Growing a Boutique Agency: Dan Williams Breaks Down Building BRINK Interactive

An Interview with BRINK CEO Dan Williams

About Dan Williams

Dan Williams is the CEO and founder of BRINK Interactive. With 25+ years of agency experience under his belt, he is passionate about building client relationships and strategies that drive brands forward.

It was the wild west of the 1990s dot-com boom. Companies like Apple and HP were standing up their first-ever websites. Angel investors and venture capitalists were throwing money at promising startups. And Dan Williams was starting his career in the digital agency world, where there was a sense of limitless opportunity to chart new territory. 

Today, constant evolution is still the hallmark of digital progression, and agencies get to see it all firsthand. That’s why Williams is not only still in the agency space, but founded his own boutique agency – BRINK Interactive – in 2018. Here, he shares why he started BRINK, the unique space it fills within the agency landscape, why client needs always come first (and not always in the ways you might think), and the “hairy, scary” growth goals on the horizon.

You’ve been in the agency world for 25 years now. What do you love about it?

Dan Williams: “At an agency, you have the opportunity to work across multiple verticals and industries. And things are constantly changing, which is what I like about working on the agency side versus working on the client side. On the client side, I would be working exclusively on one industry vertical, with one team, on a defined set of initiatives with maybe a two-to-three-year roadmap. If there’s one thing I love most on the agency side, it’s the constant change and rapid evolution. As soon as a new technology gets into the mix, we need to quickly understand how it drives experiences. There’s a new wave of change around every corner — artificial intelligence, machine learning, chatbots — it always keeps you on the tip of your toes, which fits my personality really well. I’m not the kind of guy who wants to sit around and live in a completely stable environment. I like to push beyond my comfort zone. But in the end, people need to choose what’s right for them personally.”

In 2018 you chose to forge your own path and founded BRINK Interactive. What was the catalyst?

Dan Williams: “It wasn’t a rash decision on my part. I’d been at small agencies, mid-sized agencies, and large agencies, all with the constant theme that each one was progressing to the next level. All the talented small boutique shops out there were getting gobbled up, and often the quality and type of services they offered changed in the process. That was the first recognition on my part: if this trend continues, it’s not going to leave clients with a great option if they don’t want to work with a VC-backed independent agency or a massive holding company. I began to see the gap that was developing in the market through the lens of what clients needed from an agency and a partnership. And a gap equals an opportunity.

On a personal level, I was at a crossroads after 20 years in this space. I’d spent time producing strategy, working on the account side, and working on the business development side building agency brands. I also knew enough to be dangerous on the customer experience and technology side of things. And I really didn’t see a career path for me that wasn’t going to silo me in a specific area. Founding BRINK provided me the personal opportunity to keep growing. “

How did you choose the name BRINK Interactive?

Dan Williams: “It came out of a lot of ideation and thinking around what we were trying to build through the client lens. Many clients are on the brink of a lot of success. Others are on the brink of failure. Entire large companies are failing in a matter of months or years if they don’t understand and embrace digital and get ahead of it. Others that are investing in it are achieving a lot of success. “BRINK” checked all the boxes for a cool company name: a single syllable that we could unpack in terms of meaning. “

How did you foresee BRINK serving clients in ways that were different or better than other agency options out there?

“A lot of clients couldn’t care less about agency size per se, or who the agency is owned by. They essentially want to work around smart, good people.”
Dan Williams: “Clients want to work with somebody highly experienced, with a high bar for expertise and accountability. But they also don’t want the constant urge to throw them out of the 10th story window because they’re so irritating and they have to be the smartest person in the room. I also wanted to build an agency that would serve employees better. Too many times I experienced people around me hitting glass ceilings, getting burned out in big agencies, lack of culture, and poor work-life integration. Picture people choosing work over spouses and kids, folks going through divorces. I was just like, the model’s broken. I wanted to build an environment that truly cares about people. Looking at it through that lens, we are building something really unique in the market where one side doesn’t have to live without the other. “

Speaking of agency structure, how does the BRINK ownership structure factor into how you operate the agency and the relationships you have with clients?

