Five years ago, Aquila Insight was founded around a kitchen table in Edinburgh. This year saw it acquired by Merkle and become part of the Dentsu Aegis Network, taking it onto the global stage. En route, it has been a model for how to grow an analytics consultancy start-up, made stars of a new generation of analysts and even picked up a DataIQ Talent Award in 2017 as the Best Place to Work. David Reed met its founders and other senior colleagues to learn more about its story from birth to marriage.
1999 - 2012: The pre-history
Co-founders and joint CEOs of Aquila Insight, John Brodie and Warwick Beresford-Jones, have been friends and colleagues for many years. Brodie worked at Bank of Scotland when it set up a strategic analytics unit for the credit card division in 2000 where his university degree in Operational Research saw him applying maths and stats techniques to help improve business performance.
“My job was to find interesting things that could improve business performance and present and sell them into the business,” Brodie recalled, as part of a four-man team that also covered business intelligence, segmentation and behavioural propensities. Beresford-Jones was one of that team, having joined from the risk department at GE Capital as a SAS expert. One of the most important learnings during their time at Bank of Scotland came from their manager, David Wangerin, who strongly believed that the key to good analytics was the story telling that helped to bring it to life within a business environment.
“To experience that level of rapid growth was very interesting and helpful."
During the two years they worked together, they were already talking about creating a company, but Brodie first left for Jaywing in 2002 during its rapid growth from a ten-person business to one employing 150. He joined as the youngest analyst in a group of veteran consultants and the first to be London-based. “To experience that level of rapid growth was very interesting and helpful when we experienced it at Aquila. Jaywing had lots of cultural elements that I loved. There was a great mix of remote working, working on client sites, idea sharing and flexible structural elements, it was a special place to work” he said.
Despite his skills set, Brodie “fell into sales”, doing consultancy selling for products like lifetime value calculations into companies like Royal Bank of Scotland, before moving on to I Spy Marketing and 20:20 Dialogue.
Beresford-Jones left BoS to join the analytics function at Marketing Databasics in 2002 and eventually became the director of analytics. Marketing Databasics was subsequently acquired and became Indicia. They both ended up working at Jaywing, albeit only overlapping for one month. Beresford-Jones’s left Jaywing to join Royal Bank of Scotland in 2010, where he was ran the modelling and insight team.
During typical start-up conversations in the pub, both men realised they shared a vision of what was needed in the market and a desire to make a move. Brodie has ample reasons to recall the eventual launch date of Aquila Insight, but none more powerful than the fact that his wife told him she was pregnant with their second child the night before he and Beresford-Jones were intending to start the consultancy.
One week later - and five years ago in August - they opened their doors for business (or rather, cleared Beresford-Jones’s kitchen table for business, since this is where the start-up began with one phone and a laptop).
2012: Year one - taking on the world from the kitchen table
With nine months' savings in the bank each, Aquila formally launched in August 2012 and spent year one “taking on the world”, competing against much larger service providers. Their expectation was to pick up project work while honing their skills in these pitches, but instead a big breakthrough came from winning Sony away from a large multi-national data company, which Brodie said fast-tracked the business for its first two years.
“Year one is all about sales, including selling the dream to your partner and to tempt your new staff away from well-paid jobs in analytics, showing them confidence that it is going to work,” he said. Within a year, buoyed by success, it had grown to ten staff and moved to its own offices.
2013 - 2014: The first double
That early growth path continued unabated with employees doubling to 25 and then to 50. At the same time, Aquila started to look beyond its Edinburgh roots. “We knew when we started that we didn’t want to be a provincial consultancy. Eighteen months in, we had an office in London to be in the heart of things,” said Brodie.
Looking back from the vantage point of the recent acquisition, both founders view this as almost a golden era - “our absolute high,” according to Beresford-Jones - even though they always knew the consultancy was destined for bigger and better things.
2015 - 2016: Bigger and more business-like
Right from the start, Aquila has been an advocate of the democratisation of data and analytics. But analysts also needed a technology platform to run their projects which could then become a product in its own right.
"We had the crazy idea that you could automate the analyst."
The first analytics platform was spun up and paid for using personal credit cards, but almost immediately had a large retail bank as a client. “This was a new world for us. We had the crazy idea that you could automate the analyst and started to think about applications,” said Brodie.
The founders had recognised that providing technology services yields repeating revenue strands which are more reliable than one-off analytics projects. Profits have always been invested back into funding technology development, informed in part by thinking about the impact on the exit strategy, and the business has been fully bootstrapped since launch with no external investment.
To continue this progression, new skills sets were required, particularly a chief technology officer with an understanding of software engineering and tech product development. This would also provide the framework within which data science and innovation could take place.
Jonathan Forbes joined from Scottish Widows bringing with him a deep engineering background. The data and analytics platform, Discovery, is described as his “baby”. According to Brodie, “when you meet talent like that, you bend everything to get them into the organisation. He saw the big picture of what we were trying to do and we gave him the environment to flex his muscles. Joining us for him was not about the money.”
“What attracted me to Aquila was that they didn’t do things the standard way."
Forbes himself said: “What attracted me to Aquila was that they didn’t do things the standard way and neither do I. I never truly enjoyed my time working in large businesses because it is a terrific and terrible time to be responsible for the architecture and tools. It is terrific because of the ability to do things without worrying about the data volume. It is terrible because whatever you invest in will be out of date in six months’ time. So many of them stay away.”
