Richard Parker

Richard Parker: In search of an Edge

In Interviews by Peter Gearin

Richard Parker has been at the centre of Edge’s transformation from print-based custom publisher to full-service advertising and content agency.

The former headquarters of Edge agency in Manly is in quiet Whistler Street, one block from family friendly North Steyne beach. The heritage-listed, double-storey building was once a Masonic Hall – a 1920s structure topped with four white orbs and fronted by two large white pillars. Even after a renovation that converted the commercial space into exclusive apartments, it speaks of stability and traditional values.

Edge’s current office is in buzzy Surry Hills, on the doorstep of Sydney’s CBD. It’s in a renovated former rag-trade building on Waterloo Street, and is dominated by glass, metal and polished concrete. It’s a thoroughly modern workplace with long desks, short-order meeting rooms and sweeping city views. What was once the home of Tilly Devine’s nemesis Kate Leigh and Sydney’s famous razor gangs is now a cut-throat advertising and IT hub powered by startups and exceptional coffee.

Edge’s dramatic change of scenery is matched by its change of intent as an agency. Indeed, its story says a great deal about the rapid pace of change for any agency wanting to help brands communicate with audiences. It’s how a traditional custom publisher first turned into a digital content marketing and social media specialist before remaking itself as a full-service advertising agency. It now offers clients everything from print magazines to big-budget TV ads.

Richard Parker knows Edge’s story well. He wrote much of it as chief agitator and agent of change.

Parker moved from London to Sydney in 2012, when he was supposed to become Edge’s head of digital. He had worked in many roles in the UK – in direct mail at an agency and as an account manager in custom publishing and content marketing businesses – and developed knowledge and expertise in digital. He learnt how digital and web design works, even basic coding. He understood about back-end and front-end development, and their impact on user experience. With a mate, he set up his own design and communications business, Better Things, and even found time to marry an Australian.

But soon Edge – and Australia itself – came calling. Sean King, who was CEO of a content marketing agency Parker had worked for, Seven, came across Edge while looking around the world for acquisition opportunities. Although the Seven board froze acquisition activities following the GFC, King called Parker and said: “I hear you’re dating an Australian girl. There’s this business outfit in Manly – they need help, and I’m thinking about buying them. But I’d love to have someone embedded in that business I trust, that I can work with if that ever comes off.”

Parker says he wasn’t interested initially. “I told him: ‘I’m really enjoying what I’m doing in London. I don’t want to move to Sydney. It’s a backwater, who’s interested in that?’ But I looked at Edge and thought, ‘I can make a big impact here’.”

Parker’s opinion of Sydney changed soon after his arrival. But his hunch about Edge was correct; despite having some big Australian brands in its portfolio, most of the work was in print publishing.

“They hadn’t really managed to crack that transition into digital content and data-driven digital content,” he says. “So the job I was offered was head of digital. What I quickly realised was that Edge didn’t so much have a digital problem as a strategy problem. They didn’t really know why they were doing stuff. They didn’t have a clear understanding of the customer; they didn’t have a clear understanding of marketing objectives. They were just doing magazines. They were very much a production house. They weren’t an agency that was a valuable partner with their clients.”

Parker told Edge it didn’t need a head of digital. “Digital should be fully integrated in what you’re doing,” he told them. “Digital should be a skill set that’s across the business. What you’re missing is strategy, not digital.” So he became Edge’s head of strategy. “I started building a more strategic direction,” he says. “I tried to help modernise the agency so it was more of a marketing agency that happened to do content and magazines than a production house.”

It was tricky convincing existing clients who bought into Edge as a publishing agency of this change in emphasis. It was also difficult for Edge to win new clients as a digitally driven, data-driven content marketing business.

“[The Optus social media account] changed us from being a publishing business to being a content business.”

Parker says he was fortunate; as he joined the business, Edge won the account to build a digital platform for Woolworths’ baby and toddler club. The website was integrated with a loyalty scheme that providing a useful data set, and Edge could build an eDM strategy alongside it. “Part of the problem was Edge pretty much outsourced everything, apart from the writing of the content,” he says. “They just didn’t know how to do any of it.”

Parker found another issue when he landed his first deal with a hotel chain, developing travel content for a loyalty program. “My contact was a bit junior and limited in vision,” he says. “We got it to a point where [the project] could have developed into a bigger platform and become more effective but it stopped because her remit stopped. She didn’t let us go outside her remit, talk to other people [in the business]. It’s often a challenge.”

Parker says a significant turning point came when Edge added social media capabilities to client pitches. It paid off in 2014, when the agency won the account to do social content for insurance company AAMI. “Straight away, that enabled us to start restructuring,” Parker says. “We didn’t need a magazine editor and a graphic designer; we needed people who were more integrated, who thought in different ways, who had broader skill sets. We needed people who could design infographics and gifs and short-form video stuff and do them really quickly. That AAMI account allowed us to start addressing the skill set in business and the processes we needed.”

Edge then won the social content account for Optus. This forced the agency to be “always on” and produce highly responsive, quick turnaround content. “We had teams who every morning would get together, smash out ideas, get them to the client and get them made. It was a whole new way of working. It changed us from being a publishing business to being a content business.”

Edge also helped its clients negotiate fundamental changes in social media, Parker says. In particular, Facebook was making it more difficult for brands to find organic reach. “We started having conversations with AAMI, Optus and a few other clients about how we could get content out in front of people now that you can’t do it for free,” he says. “That led us to start really exploring the paid media space on social media, and how that worked with ‘always-on’ content.

