The World is Digital | A Sit Down With Matt Sullivan, MD at BIMA

Managing Director of BIMA Matt Sullivan joined Forecast CRO Rob Massa to discuss trends in the world of digital agencies.

We had the pleasure of welcoming Matt Sullivan, the Managing Director of BIMA onto our Linkedin Live series ‘Forecast Features’. 

This event series welcomes insightful people from the worlds of digital and technology to learn more about the industries we serve. Rob Massa, Forecast CRO, chatted with Matt about all things events, trends and awards as we close the book on 2021. 

Matt’s first 8 months as Managing Director at BIMA 

Matt says the first 8 months at BIMA have been an amazing whirlwind. BIMA being a relatively small team means his role is very full-on. The BIMA community is made up of 24 councils, awards, conferences and 9 peer groups. The core aim is to add value to the members so 20% of his time as MD is spent working on the strategy and purpose of the organization. 

The biggest highlight for Matt so far has been an outreach event called ‘Digital Day’, which BIMA runs every year. The BIMA team goes into anywhere between 150 and 250 schools - engaging with nearly 10,000 students and matching them with agencies around the UK. The purpose of the event is to inspire them to consider a career in digital. Matt believes it’s important to show the next generation that a career in digital doesn’t only mean coding. There are paths within the digital agency world to suit anyone, including:

  • Front End Developer 
  • Data Strategist 
  • Account Director 

Digital Day’s purpose is to “open the pupil’s eyes to the breadth of roles that are available to them.” 

BIMA Events & Awards 

Events like Digital Day are common within the BIMA Community, and just prior to joining us on the live episode Matt was hosting BIMA’s in-person coffee morning event ‘BIMA10 Winners: The inside story on the best digital projects of the year’ at The Ivy in Covent Garden, London. 

After the world changed overnight 20 months ago, the event was a great opportunity to bring the community together and feel the energy in person. Matt says that by now, people have effectively nailed the content approach to events, being on webinars and joining groups to digest content. But in-person events are more tricky: 

The sense of community is a really hard thing to nail at any type of event or conference. Now it’s nearly impossible! Everything online has an agenda, doesn’t it? So just having a coffee and networking and being introduced to people is a really nice thing.” 

Because the work media organizations do is so diverse, the BIMA10 Award process doesn’t have strict categories. Instead, they generate 10 winners within the broader categories of digital-first projects that have embarked on change. This year (2021) BIMA had a really eclectic and interesting mix of 10 winners. 

At the event, Deloitte Digital spoke about their COVID-19 National Testing Programme apps, Sugar Creative discussed their work on an AI project to bring Wallace and Gromit to life in ‘The Big Fix Up’, and finally Foolproof and One Shot Immersive discussed their combined project that used virtual reality to train medics in war zones and in crisis areas. 

The winners outlined their work and the impact their projects have had. It’s important to note, that whilst they’re hugely innovative, the BIMA10 winners are all using existing technologies, pairing them with augmented reality to save people’s lives. These kinds of technology are no longer exclusively used by pockets of early adopters - it’s now mass market and available to millions of people. The opportunity lies within how you make use of them! 

How Can Agencies and Digital Project Work Stand Out in Order to Win Awards Like the BIMA10? 

As lots of awards processes run all over the world, it’s important to take care of the nuts and bolts - the practical bits. Too often, a case study video used on an organization's website will also be used as their generic awards entry, scatter-gunned around different awards. Applications need focus, a good understanding of the criteria and how it is judged and empathy with those judging. 

It’s also important to think about how to use emotion to get through to the judges, encouraging them to think and piquing their interest. 

So Where Does Matt’s Knowledge Come From? 

Matt’s career in “4 letter acronym” companies (as Matt’s dad once put it) started in publishing. He had a small business that was partly bought by a trade association in Marketing and Promotional Marketing. It was at a point where they had to diversify revenue models, so they looked at awards and events. Matt started spending lots of his time with agencies, becoming more and more obsessed with the way that they work. 

I kind of made myself a bit of an agency specialist, with a strong focus on awards.” 

Matt has never been an expert on the event management side of awards, but his passion is really stoked by the story behind and the quality of the entries. Matt always wants to go beyond the case study and interview the practitioners behind them. This is where the insights of the applications really are. 

