Understanding tech: Interview: Luke Townsin, CSO, Whalar
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We spoke with Luke Townsin, CSO of Whalar, about the challenges of international expansion and the advantages of having a technological business backbone…
Luke Townsin has leveraged his experience as former head of Twitter's EMEA niche influencer platform to help make influencer marketing platform Whalar a success. We spoke to Luke about the importance of people, preparing for internationalisation and adapting to adverse situations…
Tell us about Whalar’s international expansion.
When I joined the company in August 2018, I was tasked with thinking about our strategy for the EMEA region and how we could grow our business and scale it. When I joined, Whalar just had a U.K. office, so we looked at expanding into Amsterdam as a base within Europe. We then opened an office in Berlin. We were focused on building our credentials across the region and expanding into EMEA more, and when our new Chief Operating Officer/CEO/President Rob Horler joined (the former CEO of Dentsu Aegis Network in the U.S.), we restructured the business to be more efficient. I stepped up to enact the strategy and operations globally.
Whalar is quite unusual in that it’s a British-founded company in this sector. Normally it's the other way around - a company based in New York or California usually expands into London or elsewhere
The U.S. is currently one of our huge growth regions, and obviously it's the economic hub of the advertising world. I have been spending a lot of time supporting the team there and it’s been very rewarding to see the progress we are making.
Industry: Marketing & Advertising
Company Size: 51-200 employees
Type: Privately Held
Subsector: Marketing, Advertising & PR
Did Whalar turn this unique factor to its advantage?
I think our background had its benefits and its drawbacks. I think the one thing that we probably should have focused on faster was launching and getting ahead in the U.S. market more rapidly. It has been such a great opportunity for us.
At the same time, we still have so much runway in the U.K. and in Europe in terms of demand that it wasn't really a huge disadvantage to be a little slower to reach the U.S. I think also, being in London has been strategic from a time zone perspective, because we sit between the U.S. and Asia, which has been very beneficial. Obviously, being English language to start with has been very helpful as well in terms of how we operate in different places.
What preparation did Whalar undertake before expanding?
One of the main challenges of a business like ours is understanding from a technological perspective what tools we need to invest in to scale the business for our brands, and for our teams as well.
We didn't want to be a traditional advertising agency, where you have to add a lot to the head count in order to grow your business. Though we’re winning a lot of advertising business, it is in the context of influencer marketing, so we wanted to create a technological platform that could handle scale instead.
It needed to have a lot of workflow and discovery tools for finding influencers and creators to pair with brands, so we could let the technology be the efficiency driver in the business.
One of the big things I focused on with our Product Officer was just to think about the kind of tools that we needed to make the business as efficient as possible. All of that initially stems from the platform, but I also looked at our processes - everything from a legal perspective, how we contract with brands, and making sure everything was consistent from a structural perspective across each of the regions.
I tried to join the dots and make sure that the business as a whole moved in the right direction as one, rather than there being three or four different businesses around the world operating differently.
What are the challenges of scaling?
There’s always danger when you're trying to grow a business very quickly to try to scale it. Various markets do things differently, so we wanted to have an overarching strategy for the business that allowed for some local execution.
This approach extends to the way that the teams and the sales teams talk about Whalar as a proposition and as a company. You need to make sure that everyone is saying the same thing - that's become a lot more important as we have started to work with more global brands as well. We wanted to make sure that we are selling the same proposition in all those different regions.
"We wanted to make sure that we are selling the same proposition in all those different regions."
You also really need to think about bringing in all of the infrastructure that you need to grow into a much more mature business. Midway through 2019, we'd gone through a period of quite huge growth, but we have got to a point where we needed certain processes in place. I re-evaluated our legal and finance processes as a result, and focused on the way we communicated as a business – making sure that everyone was on board as we grew was important.
As a small business, we also found that there are challenges when working with a huge range of individuals with different financial requirements. Creators and influencers all might have slightly different payment terms but it’s usually less than 90 days, but brands might pay us very late in that timescale. We've had to look at things like creating a credit facility where we can obviously draw down funds before we're paid in order to pay our creators.
