Nigel looks back on a whirlwind 15 years with The Dairy!
I know people say that time flies when you’re having fun – but this is ridiculous!
Can it really be 15 years since we opened the doors of The Dairy at our original premises – an ex milking parlour on a farm in Derbyshire?
I had always had a dream to open my own agency and saw it as the ultimate challenge. Having started my career in 1980 and worked in traditional ad agencies in the Midlands and London, I finally got the chance to make that dream come true. My only concern was that I was too old!
I was in a position at the age of 30 to have a go – but lacked the bottle to jump off the edge. I was in a good job and enjoying life – so put the thought to the back of my mind. Some 10 years later the idea resurfaced and I realised that at the age of 40, if I didn’t do it now, I never would.
So with a wife, two kids under 4, a large mortgage and a great job with lots of perks and a good salary…I decided to give it all up and see if I could survive in the world of business.
Of course, these things don’t just happen. Many months of planning and lots of soul searching went into the creation of The Dairy. But by September of 2002 we were ready to open our doors and start what has been my greatest adventure.
I remember getting quite nervous on the Sunday night before opening on the Monday. In actual fact, it was really quite easy as we were doing nothing different to what I had left at my previous agency on the Friday night… we were talking to clients, sorting plans, handling design work and placing ads. We were lucky that some clients came with us which meant we were busy from day one.
A lot of people will say that you have to have some good luck along the way and I would agree with this. Ours came in our third week of business.
I had met a marketing manager whilst at my previous agency and had kept in touch when she moved to the Bravissimo lingerie brand in the Summer of 2002. I was delighted when she got in touch to ask us to pitch for her account just as we set up. There was no way in the world that we could win this against stiff (and much bigger) competition in the form of London and Manchester agencies. So we decided to use the pitch as a practice for The Dairy – a way of testing ourselves against the best to put us in a strong position in the future.
However, we had one thing going for us. My father had always run his own business – a factory in Nottingham’s Lace Market manufacturing bras and knickers. I had grown up in the trade and in fact had a stall on Arnold market whilst I was at college selling my Dad’s seconds alongside my then girlfriend (and now wife of nearly 30 years!). I took the high risk strategy in the pitch of telling Sarah Tremellen (the owner of Bravissimo) that I knew more about bras than she did!
Suicidal maybe, but she listened to our marketing and creative approach and liked it. Later that night, the marketing manager called my at home to tell us we had won the business. Clearly a huge moment for us and one that allowed us to have a profitable first year and grow the business on the back of it. We worked with Bravissimo for over 5 years and I cannot thank the guys there enough for that start.
It seems that success breeds success and this proved to be the case in our first few years of business. I am not sure if it is a confidence thing or perhaps the honeymoon effect that surrounds a newly-formed company, but we did have a great first few years. It was all new and exciting – lots of late nights and hard work but very rewarding. We knew the good times couldn’t last and I always told the team that we should expect a high tackle at some stage – it’s just that you never know when!
After nearly 4 years in what we now call ‘the old Dairy’, we knew we had to move to bigger premises to take the business to the next stage. We managed to buy two office units on a brand new business park in Nottingham close to the ring road. One was to be rented out and the other was to base The Dairy in.
That was in April 2006 and the cost of moving, allied to the increased overhead, put a strain on the finances. But our team of 8 all worked hard and we then enjoyed two of our best years in business. Turnover was heading towards £1 million a year and we were profitable.
All too soon of course the market started to change! The recession of 2009 happened incredibly quickly. It felt like we were busy when we went home one Friday night, but had nothing to do the following Monday morning. Although we have never specialised in any particular area, we have always enjoyed working in construction, house building and associated trades. Sadly, these sectors were hit hard and first, so we saw two clients go bust very quickly owing us large sums of money, whilst other clients just put a halt on their work with us.
The knock on through our business was quick and painful. We worked hard to stay afloat and had to make difficult decisions to reduce our overhead. Some of the team decided to leave and we didn’t replace them and over a period of two years we reduced to two of us and some freelancers who we used as and when needed.
We had taken a rather Victorian approach to money in previous years which meant that we had some savings in the bank to see us through. Little by little we managed to get through this awful period and come out the other end.
A couple of quiet years followed where we kept our heads down and worked hard towards a comeback. The recession lasted longer than anyone thought (indeed it could be argued that it is still with us!) but slowly and carefully, we crept out of it.
The most galling thing is the outcome of clients going bust. The money that they owed and we expected to come into the business just never materialised – it is like going out on a night out in Nottingham with money in your wallet and having it pinched before you reach the first pub… you can’t do anything about it and you know you will never see that cash again.
Although it was a dreadful experience, I found that I learned so much because of it. It really makes you question what you are doing and who you are doing it with. Sadly, levels of trust go down and you are always thinking that the next client might do the dirty on you.
But I see this as a positive thing now for our business. I learned so much from this period – the main thing being that it cannot always be wine and roses in business. You cannot have some really good years without the prospect of some bad ones…the trick is to learn from this and use the knowledge going forward.
I firmly believe that we have had a stronger business in recent years because of what we went through. I wouldn’t want to go through it again though!
It has made us rethink our business model and we now operate on monthly fee retainers with our clients on 12 month rolling contracts that give stability and security to both parties.
We have also built the team back up to 8 of us and I am particularly proud of the fact that everyone can do everything – from make a cup of tea to presenting work to a client. Each of us brings a specialist skill to the party, be it marketing strategy, PR, social media or video. We really can now offer a complete creative marketing communications service to our clients.
The last 4 years have been a whirlwind. We have a great team in place and have moved the business to West Bridgford where we feel very much at home. It is a vibrant and creative place to be and we find that clients and partners are happy to come and see us as we normally end up in one of the many coffee shops or lunch stops just around the corner!
Business has increased and our turnover and profit expectations are slowly being realised. We devised a growth plan two years ago and set out how we would achieve it. I am delighted to say that this approach has worked and we are now working with some great brands and more importantly, the people behind those brands.
We count names such as these on our client list:
Notts County FC
Nottingham City Transport
Nottingham Trent University
McCann Civil Engineering
Public Health England
Western Power Distribution
So 15 years on, we are in a good place, having had lots of ups and downs on the way. You never stop learning and the trick is to take something from every situation – good or bad.
I had a dream for an honest, hard working and open agency that brought a mix of skills together to provide a great service to our clients. I really think that we can now claim to be in that position.
And for the next 15 years….. Well, hey – let’s just enjoy what we have achieved to date and not worry too much about the future!