Steak Media: Oliver Bishop

The Steak Media co-founder on growing fast and resisting corporate buy-outs

Oliver Bishop, Duncan Parry and Julian Walker caught the entrepreneurial bug as part of the launch team of Espotting, the company that pioneered pay-per-click (PPC) advertising in the UK. It gave them such a buzz, the trio just had to taste a bigger piece of the start-up pie themselves.

 

So in 2005, the three guys and a rented desk formed marketing agency Steak Media. Specialising in digital marketing, including PPC and search engine optimisation, it now turns over close to £25m and has offices in London, New York and Melbourne.

 

“Being at Espotting really helped us understand what other agencies were doing in the same market place, and gave us the confidence to know we could do it better,” says Oliver, whose brother Seb was the co-founder and now heads up MIVA, the new company formed when Espotting and American firm Findwhat.com merged in 2003.

 

After a few meetings in Oliver’s flat the trio decided to forgo a salary for six months and give it a go themselves. With no outside investment, they sublet office space within another company and started calling potential clients.

 

“At that stage we didn’t want to give away a slice of our company,” says Oliver. “The good thing about the agency world is you can grow organically. As long as you have clients in the early stages, cashflow is never an issue.”

 

Six months after launching, Steak formed a partnership with international agency Ogilvy, which provided a route to some major clients. “It gave us such a boost,” recalls Oliver. “We went from eight people to 20 in a very short space of time.”

 

However, the partnership ended when the Steak founders refused a buy-out offer from the company. “In a year we’d already overtaken competitors that had been going for five, so we knew it wasn’t the right time to sell.”

 

Steak clients have included Enjoy England, Timeout, British Gas and John Lewis. Oliver says it wasn’t easy getting the ear of the bluechip brands’ CEOs, but in an industry fuelled by word-of-mouth, the guys from Steak were fast developing a good reputation. “People couldn’t believe how quickly we were growing,” says Oliver.

 

As well as being finalists in the 2007 Startups Awards and the 2008 Fast Growth Business awards, the company has won numerous media industry accolades. New Media Age magazine ranked Steak the 6th best agency for search engine marketing and the 3rd largest independent in the industry.

 

With strong organic growth there was no need to take on investment until 2007 when they sold a minority stake in order to set up the two international branches – proof they have no plans to exit just yet according to Oliver. “There’s no point diluting our shares just to sell soon after. We live and breathe what we do and we’ve got a long way to go before we start entertaining those conversations.”

 

But Oliver admits it’ll become increasingly challenging to remain in control. “We knew there would be mass consolidation in this market before we even started. Most of the independents are getting snapped up, so even though we’re only three years old, we’re one of the largest left.

 

“As you develop there are growing pains. Keeping the same culture gets harder and there are more agencies trying to buy as out or nick our staff! But we’re in this for a few years yet. We’ll conquer New York and Melbourne and go from there.”

 

 

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