Robin Grant: A man on a digital mission
Self-confessed workaholic and We Are Social founder Robin Grant tells Sara Luker why the PR industry is missing out on the digital boom.
Missing a trick: Grant says of PR agencies' attitudes to digital: 'Good digital strategies all centre on relationships. PR is all about relationships and that is why the PR industry should own social media and digital comms'
Global MD of We Are Social Robin Grant is not a man to mince his words.
Within minutes of PRWeek's interview starting, Grant is lambasting the PR industry for 'missing the boat' on digital, allowing advertising and media agencies to steal a march.
What is bad news for the PR industry is good news for Grant. We Are Social has flourished in the nascent digital space, enabling the agency to double in size for the past two years consecutively.
This growth has propelled the agency into fourth position in PRWeek's Top 50 Digital Consultancies. We Are Social has grown aggressively since its June 2008 launch and has now put down roots in New York, Paris, Milan, Munich, Singapore, Sydney and San Paulo to number 180 people globally.
Grant planned this hectic growth from the start. 'We only have a very limited window to build our brand,' he explains. 'We know people thought we wouldn't survive and that focusing on digital would be short-lived. Timing was everything - if we tried to start the agency now I don't think we would have succeeded.'
Simon Collister, senior lecturer in PR and Social Media at University of the Arts, London, worked with Grant until this March. He describes Grant as a 'smart and strategic social thinker with a passion for success'. He adds: 'Robin embodies open leadership, always willing to seek out opinions.'
It is obvious Grant is immensely proud of We Are Social. Trying to steer the conversation away from the agency story is akin to wrestling a bone off a ravenous dog.
Grant finally opens up. 'Me personally is very different from me professionally,' he explains. 'I'm like Marmite - you either love me or hate me.'
The 38-year-old spent much of his education studying maths, further maths, physics and chemistry, although he adds quickly that he was still 'fun to be around'.
Growing up in a single parent home, Grant received a place, through a government scheme, at independent school Alleyn's School - actor Jude Law was in his year.
An under-16s downhill mountain bike champion, Grant wanted to race bikes for a living, but his careers adviser had other ideas. Grant had a head for numbers and was, he confesses, 'a little cocky' when he decided on his degree - aeronautical engineering at Bristol University. 'It was tough,' he remembers unsurprisingly.
It was during university that Grant was bitten by the digital bug. After teaching himself HTML, Grant started helping small businesses set up websites.
His digital dalliances did not go unnoticed and he soon joined online specialist Brann Interactive as a web author, describing it as being 'the end of the food chain'. 'I wanted to be advising brands on what should get built, not building what had already been decided,' he explains.
A move to London soon beckoned and Grant became swept up by the dotcom boom while working for agency Organic. He was sent to New York to 'hurry up' the process on the creation of boo.com. Asked to describe this time he laughs: 'There were a lot of angry Irishmen swearing at me.'
But it was also when he developed a passion for working with start-ups. Unfortunately these companies were sometimes not so keen to pay their bills.
When the dotcom bubble burst, with boo.com one of the highest profile casualties, Grant was made redundant and a series of consultancy roles followed.
A stint at Tribal DDB saw Grant work in an advertising structure for the first time. Again he longed to be the creative brains behind campaigns and, more importantly, the client contact.
Matt Law, now MD of digital agency AnalogFolk, worked with Grant at the time. 'He's always been on a mission,' he says. 'He's very shrewd and extremely clever. He has done a great job at marketing We Are Social and making a name for himself by not shying away from the controversial.'
It was not long after this that thoughts of starting his own agency began to form. The creation of We Are Social four years later came from a simple realisation: 'It was easier to set up on our own than fix other people's problems,' he says.
Despite his experiences of working in both digital and ad agencies, Grant is convinced that PR is best-placed to capitalise on the changing digital landscape: 'Good digital strategies all centre on relationships. PR is all about relationships and that is why the PR industry should own social media and digital comms.'
To this end, he has deliberately recruited staff from traditional PR backgrounds - they make up half of the agency's headcount: 'It doesn't matter how digitally skilled you are as an agency. It is PR skills that the clients want to see.'
Grant has an addictive personality: not only does he smoke quite heavily, even having a cigarette break in the middle of the interview; he also makes lifestyle choices to try to combat his obsessive tendencies: 'I don't play computer games much any more because I get completely addicted.' He only recently bought an iPhone, worried he would become obsessed with it.
His approach to We Are Social certainly verges on the obsessional. 'Work consumes my life,' he confesses. 'I want to make my mark and I'm not going to do that quietly. I want to stand for something and I'm here to change things.'
Looking at the past four years, one is inclined to believe every word.
2008 Global managing director, We Are Social
2007 Client services director, 1000heads
2006 Senior account director, CMW Interactive
2004 Account director, Proximity London
2002 Senior producer, Tribal DDB
2001 Product development director, Habbo Hotel
2000 Consultant, Brainspark
1999 Senior producer, Organic
1996 Producer, Brann Interactive
TIPS FROM THE TOP
What was your biggest career break?
It has to be persuading Skype to take a chance on hiring an agency that wasn't incorporated, didn't have a bank account, an office address or even a name. We Are Social was born that day.
Have you had a notable mentor?
I'm not sure I'd call him my mentor, but Nathan McDonald, We Are Social's co-founder, has been the yin to my yang for the past four years. We have very different personalities and approaches to things - without him to balance me out, We Are Social would not have got off the ground.
What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?
Don't wait around for anyone to teach you anything - learn it yourself, preferably by doing. And if you stop learning, move on.
What qualities do you prize in new recruits?
People who can bring me solutions, not problems.
This article was first published on prweek.com
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