Our in-depth and wide-ranging interview with Giles Harris, founder of Come Round.
Sometimes you come across an idea that is so brilliant that you wonder why you hadn't thought of it before. Party Marketing is that idea - creating real marketing reach with genuine interactions that are fun for everyone involved. A genuine win-win.
Covering everything from the role of influencers, the importance of never giving up, and even a number one album. Something for everyone.
Can you give us a background to Come Round and your journey so far?
Come Round started in 2009 with our first campaign in 2010. It started when a few of us were working in the music industry and struggling to create direct relationships with the consumers. In a lot of the entertainment industry, you don’t have that relationship. We would make an album, for example, and market it and sell it to a retailer. The retailer is the channel through which the fan interacts and consumes the music.
Then a few of us had a lightbulb moment. We had read about how powerful word of mouth marketing is, so we looked in to it and decided there was a way to go direct to consumer. We could market to them directly in their homes and cut out the middle man. This meant we could achieve not only the relationship goal but also the secondary goal of generating real authentic conversation about a product – whatever it might be.
As most people know, word of mouth is the most powerful form of marketing around; nothing beats a recommendation from a trusted friend. That’s why we started the business.
"Nothing beats a recommendation from a trusted friend."
How exactly do you achieve this direct relationship?
We developed this unique concept of Party Marketing.
The crux of Come Round is marketing a product to someone who already likes - or could like - that product, directly in the home of that person.
Following the research of Nobel-winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, who found that a fun environment makes people most receptive to being marketed to, we decided that nothing would be better than marketing to a person in their home with their friends.
Putting this into practice, we will run, for example, 500 parties on a certain date for a brand. All the parties happen simultaneously and are all themed around the brand and their product. We pick the perfect people from our database and we ask them to invite their friends on that set date. The invites happen on our system so that we can see what is happening and we can then interact with those friends too. They need to have enough guests for the party – which is usually the host plus 9 guests to make a total of 10 per household.
Once they have enough guests on the system they proceed to the next stage and are sent an impressive party pack. This contains an instruction booklet, props for the activities, and take home items to show off to friends and family afterwards – as well as the product itself which is the subject of the campaign. We design and produce all the items in close consultation with our clients. At the end we will ask the partygoers questions about the product, how likely they are to purchase in the future etc. To the best of my knowledge, there is no other company in the world doing party marketing at scale.
This is not just a PR event/launch party. It's very different. This is hundreds of simultaneous house parties to achieve some specific measurable marketing goals. The booklet explains the fun activities that partygoers have committed to do, such as creating genuine – not paid for – content and posting it with a hashtag. It could involve baking a cake and adding a prop flag with a logo, or making a pop video for a song on an album – whatever we dream up as part of our creative process in planning each campaign and to achieve each client’s goals and KPIs. We’ve worked in every sector from fish fingers to albums, from dog food to vacuum cleaners.
Every campaign is unique and we always design it around the client’s needs and goals. SPAR, for example, needed to promote awareness of their often over-looked but delicious range of barbecue food but as they didn’t have a review facility on their website, reviews were not a priority for them. Instead, they wanted genuine one-liner testimonials from people that they could subsequently put on posters around their stores. We delivered them over 2,500 testimonials from Penzance to Inverness.
People often think it’s like a Tupperware party, but it is fundamentally different in that there is nobody there standing over you asking how many you want to buy. We don’t need anyone there controlling the party. We let the campaign and the products and the party packs do all of that for us and we get a much more genuine and enjoyable experience as a result. The output is natural and not forced.
"A fun environment makes people most receptive to being marketed to."
"We don’t need anyone there controlling the party...The output is natural and not forced."
You make it sound so easy.
It’s a lot of hard work.
The skill lies in working with the perfect households across each country. We blacklist people whose campaign output doesn’t meet our requirements in terms of quality and reliability, and we also whitelist people who we would love to work with again. Our technology and the algorithms we have built ensure we can identify the perfect household to take part in our campaigns time and time again.
