One of the problems many startups have is that their skills lie with their industry, not with the intricacies of running a company; especially when it comes to bringing in new business. This is where Adam Graham comes in. He is the founder and managing director of Gray Matters, a company dedicated to empowering small agencies by giving them the sales and marketing expertise they need. We sat down with him for a chat…
Adam Graham has had plenty of experience bringing in new business. After graduating from the University of Leeds in 2008, he went into sales and recruitment. While this is not uncommon, it was the start of a career in new business management that would take him into working with major agencies, then into starting his own company.
“I always knew I wanted to be in the creative industry, but my real skills lay in sales and the ability to build and nurture relationships,” he said. This led him eventually to working for Dentsu Aegis Network, where he stayed for around four years. However, it soon became clear that this particular career wasn’t working.
“I guess what happened was I got sick of working in the corporate world, because I’m much more entrepreneurial and I felt that sales at that level was quite far removed from the sales that I loved,” said Adam. “I also wanted to make an impact to small businesses; I wanted to help change people’s lives and do something I got appreciated for, where people saw a real difference because of the work I was doing.”
Luckily, Adam had experienced working for both small and large agencies, so he had plenty of applicable expertise. The “little guys”, he said, needed to be “very entrepreneurial and have to hustle and kick down every door to get their foot in”. Meanwhile, the larger companies could afford to sit back and decide what to pitch for. “There it’s more like project managing a large, global tender,” he said. “It’s a very different type of sales activity that happens at that level, and it’s very corporate.”
As a result of all this, Adam founded Gray Matters. He described his agency as: “A company that works with small to medium-sized agencies to help empower them, and help them become better at business development. So the idea is that they become more self-sufficient at sales and marketing, which enables them to promote themselves, grow and win new business.”
There are lots of different aspects to this, from helping small agencies define their brand, to supporting them through the creation of a new business strategy and helping them to execute on it. Adam and his team have a “plug-and-play” approach, preferring to bolster existing teams and guiding them towards becoming self-sufficient.
Given the right opportunities, it is a business that can make a huge difference. “Depending on the vision, energy, will and direction of the business owner or leader,” Adam said, “you can do anything.”
Many of the clients Adam works with are small, one or two-man bands who are fresh from university, all the way up to 100-man independent agencies. “They love designing, or they love building tech, or developing, or whatever it is,” he said. However, once they start a company, they become business owners and have to think as such.
“Suddenly, they’re having to think about operations, legal, finance and all these areas, one of which is new business. They don’t realise that they’ve also taken on the responsibility to be salespeople.” Many of them don’t want to take on this role, and simply want to be able to develop, design or create on their own terms. This is where Gray Matters can come in and really help.
“I worked with a two-man video production agency who’d never run an event in their lives, and now they have an event series,” said Adam. “They do it every three months, they get around 60 people to each one, and they have speakers from a range of established and new, interesting businesses. It’s part of their lead-generation funnel, of building awareness of the brand and trying to find people who are serious and could be a qualified lead.
“These people, before I’d worked with them, were like: ‘I can’t run an event. Who’s going to turn up to an event? This is impossible; I wouldn’t even know where to start.’ Now through working with us, they have that confidence and have that knowhow.”
So what’s next for Adam and Gray Matters? Unsurprisingly, he’s branching out, diversifying his company by taking on agency experts who specialise in elements of running a startup beyond new business. He also wants to expand the number of tools Gray Matters is able to offer to agencies.
Adam also wants to work in different corners of the UK. He said: “I’ve started to work with consultants in Leeds, in Leicestershire and in Kent. We’re looking at Bournemouth, Bristol and Manchester next as core creative hubs in the UK.” Having gone to university there and with family in the local area, he obviously has a good connection with Leeds in particular.
“Leeds, as a creative hub, is growing and growing,” he said. “There is this feeling that clients need to go to London, but why can’t you get it from Leeds? Leeds is just as good. It’s nonsense, because obviously creativity can come from anywhere, and Leeds is a thriving creative place.”
“I want Leeds as a creative hub to thrive. I want people to be more confident and believe in themselves, regardless of where they are in the UK, as I don’t think that matters. If there was a vision to be a part of that and drive creativity in Leeds, that for us is really exciting, and however we can, we’ll try to encourage that by helping Leeds agencies to collaborate and promote themselves. We’ll partner with people like Leeds.Tech to make that happen and see where we get to.”