#71. King & Partners is a creative and technology agency that works with leading brands. We talk with founder Tony King about his long career in helping brands embrace ecommerce and what it’s like working with a new crop of brands while maintaining integrity and control. The Loose Threads Podcast features in-depth discussions with leaders across the rapidly changing consumer economy.

Check out the full transcript below.

Richie: [00:00:07] Welcome to the 71st episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, a show about the rapidly changing consumer economy. This episode is brought to you by Loose Threads Membership, which gives you actionable analysis, insights and events that drive growth, and Loose Threads Espresso, your energizing and high-pressure filter for consumer news—in context. We also have a newsletter that features the latest open letter to CEOs, podcasts with industry leaders and news from Loose Threads. Check it all out at LooseThreads.com.

Richie: [00:00:35] Joining me today is Tony King, the founder of King & Partners, a creative and technology agency that works with leading brands. Tony founded the company as his second agency after a long career in helping brands embrace ecommerce.

Tony: [00:00:48] In the same way people thought bricks-and-mortar would go away with the internet and ecommerce, I don’t think ecommerce will go away with some of these newer technologies. I think it’s going to be this bigger mix of tools.

Richie: [00:01:01] We had a great talk about the early days of selling on the internet, how the technology stack has changed and what it’s like working with a new crop of brands while maintaining integrity and control. Here’s my talk with Tony King.

Richie: [00:01:15] So why don’t we start. Just talk a bit about your background and then we can work our way through your career.

Tony: [00:01:19] Sure.

Richie: [00:01:19] And then I want to talk about the industry as well.

Tony: [00:01:21] My background is I’m a graphic designer by trade. I started off as a graphic design when I was 16-years-old and worked in studios in England. Ended up working in London at a design studio but we did quite a lot of multimedia and CD-ROMs and kiosks and that sort of thing. And then the internet came along in 1996 and I really saw that as the next big thing and I ended up training myself to design and also build websites. I ended up working for quite a large agency in London called Online Magic. This is in ’96, ’97. I was desperate to come to New York and they had a small office that was sending five people over from London to set up their Online Magic New York office. I was lucky enough to get a chance to go for six months. I honestly thought I’d do that and come back to London. Completely fell in love with New York. Ended up staying, of course. It’s been 21 years this year. I was working on fairly boring digital clients. So building websites for big Fortune 500 companies—designing sites. Not super interesting so I decided to go out and find some more interesting work and so the friends I had in New York were in the fashion industry—so hair, makeup, modeling agencies and fashion designers. In the weekends and evenings, I would start moonlighting and doing projects, sometimes for free, sometimes for a few dollars, to design and build early versions of websites. Got a bit of a name for myself and started working with more and more designers and then, one day, Gucci Group called me and said, “We heard you’re the guy to talk to about fashion and digital.” I went up to see them on Fifth Avenue and, long story short, became the eBusiness Design Director of the Gucci Group.

Richie: [00:03:03] eBusiness.

Tony: [00:03:03] Yes. It had a little “e.”

Richie: [00:03:04] Is that very emblematic of the times?

Tony: [00:03:07] Very much so.

Richie: [00:03:08] I feel like people forget, what was a website, ecomm? What was it like? What did it feel like? What was it like to develop? How did it work?

Tony: [00:03:14] But it wasn’t really ecommerce. We’d just come out of the flash period then. So these big, flashy, animated sites that were basically one page. They were invisible to search engines, not that many people even used search engines then. They used AltaVista and things like that, I guess. The internet, then, was very much a novelty. So, any sort of budget that a brand had left over from the print lookbooks, they might spend something on a simple website. At Gucci Group, I think a big part of why they hired me was my passion for fashion and digital but also my ability to try and get people excited about it. My job there was very much to get people on my side and on the side of digital. The Gucci office was beautiful except our floor. We had a big, empty gray floor that was just cubes and there were three of us in the eBusiness department. I would be in meetings, talking about the ad campaign, and just trying to argue my case for putting www.Gucci.com on it. Everyone was very much against that. “The internet is beneath us. We shouldn’t do that.” Eventually, they started to realize it was more important.

Richie: [00:04:17] As you look back, where was that mentality coming from?

Tony: [00:04:20] The popular internet sites were very much novelty sites—animated cat gifs and pornography sites—and any brands that were on there, it was really just brochure-wear. They felt that Gucci doesn’t need a brochure. Why would they need a website? And then I think they started to understand it: Actually, your consumer is starting to look at websites. Your consumer is expecting to see your fashion show and advertising campaign and your lookbook and your products. So they started to realize it was important.

Richie: [00:04:47] And what years was that?

Tony: [00:04:49] I was there in ’99 till 2002.

Richie: [00:04:53] So there’s no Instagram, there’s no Facebook, Google’s young.

Tony: [00:04:57] Yes. It was very, very early days. I remember Natalie Massenet coming to meet us to talk to the eBusiness team.

Richie: [00:05:03] Right, who was starting Net-a-Porter.

Tony: [00:05:04] Starting Net-a-Porter. It was just an idea at this point. She had a presentation she took us through. Our eBusiness department, we loved it. We said, “Absolutely, people are going to buy fashion online. This is a great idea and we should fully support you and the brand should be there.” But everywhere else at Gucci, it just did not resonate. It was way too early. She got the brand in the end, I think. But, yeah, it took a while.

Richie: [00:05:23] Yeah. Do you remember anything about that deck? Did it turn out as—

Tony: [00:05:26] Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Richie: [00:05:27] Really?

Tony: [00:05:28] Yeah. Actually, the site hasn’t evolved that much in 20 years or 15 years or whatever it is. Yeah. But it was a really fun time and it wasn’t just Gucci. I was meeting all the other brands too and, depending on the brand, there was a bigger appetite to innovate and try things. Like Alexander McQueen was very enthusiastic about the internet and really wanted to try crazy things and was very keen for his shows to be live streamed and all those sorts of things.

Richie: [00:05:51] Very cool.

