In an effort to pay homage to the time and energy Sam Wood has dedicated to growing Alpha Digital over the past 10 years, Senior Brand and Marketing Manager Bek Agius sat down with Sam to reflect. From his earliest days, to his time spent as GM through to more recent years in his time as CEO, navigating the agency through the fallout after a global pandemic, Sam shares a little of the journey, some challenges, highlights and what we can expect in the future.
Bek: Between yourself professionally and your role in the development of Alpha Digital, what would you say have been your top achievements over the past 10 years that you feel the proudest of?
Sam: When I talk about achievements for the agency, they’re not going to be specific moments in time because the question itself is huge. For me the first achievement and one of the biggest is working closely with Matt (Cooper) to grow this agency from a handful of people into a ‘real business.’ That started well before my current role or even my GM role.
When I started, Alpha Digital was nothing like the scale or structure it is now. One of the things I did pretty quickly when I started my GM role was to review pricing and profitability and working together we transformed the agency from one that did good work but didn’t make much money into something that is a solid agency business that can employ people, pay them well, and do good work.
It wasn’t necessarily one discrete thing that we did, but all of the little micro-achievements to move from a couple of people to a 55 person business is a huge effort. I’d almost put it down to 1,000,000 wrong decisions and 1,000,001 right ones over the years. Thankfully the right ones were more impactful.
The second most notable achievement is around the clients that we get to work with. When I look back to where we were when I started 10 years ago, we really only worked with very small businesses and a $500/month retainer across all of our services was something we were over the moon with.
Last week, we signed off a $15,000/month retainer for a single product with one of the largest retailers in Queensland and a publicly listed company. The difference in the playing field from then to now is huge for us and a massive achievement. We’ve always had the vision to work with big, exciting brands working on the cool projects and now we’re doing it.
The final achievement that comes to mind as a real turning point for Matt and I was the day we picked up the lease for our first office in Agnes Street in Fortitude Valley. Before that point we’d been working between co-working spaces, but there was no space that really belonged to us. I remember stepping into that office and realising that space was ours.
Outside of work, the last 10 years have also been full of personal accomplishments. I finished Uni, moved to Sydney, got engaged and then married, moved to a beautiful beach town in northern NSW, bought a house and renovated it (and am now re-renovating it thanks to the flooding earlier this year), and have become a generally happier person. I know we’re mostly talking about work, but all of that stuff is obviously huge too.
Bek: What have been the biggest challenges you have overcome in the past 10 years?
Sam: Professionally, one of the biggest challenges has been COVID. Ironically, the really panic-filled, catastrophised part at the beginning of the pandemic really only lasted for a few months, and then we started rapidly growing quite quickly afterwards. It was tough, but we got through it without making anyone redundant, and quickly paid back any salary reductions people took in order to keep the business afloat.
After that, probably the most recent 6-12 months have been the most significant challenge for us. It’s related to COVID in a way, but really the challenge was that the agency had grown faster than it had matured. In retrospect, we didn’t have adequate systems, processes or tech in place to support the size of the agency and because of that, the weight of the agency meant that everything was creaking and groaning and some things started breaking.
Since then, I’ve listened to a lot of agency owners talk about going through something similar – and they all seem to say the exact same thing; that you hit a critical point, and you often don’t realise it until you hit it, where everything feels like it’s breaking or everything feels like it’s going wrong.
That was really challenging for someone like me who is naturally an optimist and prefers to look forward and focus on the positive. To be hit daily with a new problem can be really draining.
Outside of work, I’ve had significant ongoing health challenges following from when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis 10 years ago, and then the mental health challenges that came along with that. Both the physical and mental health elements of that continue to be challenging for me and will probably remain so for the rest of my life.
That all being said, I think the fact that we’re all here, we’ve made it this far, and given all of the challenges we’ve overcome, being able to talk about all of it in a positive light – I guess that’s my last achievement as well. I know we’re talking to challenges, but I think it can lead to a radical change in perspective to consider that battling through the tough parts of work and life and getting through to the other side – those moments are your biggest achievements. I don’t think achievements necessarily need to be some big, shiney moment in time. What an ‘achievement’ is, is relative to where you are and what you’re going through.
Bek: Given what you now know about yourself, the industry and the state of the world, what advice would you give ‘Day 1 at Alpha Sam’?
Sam: My first instinct is – Buy Bitcoin at $3 and enjoy your early retirement.
Seriously though, probably investing more time and energy into developing and maintaining relationships with professional coaches or mentors within our industry. It’s something I’ve never been very good at.
I do look at a bunch of the challenges we’ve faced over the last couple of years in particular, the last 12 months especially and think – people have faced these problems a million times before. It’s one thing to lean into my default of learning by doing, which I like to do. I like to come up with my own unique way of doing things, but that’s not always the best or most efficient way of doing it. At times it would have been nice to have learned from someone else’s mistakes rather than always making the same mistakes myself.
