The guys at Quirk say the company was ‘born digital’ – but its entrance into the world of e-marketing wasn’t an easy one. There were hiccups. There were cock ups. There were bad websites. Rob Stokes talks Juliet Pitman through the company’s labour pains.
“We bought and sold hardware, did some network stuff and made really bad websites. We quickly ditched the hardware thing, slowly ditched the network thing and in time got better at the website thing. And here we are today.”
For Rob Stokes, ‘here’ is leader of Quirk Marketing Agency which this year will turn over R150 million. With offices in Cape Town, Johannesburg and London and around 300 employees, it’s a far cry from its humble beginnings, and looking at the company today you’d never guess the hurdles it’s had to cross. But Stokes is nothing if not candid about how accidental some of his success has at least seemed.
Necessity is the mother of invention – even if it’s bad invention
“I’d love to be able to tell you it all happened according to some grand vision, some master plan – but frankly it didn’t. My last job was Christmas Day 1998 as a waiter. I was asked to do something that really went against my grain and I quit that day. Six weeks later I ran out of money. It was my twentieth birthday. I was lying on the couch at 3am and I decided to start a business. I thought, ‘I like marketing. I like technology. How can I put them together to make some cash?’ Three weeks later Quirk was born – out of necessity,” he says.
He’d read somewhere about Michael Dell cutting the door of his dorm room in half to create a counter-top over which he could sell computers and thought, “Hey, if he can do it, why not me?”
Stokes was still at varsity, studying a Business Science degree, but he was used to multi-tasking, particularly when it comes to starting businesses. He’s been an entrepreneur “since forever.”
“I ran an ice-pop cartel when I was in primary school. I was the smallest guy in the school and entered into a mafia relationship with the two biggest guys. They would hold all the other little guys back when the break bell rang and I’d run to the tuck shop to buy up the ice-pops which I’d then sell at a 3c mark-up,” he says. He started 17 different businesses while at school, all of which were banned for being, as the school powers-that-be put it, ‘disruptive’.
But disruptive is where you want to be when you find yourself starting a business with no capital, at 3am in the morning, on a couch.
Stokes’ idea was to leverage email for marketing purposes. “A group of us started building South Africa’s first and worst email marketing software – at least, they built it mostly. I had to write exams so I took a break while they got grumpy with me and got on with the work,” he recalls.
While the software was “an absolute maintenance nightmare,” it worked. They made some money. But the product, although clunky and unwieldy, was still ahead of its time. A bit too ahead.
It sucks when you‘re ahead of your time
“When you’re ahead of your time, no one knows that they need what you’re selling. So no one buys it. People tell you it’s a good thing to be ‘ahead of your time’ but trust me, it’s not,” says Stokes, as he talks about the first seven “really, really tough” years of business.
There was simply no money. “On five or six occasions we were on the verge of bankruptcy and then a deal would come along that would buy us another month or two,” he says.
The Quirk team realised early on the power of search engine optimisation (SEO), which determines the relative ranking of search results in search engines. “We worked out how to get companies to the top of Google but everyone was like ‘Why would we want to be at the top of Google?’ We were just too early, I guess,” he says.
At 20 Stokes admits he had no instinct for timing when he started the business. “I thought the market would wake up to the power of e-marketing about six months after we started. As it turned out, that change took years,” he explains.
But when the turn eventually happened, all the pain, hard work and sleepless nights about paying salaries paid off. Quirk found itself in exactly the right place at the right time with a foundation and track record of real experience. As Stokes puts it, “We were more ready than anyone else.”
They had also revamped their software system, a mammoth but necessary task that fell to chief technology officer, Craig Raw.
“We locked him in a room for three weeks and fed him yoghurt and ProNutro,” says Stokes. The pressure to deliver a better system was intense. A large call centre client had indicated Quirk would win a major contract if it could meet their service level agreement (SLA) standards. “There was absolutely no way our old system could have met the SLA so we had no choice but to up our game. This was in 2003 and we were still struggling – the market hadn’t quite turned yet and we needed the work,” he adds.
This mixture of energy and desperation spurs many young entrepreneurs to achieve against the odds. With a new software platform, Quirk was well-placed to pick up big business when big business finally decided the Internet might be a marketing tool worth investigating.
“The tipping point came in 2007. Of course, by that stage other marketing agencies had also wised up to e-marketing but I think what made us different is that we were born digital. We were digital natives from birth so we were never trying to retrofit the Internet into our existing marketing ethos,” says Stokes of Quirk’s initial differentiator.
Because e-marketing was metrics driven, Quirk had an opportunity to prove itself and work on a performance basis, which was attractive to clients. Once it got going, it really took off. The company has never grown by less than 50% year on year and most years its growth has been at 100%.
But, as Stokes points out, having a digital offering could only make the company stand out for so long. As more and more marketing companies acquired digital agencies, Quirk needed to evolve to stay ahead.
“Our currency is intellectual property and our differentiator is our ability to birth unique ideas. We know that the best marketing ideas are not born of a particular marketing channel. We don’t say ‘We need a big TV idea’. We say, ‘We need a big idea for a brand’,” he says.
Retaining this edge is – to his mind – closely tied to driving a particular culture, but as Quirk has grown, keeping it young, hungry and entrepreneurial has become more challenging. It takes up a lot of Stokes’ headspace.
My biggest fear is Quirk becoming a corporate
Stokes describes his role as that of a ‘culture captain’. “Culture is the flowerbed of talent. People need to have fun. They need to be encouraged to be creative and inspiring, to be passionate about ideas.”
With a growing workforce in three offices spread between South Africa and London, achieving this is easier said than done. “Over the past five years I’ve become unavoidably detached from the day-to-day operations of the business. What I’m really obsessed with is the culture. I really believe it’s an extension of the founder’s personality and that it’s my obligation to spearhead it in the business,” Stokes adds.
He believes it is possible to retain an entrepreneurial culture, even in a big business, but he doesn’t claim it’s easy: “When a company is run by the founding entrepreneur they have a good idea of what’s going on in the business. But when they leave, you end up with professional managers running the business.
Because the shareholders sit externally, the only way for them to protect their investment is to ensure systems and processes are in place. These are not always bad things, but a large overly-bureaucratic and systems-driven business can encourage ‘corporate coasting’. What you end up with is a ‘safe place to work’. I never want us to be that. I always want us to be restless.”
One of Quirk’s culture cornerstones is a tendency not to take itself too seriously. As Stokes says, “This applies to me. I have no office. I sit with the interns in reception. I learn from them. After all, I’m almost already three or four years too old for this game.”
If that’s the case, how does he see his role in Quirk’s future?
“My job is to keep us relevant in five year’s time,” he says simply, adding that his real skill lies in “piecing together bits of information and predicting an outcome.” That outcome, he believes, will precipitate a need for the company to move ‘beyond digital’.
“In ten year’s time, digital agencies won’t exist. Even now, I really don’t believe clients are looking for a ‘digital agency’ and a ‘traditional agency’. What they want is a trusted partner. At the moment, we’re a full service digital agency with a little bit of non-digital stuff, but we need to grow that. That’s where our future lies. There – and in Africa. That’s what keeps me busy at the moment,” he says.
- Founder: Rob Stokes
- Company: Quirk Marketing Agency
- Launched in 1999
- Day job while launching Quirk Business Science student and erstwhile waiter
- Start-up capital None
- Peak annual turnover R150 million
- Contact +27 (0)21 462 7353
- Web: www.quirk.biz