Tony: [00:05:52] And then Stella McCartney was very much into it as well. Actually, I think the younger brands totally got it more than the—emerging designers they were called—totally got it more than the more established ones, Yves Saint Laurent.

Richie: [00:06:03] Gotcha. So where’d it go from there?

Tony: [00:06:05] So my role was to design and creative direct a lot of the websites but also find local web agencies to look after them and, eventually, start moving those brands towards ecommerce. I realized—I’d go once a month to Paris and Milan and London to look after all the brands. There were no agencies that really understood. There were great digital agencies and there were great fashion branding agencies. There was no one that was putting the two together. I saw an opportunity and left Gucci in 2003 and started to create the group. My first client was Gucci, luckily enough, weirdly enough.

Richie: [00:06:38] Big leap.

Richie: [00:06:39] Yeah. Basically, I left on a Friday and on Monday they were the client for a small project. I didn’t know if it was going to work or not. I took a huge risk. I had this tiny office at 611 Broadway. It was just me, to start with, and then my partner James joined. We started going to see clients to talk about websites, ecommerce, and also, software was a big part of what we wanted to do. We wanted to offer the full digital package to these brands. One of the earliest meetings we had was with Marc Jacobs and we came away with a check, a really big check, a check so big we took pictures with it, big to us at the time. That really helped start the company. So we hired developers and a project manager and another designer and a salesperson. Then we started working with some amazing brands, like Theory and David Yurman and Topshop, a lot of LVMH brands. We grew to about 200 people in four years. We moved from 611 Broadway to 116 West Houston and we had three floors of that building. What an exciting journey. It was amazing. We got to meet every single person you could imagine. I remember being in an elevator with Tom Ford and Donatella and they were both hugging me and thanking me for the websites. It was just absurd. I loved it.

Tony: [00:07:51] But I learned so much. Because it was the early days, a lot of the brands didn’t have all the pieces in place in terms of inventory management software or email software. So a lot of things we kind of hacked. For example, if I go back to Gucci, I launched a site for them, an ecommerce site. We didn’t have inventory management. So if an order came in, I would literally go downstairs the stockroom. If it was there, we would run the order. And it was a lot of email communication with customers, which we flipped and called it online personal shopper and it worked out really well. But then, as things evolved and I was at Create the Group, the agency got more and more sophisticated, we were working with fantastic brands, we had our own ecommerce platform. At some point, around 2005, 2006, 2007, the fashion industry just found out about digital and it exploded. Social media was timed to happen. Ecommerce was, absolutely, a very big thing at that point. Although a lot of bands weren’t quite there with ecommerce, they knew it was going to happen and they were sort of moving in that direction.

Tony: [00:08:50] In 2009, I left. We’d got to the point where I was wasn’t enjoying it so much. We were working with brands that I didn’t really care for so much. I was doing work I wasn’t inspired by. My vision was to be more involved with the clients and to really partner with them and to help them with the initial strategy or the technology choices to help content, even branding, and look after the sites after it launched. And so I left Create the Group, had my Jerry Maguire moment. No one came with me. I started King & Partners in 2010 with Inii Kim, who’s my partner and creative director of King & Partners. Yeah, we started off at a tiny, rented table from David Lipman, his advertising agency, and then found a space on Great Jones. Luckily, I had a good enough reputation that I could go and see quite a lot of brands and agencies and pick up quite a bit of work. That was seven years ago. Today, we’re 32 people. We haven’t grown in an explosive way.

Richie: [00:09:44] Right, like the last time.

Tony: [00:09:45] Yeah, I have the benefit of knowing what not to do this time. And I see other agencies racing to say they’re this many people and their revenue is—That’s not interesting to me. I would rather—when I started the company, Inii and I said, “Let’s do amazing work. Everything we do has to be perfect.” And I can say, hand on heart, I think today we’ve achieved that. That means careful growth. It means hiring A-class people the whole time. I’m pleased and really happy with where we are.

Richie: [00:10:09] I ant to zoom out a little bit and talk about agencies, in general.

Tony: [00:10:13] Yeah.

Richie: [00:10:13] Because I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the growth and the role they play. Because, if I look at today, seeing a lot of young brands that come up, I think some… Pejoratively, you could say it’s almost a stretch to call them businesses. They’re really a few people that have 15 different agencies around them doing a lot of work.

Tony: [00:10:28] Exactly.

Richie: [00:10:29] But I’m curious to talk about that evolution in terms of the insourcing, outsourcing piece and how you’ve seen that evolve over time.

Tony: [00:10:35] Things have changed and gone back and forth a few times. So when ecommerce first came along, fashion brands were like, “This is a headache. Let’s just outsource the whole thing.” And there was a couple of well-known companies that were doing it for 25 to 30 percent and sucking up most of the margin, but at least the brands were online and it was a way of them getting started. Unfortunately, some of those brands are still with those people. They never figured it out and evolved. So they’ve been giving their margin away for ten years now. I think what we saw, after that period, was brands getting way more savvy and hiring agencies and building out teams. As opposed to hiring one big company, they were hiring two or three companies—a web design company, a platform integrator and a marketing company, for example. And that was the way it worked for a long time.

Tony: [00:11:18] I think what we’re seeing now is the industry is kind of split in two. We’re seeing a lot of younger companies that aren’t afraid to have a technology team, which I think is really healthy and I think it’s great for some companies. Obviously, it’s all about moving faster than the consumer these days. So if you’ve got someone right there, as a team, evolving and iterating, I think that’s great. And then we’re seeing the other side of that, which is brands that just want to focus on their brand, their product and outsource—but to a more modern option of not taking 25%. So the outsource model is still there but it’s evolved and it’s become smarter. I think we’re seeing quite a lot of brands work with—for us, for example, we’ll quite often do the full 360. Content, web design, technology, platform, marketing and run the site. But, most of the time, we’re doing between 180 and 270s. There’s all sorts of different people involved and that’s, I think, that’s a healthy thing to do. I think it’s always nice to have more people adding to the dynamic than just agency and brand. It’s always nice to have a marketing company because we’re all pushing each other to do the best job.

