Robin Skidmore is an agencyland veteran, having sold his first agency, search specialist Ephiphany, to Jaywing back in 2015. After a brief hiatus, he founded performance marketing agency Journey Further in 2017. Now five years in, Skidmore shares his next five-year plan for the rapidly-expanding agency with The Drum.
“When I was at school, I was admiring people like Richard Branson when others were admiring football players and sports stars,” says Journey Further’s founder and chief exec Robin Skidmore. Business was always the goal: straight out of university, in the early 00s, he joined a web development company in a sales role before sniffing out a market in the early world of SEO. Tasked with selling websites, he and future business partner Shane Quigley, he says, quickly realized “it was a lot easier to sell the traffic than it was the technology because there was a means to an end. And it was at that point that we had an epiphany.”
That epiphany became Epiphany, the search agency Skidmore co-founded in Leeds in 2005 and grew over the next decade until an £18m sale to Jaywing in 2014. In the early days, the search engine optimization (SEO) scene was dominated by “dirty link building,” but Epiphany would become part of the movement that matured along with SEO, embedding it into a full-service offering. (Skidmore is glad, he tells us, that he didn’t take an offer in those early days to sell up for £50,000 and a sharing agreement on a BMW 3 Series).
After the sale of Epiphany, Skidmore and his wife spent six months traveling the Americas, Australia and Asia with their nine-month-old daughter. As idyllic as a life of riches and beaches might sound, he says, “as it started to come to its natural conclusion, I felt a bit lost … I started to question my purpose. It wasn’t a great time after that.”
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Skidmore toyed with becoming a serial chairman-investor. “I didn’t think I’d have the energy to do anything else. My vision post-sale was just to have more balance, to invest in some interesting startups, companies where I could add value.”
But the agency world is all about investing in a team, and the hands-off role of the investor wasn’t enough for Skidmore. “You weren’t responsible for the team that you were working with. And a lot of the time, the teams weren’t as good as the team that we had before … I needed to get my teeth stuck into something else.” He does remain an investor to a number of promising startups, though – including sustainable T-shirt printing company Everpress and cottage rental service Snaptrip.
Journey Further launched in 2017. Skidmore’s first hire was Chris Rowett, whom he had hired as a graduate at Epiphany and became paid media director. Next up was Matt Kwiecinski, who would become UK chief exec. The latter joined from a major network; Skidmore says that “wanting to create the antidote” to networks’ ways of working became Journey Further’s foundational proposition.
“It was about having a people-centric business rather than a client-centric business, building an agency that was doing the right things for the right reasons. And that ultimately meant changing broken models. Client service was one of those. Why have fetchers and gathers of information that they don’t fully understand, relaying messages back slowly, incorrectly? Brands just want to get to the truth, and speak to the people that are doing the work.”
A project management function has since been added to ease working at a global scale, but that commitment to efficiency and scale – what Skidmore calls “clarity at speed” – remains.
Skidmore’s original plan with Journey Further was “to do what I did at Epiphany in half the time”: to grow to the same profit in five years instead of 10. With rapid growth over the last couple of years, the agency hit that goal early; it now boasts over 170 staff, taking £14m in fees. As it has grown, Skidmore has shared equity with incoming partners, but he’s still the business’s majority owner – so he’d be in a position for another tidy exit should he wish.
He’s fielded approaches from private equity and “all the major new wave agency groups,” and doesn’t rule out significant investment – but only, he says, in service of a clearly road-mapped five-year plan. On one score he’s very clear: “If we’re the antidote to the networks, we can’t sell to a network. That goes against our principles.”
He’s also very happy to share that five-year plan: “I think what we will do is continue our growth, which is still on an upward trajectory (we should do 60% growth this year, which in the current climate is pretty good), then realize some value. Get to a certain size, take a bit of cash at the table, raise a minority stake and then go and do a bit of a buy and build for ourselves.”
Now, Skidmore’s focus is on scaling in the US – to “take on the biggest agencies in the States, as we have done in the UK.” That started this year, with new US chief exec, Brit-in-New-York Duncan Smith from iProspect, and a new US head of growth. It will continue next year, with Skidmore’s own move to the Upper West Side (he plans on returning to the UK a year later but “never say never”). And it’ll continue with that investment plan: in “12 to 24 months, we would be looking to take some sort of investment on the business to help create a war chest to make some acquisitions in both the UK and the US.”
Skidmore’s ambitions beyond those next few years? “We want to do it on our terms. And we want to have fun while we do it. And we want to leave a legacy.”
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