Dan Williams: “First off, at BRINK we don’t have a lot of top-down pressure to grow at a certain rate. We pretty much choose our own destiny because we own 100 percent of our own agency. I think bootstrapping and self-funding has created a culture of fiscal responsibility. We’re able to make our own investments, whether that is in new talent or training or a small acquisition. That’s the exciting part of where we’re at now. It hasn’t been an easy path, so I see the reason a lot of companies take funding. It does give them elbow room, so they’re not scrutinizing the business 24/7. But I think it has created an opportunity for us overall. We have a 100 percent client reference rate, so obviously the model is working. And I don’t say that through the lens of ego, it’s just that we put our money where our mouth is. There’s confidence that we are going to drive results for clients, and we stand behind it. Part of that success is our ability to start small on projects. Some of the other agencies and service companies I’ve been a part of don’t have the patience to start small with clients, prove out a strategy, get activations in market, and show what they can do so that the client relationship grows. And that’s usually tied back to ownership structure and what I label as artificial pressure: pressure to grow not based on what’s best for clients, but rather what’s best for the ‘bank.’ “

Can you share a specific example of when BRINK has put client relationships and interests front and center?

Dan Williams: “I recently had a dinner conversation with a client who’s the president of a mid-market company. They’re rebuilding their marketing group, and we recognized that he needed a right hand on his team. So we went out and looked in the market for somebody that could be his right hand. And essentially that is going to replace revenue that we could get as an agency, because we could serve that role. He’s got the budget for it, but it’s not the right intent for him — it’s not the right call. And so we actually placed a senior marketing leader for him that had industry expertise and cross-discipline experience. We interviewed them before we put them in front of him. He interviewed them. And they start the job in a couple of weeks. I honestly believe that if we make the right moves for clients to help them succeed, whether it’s a short-term win or loss for our revenue is not pertinent. We’re going to develop the trust, respect, and rapport that lets us win long-term, and ultimately their company is going to be in a better spot because of it. “

When it comes to attracting and vetting clients, has anything changed in your process compared to past agencies?

Dan Williams: “We’re very aware that we want to choose client relationships that reciprocate what we’re building when it comes to respect, approachability, transparency, and flexibility through hard times. We realize we’re going to have challenges just as any relationship does, but we need clients to have our back too. It’s not just a one-way street. We’ve been fortunate in that regard, but we’ve also been intentional in that regard. We’ve parted ways with a client in the past because they were affecting our culture and were not a good fit. It does require hard decisions, and we’ll keep making those. But at the end of the day, it’s about how do we listen to the market and what it needs? It’s always a dance when you start talking to a new client. They’re doing the dance on their side to vet you, and you’re doing the dance on your side to vet them. You can get down to the heart of the matter in a couple of conversations and figure out if there’s going to be a cultural fit and a scope fit. “

BRINK recently undertook a full-scale brand refresh. Can you speak to why you made that investment?

Dan Williams: “To me, brand is the “you’re growing or you’re dying analogy.” You have to keep pushing, you can’t rest on your laurels. That’s why growth is so important for us here. We’re not reporting growth to a board of directors or a financial investor. We’re growing because the market needs us. The brand ties back to that. Secondly, our brand has to stay ahead of us and push us over our skis, so to speak. Then there’s tactical things, like the case studies on our old website didn’t represent our current work. We had evolved our disciplines and capabilities. The aesthetic was outdated. So we went through the full gamut of brand strategy, positioning exercises, voice, tone, and messaging. We were able to go through that entire process internally, and I felt like it was important for us to eat our own dog food and not outsource it. Everything you see now — from colors and typography to imagery, copy, and development — was all done internally. “

Looking forward, what are the next milestones for growth for Brink?

Dan Williams: “I think the big, hairy, scary goal is to get to $100 million in revenue and stay private. I think it’s achievable. I definitely don’t think it’s four or five years. The four- or five-year plan is to get to $30 million in revenue and roughly be about 90–100 people in size. Again, nothing’s guiding that besides what I think the market needs. “

As BRINK grows, how do you plan to stay directed towards your North Star principles of maintaining high-quality client and employee relationships?

Dan Williams: “That’s basically what I think about every day. How do we continue to grow and scale and give the market what it needs, but not detract from our core focus on people and culture over projects and profitability? And I think the answer is pretty simple: It’s how we embrace it and how we enforce it. It’s about having top-down leadership and having everybody else bought in that they’re a part of the solution and they need to help steer the ship, so to speak. I’m not naïve, either. It’s not going to be easy. Once we start tracking towards $15-30 million a year, it’s just going to get more complex. I’m aware of it, and I feel like that’s half the battle. If we keep the ownership structure the way it is and everybody’s aware of it and we’ve got a good leadership team driving it, it’ll happen. Looking for an agency that puts relationships first? BRINK is a fully independent agency with the autonomy to make the right decisions, backed by a nimble and expert team that prioritizes your growth objectives each step of the way. “

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