The high quality of each household is crucial to the success of our business, and we’re fortunate to be able to guarantee that quality to our clients. We recruit people based on three criteria – demographic, real influence, and reliability. Someone applying to take part in our campaigns need all three to be chosen – and we get it consistently right. That is where our real value resides. Anyone can send a book out, but knowing who to send it to is where the value lies.
It’s a lot of hard work but it is vital to the success of the business.
"Anyone can send a book out, but knowing who to send it to is where the value lies."
You seem to cover a broad range of sectors – was this intended for the music industry?
I am a big believer in not putting all your eggs in one basket. It could have easily been a music marketing solution but I knew that its benefits would be embraced by many other sectors. Word of mouth marketing can and does work across everything.
That was the vision, but we focused on the music industry in the first few years to get up and running and learn the trade. It made sense as it’s where we had the most contacts. Our very first campaign was for the Twilight movie soundtrack in 2010. It was a great one to do, but the problem was we didn’t have a clue what to do. We had no previous campaign experience to rely on, we didn’t have a database and we didn’t have a process – but just because you haven’t done it doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It might freak you out, but it can be done. You just need a little bit of confidence and a good team around you to help and advise.
"Just because you haven’t done it doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It might freak you out, but it can be done."
Do you have a background in marketing?
Not really. I used to be a music lawyer at EMI although I never really felt that law was my true calling. That said, of all the areas of law to work in, I was definitely most interested in working in the music industry and even more so at that particular time. It was a time of great change when traditional physical formats (CD, cassette, vinyl) were being challenged by brand new digital formats (downloads and streaming). With those changes came inevitable threats (notably illegal downloading) but also a myriad of opportunities.
"With...changes came...threats...but also a myriad of opportunities."
How did you end up in law if you didn’t like it?
My first degree was in languages, which was always one of my great strengths, following which I did a masters in law to become a solicitor.
I desperately wanted to work in the music industry, so I wrote to all the record companies during that time asking for a job and got a no from all of them. Then I wrote again asking for work experience and they said no. I said I would do it for free and unsurprisingly they said yes. So an early lesson there was to be prepared to do anything for pretty much nothing in order to get going.
One of them put me in Business Affairs, (the music industry’s trendier name for the legal department).
Up until that point, I was not even aware of the existence of in-house music lawyers. This was when the penny dropped as I realised I could combine my legal qualifications with my passion to work in the music industry. It was at that moment that I set my sights on becoming a music industry lawyer.
These days when I’m giving talks and advice to sixth formers, I always tell them to try to nail down what it is they really want to do because once you know that, it makes things a hell of a lot easier as you then have a target to chase. The hardest thing is knowing what you want to do, but as soon as I found out about Business Affairs I just kept going and going until I found a way in to a full-time job at EMI. I did not let anything stop me until I got through the doors (and three interviews).
I am very lucky that I have been able to choose my career, but it came about because I made it happen. You have to make things happen. Nobody is going to call you up with the offer you want, you have to do the calling. And incidentally, this same work ethos applies to running a business – nothing just happens.
"Be prepared to do anything for pretty much nothing in order to get going."
"Once you know what you really want to do, you then have a target to chase."
It sounds like you had found your dream job?
I absolutely loved my time at EMI, but all the same I never gave up on that niggling feeling of wanting to do other things and give into my creative and entrepreneurial side. I’d have ideas all the time about why we weren’t doing certain things with our artists and recordings.
At that point I had the chance to work in the New York office for a year, which was a fantastic experience. I had a wonderful time, but I came back a different person and I knew that I needed more.
It was around this time that I put together a mashup album – which are notoriously difficult to get legal clearance for. I set about doing it, though, and after about a year of hard work, the album ‘Mashed’ came out and even reached number 1 in the compilations chart.
It fuelled that sense in me that anything is possible, and that was the final push to quit EMI. It gave me the confidence I needed to start Come Round.
"It fuelled that sense in me that anything is possible."