Bek: When you set out, and I’m interested to know your thoughts both from when you started out in your career and when you started at Alpha, was there a 5 or 10 year plan? And if so, have you achieved everything you set out to achieve?
Sam: The simple answer is no, I didn’t have a 5 or 10 year plan. I had wants or intentions for myself but when I started at Alpha, I was still at university and I needed a casual job in the industry to pay my bills. I actually almost left Alpha Digital to pursue consulting or FMCG when I finished my degree. I applied for a bunch of graduate programs, received offers, but in the end Matt and Al convinced me to stay at Alpha.
So what were my intentions at that point? I knew I wanted to build something to be proud of. I knew I wanted a team that could say “we built something great”. I wanted to do amazing work with great people for great clients, and I wanted to be responsible for building that. I wanted to be responsible for making this ‘thing’ a success. It’s been my intention for all these years and it still is.
Bek: What should we expect from Sam Wood 10 years from now?
Sam: If we look back historically at the past 5 years, the goal was to make the thing great – bigger, better, more people, more clients, better clients, better work.
I think the next 5-10 years are going to look different. From a personal perspective, I’m relieved to say there is something more concrete as a plan. We’ll still be working to make this agency even better, hell I want it to be the best, but we’re starting from a very different point than we were at 10 years ago.
From an agency perspective, we are not selling out any time soon. At the beginning of 2022, we were being approached every 2-3 weeks by people looking to buy the agency and we turned them away. So the intention is for the agency to remain independent into the foreseeable future, and I absolutely want to be a part of that – at least in some capacity.
To be really clear, I have no intention to leave the agency. In my opinion though, it’s probably naive to think that in 10 years my role will be the exact same as it is today. I mean it’s changed dramatically in just the last 2 years. I think by then I would want to see new leadership stepping up, bringing new perspectives, new strengths, and new ideas to lead Alpha Digital to the next phase of its life.
So I think within the next 10 years, whilst there will obviously be changes to the agency, I will definitely still be involved in some capacity. I’ve invested a lot of time, energy and emotional energy into this thing and it’s become very important to me professionally and personally that it’s successful.
Outside of the agency, I still want to do more study; complete the AICD course, maybe do an EMBA. I’ve started thinking about how to put myself in a position to sit on boards in voluntary and then eventually paid positions. I’ve learned a lot running this agency and I would enjoy helping others to make their businesses successful. I’ve obviously still got a lot to learn too, but I think I would get a lot of satisfaction from that.
Bek: In navigating some of the changes you’ve seen in the industry, what steps have Alpha Digital taken to ensure growth over the past 10 years?
Sam: Until now we have never been very good at marketing ourselves or shouting about what we do – it’s never been our style. It’s not something we’ve ever focused on and we’re not the people you’d find at networking events shaking everyone’s hand and offering to audit everyone’s business for free.
How we have grown has been through our relationships with current and past clients, partners and focusing on doing good work for people and, thankfully people have always referred us good, new work. If you wanted to look at the network effect over the life of the agency, you could probably bring about 80% of our work down to a relationship with a couple of parties that started right at the very beginning of our journey that allowed the next 5 to happen, which multiplied those referrals 10 fold and so on.
Our growth has purely come from a focus on being good people that others would want to work with. Doing good work and believing that if we do that, it will generate more good work.
In terms of the benchmarks – we absolutely hit those and the last of those aggressive growth years we actually hit something more like 50% growth. Our focus now is less on that level of aggressive growth and we won’t try and hit targets like that again.
At an industry level, it’s changed a lot (though what the agency does has changed significantly as well and it can sometimes be hard to differentiate). The democratisation of media-buying is a meta-trend that has been hugely impactful to our industry. 10 years ago it certainly wouldn’t be the case that a start-up indie agency could realistically buy most of the same media as a multinational should they have the budget. That’s changed a lot about how our industry operates.
With the increasing shift to online there’s also obviously the consolidation of power to a few key operators as well, being Google, Meta, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft etc. As a marketer, that’s made some things easier, and some things way harder. It’s looking like we may be at the precipice of some sort of change here too, with challengers like ByteDance, a declining Facebook, privacy changes by Apple and the likelihood that they’ll be launching their own advertising product.
Another really interesting trend I’m thinking about a lot at the moment, and in Australia we’ve perhaps not felt the impact of this one as much yet, is privacy. Obviously ‘privacy’ isn’t a trend in and of itself, but the public’s changing expectations of privacy with regards to online, and then slowly the regulatory changes that will flow through will be hugely impactful. The idea that contextual rather than behavioural advertising may become the dominant tactic again is kind of cool.
