quite cash generative.”
Now search engine marketing accounts for around 70% of digital marketing spend, Cowan is looking at new ways of staying ahead of the curve.
“Our industry will change,” he predicts. “What we’re doing now is re-envisioning how digital marketing is delivered to the marketer. It might not be an agency model in the future, it might be more of a software as a service approach.
“Alternatively, it might be more of a collaborative model. There are lots of ways it could go. We’re looking to make sure we have capabilities in all those areas.”
For this reason, Greenlight is placing a huge focus on innovation. It boasts a research and development department that’s full of experts and PhDs, which is bigger than the entire staff of some SEO companies. What’s more, its proprietary technology has been developed in-house and the possibility exists of the business being able to transport technology as an offering externally as well.
Certainly Greenlight, which has been profitable since the day Cowan launched it, will keep straining to see what’s around the next corner, and evidence so far suggests the company will be prepared to meet whatever it is head on.
“You tend not to look around when you’re climbing the ladder,” says Cowan. “Then one day you do and think: ‘Jesus Christ, that’s a long way down.'”
That may be the case, but it would seem that Greenlight looks likely to have a bit more climbing to do yet.