In September 2019 (just before all the madness happened) my best friend and I decided to start a sampling agency.
In this blog (purely for reminiscent purposes) we decided to outline how it all came about, including some of the successes and challenges along the way…
Curt and I originally met 20 years ago behind the counter of a Safeway Delicatessen on the Isle of Wight. It’s probably worth noting at this point that we were both working Saturday jobs at the now departed, but much loved supermarket chain – rather than sneaking in to run riot through what was a excellent selection of cheeses!
It’s difficult not to make a punnable reference back to our love of ‘Flavor’ in this job, and realising the importance of sampling in the earliest years of our professional lives. The reality though, is that we probably ate more of the delicious produce than we served, and a marketing agency was very far from our minds indeed!
From that first meeting though, our friendship maintained through local night clubs (Rest in Peace Colonel Bogeys), elongated degrees (at different Universities), best man speeches, and cohabitating a church in Shadwell. During our adolescent adventures we often talked about one day running a business together, and whilst none of the mock Dragon’s Den pitches we presented to each other (aided by corner shop wine and lengthy Sammy Smith pub sessions) ever came to fruition, we decided to take the leap with something that we actually had experience in.
Both Curt and myself had pretty extensive backgrounds in Experiential Marketing, having worked across more than 10 different agencies between us, with brands that ranged from Xbox + Coca Cola through to Lynx + Adidas. At the time Product Sampling usually sat within Experiential Marketing as a marketing discipline – so we had the opportunity to design, create and witness varying levels of sampling campaigns.
From this, we saw how effective well planned sampling campaigns could be, but became frustrated seeing agency after agency just rolling out the same old campaigns without any depth of thought or strategy. Sampling seemed to be a necessary afterthought, but was really lagging behind other marketing channels especially in terms of targeting and measurement.
At the same time, there was a notable evolution in non-traditional sampling techniques that included the likes of Office Sampling, Subscription Sampling + Social Sampling – with a number of specialist agencies sprouting up and focusing on individual channels. As part of my more recent roles in agencies I was focused on creating Experiential propositions, and although sampling wasn’t seen as the sexiest part of the Experiential Spectrum, I found myself gravitating towards it as the most effective method to create genuine ROI for clients.
The problem was that no one sampling channel was perfect. They either excelled in being cost efficient, targeted, driving consumers through the purchase funnel or creating content; but they all engaged consumers at different touch points and engaged them in slightly different ways.
During a pitch for one client in particular, who was in discussions with a Social Sampling Specialist, I was challenged to rationalise why traditional Event Sampling (which my existing agency were able to facilitate) would be more effective than a Social Sampling campaign. To do this I started to plot out all of the sampling channels I was aware of onto a matrices that compared value vs. engagement levels. Once everything was plotted out, it dawned on me that the best possible sampling campaign would actually be a mixture of many, if not all of the sampling channels… and the concept of Integrated Sampling was born!
Once we had the concept in place, we started the lengthy and fairly argumentative process of coming up with a name for the agency. Something was needed to portray the strategic nature of our approach whilst also encapsulating the energy and nimbleness of an innovative agency… If you’re thinking that this is starting to sound a lot like the type of narrative over confident Apprentice candidates blurt out whilst coming up with a team name ahead of their first task – you won’t be surprised to hear that the first iteration of the company was worryingly close to sounding like something Alan Sugar would have been eager to rip apart with that renowned sarcastic wit of his.
Fortunately, before we started building out any significant branding – we decided to leave Stratify behind us. We put that name down to youthful exuberance and moved on. Instead, Curt had a moment of pure clarity one day, offering just a knowing look in my direction and a single word… Flavour *drops mic*
Much like Sean Parker’s input to make Facebook the force it is today, my offering to the naming of our agency was to ‘lose the U’ because it looked better and made us seem international – and I stand by this is entirely what has led to our success to this day!
During the last two and a half years, it has felt like we have experienced more than many businesses do in decades. From global pandemics + and enforced lockdowns through to strategic partnerships + accelerated growth.
Like many new businesses, the first few months was a continuous battle to convince brands (any brands!!) to take a chance on a new agency and to believe in our concept that went against the traditional way of doing sampling. Through some good fortune, many phone calls, and even more emails we did manage to get some worked booked in. After campaigns with Karma Bites, Biotiful, Performance Health + Amazin Grazin, plus some imminent sign offs and a healthy looking pipeline we were feeling fairly proud of our achievements and optimistic about the future…
And then came Covid. Budgets disappeared, and clients withdrew to watch what would happen from a safe distance. In just a few weeks the promising sales pipeline that we had worked so hard to build completely disintegrated. Just 6 months into our burgeoning new business we had to consider whether it had any future at all.