Richie: [00:12:21] So when you’re talking to clients, and obviously you’re a little bit biased because you are an agency in some form, what is that insourcing/ outsourcing today? And how does one figure out what they really need to own and what they don’t? And then how does it evolve as companies grow?

Tony: [00:12:34] I mean it’s quite interesting. We always get in the room with our design and then we get to the CEO level with our technology and our platform but we win the work, often, with math. So we’ll model out their business, getting down to the level of cost of goods and margin and shipping and returns and marketing costs. And we’ll show them what we think they’re going to make and we’ll show them side-by-side comparisons. It’s different for every business, but we’ll show them, if you built your own team, it would look like this and your cost would be this and your profit would be this. If you work with us, this is the percentage. It would be a sliding scale and your profit will be X. So it’s by showing that we’re cognizant of them making money that allows all of us to make the right choices. But it is different for each brand.

Richie: [00:13:15] I guess the other part of this, too, is there is an oversensitivity to the build cost and there is none to the maintenance and, normally, that’s where every company gets screwed.

Tony: [00:13:23] Completely. And every single meeting I’m trying to make sure everyone understands this. Building the site is—that’s not easy but, once it’s done, that’s when the fun starts, once it’s done. Then it’s about iteration optimization. And, actually, I would say the last six months, even, things have really changed. I think we’re getting less of these brands that are saying, “Completely reinvent this for me and give me a new website” to, “Take a look at my site. Take a look at my technology stack. Give me an audit. What would you change? And then let’s work out what a series of sprints looks like to change content, creative and technology.” I actually really love that. It’s really refreshing because we can make more of an impact on the business. So we’re doing, probably, three or four of those projects right now and it’s exciting.

Richie: [00:14:02] Yeah. How do you compare and contrast or weigh the difference between the shiny object projects versus those which are likely just good business projects, right?

Tony: [00:14:11] Yeah, I get quite frustrated because I see a lot of people gravitating toward the shiny object and a lot of press around shiny objects and, actually, I think sometimes a shiny object is completely useless unless you’re changing the real things behind the scenes, which quite often sound boring. [For] every brand, the shiny object is on the channel and it’s perfect on the channel, customer experience. You can’t get there perfectly unless you’ve upgraded your warehouse systems, your ERP system, your POS system. It all sounds boring but it’s incredibly difficult to get brands to rethink those things.

Richie: [00:14:42] Versus putting a new coat of paint on the front.

Tony: [00:14:43] Exactly. They’ll all do a random social media campaign but they won’t think about actually changing the architecture of “how my business is structured” to make a greater impact.

Richie: [00:14:54] Do you have to sell that or you have to help them do it?

Tony: [00:14:56] I have to help them get there. That’s the thing. I think we sometimes go in and they think we’re just a web design and build agency. We’re much more than that. You know, we help staff some of these fashion brands in terms of putting the right ecommerce managers in there. We have a very strong viewpoint on technology and systems and install systems and inventory and CRM and all those things. I look at it like an old-fashioned graphic equalizer on a stereo. You can’t just turn up the base. You’ve got to adjust all the pieces to get the perfect sound and it’s different for every brand.

Richie: [00:15:26] Are there examples you’ve seen where companies outsource things they shouldn’t?

Tony: [00:15:31] Back in the day, there were a lot of brands that literally outsourced everything to an ecomm outsource solution. A lot of those were basically warehouse companies that added on web design, a bit of content and technology. It’s not what they’re good at and it’s very Web 1.0. And I’ve seen, even those companies, try and create almost campaign-like photography which is on landing pages and homepages and it just falls flat. You’ll go to the store, the brick-and-mortar store and it will be a really great experience. You’ll see beautiful visuals. You go to the website and it’s totally different and inconsistent. You can tell it’s just run by someone else.

Richie: [00:16:10] So I think one of the other interesting changes is if you look at the first crop of these digitally-native brands—the Bonobos, the Warbys, whatever—Bonobos, specifically, is probably the first that really had to or felt like they really had to build their own infrastructure. And this was pre-Shopify and Shipstation and all these other sort of tools. How have you seen the infrastructure side evolve? What have been both the benefits and downsides of that? Because the thing today is, yeah, everyone can get started but that means nothing anymore.

Tony: [00:16:35] Yeah there is a benefit and a downside, for sure. I love the fact that you no longer have to build everything. It’s about knowing which pieces to build and which pieces to connect. I love that. And I think that’s one thing I’m really pleased [about]—that companies, like Bonobos and all the modern fashion brands that are digitally first, have made other, more traditional brands think about. I think that’s really welcome in our world. But the downside is sometimes [that]  it’s a bit too quick to add everything to the site and it doesn’t really gel as an experience. I was recently looking at one of the mattress startup brand’s websites and I’m not going to say the name but they had a really fantastic site when they started and they’ve obviously added like 16 different tools to make the site cooler and just all of it just looks so messy and terrible.

Richie: [00:17:19] There was a really good article on Racked that I’ve referenced multiple times about how a lot of these brands are starting to all look the same because they are done by the same few agencies.

Tony: [00:17:26] Yeah.

Richie: [00:17:26] I guess you’re not primarily a branding shop.

Tony: [00:17:28] No, no we do branding. Honestly that’s quite a new thing for us in the last year. We’re, primarily, we say, a creative and technology agency. So we’re designing and building experiences, most of them happen to be ecommerce.

Richie: [00:17:40] What do you think about just the general aesthetics of where things are going in terms of–

Tony: [00:17:43] I agree. I think everything is looking the same. It’s all mint green buttons and it’s getting a bit tiring. I think they’re doing it on purpose. They want to be part of this new crop of startup brands but I think they all look quite temporary and not substantial.

Richie: [00:17:56] Back to the infrastructure piece then. Has the lower barrier of entry only complicated the ability to scale?