Did you launch the business on your own?
Whilst there were no ‘how to set up a word-of-mouth marketing business’ instruction manuals, I knew what needed to be done. I knew that I would need technology and I knew I would need some sort of fulfilment to get products sent out – both of which I had no direct experience in. I did not come from a marketing background either but that didn’t hold me back.
There were a couple of people I knew through EMI – one was the CTO who kindly advised me on the technology side of things, and the other had a warehouse offering fulfilment services. So they were my guardian angels until I was confident enough to leave them.
What were your biggest challenges early on?
Initially it was the lack of direct experience in managing clients and running campaigns. I liked to think I had wisdom on my side but in reality, I had my wife and her incredible words of wisdom.
In some ways it was actually easier in the beginning, as back then there were no paid influencers around. We dealt with normal members of the public. We occasionally came across a “superstar” who was basically a blogger writing about what they enjoyed in their spare time as a hobby. We welcomed them on board as they were genuine and they had fairly decent online reach. When we spoke to those same people a few years later, they had become an “influencer” and wanted to charge a fee for the very same content they had been creating for free. We made our choice at that point to stick with the unpaid, authentic, really influential people.
I live by these values of honesty and integrity and it applies to everything we do in the business. We would never tell people what to say in their reviews – it has to be honest and authentic feedback. We would never pay them either, which is why I don’t believe in the concept of influencers – or “follower advertisers” as I refer to them.
Real influence comes from people who really like the chocolate bar we sent them, not because they’ve been paid to say they like it. It is also critical that the person raving about the chocolate bar knows the very people he/she is talking about it to.
A few years ago, every brand wanted to jump on that influencer bandwagon as it was the thing to do. Thankfully, now a lot of brands are starting to see it for what it is. Paying people to post to lots of anonymous followers is a great advertising tool – a very modern form of paid advertising – but don’t confuse it with word-of-mouth marketing and brand advocacy.
If you make a recommendation to a friend then it has real power because that friend knows you and trusts you. With an “influencer” who has hundreds of thousands of followers, they can’t possibly know each of them and so their endorsement has little value. There is no trust there because there’s no direct relationship. It’s all about quality over quantity.
"I live by these values of honesty and integrity."
"Real influence comes from people who really like the product, not because they’ve been paid to say they like it."
What tips do you have for someone launching a business?
Confidence is absolutely key as is having good people around you. I wasn’t super-confident but the people around me gave me that extra confidence to do the bits I was less familiar with.
Have a vision and don’t give up on it. It’s so easy to give up. Anybody can give up – that’s the easy route. As long as you can keep going then you stand out just by continuing when everyone else has given up. You do have to stand out – you have to be a little different. Everything I have achieved through my career has been by standing out from my competition.
You have to speak passionately about your business too. I saw enough pitches when was at EMI to know that if you lack energy then you are going to get nowhere. If you are going to be the face of the business then this is so important – you need to get the right people and personalities doing the right roles.
I am a very keen observer of costs and I think that is why the business is still here today. Time and confidence are far more important things to invest in a business. I am lucky in that I am qualified as a lawyer and so I have a safety net. I don’t think about it but I am sure that subconsciously I know that if everything went wrong, I could do a legal job somewhere.
"Anybody can give up – that’s the easy route. As long as you can keep going then you stand out just by continuing.”
"Time and confidence are far more important things to invest in a business than money.”
What about pitfalls that people should look out for?
Don’t be distracted by what everyone else is doing. You do want to see what others are doing, but you don’t want to be obsessed by it. If you see something from your competition, treat is as something interesting to learn from rather than spending all your time worrying about it. Stay focused on your own business and moving forward – don’t get distracted.
Don’t spend money unnecessarily. Don’t spend on an office or people just to make it feel like you have a business – make sure you actually need it. You will spend money on things that you ultimately don’t need, but try your best to spend for the right reasons.
"You do want to see what others are doing, but you don’t want to be obsessed by it."