What are the Biggest Challenges Facing UK Agencies in 2021/2022? 

For 9 out of 10 agencies in BIMA, their biggest challenge is the skills gap, you just cannot find the right people.” 

This can be more challenging for the more siloed job roles, often in development teams. Working from home often suits, so they are not always as embedded into the culture. It is easier to move for more money if it is the same job, and same home office. The only real difference is the payslip, and that makes retention more of a challenge. 

As a nation, we are still feeling the effects of the pandemic but agencies have done well recently and so have grown aggressively. 

However, with growth comes pain. 

When growth is aggressive, it’s hard for old processes to scale at the same rate and the wheels often come off. That’s why software platforms such as Forecast are so important in a post-COVID world. They give you an end-to-end understanding of project status and support organization growth by increasing visibility and cross-functionally throughout.

Streamlining processes as you grow is critical. 

What Has Changed in the Digital World Over the Last Decade? 

In terms of agencies, it’s ‘more collaborative and less land grabbing’. In Matt’s views, agencies are more focused on a tight positioning creating more confidence in agencies, therefore enabling them to be more collaborative. BIMA is doing a massive new business pitch just by networking and introducing agencies to one another. 

In terms of the ways agencies manage projects, Matt believes people are happier with the project-based structure.  A project has a finite timeline to it. Previously, agencies were more focused with retained relationships. Whereas now, the financial model in and around project-based work is more comfortable. Project-based work provides flexibility creating a better culture to scale. As agencies are working with pockets of freelancers, everything is very fluid, which suits a project-based model because you haven’t got those fixed costs that you’re trying to match with a retainer fee. 

This prompted an interesting question around freelancers popping in and out of work and whether this comes into play from a servicing perspective… Rob asks Matt “Do you think companies are not realising that they can actually take more work?” 

For example, on Forecast, a freelancer might be on the platform as a virtual resource. They will be in the platform, on a project for a few months and then leave and go to another. From a business standpoint, how efficient is that? Does this potentially mean businesses can’t forecast exactly what capacity they actually have and so as a ‘last resort are calling these people freelancers?’ 

Freelancers are very expensive right now, they can often earn more money freelancing a couple of days a week than working full time in permanent positions. This does create a bit of a tricky situation for creative agencies, as you’re charging by time. If your freelancer costs are really high, it’s not always possible to bill this money back. This is less of a bad situation for pure paid digital agencies that are building products and are in digital transformation, because clients still really get the value of that. 

Right now, the agencies are still putting it back to the client. Clients have to see the value around eCommerce, around digital transformation. But freelancing in this way is not sustainable and it will have to stop because it’s an insane amount of money.”

Forecast in the Agency World

When it comes to providing an industry with a software platform to help them do better work, it’s important to not treat it like a commodity. Forecast aims to be a partner and strives to understand how agencies (and all professional services) remunerate themselves in order for them to see the benefits of our offering. A software platform has to show the clients how they can collaborate with clients and take on work

“I think platforms (like Forecast) that can provide a working process for different agencies to work together is a real growth area!” 

Download our free e-book "Defective to Effective: Why agencies need to transform their operations to enhance profitability"

Matt’s predictions for 2022 

It would be silly to ignore or deny what’s happened over the last 2 years with the COVID-19 pandemic. It really fast-tracked everything in digital. From a technology standpoint, the pandemic has encouraged innovations of existing technologies to be smarter, more clever and much larger scale. Efficiency is the watchword, and people are ever more open to digital solutions which drive that.

We now are all perfectly happy ordering beers from a QR code and our children being schooled on Zoom. These things existed pre-pandemic, but we’ve really only embraced them now.” 

Particularly from a BIMA perspective, part of their work includes assessing digital trends and advocating for new ways that existing technologies can be used. The BIMA Blockchain Council, to highlight just one example, works to demystify blockchain and demonstrate how it could be used by marketers and digital creatives. 

For 2022, I predict different ways of implementing the technology that we already have.” 

Throughout 2022, Forecast and BIMA will be maximizing our great partnership so watch this space for more virtual events, in-person events and co-created content! 

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