Tony: [00:18:03] I don’t think so. I think it’s helped. A small brand doesn’t have to pick a medium-sized platform to get going on and struggle. The whole world became more plug-and-play. So you can start on the one platform and unplug as you get to another. As long as you have some kind of technology roadmap so you’re aware of where you’re heading, so you can unplug systems and plug new ones in as you grow and evolve—and the products and customer might change too. So I think it’s helped. So I saw a lot of brands that were using things like Demandware which can cost seven figures a year and their revenue isn’t even that much online. So it made no sense. In some ways, I really welcome some of these smaller, newer platforms.

Richie: [00:18:41] What does it mean for the bigger brands then?

Tony: [00:18:43] I keep seeing bigger brands using some of these smaller tools now. I think that’s good. I think some of the enterprise systems seem so irrelevant to me now because they’re so inflexible and you can’t add things to them very easily. I think we’re seeing a huge push away from things like Magento. People are using other platforms—Shopify and Select. I think it’s good that brands are being more brave and understanding that just because a platform isn’t seven figures doesn’t mean it’s not going to work for them.

Richie: [00:19:11] So one of the other things that’s happening constantly is, especially for a lot of these younger brands, they’re starting online and then they’re trying to move offline. There are a number of reasons for that. One of the ones we’ve constantly identified is they’re realizing, economically [that] it’s actually cheaper to have both plays working than it is purely just to run advertising.

Tony: [00:19:26] Yeah.

Richie: [00:19:27] When did you first see that happening? Where you had to start thinking about offline as well? And then where is it today and how do you see that evolving?

Tony: [00:19:34] So, even if I go back to my Gucci days, there was always the panic that we were going to cannibalize sales. It’s always been digital versus traditional and I’ve never understood that. I’ve always tried to explain how the two aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s your customer. It doesn’t matter where they are. It’s your customer. I saw the pendulum swing from, “Okay, now we invest in brick-and-mortar. Now we’re going back to digital, now e-commerce, now brick-and-mortar.” I think, only in the last couple of years, we’re seeing the merging of internal teams. So digital and retail working as one team.

Tony: [00:20:02] A few years ago, we worked on a project for Kenneth Cole. We redesigned the site and fixed the branding and did a photography concept for them. It was pretty interesting because they were in the middle of shutting down retail, except they had one concept store on Bowery and Bond. And they hadn’t thought about what it was going to look like or what the experience was going to look like. But the more we sat in a room and looked at the website designs, the ecommerce experience—that’s what they wanted to replicate. It was as much about design and layout and folding of products as it was the merchandising and putting in other brands and that sort of thing. That digital conversation drove the design of that concept store. That was a few years ago and we’re seeing lots of brands, now, open physical space which is great.

Richie: [00:20:45] Where do you see wholesale fitting into this and that channel evolving?

Tony: [00:20:49] This is a tricky one because I think a lot of people can go to a shop-in-shop and experience the brand and then it’s not about the shop-in-shop. They’re going to go buy directly from the brand. So I think the brand has to think about what they can bring to the table. I think, quite often, it’s what makes a good multi-brand retail experience. It’s a good sales person that can help you put other brands together and give you honest opinion and help you style things and remind you of new things that are coming and you might like. They have to think the same way with digital and there’s all sorts of tools that can do that. It’s like giving you a personalized experience online.

Richie: [00:21:21] With where the company sits today, what’s your sweet spot? What sort of brands or what range do you ideally work with? And how did you realize or find that spot?

Tony: [00:21:30] When I started King & Partners, I was coming out of this period where I’d been working with really big brands and I was really anti-big brand and wanted to work with lots of smaller brands. I’ve kind of realized that has its own set of pain points. I really like the mixture we have now. We have startups all the way through to brands that are 150-years-old. But I really like the brands. Regardless of age, they’re at this stage where they’ve tried something online, they’ve seen a glimmer of hope, but they haven’t quite got it figured out. And it’s just coming in, and normally at around a million in sales, and getting them to 8 to 9 to 10 and onward. Supporting them very heavily upfront for three, four, five years and then having them start to build out their teams. Actually, in that scenario, we end up losing them. But it’s been five years of a great client and we’ve seen them do really well. Our sweet spot is those sorts of brands and helping them fix the branding, shoot all the content, tell the story correctly, design the site, put it on our platform and then constant, obsessive iterations and optimizations.

Richie: [00:22:33] That’s earlier than I thought. And maybe that’s just [because] you look bigger and more sophisticated than it is. That’s pretty young, brand-side.

Tony: [00:22:40] That’s, to me, where we have the most impact because we’re working directly with people [who] are making decisions. There [are] less layers involved. It’s honestly more enjoyable and, when we get in at that point, we become part of the brand. I want brands to think they can’t live without us. So that’s the point I want to get in.

Richie: [00:22:56] Until they outgrow you.

Tony: [00:22:57] Exactly. I’m happy for that to happen, eventually. To me, that’s like having a kid and they go off to college.

Richie: [00:23:03] Yeah.

Tony: [00:23:04] But we have brands that are doing real numbers and I love supporting them and we do good work with them. I like getting in a bit early. I hate to say it but sometimes, where brands have made lots of mistakes, we can come in and fix things and get them back on track.

Richie: [00:23:16] So how do you identify or validate? What’s that process look like for you to figure? Because, if anything, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of brands somewhat at that size now or approaching that size. But not all of them are going to be the ones that get to the 10 or the 15 or the 30.

Tony: [00:23:28] That’s true. We look at consumer behavior and the history and see how long customers stay with them and how much they enjoyed the product and how the product’s evolved and, really importantly, what their team looks like. If they’re a team that changes every six months, that’s probably a big warning sign for us. We used to say we did fashion, luxury and lifestyle for global brands. Now we say exceptional brands. That word “exceptional” has a kind of meaning to me. It means that the product’s cool. They get it. They are showing momentum. They get that they need to do marketing. They get they need to content. Brands that get it but just haven’t quite figured it out.

Richie: [00:24:03] I want to talk more about the content side because I think that’s probably one of the more existential but rarely talked about pieces in terms of—how have you seen the content needs of these brands evolve—and obviously social [drives] that—but what has that journey been over your career?

