All the tech, none of the pitch: KBR founder Grant Hyland puts collaboration first

Grant Hyland

At least that’s the impression you get talking to founder Grant Hyland, a man truly concerned with doing what’s best for his clients.

And so far, so good. With a vision for a company that could provide high level service and first-rate tech capabilities to agencies – all while foregoing the jargon – the company is now celebrating their fifth successful year in business. 

We talked to Hyland about the genesis of the company, the state of digital marketing today, and finding himself doing it all from New Zealand’s adventure capital, Queenstown.

“I had lived my whole life in Auckland and was definitely ready for something new,” he says. “Or maybe it was just breathing the toxic fumes from the motorway. Either way, I was ready for a change.” 

While that Auckland existence had seen him work his way up the advertising industry ladder to a successful – if somewhat unfulfilling – role, he was fed up with the big city.

He managed to negotiate a remote-working role in Queenstown – the birthplace of the bungy jump – and started to notice opportunities he had previously missed.

“Being out of the daily grind of Auckland gives you a fresh set of eyes. It’s not until you get out of it that you realise there’s a whole other world out there that you are missing.”

Whether it was the mountain air or risk-ready atmosphere, it wasn’t long before he decided it was time to make a leap of his own.

Five years later KBR Digital works with more than a dozen prestigious agency clients, who are based in a number of markets across the country, a portfolio built on rock solid relationships.

“There is a big difference between what we do and traditional ad networks,” says Hyland.

“A traditional ad network organisation is fundamentally a sales organisation. They go out to agencies and clients and look for a campaign. The spend might be $5000 or $100,000, but whatever the brief is, they deliver the campaign and then move onto the next one, and that’s where we originally launched from too,” he says.

“But the conversation keep coming up time and time again. People were struggling with the tech requirements of digital and they just didn’t have the human resources to make it happen. There just weren’t enough digital practitioners to go around.”

Hyland had an idea for a company that could provide clients with the digital services so desperately needed, but also offer a collaborative approach that agencies could use in lieu of developing their own inhouse digital capabilities.

“Instead of taking that ‘transactional’ approach, we decided to really commit to KBR being a support business. Consultative and collaborative, that’s our mindset, not sales.”

Day to day that means working with agencies, “holding their hand if necessary”, and helping them mitigate the risks they face. To that end, all of KBR’s account managers – not ‘sales consultants’ – have media planning backgrounds and are able to ‘talk-the-tech’ in helpful, client-friendly ways. 

“We do offer a large repertoire of services,” says Hyland.

“We’ve got 25-plus platforms at our disposal and we’ve got all the research tools right there. Our kit is equivalent to any of the large agencies in town, including a worldclass, independent trading desk, and we’ve got the programmatic chops to back it up. We do social, we do direct site buying, network buying, and we’ve recently added content generation to the mix.”

“It all depends on what the agency truly requires,” he says. “Some will use us just for planning for example, others will use us for everything.”

Either way, says Hyland, KBR spends time with every agency, working at a strategic level to understand just what the client actually needs.

“We like to think that the KBR model has a consultative and collaborative mindset that transcends the type of product,” he says.

But what of the much-rumoured in-house digital takeover? How does KBR intend to compete in a market where more and more agencies are starting to perform digital services in-house?

“Well that’s already the reality for some of the reasonably-sized agencies we’re working with,” he says frankly. “For us, it’s just not about competing with them; it’s about partnering with them.”

“We’re always evolving with our agencies so we are continually offering services that support and supplement what they are doing, regardless of the circumstance. We have in excess of 25 platforms, so we can manage implementation strategy, we can manage the planning or we can come in at whatever level needed. Every agency relationship we have is highly unique and bespoke.”

“Simply put, we’re not trying to ‘protect our interests’ so to speak. We believe in our service and we believe in trying to foster relationships that transcend products.”

One demand the company is increasingly responding to is the seemingly never-ending appetite for marketing content production.

“A lot of marketers have generally stayed away from the content side of things, but we feel like we should be able to support our clients in whatever way they need,” says Hyland. “We want to be able to just plug in whatever they want us to plug in.”

To that end the company has established a partnership with a US content company that gives them access to a pool of more than 1500 experienced writers.

“It’s very new for us, so we’ll have to wait and see what comes of it, but ultimately it’s about being able to supply what our clients want. If that’s what they need, then we’ve got the means.”

Hyland says the next logical step for the company is to develop its social listening capabilities. The company has recently partnered with Salesforce and via their social listening platform can monitor the keywords and sentiment that sits around brands within social channels and the blogosphere.

“We can then use that information and insight to engage with customers better,” he says. “We can monitor what’s being said, use our search tools to find different keywords and then use that knowledge to inform the content we create.”

And speaking of sentiment, anyone with an eye on the industry is well aware of the growing public and regulatory concern about the reach digital advertisers and the capabilities at their command: Case in point, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. What does Hyland think about the current state of affairs? 

“I really feel that the brand of the digital advertising industry as a whole has taken a hit over the past 12 months,” he says. “As an industry we need to step up and work together to really address these issues.”

“There’s a lot of distrust out there at the moment and that’s the challenge for us as practitioners. We know there’s an awful lot of BS out there, but we also know that most of us in the industry are really focused on working through these issues.”

But for now, Hyland and co. are focused on the long game, cultivating current agency relationships and looking to grow.

“We’ve got a two-to-three-year plan to bring in some additional agencies and we’re looking into other markets abroad, but honestly, we’re most focused on caring for those agencies we currently work with,” he says.

“For us, every day is unique, and that’s an exciting place to be. We’ve built some great relationships and that’s a huge part of who we are.”

This story is part of a paid partnership with KBR Digital.

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