"Don’t spend on an office or people just to make it feel like you have a business – make sure you actually need it."
What are your main frustrations in business?
Explaining the concept of what we do is one of my main frustrations. It’s not like any other form of marketing. Often people will only hear a small part of the explanation and come back with “We are already working with Instagrammers”. It’s not that at all as I’ve hopefully explained earlier. It is very frustrating.
On that note, what do you think would make the world a better place?
I don’t wish for influencers to disappear – I just want them to be rebranded as “follower advertisers” and leave the influencing to where it genuinely happens, namely Dave recommending a new ketchup to his mate, George.
Let’s just refer to influencers appropriately. They are receiving payment; it is no different to paying a TV channel or a bus company – they are simply another paid channel to advertise through.
"Leave the influencing to where it genuinely happens."
Given all of those frustrations, would you do it all again?
I would, and in exactly the same way. I met some friends recently who started an agency and took some investment up front. They wish they hadn’t taken the investment as they have found it very difficult to have given up control and to not be able to make the decisions they wanted to make.
At Come Round we can change course in an instant because my colleagues and I are the decision makers. Being super-fast is a huge advantage, so I wouldn’t go back and take investment unless it was under the right terms.
"I wouldn’t go back and take investment unless it was under the right terms."
What are your plans for the future of Come Round?
We want to grow and maximise the countries that we are operating in now (Australia, Canada, France, UK). I have alliances with people in the overseas countries to be the face of Come Round over there, and they are incentivised to find and run campaigns. It’s like a franchise model.
We want be known not just for our unique party marketing campaigns, but more broadly for authentic consumer interactions. Party marketing is only one aspect of what we do – we also send products directly in to cherry-picked homes without the need for a party. Any time someone needs real people for authentic interactions then Come Round should be the go-to agency.
We have four core business services going forwards: party marketing, savvy sampling/product trials, consumer insight surveys, and fan clubs. Fan clubs are a logical next step because you have the passion, loyalty and advocacy that can be nurtured and maintained on a long-term basis. We don’t want to throw that away – it is a huge opportunity. I am really excited about that service.
"We want be known more broadly for authentic consumer interactions."
What emerging trends are you seeing more broadly?
I am seeing brands getting tired with influencers and moving towards more genuine people, and I see our fan clubs as being the perfect vehicle for that. We’re working with some very exciting new technology to run our fan club service as it’s a different model.
What we are doing is disrupting how traditional sampling is done. We are disrupting how brands view influencers and the ROI from those campaigns. We are disrupting how focus groups are typically run and where the lure of money at the end of the focus group session can often lure respondents into answering questions without total honesty.
"We are disrupting how brands view influencers and the ROI from those campaigns."
All of that disruption must create a level of uncertainty. How do you deal with that?
In the early days I would freak out because there were extreme highs and extreme lows. When you have clients and revenue coming in it’s the best times – way better than anything you get from being employed. The converse is also true – when you don’t have any campaigns or clients, it’s the worst and you think the world is going to end. I’ve learnt to cope with that panic now, because I know that it’s cyclical. I have the confidence to know that there will always be another client and another campaign.
I can deal with uncertainty now because of experience and that history. You just have to fight through it. If you just do nothing and expect the phone to ring with the next campaign then it won’t happen and that uncertainty will remain. You need to do something about it. Don’t try and take your mind off it – you need to put your mind firmly on it and put the hard work in, and before you know it the uncertainty will pass.
"When you have clients and revenue coming in it’s way better than anything you get from being employed."
"Don’t try and take your mind off uncertainty – you need to put your mind firmly on it."
How do you make decisions?
There are different types of decisions. There are big life-changing ones like quitting a job and starting a business. For those, I always ask myself if I am going to regret doing this or regret not doing it when I am an old man looking back. Then there are the day-to-day decisions in the business, and that is a mixture of gut and research. Gut/instinct comes first as I’ll think we really should be doing something in that sector, and then I’ll research it to back it up with facts.
"I always ask myself if I am going to regret doing this or regret not doing it."
