When and why did you start Collective Content?
At the end of 2011, after 15 years in the media. I incorporated Collective Content the day after leaving my job as a publishing director and it took 2-3 months to get the wheels of the new business turning.
I had an itch I needed to scratch, in terms of running my own business – and I had a feeling that commercial content was going to take off, certainly in comparison to a media world relying on advertising.
What do you wish you’d known back then that you know now?
So many things! I ‘wasted’ time trying to win new business through ads on social media, or pursuing small businesses with small budgets.
Of course, ‘wasted’ might be the wrong term – you don’t know until you try, and what’s not right for one agency might be right for the next.
I even wrote about it at the time (and failed to take my own advice) but your network and your reputation are everything. Our number one source of new business is people who already know and trust us, often when they move to a new job and remember past work with us.
How would you describe your team?
We have a core team of six writers/editors that I wouldn’t swap for the world, two part-time staff for general support and design, a network of several trusted, highly experienced writers who we’ve worked with for 10+ years, then a wider network of specialists who cover various verticals and areas of tech.
This model was the plan from the beginning (some things do work from Day 1) – the concept of a collective that can handle almost any client request.
What does your average day look like?
I’m still hands-on with some writing/editing, but it’s mostly about overseeing projects – for example, checking in with all the team members, most of whom aren’t near each other – and taking care of existing clients and prospects.
I’m visiting clients and other agencies in central London or Thames Valley one or two days a week, ideally working from home about two days a week, and working from a client’s office or co-working space the rest of the time.
I start early, work between 7:00 and 8:00, then get to do the school run every morning, and sometimes work into the evening with our clients and writers in North America. It’s a cliché but every day is different.
What kind of clients do you work with, and how do you help them?
We’re specialists in B2B technology, so that’s where 90% of our work comes from – and that reflects our backgrounds in B2B tech media.
About a quarter of our clients specialise in cybersecurity, and we help all of them have better conversations with customers. Whereas in B2C you often engage by creating entertaining content, the golden rule for us in B2B is ‘First, be useful’.
So a lot of work is around articles, white papers, e-books, infographics and such that help people do their jobs – increasingly general business types, not just those in IT. We all have to know about tech these days.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
I love the choices involved in running a business. First of all, who we hire and who we work with (we don’t say yes to everyone, which I’ve noticed is in common with lots of ProCopywriters members).
We’re conservative in our growth, not expanding too fast but always making sure each year is bigger than the last, and that takes discipline.
I’m quite proud that we have no creditors and have never taken outside investment. I’m a big believer that you should run things the way that works for you and your team, and I find someone like Jason Fried (co-founder of Basecamp) quite inspirational in the way he talks about unconventional choices.
What do you enjoy least?
While I will always enjoy the craft of creating great content, some of the cycles in producing work can be overly long, which can suck the life out of content programmes.
Also, there are lots of advantages to working with big companies, but there is often decision-making by consensus, right at a time when people can be bold and make a difference. That’s why we talk a lot about behaving like the media – plan, create, use, learn, repeat, sometimes to daily cycles.
What project are you most proud of?
There have been big tie-ups with events, with real-time reporting, but two or three brand publications come to mind. They really showcase what we can do with small editorial teams and the kind of planning you’d expect from a traditional online publication.
One, for EE, called Future Thinking, featured a roster of top-level tech journalists and a lot of weekly content, aimed at their Business division’s sweet spot, CIOs.
It also demonstrated how we ‘play nice’ with other agencies, as it was a real team effort. Unfortunately, it’s a case of ‘Don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore’ – the programme was halted after the company was acquired.
What advice would you give people moving from working alone to starting an agency?
I’m amazed at how many people get bogged down in the administrative side of things – perversely enjoying that black hole of tax, legal, payroll etc..
Get help with that and always listen to multiple sources of advice. But focus as much as possible on what makes you different.
The world doesn’t necessarily need another agency, and there’s a lot to be said for working solo. But I love the possibilities of what you can do with an agency team, even a small one, and a certain approach.
Do you hire freelancers? If so, describe your ideal freelance copywriter (what skills do they have, what do they do well and what do they avoid doing?)
We use lots of freelancers. The ideal for us is someone who has solid experience, and comes with subject matter expertise around a particular vertical. If they also know B2B tech and come recommended, then that’s even better.
Why do you find ProCopywriters membership useful?
It keeps us sane, seeing what other people are saying, and reminds us that there’s a lot of variety in how agencies go about their business. There’s a lot we can learn from each other, and different approaches are valid.