Back in 2018, a small agency called Pull took two giant leaps forward and started to integrate AI into their client offering. What happened next was nothing short of transformational: they’re bigger, busier, and braver than ever before.
A conversation between Dean Corney, Managing Director of The Pull Agency, Specialists in Health and Beauty, and Lisa Talia Moretti, Digital Sociologist. Dean and Lisa are both BIMA AI Council members.
Lisa: When you describe Pull, you don’t describe the agency as a technology or digital business. You talk about Pull being a brand-first agency even though you’ve been early adopters of emerging technologies and you’re two-feet in the digital industry. Why is this?
Dean: We were doing digital stuff like SEO, websites and email campaigns for years but then in 2009 things really changed for us. I met my now business partner Chris who was from the world of brand marketing, he was exceptional at his craft and it opened my eyes completely to the power of brand. At that stage Chris had left the brand world behind and was focusing on digital and e-commerce but then, ironically, we realised that to differentiate ourselves we had to bring ‘brand’ back to a digital agency. Understanding brand is intrinsically connected to digital performance and actually gives our business an advantage. It’s a seam of brand that runs through the business and it’s about understanding what our customers need and what our customer’s customers need and always thinking brand-first. But then with us adopting AI into our work and processes we’ve been able to work on different problems. We do world class brand and creative, and then on the other end of the spectrum we use AI for things such as automation, research and communication.
Lisa: Pull was a super early adopter of AI. What made you jump on board so early?
Dean: What I saw with AI was an incredible opportunity to solve problems. Around 2018, I went to an event and this guy basically said, “you need to adapt or die.” If you don’t know about AI, VR, AR, all these areas I was not familiar with in five years, you’ll die. Obviously it was provatation, but it got me thinking. We really do need to think about this – all of us who offer digital services – because anyone can go and build a website in their bedroom using Wix or spin up some Facebook ads. Where can we add real value from a technology perspective? And that’s when the journey really started. Really soon after we started working with Microsoft who trained us up in the Cognitive Services suite, which meant we didn’t have to have data scientists in-house. We then became one of the first digital agencies to become a Microsoft Digital Partner.
Lisa: I imagine that bringing that kind of tech capability into the agency must have really changed your business. Can you tell me more about that? How did AI change Pull?
Dean: The most impactful thing it did was open our eyes to a whole new world and brought in a culture of innovation that perhaps wasn’t there. It also made us feel braver. Because with this technology and an understanding of business and brand, it gave us confidence to believe we truly could transform businesses. We felt more transformational too because we suddenly had a new toolkit. The tools that we were given through AI and the knowledge we had, felt really powerful. There weren’t many small businesses back then working with some of the tooling that we were working with. One hundred percent it also changed how we looked at R&D. We’re now not scared of looking at anything new.
Lisa: It sounds like it was a really exciting time for you and the business. I love that you said earlier that you saw AI as an incredible opportunity to solve problems. With AI on your side, what kinds of problems could you now solve?
Dean: I think for us it was two-fold. First it was about bringing efficiencies to businesses. We work with businesses who have complex support requirements and we’ve worked with them to help with that data collection analysis. So that was one. Even though it wasn’t our core business – we’re about marketing, communications and brand – there were solutions we had that we could suddenly bolt on extra tech to help other areas of a business improve. So the conversations we had with our clients became broader. Rather than saying what is your brand problem, it became what is your business problem? At some points we’ve had to really hold ourselves back because we were getting out of our core business. Secondly, from the research point of view, it was the collection and analysis of data that changed a lot of things for us and enabled us to improve products and services.
Lisa: Sounds amazing! I know first hand that with new opportunities, often new challenges come in tow. What kinds of challenges did Pull face when you implemented AI?
Dean: Brands were quite nervous to spend money, because they didn’t understand it. One of the main barriers was facing clients who didn’t have anyone in their business that understood AI. If no one has been tasked with understanding the tech landscape, it’s a huge risk for a business that was two steps ahead. One of the things that I recommend to any mid-size business is that someone in a senior position needs to own the education and understanding of tech; go and find out about it!
Lisa: Yeah, that’s tricky. As a digital sociologist it makes me think about how connected technology and people are. I always talk about how technology is sociotechnical in nature. As a result, the value proposition of almost any technology requires a network of people who believe in that same value proposition and then the tech becomes infinitely more valuable. And this isn’t just about AI, this is all technology that relies on social connections for its value. If I own a telephone or a fax machine, it’s totally useless to me unless I know other people who own a telephone or a fax machine.
Dean: Exactly that. We probably over invested and threw too much at a lot of clients initially.
Lisa: How has that learning changed your approach to AI and talking to your clients about it?
Dean: We’ve tried to go from being two steps ahead, to just one. Because two is too far because it needs to be relevant to the client. For instance, one of the big success stories for us was getting into TikTok quite early. And it was just because we were looking at what’s coming next and we managed to get the right people and the right solution.
Lisa: Now that you’re a business that lives at the intersection of brand and technology have you had to make a ton of new technical hires? What new roles have you had to bring in?
Dean: We didn’t. We went the partner route because we couldn’t afford to invest. We don’t have £200,000 a year to hire data scientists! We work with a data science company called The Data Analysis Bureau (T-DAB). I also had a sense that we needed to be cautious about how all-in we went. I think it was probably the right thing because I wasn’t sure we had the right clients and it’s only really now that we have the clients and they have that understanding but also, they now have the trust in us that we can do it because we have some of those stories now. We did hire a brilliant sales enablement lead because the one thing I felt is that if you don’t have someone to sell this stuff… well then. But any other skills can be back-filled with partners. I think we’ll become the masters of bringing the right people together. It’s our job to understand the arena and get the right people in the room.
Lisa: Smart strategy! I really want to hear your experience of getting brand and strategy colleagues collaborating with AI and tech partners. You can only think about what you know until someone or something offers you a new perspective. So when you bring other people in the room, what you think about suddenly expands because other people know different things. In your experience, what changes when you bring strategists into the room with technologists?
Dean: One of the guys we bring into the room a lot of the time is a copywriter because everytime we bring him into the conversation he seems to have a really amazing angle. Technologists aren’t that customer facing. Most often, developers probably haven’t looked at the personas or strategy of the company they’re working for. A technologist just probably wouldn’t be involved in those discussions! Who would have said to a developer, “Oh we’re building a new website we must send you the personas!” The UX and UI team potentially, but the technologists wouldn’t have seen half of what the brand stood for or what the customers wanted or what the customer needs are. So, if you suddenly have someone in the room, like a marketer or a strategist, who knows the customer or the customer’s customer, that’s bound to bring in an interesting perspective. Then suddenly they’re looking at it from that [customer] perspective and you see the technologist going, “Oh yeah,” because they’ve never been exposed to the customer before.
Lisa: We’re running out of time. Gutting! One more question for the road. What excites you next about the blending of branding with emerging technologies?
Dean: I think social commerce is the next thing that is one step ahead. Social commerce and how that integration can happen. Amazon has taken control of so many brands, I think there might be a backlash. I think people will try and get out. This isn’t just about product ownership and margins, this is about brand ownership. So for us we’re trying to find complete solutions to e-commerce where we can also partner with operational businesses. So that’s the next problem we’re keen to solve: how can we use technology so brands can own their own brand again? AI will definitely be powering a lot of the technologies we use.