Do you ever look back at decisions you have made in the past?
We do it informally, especially for individual campaigns. We often think whether we have been as selective as we should have been at the time. It's possible to get a pretty good sense by the end of a campaign whether or not it was the right decision. It’s what’s led us to the point of thinking that we should be more picky about the companies we work with and their values.
How do you stay on top of the business?
I know our limitations so along the way I have hooked up with people on LinkedIn who have worked in sectors that we have no contacts in. We now have a lot of experts in different sectors and it helps us stay on top of the market in general.
We keep tabs through newsletters and trade magazines. I ask my team to find three articles in a given magazine and track down the relevant people and contact details, and then we’ll send an email. It’s the content of that email that is the magic formula. Someone once told me never to use the word “we” in an email (e.g. “We do this, we do that”) – the person reading it couldn’t care less about you. We never do that – we always make it all about them and their business. It’s all about them, not us.
I have a catchup once a week with each person in the team and we keep things moving. I like to stay on top of the email going out because that is the most crucial part. If we get that wrong then all of the time-consuming research was a waste of time.
"It’s all about 'them', not 'us'."
"I like to stay on top of the email going out because that is the most crucial part"
What is your inspiration?
It’s a family thing. My father left school and set up a business at 14 that was really successful. He learnt his trade in a motorcycle shop selling bike parts and then he set up his own business as a wholesaler supplying the shops. Then he started supplying nationally and then internationally.
He is my inspiration – no formal training but he made it happen. He never sat and did nothing. We as kids – we never sat around and did nothing. There was always a hole to be dug or a fence to be put up and I think that work ethic became instilled in me. Our children hopefully now see that in us.
"I think that work ethic became instilled in me."
Where do you do your best thinking?
My children are great at coming up with inspiration and ideas. They often come to me having seen an advert and tell me that we should work with this product or that product, and we often follow up and get really good leads from it.
As for my own thinking, it is sadly in those scenarios where the children aren’t there: walking the dog, driving the car, or in the shower. Reading BBC News on the web. I’ll just be reading it for interest but then I see something and it sparks an idea. Quite often I can’t help but draw an idea out from an article as I am reading – it doesn’t have to be a directly business-related article, just anything that piques my interest.
"Quite often I can’t help but draw an idea out from an article as I'm reading".
What is the overall strategy that guides you?
It’s working with authenticity and real feedback, real opinions, real content, real people. Using words “real”, “genuine”, “authentic” always helps us stay true to the vision. We will never just jump on a bandwagon.
At the centre of all of our four services is that they all involve real people who really love your product through a genuine passion. That is the engine that drives everything.
Standing out as a business is important, which is not easy as you have to have the courage to be different and be bold. A lot of companies can be different in the short term, but that is a gimmick. For it to be more than that it needs to have a long-term vision behind it. If you have a vision that embodies everything that you believe in, then you have created something that will last.
"If you have a vision that embodies everything that you believe in, then you have created something that will last."
Do you think having a plan is important?
When I started out, I never had a business plan. I just had a very strong gut instinct that this would work.
Now it’s different.
As a business we need to know how much we need to be taking in to cover our costs, so we always have a number in mind about how many campaigns are needed. We have a plan in that respect.
We are very good on the accounting side of things and use Xero to be able to look at a P&L by campaign. It’s very interesting to look back and see how each campaign did, what the margins were, what we are spending on that could maybe be improved – either to spend less on or more on as appropriate. Analysing all of those figures is really useful. It helps us to plan a project appropriately given the size, scope and revenue that we expect. We’ll include or exclude things in order to make sure the project is both profitable and successful.
I keep a To Do list on my phone that is segmented by category and country and we have plans about what to do and when. It is very structured and organised. The whole team uses a lot of different tools for keeping track of all aspects of the business.
"I had a very strong gut instinct that this would work."
"Analysing our figures is really useful. It helps us to plan a project appropriately given the size, scope and revenue that we expect."
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