As staff numbers continued to grow, the founders realised that a reorganisation of the business was necessary. “That year was about us growing up - we needed processes and management that wasn’t there before. It couldn’t be the Warwick and John show,” admitted Beresford-Jones.
That meant bringing in a second tier of management and introducing functions which were not yet in place. Alana Gunn, head of talent management, was a significant recruit, “one of my top five hires,” according to Brodie. She took over recruitment and motivating the team, rather than being a typical HR practitioner. “She has been a revolution - there is now a place where our team can sit down away from management and have an honest discussion about what is working or not for them,” he said.
Brodie still speaks to every new potential hire either by phone or face-to-face to assess their match with the consultancy’s culture. Said Brodie: “I want to know if they are going to fit in. As we have grown to over 70 people, you start to interview people who want you to drive their career for them, rather than those who want to push it for themselves, which is what we had in the first 50. Their attitude was, ‘I’m doing this, support me”, it’s a vital component we look for when we hire.”
"Because they are analysts, they are always looking to solve problems."
Gunn has worked for large companies, like RBS and Johnson & Johnson Medical, as well as two legal firms, but had found herself lacking motivation. A family member already working for Aquila mentioned that it was looking to introduce HR processes.
“It was a challenge at first because there was a lot of work to be done,” explained Gunn. “Luckily, because they are analysts, they are always looking to solve problems, so I sat down with everybody and talked to them. From that, we set up lots of steering committees for things like communications, social, buddying and mentoring. I brought knowledge and experience to put in place the things they wanted and that were right for what they needed.”
She did her Masters dissertation on the culture in mergers and acquisitions and had seen the issues at first hand when the law firm she worked for got acquired. It revealed how the first group of employees have a different perspective from later hires and that work needs to be done to reconcile the cultures across M&A situations, knowledge that would come in useful one year later.
“Things had changed with people getting less facetime with John and Warwick, and they could see other new roles like HR and marketing coming in. So we decided to have a values day to define what we wanted to be,” said Gunn.
This has resulted in a group of four values, within which there are clearly specified individual values and stories that explain what they mean. Each month, there is a nomination for “legend of the month” to recognise a staff member who has lived one of those values.
2017: A new deal
Looking back, Beresford-Jones said: “It has been a significant change from day one to now. Our absolute high was in year three - the business was buzzing.” But at the same time, maintaining growth brings change, not least a need for additional investment to continue that expansion and to provide a hedge against many of the risks that consultancies face.
Brodie agreed: “The first three years were probably the most enjoyable. Our difficult ‘second album’ was trying to become a technology business. It changes all your thinking, your infrastructure and the skills set you need in the business, bringing in developers and engineers.”
“From day one, we were clear that Aquila was not just a freelance consultancy, we were building a company."
“Consultancy scales linearly,” Brodie noted. “From day one, we were clear that Aquila was not just a freelance consultancy, we were building a company. But there is only so far you can grow before you need investment.” That means a future investment plans were built in to the business plan from the outset. This also informed the development path as it was recognised investors would be looking for technology.
Due to significant inbound interest from private equity, advisers were engaged to coordinate meetings and communications with private equity companies. Aquila rejected a lot of offers. “We started meeting a lot of PE companies who loved the technology, but weren’t sure about the analytics services. We told them it comes as a package,” said Brodie.
A trade sale hadn’t been part of the plan, but three offers came at once. Two were from big management consultancies and were rejected early on. “There was a real worry that they would have damaged the culture that we had worked so hard to create as we became a very small cog in a massive machine,” said Beresford-Jones.
Merkle was more inspirational. There was an immediate connection on the power that great data analytics can generate and Merkle’s track record in the US highlighted that analytics was in its DNA.
“It's amazing when people that understand what you do really want you to be part of their vision.”
The agency group’s European president, Tim Berry, is a statistician and his father is a leading Bayesian professor in the US who actually taught one of Aquila’s senior analysts. Looking at other recent acquisitions by Merkle, such as Periscopix, Comet and DBG, was also encouraging. “They had some analytical people, but not really a community that they could call home,” said Brodie.
But, more importantly, they really liked what Aquila was doing and felt that it would move Merkle’s European strategy into top gear. “It's amazing when people that understand what you do really want you to be part of their vision,” said Brodie of a meeting with David Williams, Merkle’s President.
Another key factor in joining the Merkle family was that, although it is an established brand in the US, Merkle is pretty new to Europe. Being part of a business that is becoming a disruptive force within an established market, but has a massive historical pedigree was something that any fast-growing company wants to be part of and the perfect home for Aquila’s next chapter.
Gunn was involved in the Merkle discussion to talk about people and culture, having reviewed its values document. This revealed a good degree of crossover and fit with Aquila. According to her, Merkle has seen Aquila’s progress and now wants to super-charge it.
Both Brodie and Beresford-Jones emphasise that being part of Merkle increases the opportunity for analysts and their potential career paths. It also opens a path into Aquila for analysts within the agency group. Unlike taking investment from a PE company, the trade sale creates huge cross-sell and up-sell opportunities to Merkle’s (and Dentsu’s) client base without any conflict with other service providers in the group.
Merkle Aquila commercial director, Neil Carden, is talking on “Helping analysts thrive” at this year’s DataIQ Future on 19th October. Book your ticket here.