The team at emarketing agency Quirk is so busy two years after moving into their offices they haven’t had time to finish off interiors properly. So busy in fact they have grown from 60 to 150 people in the past twelve months and will probably just fall short of doubling their R50 million in 2010 revenue over the next financial year.
The success of Quirk offers plenty of proof that South African marketing rands are flowing towards digital marketing strategy and digital agencies.
Quirk came into being in 1999, soon after Rob Stokes, then a business science student at UCT, finally decided to quit his last waitering and pizza delivery jobs. Entrepreneurial since a young age (he was selling ice pops to his class mates at the age of five) Stokes was inspired by a guest lecture by Mark Shuttleworth and decided there must be money in IT. For the next two years Quirk was selling hardware and setting up networks for small businesses (but missing out on the millions).
For his thesis Stokes picked email marketing in what would be a move that finally started the transformation of Quirk from a small IT reseller to an emarketing firm. Under pressure from his mom to sit down and study for his finals he told his friends and colleagues their business needed to take a six week break. Nobody was biting so he convinced them to build some ‘do it yourself’ email marketing software instead, based on the work he had done for his theses.
It would take another two years for the clunky software to come into its own when a client finally challenged Quirk to sort out the bugs and deliver a new product within a one month time frame. Their reward would be a decent sized long term contract. Craig Raw, Quirks’ Chief Technology Officer, was tasked to rewrite the original software, written in Perl, to Java. Since he was going on holiday he had to trim the one month deadline to 22 days. Having delivered, suddenly Quirks email software transformed its capacity from 400 emails a minute to 40 000 and the business started focusing exclusively on emarketing.
It was still tough going as recently as 2005/2006, says Stokes, but since then the business has been flying. Its recent expansion lays the groundwork for the company to grow its business over the next five years. Stokes says the business only hires “juniors and giants.” The companies internship programme has been running for seven years, says Stokes, and last year it attracted three of the top five business science graduates from his former alumni. Stokes recons Quirk spends a million or more on their interns annually but justifies the cost as the battle for skilled emarketers hots up. He expects digital’s share of marketing spend to grow from 5% today to 15% in five years.
Quirk opened an office in London in 2005 when a staffer decided to move there and Stokes decided it represented an opportunity to access international relationships Cape Town agencies might not necessarily have access too. The business only really started taking off once Nic Ray joined the company as MD of Quirk London (Ray recently became Chairman of the Quirk Agency Group). Having a presence in London does offer strategic advantages to the SA operation. Thanks to handling Warner Bros’ pan European digital marketing needs Quirk has built up an excellent relationship with YouTube and its skills in video marketing. Stokes points out that YouTube is the world’s second biggest search engine after Google.
Stokes acknowledges that traditional agencies are building capacity in digital but says its “difficult turning around a battleship.” The sheer scale of agencies built decades ago makes them hard to change – though the power of the relationships they have built with clients puts them in the race.
For now the focus remains on building up the Jozi and London offices says Stokes. He also hints that around ten weeks from now the industry should expect an announcement that will reveal the next phase in Quirk’s development. The business is increasingly opening up to work in Africa outside SA and is doing considerable R&D around mobile.
Stokes recently handed day to day operations to Justin Spratt who was appointed CEO of the Quirk Agency Group in February. It will allow him to focus his energy on taking the company forward. Stokes plans to build the Quirk from a digital marketing agency to a marketing agency doing digital, as he puts it, it created its first TV ad for Savanna over Valentines Day.
This story was first published on Squeezeback.