Tony: [00:24:17] It’s amazing the difference in what’s actually happened. So, it used to be the campaign would get shot. Private jets would be involved, RVs show up, trucks of lights on, millions and millions of dollars spent. Ecommerce photography is me on the conference table with my Blackberry taking pictures. The difference in level of content is drastic. People just didn’t think about ecommerce content very much. It was all about the big ad campaign. I’ve seen it completely changed now. Take our ad campaign budget, take all of our content, split it up over 12. How much can we spend per month? As opposed to these giant moments. That’s, obviously, great because people ask how often my customers should come back to the website? How often do you have something new for them to look at is the answer.

Richie: [00:24:58] Right, because it also sounds like one has driven the other or it has changed, in tandem, with the product development and the release cycle too.

Tony: [00:25:04] Completely. The whole thing is feeding off each other. It’s super exciting. I like brands that show velocity and momentum and that means creating lots of content on a regular basis, good content, and having the feedback loop from the customers. What content did you like most? What products do you like most? And then, the next month, you can react to that. It’s so quick how it’s changing now. It’s incredible. The other big thing is this idea of bridge content. So you’ve got your ecommerce photography and you’ve got your campaign. Both very important still, although budgets are more balanced. This content sits right in the middle. This is what most brands struggle with. It’s, “What do we put on our emails, our landing page, on social media?” People are still struggling with that.

Richie: [00:25:40] Why?

Tony: [00:25:41] If the ecommerce team does it, it doesn’t look aspirational enough and if the creative agency that does the ad campaign does it, they can’t afford to do it very often. It’s a problem. So, what you need is a company that can come in and give you a plan for the year. Every month you do a shoot and it gets rolled out every week and those sorts of plans you put together.

Richie: [00:25:58] Yeah.

Tony: [00:25:59] We’re doing quite a lot of that now.

Richie: [00:26:00] And it sounds like that’s where external partners can be. Because that output is crazy now. Some companies can do that but, especially for ones that have existed before, it’s very much a new dynamic.

Tony: [00:26:10] Yeah, and even some of the cooler startup brands don’t have that capability. They have an in-house creative person or two but they still need the support of an agency. So we’re working with a few startups like that.

Richie: [00:26:20] Will that speed ever slow down? How fast can it get before it is effectively fast fashion and no one remembers anything?

Tony: [00:26:27] I think it has to slow down a little bit for some of them. We’re working with one where it’s literally every week and I don’t think their customer is as quick as they think [she is]. Every three, four weeks would be better. I do understand what they’re trying to do. I just think they need to just chill. I think a lot of brands need to chill.

Richie: [00:26:43] Yeah. Why?

Tony: [00:26:45] Because they’re just spewing out content that actually isn’t targeted or relevant or on brand. It would be better to turn the volume down on a couple of those brand content pieces and do better, more thoughtful content. I’m a big fan of brands doing a digital magazine, editorial-type content. Spending a bit more money there, rather than just banging out content for social media might be nicer sometimes.

Richie: [00:27:07] So that idea of the shoppable editorial and so forth. There have been a number of attempts, maybe more on the media side, to marry these two worlds that have largely failed.

Tony: [00:27:17] Yeah.

Richie: [00:27:17] You see some examples on the brand side of them going a bit in the other direction. Do you have any sense of why that’s happened or why there’s been such a futile or [unfulfilled] request to merge the two worlds together?

Tony: [00:27:28] Well, if I’m thinking about media, the one big example I can think of is ShopBAZAAR. The magazine and the ecommerce people just weren’t collaborating or connected. I think, sometimes, the intention is more to please advertisers than help your reader and you’ve got to think of [her], not [as] a reader anymore, [but as] the consumer. So I think that’s kind of why that struggled. I think a lot of brands are doing a nice job. Again, I think it’s about balance. I think sometimes it gets a bit much. When this whole thing first came out—weaving content and commerce—sometimes if you went to an ecommerce site to buy something, it was actually quite hard to find it. You end up reading these long articles and you’re like, “Ugh, can’t be bothered to buy those trousers anymore. I’ll just leave.” I think we’ve seen the graphic equalizer there adjust a bit. So sometimes the contents are a bit quieter and they understand you’re coming on just to buy something and, if you want to find out more about it, you can.

Richie: [00:28:13] Yeah. How do you think through that when people really want to learn, experience, educate versus when they just want to buy? How do you get out of the way when they want to buy and how do you help them along the way when they don’t?

Tony: [00:28:23] A lot of people think you can just design a site and you can just design a website but, if you’re carefully crafting a proper user experience, you’ve got to think about the frame of mind the person’s in when they hit the page. And so, quite often, that page can be a different experience, depending on where you came from. So if you came from a product listing page, you probably do just want to see the products, the description and the price and the add to bag. But if you’re browsing content and you landed there, you might want to be romanced a little bit. So I think sites can be smarter and more intelligent in the way they dynamically put pages together. So sometimes content module might come out or go in or be above the product or below the product, depending on who we know the customer is and what their behavior has been to get to that page.

Richie: [00:29:04] Do you participate on the advertising side at all?

Tony: [00:29:07] In terms of digital marketing or advertising?

Richie: [00:29:09] Yeah, you’re not a digital marketing agency.

Tony: [00:29:10] No. We have a partnership. About two years ago, we did a strategic partnership with Hearst. So Hearst is our digital marketing team. We worked with other companies too, but they’re our go-to. And they have an incredible amount of data, like 3,400 million uniques a month. So we can harness that and we can take all the working and partners clients, put them all together and get a really good deal. Honestly, I’ve really enjoyed getting into this side of the business because it’s so targeted and clever. We could be launching a men’s denim brand and I can get the brand name in front of 50,000 men [who] earn this much money, [who] live in these five ZIP codes, [who] bought these six other brands. That’s so cool.

Richie: [00:29:43] What are you seeing from a price perspective? One, from a price side, and, two, given all the stuff happening with Facebook, what do you think the future or effectiveness of that channel is?

