Certain is a creative agency based in the heart of Shoreditch where some of London’s most famous street art provides daily inspiration. They offer everything from brand strategy and insight right through to print design and delivery of communications for clients across a range of sectors. We sat down with Phil Dean, founder and MD, to learn more about this agency that’s focussed on not only producing great work, but also on being a great business to work with.
Phil started his career as a graphic designer and continues to put pen to paper, illustrating commissioned cityscapes and hosting sketch workshops as a side hustle. Frustration led Phil to start getting in front of clients, eventually becoming a Creative Director. He went on to run agencies of all sizes before deciding to set up his own at the age of 50.
“Myself and my wife decided to do a crazy thing – we lock, stock and barrel moved from Leeds down to London,” Phil tells us. “A little over 3 years ago I set up Certain, just myself as the founder and then I brought in Chloe and Steve who I had worked with before and I knew would really help me build the business. As a start-up, there’s no resource. It’s just you and what you can rustle up, so you’ve got to go very quickly from doing nothing to getting some cash in.”
They started small, zooming in on the sectors where they had the most experience and could gain the most traction. Chloe Matharu, Account Director at Certain, had worked with a lot of big brands, especially within financial services. Steve Johnston, Creative Director, had a lot of experience in TV branding, working with the likes of Channel 5 and Discovery. It was in their 2nd year as an agency that the business really started to take off.
“We did an on-air rebranding project for Sky and that was a really big deal for us,” Phil recalls. “We were a really skinny team at the time and we didn’t have much resource at all. It nearly killed us! But it’s a real piece of work that we can show to clients when they ask us what we can handle. Not many agencies can do that.”
Having celebrated their 3rd anniversary in July this year, Certain is kicking off a period of accelerated growth. The next 2 years will be key for the business as they break through the £1 million barrier. Now a team of 9 with a pool of regular freelancers, they’ll grow their full-time staff by 30% to meet the demands of an expanding client base.
To make sure that Certain is fit for purpose as they scale, they restructured the business in early 2018 and made some changes to the way they do things. Part of this was outsourcing book-keeping, changing accountants and looking for funding to help maintain their momentum.
“Turning over above £500k is really hard for agencies so to get to this point in 3 years is a really good thing,” explains Phil. “But as a business that’s growing you inevitably become short of cash because you’ve got to fund that growth and clients aren’t always brilliant payers. In our world it’s not a problem doing the work, it’s actually getting paid.”
Certain works with a wide range of clients and on projects that vary in both quantity of work and timeframe. This means they might bill a percentage upfront, halfway through or bill for everything at the very end, depending on the project and client. Typically though, they’ll wait 30 to 60 days from billing before they finally get paid. This puts pressure on cash flow because they need to cover the upfront costs of those projects and pay staff or suppliers in between.
Certain has what Phil describes as a “freelance Financial Director” who has a lot of agency experience. He’d seen first-hand how invoice finance can help businesses in this space, so he suggested that Phil get in touch with MarketInvoice.
“Typically for this sort of thing you’d go to your bank but I couldn’t even find out who to talk to. But then I came to MarketInvoice and spoke to Sam. It was easy, slick,” says Phil. “We’ve got our invoice total and we can advance against that to get the money tomorrow. Their approach is modern and it’s more cost-effective. We use the facility for everything from payroll to covering our costs. It gives us that comfort factor of keeping the business going without peaks and troughs in cash flow.”
Having funding in place means Phil can spend less time focusing on the finance side of his business and more time on what Certain is really about. They’re working hard to drive the business forward but also understand the importance of passion projects to excite and inspire. One such project, a beautifully produced limited-edition book called The Pursuit of Perfection, will be unveiled at a launch event next month.
“We started thinking about this idea of pursuing perfection, which inspired a project that became a book,” Phil explains. “We went out and found 10 people who, in their own way, are trying to find perfection. We spoke to a sculptor, a glassblower, a chef, a typeface designer – all sorts of different people – and pulled their stories together into a book. We’ve been working on this project for 2 years, so it’s been our own pursuit of perfection in a way.”
With their pursuit of perfection now drawing to completion, Certain are looking forward to other exciting projects to come in the next 2 years. They’ve got an active new business programme, taking on new clients that they enjoy working with and who are going to help them grow the business. For Phil, taking Certain abroad could be the next big ambition worth pursuing.
“We’ve got a client that we’re working with out in Los Angeles at the moment and with a fair wind, we might end up doing more work out there,” says Phil. “We need to find the practical means but taking Certain to LA could be really interesting. I think British creativity goes down well in the States so I’d like to try and make it happen.”