Bek: What was running through your head, when in your late 20’s Matt approached you and asked if you’d like to be the CEO of Alpha Digital?
Sam: So I officially started as CEO in 2020 (how’s that for timing), but you need to go back a lot further to understand how that change happened. I took on the General Manager role in 2014 and within a couple of years Matt and I had already started discussing what was going to happen next.
He made clear that his desire was to step into more of an advisory role and for me to step up and run the agency. In the end, we were talking about me stepping into the CEO role for about 2 years, while I was leading our expansion into Sydney. It was more like an ongoing conversation by the time it happened in 2020, when I came back to the Brisbane office.
The most definitive memory of this conversation I have is me relaying it to my wife Annie in a cafe in Sydney after I got back from a trip to Brisbane, though I have no idea when exactly that was.
Bek: As the conversation unfolded, was there any part of you that felt fear at the idea of running the agency or did you feel completely confident that you had the skills required to do the job?
Sam: This might sound arrogant but no – the fear part didn’t happen. Keep in mind, the agency looked really different at that point and I’d seen it grow from 3 people. Even before I was GM, Matt was fantastic in getting me involved in making decisions around things like how we work and setting the direction of the agency.
I liken it to the analogy of a frog in boiling water (but like, in a positive way)- I wasn’t dropped into hot water. I was taking on those responsibilities progressively well before I stepped into that role. There wasn’t necessarily ever a moment where I thought I wouldn’t be up for it – at least that’s true of my progression into my current role.
When COVID hit and all of the aftermath started to unfold, that’s a totally different story. That looked like really long days of getting up at 5am and sitting in front of a computer until 10-12pm at night. Pulling out old textbooks and material that I had to try and figure out what we were going to do. That was more the moment I asked myself if I had the skills to do the job. The question of “am I the right person for this” has been more over the last 2 years because it’s been such a different beast than it was when we started out and I took on the CEO role.
Bek: To build on that, heading into this new position and hearing that we were heading into a pandemic – something that our generation and even our parents’ generation had never experienced, do you think any part of you knew what was coming?
Sam: No way. When it first hit we were all expecting to be back to normal by the end of the year. Something that took me and a lot of people by surprise was how quickly everything bounced back.
At least for us, we started growing quickly and didn’t anticipate that the next challenge would be growing too fast and then the next challenge is when your foundations start creaking and groaning because you’ve grown faster than you’ve matured.
Those rolling challenges that followed required a lot of on-your-feet thinking. You can work off panic and adrenaline and quick thinking for about a month or two but when you’re looking at 28 months later and you’re still dealing with new challenges flowing on from that first point, it’s completely different. You have to learn to make quick calls like cutting costs or pivoting to win as much new business as possible, riding the next wave out and relying on cash reserves or thinking about how to work around a tight labour market or planning for doing business when we might be heading into a recession.
The main challenge is that you don’t get the luxury, during those times, to think about the new technology solution required or the processes that need to be built to support it, you’re stuck making rapid-fire decisions a lot of the time. It’s all of that flow-on effect that has been more challenging than the initial shock.
Bek: Was there anyone along your journey who either inspired you or gave you great career advice? Who were they and what was the best advice they gave you?
Sam: Even though the advice I said I’d give myself was around developing those professional, coaching or mentoring relationships, I am fortunate to have known and worked with some pretty great people.
Obviously I’ve worked with Matt for years. We’ve got very, very different styles and often disagreed on things. Particularly since I stepped into the CEO role, I have found that new advisory relationship incredibly helpful.
He knows me, he knows the agency, he knows what we’re trying to achieve, and with that context he’s able to be a fantastic sounding board for me when I’m working through challenging problems, or even just need to vent or have a whinge. I’m super grateful for that. One of the best things I have learned from him is to trust my gut – something that doesn’t come naturally for me, but I always regret making a decision that’s contrary to what my gut says.
Someone else I’ve worked with on and off for the past few years is Bec Tos. I actually first spoke to her when doing a reference check for someone and we hit it off. Since then, she’s become someone I turn to with those big, meaty problems. She’s been there, done that before, and is able to really challenge me in a way I greatly value. She was the person I turned to when we recently redesigned the agency structure and introduced the client service team. In fact, it was a conversation with her that made me realise we needed to redesign it in the first place. Given a lot of what I know about running an agency has been self-taught, Bec has really helped to bring a lot of structure to my thinking. Plus she’s just generally a great person which makes it easier!
Finally, I am fortunate that I’ve always been able to turn to my dad for advice, particularly around running a business. He’s had experience building and running far larger teams and businesses than I have, and being able to lean on that has been amazing for me. His advice is always super pragmatic and practical – and usually spot on as well.