Tony: [00:29:51] I think it’s still effective. I think people are seeing through, obviously, they’re seeing through things like display. It’s not super clever anymore. I think we’re going to see a really big change in the way digital marketing works with putting products in front of you that you’ve already seen. To me, it’s the dumbest thing. Like I go to Amazon, I buy a toilet seat. Amazon shouldn’t be giving me toilet seat banners. I didn’t buy it because I love toilet seats. I bought it because I needed a toilet seat. I think they need to be cleverer in a way that, “I bought this product—show me other things I’m gonna like. Don’t show me the same products again.” So I think we’re going to see the whole business become smarter, less intrusive. I still think some of the traditional things that people think don’t work really well anymore, like email. If you can be clever with email, not just put products in front of people, but actually give them something to read and some insight on the brand and something interesting, I think that’s where brand affinity happens and I think people end up buying products that way.

Richie: [00:30:46] Yeah. So you brought up Amazon with the toilet seats, but let’s talk about Amazon. Two things. What’s your kind of general view of what they’re doing in the private label, fashion, consumer product space? And then, two, what’s your view as it then relates to your customers and how you navigate that?

Tony: [00:30:58] First of all, I think Amazon is incredible. Some people love to hate them. I think they’ve done an incredible thing. They’ve just got on this super early and they’ve been super smart and they’ve really adopted and grown incredibly. Brands need to have an Amazon strategy. They need a pricing map, across Amazon and other people selling their products and their own website. That’s something we see missing all the time. A brand will say, “Why am I not selling more pants?” Well, Google your product. I can find it two other places for $40 cheaper. I’m going to go there. So a pricing strategy and an Amazon strategy are really important. I always advise brands that—certain brands, especially some of the newer ones—that being on Amazon is a great brand awareness tool. Just don’t put all your product on there. Do an exclusive product, exclusive colors or a certain category you don’t sell on your site. Put that on Amazon.

Richie: [00:31:42] Right. The core, volume channel product.

Tony: [00:31:44] Yeah, exactly. Have consumers find you, discover you, enjoy your products and then go to you.

Richie: [00:31:49] Given you spend so much time working with brands, why haven’t you built one?

Tony: [00:31:53] I would love to.

Richie: [00:31:54] Really?

Tony: [00:31:54] I would love to, yeah. My dream is to find a dusty luxury brand with an amazing product that we can update the brand, go direct-to-consumer with. A men’s luxury brand.

Richie: [00:32:04] Your preference would be to actually work with something existing versus starting?

Tony: [00:32:07] I would, yeah. I love the heritage that a lot of these brands have and I would love to update an old story and to find a product that I want to remind people how great the brand and story is.

Richie: [00:32:18] Interesting.

Tony: [00:32:18] I do enjoy the storytelling part of it and I think, sometimes, that’s where some of the startups are missing. They’re making up stories and it doesn’t feel right.

Richie: [00:32:26] What about just streetwear, generally, and where that has gone? Virgil is now the head of Louis Vuitton men’s. Because you’ve been on the men’s side quite a bit as well. How have you seen that piece of evolve and those worlds mix?

Tony: [00:32:39] I think it’s great. I think men’s fashion was so stuffy and luxury was all about suits and cravats and very expensive leather jackets and quite boring. There was no fun to it. The whole world has become more casual now and I really welcome that. I think it’s great. I think we’re seeing more interesting styling, better content, more interesting brands appear. I think it’s great. I think the Virgil thing makes total sense. I don’t know anyone that bought men’s Louis Vuitton clothes before. Some people… I think Kim Jones did a really good job of some stuff but I don’t know too many people that bought it. Even if Virgil just does something crazy and brings attention to it, I think that might be enough.

Richie: [00:33:15] I think that’s what they want.

Tony: [00:33:16] Yeah, exactly.

Richie: [00:33:16] Yeah.

Tony: [00:33:17] My office is right next to Kith store.

Richie: [00:33:19] Oh, really? The new one?

Tony: [00:33:20] Yeah. Quite honestly, I wanted to hate it. I went in there and I loved it. It was the first time I’ve seen certain brands merchandised next to certain brands. Like Greg Lawrence insane sweat pants that are like $1500 next to a Stone Island jacket. A lot of brands made more sense to me, suddenly. I thought it was really cool.

Richie: [00:33:37] Interesting.

Tony: [00:33:37] Yeah.

Richie: [00:33:37] As social media continues doing its thing, and so forth, there are businesses now that exist entirely on Instagram, that don’t have websites or, if they have something… How do you view that as someone that builds websites and how do you see the place where commerce happens evolve and what does it mean for your business?

Tony: [00:33:53] I see it evolving all the time. There’s always got to be a transaction happening somewhere. So there’s a piece of software, somewhere, that’s operating that, which is part of what we do. I’m happy that I’m also creating content and branding. So there’s always going to be work for us on that type of stuff. The Instagram brands I’m not particularly a fan of. They just seem to be temporary and, [for] a lot of them, the content is just so dire. So I’m not too bothered. The thing I saw recently, which got me excited and terrified at the same time, was Apple Business Chat, where I can just text the brand, “Show me the green shirts you’ve got” and they’ll send me five images and I’ll tap on the one and I can do Apple ID, Face ID and I’ve bought it. I just tested that out and it is mind blowing. That is the end of websites. But I think what we’re going to see—

Richie: [00:34:36] I am going out of business.

Tony: [00:34:37] Yeah but maybe in 10, 15 years. That’s what I think will happen. I love technology and I think that you’ve got to keep up with the consumer. I think that, in the same way people thought brick-and-mortar would go away with the internet and ecommerce, I don’t think ecommerce will go away with some of these newer technologies. I think it’s going to be this bigger mix of tools.

Richie: [00:34:55] Yeah. One of the things that’s really interesting on the advertising side now is billboards are back and direct mail is back.

Tony: [00:35:01] Yeah.

Richie: [00:35:01] And it’s just this continuous circle.

Tony: [00:35:04] We just did a direct mail campaign for a brand and it worked really well.

Richie: [00:35:06] Yeah.

