Building a leading digital agency such as TH_NK takes confidence, endurance and planning. Not to mention a lot of luck
It’s not always easy to recall where the earliest inspirations for an enterprise spring from but that’s not an amnesia that has struck TH_NK founder Tarek Nseir. His mother brought her four children over from Lebanon when he was a child, raising them alone at the same time as running her own business.
“I was brought up watching an entrepreneurial mother go to work every day and earn a hard living,” Nseir says. Another major influence came into his life by way of the clunky Amstrad his mother brought home for them when he was 12. “It had one of those horrible little command lines,” he recalls. “None of us kids ever quite understood what the big deal was about this computer that blinked at you.” But one fateful day he gritted his teeth and decided to master its mystical power; before long he was building PCs and troubleshooting network problems for pocket money.
It wasn’t surprising therefore when Nseir decided to study IT at the University of Newcastle. “But after starting I quickly decided two things,” he says. “The first was I was bloody bored at uni and the second thing was that I knew I didn’t want to go into a corporate environment.” By chance, the opportunity came up to build a website for a metal trading association, an opportunity hindered slightly by one simple fact. “I had no idea how to put a website together and I certainly didn’t have any design skills,” he comments. Not one to be held back by such trivial limitations, Nseir headed to Northumbria University and put up posters advertising a vacancy for designers that paid £30ph. It was only when he had 15 people lined up outside his student accommodation that he admitted he had no money. “I broke it to them that I could only afford to pay them if we won the pitch,” he says. “Fortunately, we won the pitch and really it all kicked off from there.”
From this inauspicious start, Nseir’s first start-up, Revelation Design, began to grow. Unfortunately, in the early days it didn’t receive much support from those around him. “The university didn’t like the idea of me running a business while doing their course,” he recalls. “And my mum wanted me to get a proper job and was worried sick that I was taking too much risk.” But things began to change and, by the time he finished university, Nseir and his colleagues felt they had more than enough to formalise the business. “We had enough clients and enough momentum,” he says. “We just thought: ‘You know what – let’s give this a go.’” And in 2004, TH_NK was born.
Early growth isn’t always easy to achieve but sometimes, with a mixture of luck and confidence, the right opportunities present themselves. “It’s all about having that big break,” Nseir remarks. “You establish a relationship with a customer, they grow very quickly, and their need for you also grows rapidly.” It was one of these customers that helped build TH_NK into what it is now and that between 2004 and 2008 formed more than half of their total business. That customer was Northern Rock.
“We knew that we were overly reliant on a single customer but the customer needed us,” Nseir explains. “It’s the same old adage you’ll hear all the time.” Suddenly, in 2008 TH_NK got the call that its biggest client wasn’t going to be a client any more. During the chaos that marked the beginning of the banking crisis, many small firms started going under – and they weren’t relying on one of the downed institutions for their livelihood. But TH_NK didn’t go down, instead cutting its cost base and making the most of its reserves, not to mention netting MT Rainey – the advertising guru who helped Steve Jobs launch Apple – as a director. “I grew up in a household where my mum was fighting for our future constantly and I guess I had it deeply ingrained in me that when your back’s up against a wall you need to stand up and respond,” he says. “That’s what we did.”
And the agency has been standing tall ever since. TH_NK now works with high-profile clients such as Sony and Warner, and helps large enterprises tackle their digital strategies. “Clients ask us: ‘What should the future of our business be in digital?’, ‘What opportunity is there to launch new digital products?’ or ‘How can we completely revolutionise our customer experience?’” Given the role that digital technologies have come to play in our lives, Nseir feels that having a coherent digital strategy is as vital as the business strategy. “That’s actually what makes our space and particularly the role that TH_NK plays in the market extremely interesting.”
Perhaps one of TH_NK’s most unique projects was Pottermore, the interactive online reading experience for fans of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. “The thing that makes Pottermore unique was the opportunity to conceive something very different but also to have a huge audience who are going to use it the moment you launch it,” Nseir comments. He feels that whilst working with an unprecedented concept like Pottermore presents more than its fair share of challenges it also forms a really exciting journey. “Knowing you’re entertaining millions of fans across the globe is probably one of the best feelings that you could have.”
TH_NK is still going from strength to strength. During a tough year for UK plc, the agency has grown by nearly 150% and signed a major deal with online clothes retailer ASOS. And it has no intention of slowing down. “We’ve got grand plans; we’re exploring an office in New York, we’re exploring an office offshore.” Additionally, at a time when many other digital agencies are in the process of selling up to bigger networks, TH_NK is proud to be master of its own destiny. “There’s never been a more exciting time for TH_NK,” he concludes.