Digital Agencies and International Expansion:

Octopus first invested in Secret Escapes in their seed round of 2011. Last year, the company facilitated the booking of over 2 million room nights. A big part of this success has come from the company’s ability to expand rapidly into 21 territories, with over half their members based outside the UK.

Cian Weeresinghe is Secret Escapes’ CMO. We spoke to him about scaling the marketing function and specifically, the role of digital agencies.

What benefits has Secret Escapes found in using digital agencies?

Secret Escapes were looking at hiring agencies during a period of rapid international expansion. They wanted to “maintain a nimble in-house capability and expertise, but also gain some of the benefits of a best-in-class agency.

In times of international expansion, this may be useful, if not essential, when channel effectiveness and messaging differ from country to country. For some channels, such as television or affiliates, local relationships are needed. For digital channels like paid search, an agency can provide eyes on the ground for companies which are headquartered overseas to provide intel on subtle differences in creative copy and techniques.

By taking this approach, Secret Escapes has been able to access best-in-class talent whilst effectively managing internal resourcing. With an overview on large client bases, agencies can help companies learn from the mistakes of other’s misdirected advertising dollars.

Agencies should also have good relationships with ad platforms and partners, granting you use of tools such as DoubleClick and internal agency technologies. When launching in a new market and iterating creative copy and imagery across hundreds of campaigns, these could create huge time savings. These kind of connections would be hard to create as a small autonomous company.

How does the internal team work with agencies?

Secret Escapes has built up a hybrid marketing function, having hired a strong internal team complemented by external agencies. For example, Secret Escapes might use an agency to launch the PPC digital channels in a territory (or perhaps all channels) but then eventually bring this partly or wholly in-house. The agency could then move onto managing a different territory. The internal team is aligned and motivated whilst the agency is kept on their toes with a performance-focused mind-set.

How does Secret Escapes find the right agency partners?

Finding the right partners is imperative; we knew we wanted to find real channel expertise; often this comes from understanding their client base and reading their case studies but we also realised it was important to talk to founders and senior team in depth during the pitch process. As such, a boutique agency with proven specialisation in a specific vertical may be more suited than a full-service equivalent.

For Secret Escapes, meeting the key individuals is crucial. If you meet someone during the pitch process who you would value working on the account, you should specifically request they do so. We want to make sure all agency team members actually understand our business.

As part of this on-boarding, Secret Escapes give ‘new starter’ inductions to the senior agency staff on the account and get most of the agency team to work in their office on a regular basis.

This close integration is vital in ensuring the agency knows what is important to the company. Agency and company alike are on the mailing list reviewing daily performance so they can read email comments and feedback given by senior management.

How did you set performance targets?

Set bold targets. These can be used to set a regular cadence for catch ups that work for you and that are backed up by weekly calls on the roadmap with tasks assigned and quarterly reviews. In terms of expectation, you should expect to see immediate results so always push the agency to deliver ongoing improvements.

How do you align incentives?

Aligning interest is always hard and is often one of the top concerns of sceptical start-ups when considering agencies. We found that incentivisation and commercial setup is always a challenge and no one fee-structure is optimal. One option is to review the terms after an initial period; we switched one of our partners to a fixed fee once our relationship had matured and we trusted them to act in our best interests.

Secret Escapes has been very successful in creating a lean and highly efficient marketing function. Digital agencies play a key role in this. It is important to remember that ultimately, “you need to make sure you remain the expert; you remain 100% responsible for performance and you make sure you are in control from the beginning”, cautions Cian. Internally, Secret Escapes have dedicated full-time resource to manage these relationships; Cian “found that in the case of PPC, having a very strong Head of Search in the building kept the agency honest from day one”.

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