Tony: [00:35:07] Yeah, I think it’s about testing things out with the consumer, knowing what they’re going to resonate with and trying things.

Richie: [00:35:11] Yeah. Why do you think mail’s back and working again?

Tony: [00:35:13] Maybe because it’s new again for some people.

Richie: [00:35:15] Everyone forgets who like Karl Rove is, yeah.

Tony: [00:35:17] Yeah, and now it’s all coming in again.

Richie: [00:35:20] Yeah, it’s so interesting just how cyclical all that is.

Tony: [00:35:23] If a brand is telling the right story, sometimes it doesn’t matter where [it’s] telling it. If you get a piece of direct mail and it’s a beautiful image or lookbook or some kind of newspaper from a brand or even a great promotion, I think, if it’s the right thing to the right person, it’s going to work.

Richie: [00:35:37] What’s been the cheapest and most expensive lesson you’ve learned, building your two agencies?

Tony: [00:35:43] The power of saying “no” is a really good thing. And I’ve said no to some huge opportunities.

Richie: [00:35:48] At what phase?

Tony: [00:35:49] All along. All along.

Richie: [00:35:50] Really?

Tony: [00:35:50] We’ve had some things that just didn’t feel right offered to us. And I said, “no.” Or you have a really good new business opportunity, but you don’t feel right about the client. They’re not super nice or they’re not listening to you, but the money is there. Saying “no” to that has always, without fail, turned into us being able to say “yes” to five other cooler things. It’s just about being brave and willing to do that.

Richie: [00:36:14] Is that the cheap one?

Tony: [00:36:16] Yeah, yeah. I guess building an ecommerce platform was one of the most expensive and difficult things I’ve ever done.

Richie: [00:36:23] Talk about why you did that and how it evolved.

Tony: [00:36:25] So we had a platform at Create the Group that was okay. We didn’t invest enough technology in it and it, ultimately, didn’t work out. When I started King & Partners, I very much wanted to have an ecommerce platform because I was very frustrated at the industry. Shopify is good. I love Shopify. We build sites on Shopify. At the other end of the spectrum is Enterprise systems which are fine. I’m not a huge fan but I understand the need for some of them.

Richie: [00:36:51] He’s rolling his eyes.

Tony: [00:36:52] I am rolling my eyes. I’m trying to be nice. In the middle there was Magento which, to me, was a product that shouldn’t have been as big as it got. It was never a great product, in my opinion. To me, it fell down on three major steps. One, for the consumer, the experience wasn’t great. It was very templated, very out the box, you could tell it was a Magento site. From an agency point of view, it took forever to build in Magento. You couldn’t do anything customizable or bespoke without hundreds of hours of development work. And then, from the brand, workflow was incredibly hard to merchandise and change things. So I never understood why Magento was as popular as it got. And so I saw a bit of a trickle away from Magento, which has now turned into a mass exodus, and we built Select. First versions of it we built were quite rudimentary. We had lots of problems. Unstable, lack of features. But I saw a glimmer of hope as a really simple UI. People loved using it and we persuaded some small brands to let us try and it worked out well for most of them. We then put more money into it and we evolved the team, got some investment. The Selects platform today is on 2.9.5. We have 12 brands on there right now. They’re all doing really well. The vision was never to have hundreds. The vision is to have 10 to 20 to do really well. And the thing about the platform is it’s not just about the software. It’s about the team that comes with it. So, as part of the deal, you get access to the full Dev team. It was really expensive. I didn’t know it was ever going to make us any money. It was almost like an anchor dragging us down. I feel like it has the potential, now, to be the turbo on our engine that enables us to deliver faster and better sites, [with which] we can do better business for our clients.

Richie: [00:38:33] Yeah. Did you raise money for the whole agency or just for that?

Tony: [00:38:36] No. So, King & Partners is 100% owned by me.

Richie: [00:38:37] Right.

Tony: [00:38:38] No investment. When I started the agency, I was in the middle of coming out of my old agency and there was all sorts of legal disputes going on so I literally had no money. So I went to a friend of mine and borrowed $25K from a guy on the street. If I hadn’t paid this $25K back, I would have had my legs broken. I bought four iMacs and rented an office and signed a client the first week and payed him back a week later.

Richie: [00:39:03] And I confirm you can walk still.

Tony: [00:39:05] Yeah, I have my legs. He was paid back. It’s all good. But, today, we’re a much more legitimate operation. We have a good turnover, we’re profitable, things are good.

Richie: [00:39:14] Did you raise money for the platform, though?

Tony: [00:39:16] Yeah I did.

Richie: [00:39:16] Okay, interesting.

Tony: [00:39:16] We raised half a million dollars.

Richie: [00:39:18] Interesting.

Tony: [00:39:18] Yeah.

Richie: [00:39:18] So is it a separate company?

Tony: [00:39:19] It is a separate company. That was important to me as well. I didn’t want people to think that they couldn’t use Select without King & Partners and vice versa. That was a big point of differentiation from Create the Group. You had to use the agency to use the software. With us, if you’d grow out of King & Partners and want to go in-house, you can still use the platform.

Richie: [00:39:37] Right. You’re making money on both.

Tony: [00:39:39] Yeah.

Richie: [00:39:39] What keeps you up at night, business-wise?

Tony: [00:39:42] I don’t worry about other agencies anymore.

Richie: [00:39:44] Did you used to?

Tony: [00:39:45] I used to because a lot of them were trying to compete with us in a quite aggressive way and taking credit for stuff that wasn’t theirs and things. Honestly, I think a lot of those have gone away now. The ones that are still around—I’m friends with most of them. I’m quite relaxed about the whole thing. I guess I’m getting older but, you know, you lose some clients, you gain some clients. It’s the same for everyone.

Richie: [00:40:02] It’s life, yeah.

