Exclusive interview: Drew Benvie on the launch of his new comms agency, Battenhall

By Chris Lee

Drew Benvie is a familiar face in the UK comms industry. As a seasoned agency CEO and founder of digital agency 33 Digital, part of PR firm Hotwire, Benvie was named the UK’s #1 most respected individual in New Media Age’s 2011 Reputation Online survey, one of PR Week magazine’s 29 under 29, a member of the PR Power Book and has picked up numerous awards for his campaigns.

Benvie has now launched a new comms agency – Battenhall – and NMK’s Chris Lee spoke to him to learn how he sees the communications industry developing and Battenhall’s role in it.

Tell us about Battenhall. What does the name mean, what services do you offer and why did you decide to set up a new agency after being CEO of an established firm?

I set up Battenhall with the aim of building the next great agency, one which has a depth of skills in social media throughout, complemented by a breadth of specialisms that go hand in hand. What I am trying to do is turn the agency model upside down, so that clients are being properly looked after by real specialists who are steps ahead of their game. Social and digital should be front and centre in agencies’ offerings, but the reality is that most are just not able to deliver the goods.

Battenhall started in March 2013, but for me the seed was planted way back in 2006 when social media as a term was conceived. That was the year that the concept of social media first emerged, it was the year that Twitter came out and it was the time when I started to notice specialist digital work integrating with mainstream and traditional work in agencies at scale. Since then however, agencies have struggled to adapt to the changes that have taken place. Agencies as they look right now just aren’t set up right and I profoundly believe that the agency model is in need of disruption.

Social media expertise is wielded in a terribly awkward manner right now by agencies. They simply aren’t developing quickly enough to manage this new world we live in. Social media’s impact has brought changes that companies and agencies struggle to cope with in the old model.

The typical agency is like a pyramid. People with experience at the top are outnumbered by the juniors at the bottom, usually with the social media specialism awkwardly slotted in somewhere in the middle.

Battenhall is set up with the pyramid turned upside down, as a T-Shaped business. The consultants all have a deep specialism in social media, the vertical part of the ‘T’, and a broader set of specialisms in complementary areas, such as media relations, crisis comms or consumer stunts.

You asked where the name Battenhall came from? About a year ago I was catching up with two old childhood friends, we grew up in a place called Battenhall in Worcester. It was that evening when I decided I was going to leave my job as a large agency CEO and set up a new consultancy.

What do you believe the opportunity is for start-up agencies offering digital services, compared to bigger digital agencies?

It is only really possible to create an agency fit for the future by doing it from the ground up. None of the agencies around right now have had the benefit of being able to do that in the social media age, and are simply not fit for purpose. Clients are not being properly looked after as a result.

So the opportunity start up agencies have right now is having the ability to set the foundations of a team that are built for the future, rather than the bigger traditional agencies who are busy re-training and who are too big to be nimble. 

What do you think your major challenges will be?

As agencies grow, the challenge is always developing unique talent. We are a people business, full of consultants, so talent is the most important thing. We have worked hard to create a culture that attracts the best. We give all team members a £1,200 tech budget on joining to spend how they like, unlimited holiday, 20 per cent of work time is given to innovation projects, and we have remote and flexi working as standard. Still we work hard to find the very best talent that is out there and create an engaging working environment.

What’s your assessment of the PR (integrated comms) landscape for the next 12-18 months?

In the next 12-18 months we are only going to see more disruption at the hands of social media, beyond comms across all parts of the consumer and media world.

If I look at the work we are asked to do with our clients I think it gives a glimpse of what the future holds; over half of our clients retain us to carry out all of their communications work – not just social media. It is showing us that the impact of social is going way beyond the ‘Like’ and the tweet. We are seeing disruption across PR, advertising, HR, investor relations and more.

What will be important to brands will be the ability to integrate digital and traditional to deliver work that suits the media landscape that we live in that is driven by social media. The social media economy is here to stay.

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