Ed East is global CEO and co-founder of Billion Dollar Boy (BDB), the UK's fastest-growing influencer agency.
BDB has grown the influencer marketing industry by 62%, helping the business to clinch a spot in the Financial Times's list of the 1000 fastest growing companies in Europe – the first and only influencer marketing agency featured.
Founded in 2014 with staff of around 150 across the business, BDB forecast $70m revenue for 2023.
My career hasn't been long but I was finding it hard to find a job after leaving university in the US. I applied to companies like Google in digital marketing-related jobs and kept getting through to the last rounds of the graduate trainee schemes but not progressing.
I met for a drink with a family friend called Oliver Pawle, who had an idea to set up a charitable organisation that would support young entrepreneurs in their journey and give them all the essential elements needed to set up a business. I found it fascinating.
Previously an investment banker, Oliver is now chairman at executive recruiters Korn Ferry. I joined Oliver as an intern, with the hope of perhaps joining his scheme in its inception.
In the meantime, there were so many things I learned.
Oliver simply had an idea, with a great cause supporting young individuals. Since 2011, the New Entrepreneurs Foundation has now had 350 alumni.
It has since merged with the Centre for Entrepreneurs. Further, 170 businesses have been set up, with more than 5,000 jobs created with a combined value of £620m.
The first lesson I took away was always take action and drive it into reality, otherwise it will never become something. Three weeks after our drink, he had hired me as a junior and we were up and running, the first programme launching that autumn.
Oliver is always energetic and optimistic which gives off energy to others. He also took time to be interested and listen. I take the same positive energy approach at BDB – even when giving potentially bad news, I try to give a positive spin.
Over his career, he also built a valuable network and that's one of the reasons he is now in executive search. It was clear to me that the network was the only way the foundation would succeed. We had to go out to businesses who had never heard anything like this before.
"You need to treat people with the utmost respect when you’re on the way up, as who knows what will happen on the way back down", he once said. In 2011, I joined the programme and shadowed at a big digital marketing agency as its new entrepreneur.
Having seen Oliver and his drive to action, I was inspired. In my spare time I worked on a database connecting blogs – an incarnation of influencer marketing today – to brands. Having moved to Los Angeles and seen YouTubers and Instagrammers, I realised it was this market which needed to be connected all together to brands.
In 2014, Billion Dollar Boy (I am a big fan of Pharrell Williams who had launched his Billionaire Boys Club fashion label) was born. We wrote a long business plan in order to pay us a salary. The genesis of influencer marketing has not changed, but the route has consistently taken us in different directions.
As we are a bigger business, it’s much harder to have an idea and follow that as there are so many people and stakeholders involved. We are much less entrepreneurial while the last few years we have honed in and perfected what we are good at, as opposed to trying lots of new things.
There are always new platforms and creators emerging. Influencers have democratised this creation of content, can publish via their owned platform on social media and it has changed the way brands can talk to audiences.
While we have done mass scale influencer marketing over the last nine years, creator advertising is now coming to the fore, one where we want to double down over the next few years.
We are taking the asset influencers make and using it for many different forms of advertising. For example, we recently had the biggest billboard in Australia – in Melbourne, where the content is made by influencers.
The creator economy term has now been coined over the last 18 months in building businesses with influencers, leveraging the audiences and the communities they’ve built to create new products and services. It takes us out of the agency model and enables us to co-invest and redefine the way businesses are being built.
Oliver probably had faith in seeing me start something and it's probably why he pushed and supported me. He may be a bit surprised at where I've got to, but he will undoubtedly be happy about it.