“We built our capability to put paid media strategies in place for consumers. This led to us getting in the data space, and really understanding how to establish different data segments to target different pieces of content, and how to measure all of that. We were certainly [becoming] a very different agency again.”

But while all of this growth was promising, Parker was looking at industry trends. He’d been watching content marketing move through the “peak of inflated expectations” on Gartner’s famous Hype Cycle towards the “trough of disillusionment”. He figured Edge had three or four years before the big agencies would start offering clients “full service”, including content marketing. This, he figured, would no longer be something an independent agency could profit from as a specialist. “It will be generalist, and everyone will be able to do it,” he thought.

“We suspected Ogilvy and DDB would have no real idea about how to do content. They’d go out there and sell it and let clients down.”

Parker’s strategy was to maximise Edge’s content marketing offering in the short term while working out a longer-term plan to move into the generalist space. All the while, he wanted Edge to maintain a point of difference. “Because we had come from a content background and this whole data piece, we could hang our hat on being obsessed with customer context,” he says. “This is a different way of thinking compared to the likes of [advertising agencies] Ogilvy and DDB, which often focus on mass media executions first.

“We suspected that, at least in the medium term, Ogilvy and DDB would have no real idea about how to do content. They’d go out there and sell it and let clients down. Whereas we’d go in and nail the content. All we then had to do was the advertising piece, which we (rather naively) thought would be a lot easier. So we were like, ‘How do we double down on content marketing in the short term, and then build this skill set of advertising over the top?’”

The other driving factor was that Parker knew the agency needed to better engage with senior marketers. Typically, marketing directors wanted to start content marketing programs, and were heavily involved in the strategy development and initial execution – the exciting stuff – but usually lost interest once the work found its operating rhythm. “To have any kind of longevity in a relationship as an agency, you need to have the ability to influence your client’s business,” he says. “You need to be a trusted partner of that client at a high level, at a senior level. To do that, we needed to be doing the shiny stuff ­– the advertising.”

To bulk up its creative credibility and capability, Edge hired its first executive creative director, Matt Batton, who had the same role at Wunderman in Sydney and London. “We started bringing in things like film producers,” Parker says. “We now had a much better understanding of how bigger production efforts worked, rather than [doing] the stuff we were filming on mobiles and stuff like that.”

Other major changes were also happening at this time. Parker and Edge co-founder Fergus Stoddart performed a management buyout, bringing in external shareholders Steve Kulmar (owner of brand consultancy Retail Oasis) and David Stretch, who owned advertising agency Creative Oasis. In July 2017, Edge formally acquired Creative Oasis, and Stretch became Edge’s managing director.

“This isn’t a case of a big network creative agency buying a smaller content marketing agency and trying to bolt on its skill set,” Parker says. “This usually results in the acquired agency losing its culture and staff, and just disappearing within the whole body of the bigger organisation. This was the other way around. At the board level, we’ve got two of the principals from the content marketing business and one principal from the advertising business.

“We’re a different kind of creative agency. When we go into client meetings, we don’t just immediately default to talking about ads. We go in there and have a holistic conversation from the get-go. I may be wrong, but I don’t see that happening with the big, above-the-line agencies because they still focus on advertising first, because that’s where their leadership is.”

Despite this point of difference, Parker says he admires many Australian advertising and content agencies. “There’s a lot of agencies’ work that I think is absolutely brilliant,” he says. “Clems in Melbourne is a fantastic outfit. They do some really genuinely good, integrated work across lots of different channels. And they work with data really well, and I think they really seek to understand the customer. To be honest, I look at Clems and think they’re a kind of model to look up to, amongst others.”

Edge has two offices, with the agency employing about 40 in Surry Hills and 10 in Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. Although he knows things will change again, Parker believes Edge is in a good position to take advantage of current opportunities.

“It just goes to show that content marketing has matured to a point where it’s seen as being an important part of a marketer’s toolkit,” Parker says. “Clients are now looking at content marketing, their above-the-line activity and their media and data and going, ‘I’ve really got to move all these things together’. That’s the key to unlocking value from all of them. I think we’re at the right place at the right time.”

“A lot of businesses jumped on the back of content marketing that shouldn’t have, and that has actually devalued the industry … It wasn’t helped by outfits like King Content, who tried to sell it to absolutely everyone.”

Although Parker believes in content marketing, he doesn’t think it’s always the right strategy for every business. “I don’t think content marketing is always effective,” he says. “When you’re at a supermarket shelf, making a quick decision on what brand of jam you want, you often reach out for the one that is most mentally available and you’re most comfortable with and the one you know. That doesn’t come through content. That comes from having an ad message in your face all the time. That still works.

“Where the decision-making cycle is longer and more considered, content can help build that proposition. I think a lot of businesses jumped on the back of content marketing that shouldn’t have, and that has actually devalued the industry. If I’m really honest, it wasn’t helped by outfits like King Content, who tried to sell it to absolutely everyone. And then we all saw what happened.”

Parker says Edge’s primary objective is to produce valuable work for its clients. “I realise lots of agencies say that, and a lot of them really mean it and really do it,” he says. “But we didn’t set up and go, ‘Right, our objective here is to build an agency we can sell’. We pick and choose who we work with, and then do a really good job for them. Sometimes doing a really good job for them has meant we didn’t make that much money out of that client. But we did deliver for them, so we didn’t churn through our clients quickly.

“I’m glad we’ve gone that way. Personally, of course, you’ve got the personal enrichment side of what you’re doing, and that’s important, but I also want job satisfaction. And job satisfaction comes from doing great work that works for our clients.”

Links & references

Content agencies’ King-sized headache in Brand Tales

Bobbi Mahlab’s quest for contentment in Brand Tales

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