We did really believe in our business model though. Multiple sampling channels meant that we weren’t just relying on one revenue stream. Although budgets were initially being pulled, we knew that brands would still need to find effective ways to market their wares – and for FMCG brands we still believed that sampling was the best way to do this. Alongside the traditional and direct sampling channels we also had a selection of indirect sampling methods which didn’t rely on large crowds or high footfall locations.
Recognising that this was our best chance for survival (and hopefully success) we doubled down on these channels and relabelled them as a group under the title of ‘At-Home’ Sampling. After sourcing more and more options to be included in this category, we went grew the 12 sampling channels from the company’s inception to over 25 – with a mixture of owned, exclusive, semi-exclusive and partnered options that allowed us to give a broad range of options to clients looking to get their products into consumer’s homes.
After a couple of months of heavy prospecting – what else was there to do in 2020 after all – we managed to get a few briefs coming in. A few months more and brands were coming to us, searching for Covid-Proof sampling options. By the end of the year – despite the initial upheaval that the pandemic brought to our door, we had managed to deliver a total of 21 campaigns whilst distribute almost 1 million samples to targeted audiences.
Whilst the business model we put in place was initially designed for us to offer the best possible sampling solutions, during the unexpected events that the whole world experienced, it actually meant that we were able to talk to and work with brands that we wouldn’t have been able to get any where near to as such a young agency. This is probably most aptly illustrated by us to being invited to pitch for, and winning a competitive tender with General Mills to manage their indirect sampling across Europe – with just the two founders and a couple of supporting interns in the business.
After that first year of enormous ups and downs, we decided it was time to evaluate our strengths + weaknesses as an agency and discuss what potential we actually thought the business had. It seems strange to say this out load now, but when we first started we didn’t know if we would have any success at all. The potential outcomes in our head ranged from failing miserably and having to find a proper job, through to just enjoying being our own bosses – but we never really thought about how we could create and cultivate a reputable and innovative agency that was in any way revered.
As our confidence and business acumen grew alongside the agency’s success though, we began to map out an ambitious 5 year plan that included…
- 500% growth in revenue from year 1 to year 2
- 300% growth in revenue from year 2 to year 3
- 200% growth in revenue from year 3 to year 4
- Reaching £5million turnover by the end of year 5 (July 2024)
To get started we consolidated as a business and invested in growing a multidisciplinary team. We were in a fortunate position to have access to a wealth of talent that had unfortunately been made redundant because of Covid. As we had always wanted to be a remote working business, we also had the luxury of searching for talent without the limitation of geography. Largely because of these factors we were able to bring on 3 incredible candidates to sure up our client servicing and continue our growth through New Business. Throughout the remainder of our second year we brought on an additional 4 members (including two through the governments UC Kickstart scheme to help young people enter into the job market during Covid times) of the team to manage the growth that we had charted and looking ahead to the future.
The culture of the agency was built around the character of the individuals that we wanted to come on board; competent, ambitious, flexible and trustworthy. We wanted trust to be at the centre of the business and this started in our recruitment, and belief in ourselves that we are bringing the right people into the team. If you have this then you can feel confident enough to empower the team as competent and capable individuals that have the business’ and each other’s best interest at heart. The trust we have in our team is embodied by us actively encouraging our team to have side hustles whilst working for Flavor. We trust that as capable and honest individuals they can manage their own time and accept that fulfilment in life often means creating something for yourself that you control wholly.
We also decided to continue with a remote working structure as it was beneficial to us as a business (fits with our company values, cost efficient + flexible), and appreciated by our team (work/life balance + freedom). We did recognise that there were some innate characteristics of Remote Working that can develop into major issues if left unmanaged. So, alongside our mantra of putting trust at the centre of our working environment and trying to create an environment where people are open + honest – the learnings from listening to what is important to our team has led us to implement and integrate a number of policies (such as remote working allowances, support networks, team lunches, and quarterly staff parties) designed to optimise the benefits of remote working and mitigate the negatives.
We are now 9-strong as an agency that is full of vibrant and committed members of the Flavor Family. We have hit out Year 2 target, and well on track to our year 3 as well. Overall, we are feeling worryingly grown up as agency owners, and only have the very best expectations for the future.
At Flavor, we use multiple sampling channels as part of an integrated sampling approach to curate the perfect mix of sampling techniques to deliver optimal results for every campaign. We look after all sampling elements under one roof to drive efficiencies in targeting, relevance, measurement & ROI…
If you would like to find out more about any of our integrated sampling techniques you can get in touch email@example.com + 07977 148784