These were some of the teething issues that we've had to learn to adjust to. Refining the business strategy has been a big part of my role as we've grown, because I think things move so quickly and as you grow quickly, a lot of these infrastructure things are left to the side. You can fall into just thinking about driving the revenue and sorting out the rest later, but actually those things that you've got to solve start rearing their ugly heads.
"You can fall into just thinking about driving the revenue and sorting out the rest later, but actually those things that you've got to solve start rearing their ugly heads."
Does having a core technological platform underpinning your business efficiency give you an advantage when compared to your competition?
I think it does. What you'll find in this space is that a lot of influencer marketing and creative marketing companies talk a lot about technology as one of their key tenets in their sales pitch, but a lot of them haven't actually invested as much time as you'd think.
With Whalar, a third of our team is focused on the tech and the platform. We have an engineering team about 30-strong that is based out of Málaga, actually.
In terms of how the platform has informed the product, it’s been central to everything we've done; I think in comparison to our competitors, we've really taken on a lot of advertiser and internal team feedback as to how we need to tweak the product and platform.
Now we’re in a position where a client can come to us and structure an influencer marketing campaign around something as abstract as a colour, for example. You can find creators in specific regions who create content in a specific colour in seconds, which is unique. We cut down a lot of time brands need to find the right connections, and this is all down to the busines efficiency built within the platform.
Another big advantage is that we reinvest a lot of time in the key platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat. We have access to Instagram and Facebook's API, which for us is quite big because it allows us to pull in a lot of data on all of these creators, from demographics to follower growth to interaction rates, and provide that really quickly to brands so they can access and view all the demographic data.
What are the main challenges in your sector right now?
One of the big issues that influencer marketing has suffered from over the last decade is around authenticity in data - what is real and what isn't real in terms of followers. How we’ve tackled that is that everything is vetted first of all by our platform, and then secondly, we put it through a manual process. We'll look at any user follower changes, for example, just to double verify.
Accessing integral data is another big challenge that's being talked about at the moment. We have senior relationships at TikTok, so we're on their ad's API beta programme. We're going to build tools to access their API for the collection of creative data. We've just won a partnership with Twitter as well to be able to execute all their influencer and creator marketing campaigns from a Twitter perspective. We're very well plugged into all the key platforms and that's given us really good credentials in the marketplace, because we’re connected not only with brands but with different social platforms. I think that really positions us at the sharp end of the influencer marketing business when thinking of these challenges, versus a lot of our competitors.
How has the company adapted to the current global situation?
Of course, there were challenges. As we grew from a U.K. based company to an international operation, operating around the world on multiple time zones, we made sure that we built a consistent culture.
With COVID-19, we have found that Whalar is a very robust business as our main source of revenue, i.e. the influencers and creators, all work from home. They are all independent, so we're not reliant on doing big shoots like an ad agency is where you need a lot of people. We have made sure that we all communicate well, so we’ve avoided a huge challenge from that perspective.
We'd be lying if we said we haven't seen a reduction in overall advertising spend. I think this has been driven by companies recalibrating their message and advertising during the pandemic. However, we're still seeing plenty of activity in planning for the future.
I think the biggest challenge overall for us has just been making sure that we have a good eye on the mental, emotional, and physical challenges of running a business like this. It's a huge change for everyone.
We've tried to invest a lot of time in our staff, and we lead with empathy to make decisions for the long term. That means being constantly reactive in our communication, based on what's happening in the world and the marketplace.
It’s been a good test to focus the business and examine important questions. We looked at the longer term: what would happen if we didn't book any business? What is our runway and what is our strategy to weathering situations like this? That’s helped us refine our response for future situations.
The good news is that we have seen a fantastic resurgence is business in Q3 and are very optimistic about Q4 and 2021 (whilst also being cognisant of the extant challenges facing business’ in the current pandemic).
What advice would you give to other businesses or individuals looking to follow in your footsteps?
From a small business perspective, I think my advice would be that you do have to be quite ruthless and honest with yourself about your situation, particularly your cash flow. Is your business bloated in terms of head count? Are there factors you can cut back on? Are there ways you can restructure to make the business more efficient?
As a chief strategy officer, you have two priorities: making sure that the business survives, and also keeping as many people employed as possible. You will have to make hard decisions, but for the long-term, you need to really focus on the people you have on your team.
Looking for further advice on developing your business? Email us to find out more at [email protected].