“If I was on Mastermind, I’d like to think agencies would be my specialist subject,” teases Ben Wood.
This piece first appeared in Prolific North’s Northern Agency Guide – order your copy here.
Recently unveiled as digital agency group idhl’s new CEO, it’s a full circle moment for Wood’s career.
Freshly emerging from a seven-year stint at social networking giant Meta, before the dawn of digital and social media boom he initially started out in the industry at an independent agency.
Working at a number of leading agencies over the years back when faxing clients was the norm, he fondly recalls working at I-Level as one of the company’s first employees. With a start-up mentality back in the early days, he was amused by a trip with the company’s founder, Andrew Walmsley, to buy his desk at IKEA on day one.
“It was one of the most exciting times of my career because it was a fast-growth digital media agency. The real tipping point there was that we won the British Telecom account, which really rocketed the business,” he says.
He later joined Dentsu, then known as Aegis, where he ran Carat’s digital arm. Eventually he took over a digital media business owned by Aegis that had two big clients at the time – Sky and Aviva.
But the agency’s proposition was starting to lose traction. “We saw an opportunity to do something different so we acquired a big business in the US called iProspect, a big search marketing business at the time in Boston.”
The digital business rebranded and became iProspect. “We created an operating model within Aegis whereby iProspect became the powerhouse for all performance media services within the group,” he explains.
“It was amazingly successful. The UK business grew and I was lucky enough to become CEO. When all of the other Dentsu CEOs around the world saw that model they wanted to build their own iProspect.”
Embarking on a five to six year world tour where he built the business across EMEA and globally, he hails iProspect as “revolutionary” in the performance marketing agency world.
“It was a really simple model. Along the way, we acquired 10-15 agencies and we built this amazing network of about 4,000 people. I’d say it was probably the pre-eminent global performance marketing agency.”
The reality of network agency life soon hit though as he suddenly found himself in a global role sitting in board meetings in Singapore. His passion is immersed in “being in the trenches”, seeing the impact of work at an agency, day-in day-out, whether that was pitching clients or working closely with talent.
Yearning for change, he moved to tech giant Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
“The relationship Meta and Facebook fosters with agencies is critical”
Working alongside Meta’s head of global business group Nicola Mendelsohn CBE and former ad chief Carolyn Everson, Wood was responsible for overseeing Facebook’s relationship with the agency ecosystem “in all of its glory” across the EMEA region.
“Facebook is the most extraordinary business,” he says. “It’s lucky enough to work with clients from the world’s biggest brand from Procter and Gamble, Volkswagen or Unilever, through to millions of small businesses able to log on and self-serve.”
It remains “critically important” for Meta to build relationships with global media and creative agencies working with those big brands, whether that’s in the form of upskilling agencies on how to manage Meta’s tools and ad solutions or providing valuable feedback.
“Not all clients work with Facebook through agencies, but a lot of them do, therefore the relationship Meta and Facebook fosters with the agency ecosystem is critical.”
But building that relationship can pose its challenges as for agencies, it is “very different to how they’ve traditionally traded media”.
“There aren’t rebates, there’s no discount. The most relevant ad to the consumer should be the ad that wins, not the ad that’s been bought by the biggest agency. That dynamic is difficult.
“Part of our work was to innovate with agency groups to try and build some form of differentiation into the way that we collaborate and work together.”
“I left Meta more bullish than ever”
Despite bleak stories swirling around about how ‘clients are going to in-house everything’ or the ‘death of the agency’, he couldn’t disagree more.
“I left Meta more bullish than ever about the future of the agency ecosystem and more excited than ever about the work that agencies can do. I think that work is more sophisticated, more strategic, more diverse than ever.
“Working with agencies for seven years at Meta only reinforced how important agencies are, it’s definitely a space which is being disrupted.”
The agency world is no longer as simple as just “buying some TV” as it’s now a “much more complex media landscape” for leaders to navigate with evolving technologies such as AR or AI playing a much bigger role.
“That means the skill-sets that agencies need to bring in and the people they need to hire. It’s a much broader church of talent. We all know that it’s tough for agencies to retain talent, there’s a real war out there so it’s a difficult space which is being disrupted.”
The agency world is no longer an industry where leaders can stand still anymore, but that’s what he loves most.
“That’s what makes this space so exciting, right? You want to work in a world that’s dynamic, because otherwise it’s boring! I genuinely think clients need agencies more than ever and there’s nothing better than a brilliant client agency relationship.”
“The sky’s the limit” for idhl
After a lengthy but enjoyable stint at Meta, he began to ponder what he should do with the next 10 to 15 years of his career.
“I had a really good think about when I felt most energized and where I felt I’ve been most able to see the impact of the work that I’ve been doing and that was definitely building agencies.”
Passionate about the innovation emerging from the independent agency sector, it seemed a natural move to transition back into agency life at a fast-growing digital agency like idhl.
“The energy, capability and the ambition in the independent agency scene, whether it’s in Manchester, Leeds or Sheffield, is unbelievable.”
idhl has more than 400 staff spread across five offices including in Harrogate, Newcastle and Manchester. Receiving significant private equity investment from Bridgepoint in 2021 to further fuel the growth of the business, as CEO, Wood is keen to get started and establish idhl as one of the UK’s “most dynamic and exciting digital independent agency groups”.
“I’m so unbelievably excited to be here,” he says. “It feels like a return back to what I love, a return back home.”
Currently with nine agency brands, including WMG, Ingenuity Digital, equation, Fostr, Statement, Ampersand, Pinpoint, NetConstruct and Conesso, does idhl plan to go on the acquisition trial with Wood now at the helm?
“We absolutely have an ambition to continue to drive the growth of this business. That growth can come from organic growth, where we continue to be as successful as we have been in terms of winning clients and hiring new people.
“That growth could also be inorganic, meaning if we find amazing partners that bring new territories, new solutions, or add to our capabilities… I’m sure there’s potential to think about.”
For the future: “the sky’s the limit”.
“When you’re surrounded by a management team that is as capable and ambitious as the management team that I’ve found here, I couldn’t be more excited about how much potential there is for this business.”