Tony: [00:40:03] So I wish everyone the best of luck. I still think we’re better than most of them. But the things that keep me up—I want the team to enjoy working for King & Partners. And I don’t want people to think we’re like a traditional ecommerce agency. I don’t want people to think we’re old-fashioned when you’re compared to a lot of these startups. So I see some of the guys that work at the company—guys and girls—they think they’re the big, shiny thing and I want people to know King & Partners is like that too and it’s a good place to work and they’re learning a lot. We do really well with people that come to the company [who] have never worked in the industry and we train them our way of doing it. But then they’ve never seen other agencies so they start to look at other agencies and think, “Oh, that looks great. I can go there.” And they hate it and then they come back. So that’s the only thing. I’m not worried about work. I’m not worried about the future of the industry. I think we’re moving fast. I just want to make sure that King & Partners is a cool place to work.

Richie: [00:40:50] Are there any brands that you really want to work with that you haven’t been able to?

Tony: [00:40:53] Yeah. I’ve got a list somewhere, but it’s everyone from Chanel to Common Projects to—

Richie: [00:40:58] Common Projects needs to do some direct.

Tony: [00:41:02] I know. I’ve been a fan of that brand since they started. I have so many of their shoes and I would love to work on that one.

Richie: [00:41:09] Yeah. They’re site’s actually really annoying right now.

Tony: [00:41:11] Yeah. It’s beautiful photography of things you cannot get.

Richie: [00:41:14] Yeah. From them.

Tony: [00:41:15] Yeah. And then, even things that James Perse, I would love to get my hands on. I think that’s a really cool brand that’s not fulfilling its full digital potential. I’d also like to work for a car brand. We did some work for Bentley. I really like getting involved in things we haven’t done before. So we do a lot of fashion, a lot of luxury, a lot of hotels, real estate. I’m really into some of the more products and things like that. So we did Master & Dynamic Headphones, which I really enjoy. We’re talking to a few product companies. I’d like to head more in that direction.

Richie: [00:41:43] Given the early ecomm stuff started with, “We’re going to display products but not sell them” and, given the circular nature of things that we were talking about, do you see examples of, or do you think we’ll get back to a place where companies will put stuff online, intentionally, that’s not available to actually force people to go into stores or seek it out elsewhere?

Tony: [00:42:00] Yeah, I do. A lot of brands are trying to create this effect right now. Brands are just trying to figure this out. They don’t want to give everything away, which I love. I don’t think there is enough mystery on advertising or marketing or online. I think you need a bit of mystery. I do miss the days where you’d see a product or see a campaign and have this absolute desire to get that product somehow. I think with a lot of the instant gratification, direct-to-consumer, we’ve lost a bit of that magic. And I think, if we can have a bit of that on some brands and some products, I think that’s a good thing.

Richie: [00:42:33] I really love what Le Labo does with City Exclusives.

Tony: [00:42:36] Yeah.

Richie: [00:42:36] Where you only can get certain things in certain cities. Except, the funny thing is, once a year, they allow you to get them everywhere which, to me, defeats the whole purpose of that exercise.

Tony: [00:42:43] Yeah.

Richie: [00:42:44] But examples like that I find really interesting.

Tony: [00:42:45] It’s interesting. It’s also like unlocking products for certain amounts of time and giving early access to more loyal customers and that sort of stuff. I think there’s a lot of room to play there.

Richie: [00:42:54] Second-to-last question. Talk about your LinkedIn habits.

Tony: [00:42:58] So LinkedIn is a thing I love and a thing I hate. That guy, Gary Vaynerchuk, trust me, completely insane. Posting inspirational posts that aren’t inspirational at all with really crazy pictures of him. It just makes no sense to me and people lap it up. I don’t get it. So I like to call out bullshit everywhere and LinkedIn is my favorite place to do that. But I’ve been told I’m sometimes too negative so I’m trying to post cheery, positive sentiments and be happy, as well as call people out on bullshit.

Richie: [00:43:29] What’s the last thing you called out?

Tony: [00:43:31] I think I did a post the other day about lying in my casket and someone linked me and offered me outsource tech solutions and I had 50,000 people view that post.

Richie: [00:43:41] Really?

Tony: [00:43:41] Yeah, it was crazy.

Richie: [00:43:41] Wow.

Tony: [00:43:41] I guess a lot of people on LinkedIn are trying to do outsourced tech solutions.

Richie: [00:43:47] Oy. And then, as you look forward one-to-three years, what’s on the horizon? What are you excited about and where do you want the agency to be?

Tony: [00:43:52] There’s a few brands, now, we’re talking to that have got so far with ecommerce but they want to focus on their brand and their products and they want to hand it over to companies like us. So we’re actually going to be the client. We’re going to be making the choices. We are going to be responsible for the P&L. We’ll be spending our money on marketing. I love that and I think that’s a really exciting thing for us that we’re starting to do. If we’re the client, we can be a bit more experimental, take a few more chances. And I really see that as being a place that’s going to be fun. In terms of the agency, we’re doing more content. We’ve just evolved to become a real agency now which is really fun. I’ve always, secretly, wanted to be an advertising agency as well as an ecommerce agency so we’re doing ad campaigns now and videos and photography shoots, all sorts of stuff. So, personally, I’m very happy and creatively fulfilled.

Richie: [00:44:38] That’s awesome. Do you like the word agency?

Tony: [00:44:40] It’s a tricky thing. We’re not an ad agency, we’re not an ecommerce agency, we’re not a web design agency. We are a creative and technology agency. There must be a better word for that.

Richie: [00:44:49] What does agency mean in that context then?

Tony: [00:44:51] Group of people in a…

Richie: [00:44:54] With agency.

Tony: [00:44:54] Yeah, it’s tricky.

Richie: [00:44:56] Awesome, man. Thanks for talking.

Tony: [00:44:57] You’re welcome. It was great.

Richie: [00:45:02] Thanks for listening to the Loose Threads Podcast. You can read full transcripts of the podcast and join the newsletter at LooseThreads.com. Feel free to leave a review on iTunes. We always appreciate it. And thanks to George Drake Jr. for editing this episode. We have a great roster of upcoming guests including Eleanor Turner of Argent, Natalie Mackey of Winky Lux and Gabby Slome of Ollie. Thanks for listening and talk to you soon.