Launching Mediaworks in 2007, aged only 22, Brett Jacobson has turned it into a £4m turnover business with more than 70 staff in Gateshead. Here, he tells Robert Gibson why the firm is branching out from traditional SEO into a more ‘holistic’ approach to search marketing.
Those with an aversion to acronyms are advised to look away now - Mediaworks concentrates on SEO, PPC, CRO and ORM.
You might not have the foggiest what any of those terms mean, but, rest assured, if you run a business - any kind of business - you could do with finding out.
The Gateshead-based company, which was established in 2007 and now employs over 70 people, works to ensure its clients are not only visible online, but that they’re visible for all right reasons.
“If someone graffitied your shopfront, you would get it cleaned up,” said managing director Brett Jacobson.
“When it comes to online, though, many people neglect this and are therefore losing out on a lot of opportunities.
“Nine of out 10 times, the first touch point people will have with a business is through doing a Google search.
“What we offer is a service that can monitor what’s there and deal with any issues.”
And, yes, there have been some pretty big ones - the law firm, for example, that was easily findable on Google (that’s SEO, or search engine optimisation, sorted), but whose name threw up a host of articles on the little matter of a how a solicitor in one of its European offices happened to have murdered his wife.
“It wasn’t great to see that on Google,” Brett said.
The biggest problem is that while newspapers might be tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers, the online world is a different story.
“With Google, it’s there forever,” Brett said. “These things can damage businesses for a long time.
“Online Reputation Management is not about taking bad companies and making them look like angels - just making sure that the positive things are being promoted with equal weight.”
When it comes Mediaworks itself, even an ORM dunce could keep it looking good.
In short: revenues doubling every year for five years straight, followed by two years of investment in staff and infrastructure; around 200 clients, ranging from dynamic SMEs to huge national and global players like House of Fraser and GSK; and ambitious plans to double turnover to £8m within 36 months, while taking employee headcount to 140 over the next two years.
At the heart of it all, Brett believes, are the firm’s two major distinguishing features - its rigorous commercial focus and its use of data to back up everything it does.
“If you take SEO - a core area for us, which we’ve specialised in for six or seven years - for example, you’ll see us now making a point of getting our clients to ask the right questions,” Brett said.
“Some agencies can be very technical, while others can be very creative on a one-off campaign.
“We, on the other hand, will ask questions like: ‘Why do you want to be number one on searches for blue widgets when it’s green ones that make you profit?’
“It used to be more a case of people coming to us with a problem and us giving them a solution.
“In other words, we used to be a provider, but now we see ourselves as a partner as our clients’ businesses are growing and evolving.”
It’s a mature approach from a 30-year-old working within an sector hardly known for its level-headed business sense.
But then again, Brett has never been one for “rocking up in jeans and T-shirt”, knowing both he and his company would have to stand out for professionalism if he wanted to be taken seriously despite his tender age.
Indeed, Brett, who is originally from Jesmond, Newcastle, was just 22 when Mediaworks had its genesis.
The entrepreneurial spirit, however, had already been brewing for a while.
“My dad had encouraged me to get into IT,” he said. “He was an electrician by trade, but developed a construction company. I came from a nice background, but I was encouraged to make my own mark and find success in my own right.
“I always really wanted to push myself. I would never have been happy with a nine to five.”
He attended Northumbria University, gaining a 2:1 in Applied Computing - a fairly “generic” degree course, he recalls, that gave him a “taste of everything”.
Upon leaving, he admits, he had little idea what he was going to do.
“But then I managed to bump into Chris Thompson from Express Group,” he said. “We met for a drink and a couple of pints later, Mediaworks was pretty much established.”
Pretty much, but not quite.
SEO, keep in mind, was comparatively unexplored territory at the time, so, when Chris realised it could be a useful tool for a couple of his own companies, he launched a 12-week pilot first.
Brett, meanwhile, had gained a little experience in the subject at university - but was no expert at this point.
“I spent a few days a week at a couple of Chris’ businesses,” he recalled.
“Then, one day a week, I would look at the market and the business plan, seeing what competitors there were out there, if indeed there were any.
“In the end, we decided to go for it, both put in a bit of cash and the rest, I suppose, is history.”
In the early days, Brett admits, customers had to take a few “leaps of faith” when it came to the Brave New World of SEO.
Meanwhile, Brett himself was doing his best to hide his self-consciousness about his youth, as he employed people notably older than he was.
Around 18 months in, with a team of five now in place, his father Terrence died, leading to what Brett calls a “real crossroads”.
“That was a pretty challenging time,” he said. “My dad had always been my mentor in the early days; it was he who encouraged me to start a business.
“I had to make a decision that I would put every bit of energy into continuing with it and making it happen.”
Since then, Mediaworks has grown steadily in “chunks”, as Brett puts it, going from being an SEO specialist to something more “holistic”.
It benefits, he says, from the fact that its core functions aren’t emphasised on university courses, meaning the company has to create its own skills base within this fast-changing environment.
High quality apprenticeships are also crucial to the Mediaworks approach.
“We’ve got about 10 apprentices at the moment and I’d like to take on around 10 every year,” Brett said.
“We’re trying to work with some regional partners and other organisations to do that, and we’re even considering opening our own academy.”
The company, which has won a host of high profile accolades recently, including the European Search Award for Best Local Paid Search Campaign for work carried out with Newcastle College, is now looking to move from its current base in the Team Valley to larger premises in central Newcastle, facilitating its growth plans.
In other words, Brett has a lot of work on his plate, so it’s lucky he’s being cut “plenty of slack” by fiancée Sarah, as an equally busy home life revolves around their children, three-year-old Heidi and one-year-old Oliver.
“She appreciates the fact that harder work earlier on will make it easier later and that I’m doing it for the collective,” he said.
“But I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like to spend more time with them at the moment.”
And as to the long-term future for Mediaworks?
“Ultimately, I see us being a key strategic part of the digital industry, having the ability to compete nationally and internationally.
“Other than that... just keep growing and keep winning awards.”