A decade ago, Daniel Gilbert left a lucrative job at Google, where he worked on some high-profile advertising accounts, to start his own digital agency, Brainlabs. It was a huge gamble; in 2011 just 5% of advertising was digital. But with that figure predicted to reach 58% this year, it was a move that clearly paid off. Last year the company reported revenues of £50 million ($69 million) and has clients that include Boots, Which? and American Express.
A student of linguistics at Oxford University, Gilbert initially had no plans for a career in advertising, but after applying for 50 graduate schemes without success, he landed a role in advertising with Google. “At that time the company really embraced entrepreneurship,” he says. “I started in Dublin, working on some pretty big advertising accounts.”
When he discovered how to increase the ROI for one of his clients by more than 20% his strategy was rolled out throughout Google, making the company billions of dollars in the process. That’s when he decided it was time to pursue his own entrepreneurial ambitions and set up Brainlabs.
He had no funding; just a laptop, and a credit card. His first client was a family friend who paid him £250. But Gilbert also had an incredible drive, and firmly believed that the future of advertising lay in science, so the first few members of his team included mathematicians and scientists chosen from among his fellow Oxford graduates.
“Nowadays Brainlabs is a long way from being exclusively Oxford graduates, but it was a great place to start,” he says. “Our philosophy is that it’s much easier to teach a mathematician about advertising than it is to teach an advertising person complex mathematics.”
Today the company hires people with the creative ability needed to succeed, but it’s a different kind of creativity than that of the ‘Mad Men’ era, as Gilbert explains.
“It is creativity guided by science. It’s the hive mind, and a stronger collective creative output, rather than a singular creative vision,” he says. “That old creative vision was so often about a big statement, a 30-second TV commercial. Nowadays we can reach potential customers in a myriad of ways, with real-time feedback.”
As a small startup, their biggest challenge was the scale of the competition, and Gilbert’s strategy was to always stay several steps ahead of themselves, and everyone else, at all times. Their breakthrough moment, when their strategy of science and creativity paid off, was winning the account of consumer champion Which?
“We took their data and presented it to them in a way they hadn’t seen before,” says Gilbert. “They were clearly impressed, as we won the competitive pitch against 20 big name agencies. Six years later they are still a client.”
While so much of advertising today is about paid search, social channels and search engine optimization (SEO), he insists that the key to building a successful media business remains the same: delivering exceptional work for clients and helping them to win.
He says: “You can never get it 100% right the first time, but the way that our campaigns develop means that our clients get to know their customers in a more intimate way than they could through a 30-second TV commercial or billboard campaign. This results in a return on their investment that we hope ensures they come back to us time and time again.”
The strategy proved successful. Within five years of its launch the digital marketing agency had revenue of almost £5 million and a team of over 80 people. The company moved to larger offices and started to win enterprise clients. A year later, in 2017, they opened their first overseas office, in Austin, Texas, and swiftly took the prestigious Bed Bath & Beyond account from more established agencies. Within a couple of years Brainlabs had been named the best large PPC agency in the U.S., while simultaneously holding the same accolade in the U.K.
Nevertheless, Gilbert knew that to take the business to the next level they needed an injection of capital, and in 2018 they secured a £50 million investment from private equity firm Livingbridge. This enabled them to make three key acquisitions; specialist SEO agency Distilled, Manchester-based conversion rate optimization agency User Conversion and U.S.-based Hanapin Marketing to fuel their U.S. growth.
Brainlabs now employs 500 people in eight cities around the world and has made a recent push into the Asia Pacific region. Last year’s revenues grew by 50%.
“Livingbridge helped build our senior team and put the things in place to take us to the next level,” says Gilbert. “We’d never have got here so quickly without them.”
Looking ahead, he plans to continue focusing on hiring the top talent, evolving the maturity of their data offering and boosting global growth. “We’re going to be the number one media agency in the world and this is how we’ll get there,” he says.