Back to the future: A small, international and British communications firm
25th October 2017
Last week I interviewed the founders of The Forge about their start-up PR business three years in, so I thought it would be interesting to look at things at the other end of the scale. Today, I’m interviewing Chris Klopper, CEO of Mulberry Communication. Chris founded Mulberry 22 years ago!
Q1: 22 years is a long time to run a business. I’m guessing you enjoy it?
Chris Klopper: Absolutely! What’s not to enjoy? Mulberry is my passion, my life’s work, my third child, and my reason for being. I get a huge kick from seeing how we help clients either maximise opportunities or overcome challenges. I love seeing how we help to make our client contacts look great in the eyes of their C-suite, and I never tire of seeing how my talented Mulberry colleagues develop, growing their skillsets and expertise so their careers flourish (hopefully with us!).
I get to meet wonderful people, learn something new each and every day, travel to some pretty amazing places, and even get paid handsomely for it too.
Enjoy it? I am living the dream!
Q2: Broadly what is the size of Mulberry in 2017? In terms of turnover? What type of work do you do? And in what regions do you work?
CK: Compared to the firms of many of your readers, Ben, we are a micro-agency. Our turnover is just under £3 million per annum so we feel there’s a long way for us to go yet. We specialise in b2b work and focus on sectors such as cleaning/health/hygiene, technology, renewables, building and construction, food service and hospitality amongst others.
For our clients we provide an integrated range of communications services including media/analyst/influencer relations, content marketing, social media, digital, video and events.
So far in calendar year 2017, I believe that our work has engaged and promoted action from stakeholder audiences in 60+ countries.
Q3: Of your revenues of circa £3 million what I find interesting is that quite a high percentage is for international work. How have you managed to increase the international revenues of your business, when many larger agencies have failed to grow in multiple regions? It’s quite rare that a PR firm of Mulberry's size is successful in winning international business.
CK: I would say that we are cautiously yet continuously ambitious. We have never made a move that could have jeopardised or brought the agency down; yet to this day we are planning ways to grow further, make ourselves even more relevant and indispensable to clients, and I am certainly not resting on any laurels. The international expansion that we have enjoyed has been driven by a combination of client opportunity and the willingness of close colleagues to burst out of the confines of their comfort zones and share the risk and rewards of international growth.
Also, it isn’t rocket science but just good business sense – do an outstanding job for a client in one aspect of their communications activity or one part of the world and when a need for another service or support in a different region comes up, Mulberry is well positioned to reap the rewards.
Q4: Globally which regions does Mulberry operate in?
CK: The HQ and heart of Mulberry’s world is in London near Waterloo. Over the years we have been fortunate enough to have client-opportunities that have seen the agency put other dots on the world map. Our first US office opened in Chicago in 2003 and we now also have offices in Jacksonville (Florida) and Dallas. We have had a flourishing operation in Melbourne for over nine years, have worked in Singapore for about seven years and in 2016 the Mulberry name went over the door of a really cool office space in Leiden in the Netherlands.
Q5: In 22 years you’ve gone through three recessions, the dot.com crash, the financial crisis and now the uncertainty of Brexit. What’s been the toughest period and why?
CK: Actually none of these macroeconomic issues has proved to be our toughest time. We could have been exposed by the dotcom crash as we were doing a lot of work in that sector at the time. However, from working for a Swedish tech infrastructure supplier to the dotcoms we learned that technology itself was a better long-term bet. Unlike some agencies at the time we received payment for all fees due from our clients – though it was very, very close in one case where a client phoned me and said to get over to their offices in Canary Wharf within 45 mins and bank the cheque immediately as otherwise we would be out of pocket to the tune of around £45,000 as they were going out of business.
We also could have been very caught out by the financial crisis as shortly before it broke we were looking at larger, highly desirable (aka expensive!) offices in Covent Garden. Fortuitously I was at a parents’ evening at my daughter's school and got chatting to a couple of other dads who I knew; one worked for Lehman Bros and the other at the time was very high up in the investment arm of Barclays. Both conversationally warned me that they believed a crash was coming so we tightened belts and retrenched in Waterloo.
I would say that we have had two particularly tough periods…. one around 2006 when our marquee software client was sold to another organisation which prioritised inside sales over external comms and cut us adrift. The other time was in 2010 when a client for whom we had grown the business from UK trade media relations alone to an integrated campaign in about 30 different countries was sold and we were dumped for a global megacom agency who talked fast, dressed beautifully and achieved little.
Q6: Looking back at 22 years in business, does the life cycle of the business fit into specific stages?
CK: I am not sure it does really, as we have always tried to be alert to change and quick to jump on it. However, a few key moments that spring to mind would include winning our first international client (Planit Media AB) in 1998 which opened my eyes to the possibilities that there could be beyond our own shores. Up there too is beating the massively experienced and mightily resourced Ogilvy and PepperCom to win a pioneering IoT client back in 2003 which in turn was the catalyst for the opening of our first US office.
Although they happened at different times, each of the decisions to bring design, then video and finally UX and coding in-house were also significant signposts to the future of Mulberry.
Q7: Can you list four things you’ve done really well and 4 things you’ve wished you’d done better over the past 22 years…?
- Saw and acted on the need for visual communications (videos and infographics for example) before many other agencies.
- Client service is firmly written in all that we do. Nothing is too much trouble for our clients which is why…
- ...we have a fantastic client retention record. We still work for one of our founder clients, we have several client relationships of more than 15 years’ tenure. We also currently have four different client contacts who have worked with us at three organisations. As they have moved on and up in their careers, they have trusted us to support them at every step. I expect this number to grow too.
One of the best moves that I made from the outset was to employ a good bookkeeper and external accountancy firm – even when on paper we could not really afford it. The result of this is that they have ensured that we have always been profitable, never needed an overdraft and have the depth of financial resource that we can now use to take quick advantage of an opportunity that presents itself. It also gives new clients the reassurance when they appoint us that we are going to be around for the long-term. Such robust financial performance also means that to date, and keeping fingers firmly crossed here, we have never had to lay anyone off for lack of work.
Could have been better
- I suspect we could have been a little smarter on some aspects of our financial management. The amount we lose on currency fluctuations winds me up and if there was a way that I could legally flatten our Corporation Tax liability, I would be a happy man!
- Like many we are better at building and updating our clients websites rather than our www.mulberrymc.com This has begun to change now.
- In 2012 we funded the building from scratch, and the first three years operational costs, of the Mulberry Learning Centre school in Kuraburi, Thailand. It was a great initiative and brought education to a community that previously had never had any formal education system. However, I feel that we could have, and should have, become more deeply engaged with the project over the long-term.
- I was naïve and too trusting in that at one time we had a network of partner agencies in Europe, the Middle East and Latin America. However the flow of business was pretty much one way – from us to them. Lesson learnt!
Written by Ben Smith+, Founder, PRmoment.com