In December 2020, the agency I founded over 20 years ago, won the Breakthrough Business of The Year Award. Awarded by the UK governing body of our industry, The Market Research Society (MRS) it is, in my opinion, an award really worth winning, bestowed on merit, regardless of who you are or what you do, and we were over-joyed to receive it.
Having been around for so long, a few people asked why it took us so long; a fair question, and luckily, I know why.
Blue Yonder has an interesting past; it wasn’t formed by a crack team of academics with a great idea, or a fallout of a bigger agency setting up something more specialised. Our agency was formed by sheer good fortune. Originally a courier company, we got lucky picking up a contract for Unilever in 1996 that involved delivering test products to a local consumer panel. Part of the process was collecting them two weeks later and delivering the completed questionnaires to a market research company. As that relationship crumbled, we were there to pick up the pieces, and offered to help by learning data processing and keying in the questionnaires ourselves. Over the next 2 years, this turned us into the busiest field and tab agency in the north: Direct Data Capture.
Life was good; the technical team we worked for was growing at an astonishing pace and we were being trained in qual and quant, specifically for technical R&D – an emerging skill that very few agencies could deliver. In 2000 we added the name Blue Yonder, as a true reflection of how we entered every study – just not knowing what we were going to learn, and exploring every insight with energy and excitement.
We grew; we got new clients and for 10 years, we steadily built our reputation as innovative technical researchers, and in 2014, we moved to a 3500 sq. ft facility in Thorpe Park, the up-and-coming business park on the edge of Leeds. We were very excited and, luckily, so were our clients; the facility thrived and our client base grew, but we had a problem…
We had spent so much time under the radar, virtually invisible to the outside world, only ever looking inward, that as we wanted to bring new talent on board to service this growth, nobody knew who we were. We hadn’t built a business to look good from the outside. We had never advertised. We didn’t have a marketing budget and we didn’t understand sales. We had got this far by just doing great work for people we knew.
This is where we discovered our business was a lifestyle business, heavily reliant on a few major clients. We had a couple of amazing senior people, and a team of young, brilliant, enthusiastic grads excited at the prospect of working for global brands. When we advertised or worked with recruiters for more senior people, we just couldn’t get them onboard; it was so frustrating. We had the clients, a successful business and a fabulous facility, but we were too big a risk for people to step in to: so we got some help.
In 2015, we worked with some brilliant business coaches, who spent 12 months helping us develop internal strategies into systems and processes, getting everybody in the right seat and optimising the business for growth. This is where I learnt about the second brick wall…I should probably describe the first brick wall: most entrepreneurs smash through it very quickly as it is simply the acknowledgment that you want to break out of the spare bedroom, get some premises and employ people to share your dream. If you’re doing good work, this journey can be described as euphoric: working for yourself, doing what you love and getting paid well at the same time – the ultimate lifestyle zone. I feel very privileged to have had breakfast with my kids most days, been at the Christmas nativity, Easter and end of year shows year after year. Later on, I took on the role of taxi driver all the way through the high school years, whilst still growing our business – but it was time for a step change.
The second brick wall is the decision to grow, properly. The pitfalls of getting it wrong are scary and a real risk, because the variables of getting it all right at the right time are complex, so you also need a bit of luck. The basic principle of breaking through this wall is a realisation that the business isn’t yours anymore: it may be on paper, but to inspire people to come and work with you, you need more than just a vision, you need a plan and the funds to support it. The second brick wall is about hiring senior people, creating infrastructure, defining who your business is and what it will offer. You need internal lines that have paths to grow for individuals, you need a culture that people want to be a part of…a lot right? And exactly the reason why it can take a long time for private businesses with no investors to break through successfully.
This is where the luck landed. Just as I was ready to take on the wall, I connected through pure chance with the person who would lead our business through all of these complex changes and give us the best chance of breaking through stronger than we could have ever dreamed of. We spoke for approx. 6 months before deciding to work together to make our great agency famous – and so we set off on a journey to create the greatest R&D agency in the world.
This was about creating an agency that clients need, built on our strong values that haven’t changed since day one: Entrepreneurship, Partnership, Positivity and Authenticity. What we decided to do was unique; we would split the business. One of us would focus purely on the core and delivering excellence through great leadership and growing the business, and the other would focus solely on innovation, developing our existing toolbox and coaching the project teams to get maximum value from it, listening and understanding our clients’ needs and encouraging entrepreneurial thinking throughout the entire business.
In 2 short years we have worked tirelessly to underpin the fantastic reputation we had built with the client teams who loved us and knew us well. Getting our communications in line, building a senior leadership team, identifying our products and innovations so that we can share across the rest of the industry, connecting with both new clients and like-minded agencies, to ensure that our industry standards remain high.
It’s about challenging everything that comes to us in a positive, pro-active way, to ensure we can add value and respond to client needs in a smart way – all financed through re-investing our own profits. Oh, we also purchased, designed and developed a new 4000sq. ft R&D product testing facility and have invented and piloted a breakthrough innovation, Clickscape, that delivers a brand new metric: emotional frequency!
So, hopefully that explains why we took our time! My advice to anyone facing the second brick wall would be to ensure you hire the right people, set clear expectations of what will be happening and go for it full throttle, even when a global pandemic tries to slow you down: keep it pinned and don’t look back.
Massive thanks to the MRS for supporting our fantastic agency. It meant a lot to us that they had recognised this unique model, and we look forward to competing for many more awards in the years to come.