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Somo: ‘for some brands, mobile is still just a box check. It’s crazy’.

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Photo credit:

Arne Kuilman

Carl Uminski, COO of the UK digital marketing company Somo, talks shop and rails at slowcoach marketers.

Back in 2009, mobile marketing was often derided as little more than ‘text2win’.

That was because it was mostly, well, text2win.

Yet 2009 was two years into the iPhone/Android era. And smart entrepreneurs could see that widespread smartphone ownership would make mobile the next big digital platform.

Well, they don’t come too much smarter than Nick Hynes and Carl Uminski.

The duo had co-founded Overture, the firm that pioneered pay-per-click advertising in Europe. It was sold to Yahoo! for $1.63 billion in 2003.

Uminski then re-located to the US to help create the Yahoo! One Search mobile platform, while Hynes launched The Search Works, which was acquired by TradeDoubler AB in 2007 for $112 million.

In 2009, they reunited to found Somo. Back then, it looked and sounded like a mobile marketing agency. One of dozens.

But the longer term plan was to become more of a digital marketing platform provider: a firm that wouldn’t so much devise campaigns as provide the tools for brands to create their own, then measure their effectiveness.

Well, it worked.

Today, Somo is a transAtlantic success story with offices in London, New York and San Francisco. It’s worked with over 200 brands and retains around 50 regular clients.

Hot Topics spoke to COO Carl Uminski.

When you started the business in 2009, it was pitched as a mobile marketing agency. It’s not that any more. How has the business evolved?

We had a vision of supporting marketers. We could see the rise of smartphone penetration, and we know that marketers would need help – just as they did in 2000 in search. We set about solving problems, and the first was media and advertising. But we saw very clearly there was a technology challenge.

Nick still has the bit of paper that said we’d start with digital marketing because we get the insight then move to build, CRM, loyalty and more. Largely we’ve executed against that plan.

So you began with an agency ethos?

Yes, initially. It’s a great way to start a business. You don’t need huge capital investment and you can reinvest what you earn into tech. And that’s what we’ve done in four years now.

Therefore Somo is now a technology business…

Absolutely. Over 75 per of revenue comes from tech now. We work with C level businesses to solve the digital transformation problem.

Those solutions go right across the customer journey: getting more customers to understand who you are and to consider your product, knowing about the purchase cycle across all connected devices through to loyalty. Some solutions are ours and some are licensed.

We have a product called Lithient that measures the lifetime value of a customer. You install an SDK inside an app and you can track your marketing spend and conversion data and see what the customer journey looks like.

We also build cross device sites so customers can engage their customers across the journey wherever they are.

We’ve had time to industrialise the process – whether it’s solving a strategic digital marketing issue for the board or building a solution and taking it to market.

How would you assess the sophisticated of brand marketers? Are they still a bit pre-historic when it comes to digital?

It’s still so early. I can’t believe I’m still saying that but it is. I thought 2009 was the right time to launch, but looking back it was ridiculously early.

I see brands today who are mapping out marketing campaigns, and 70 to 80 per cent of the spend is above the line. Mobile is just a box check.

It’s crazy because I also know brands whose online sales were 70 per cent mobile over the holiday season. That’s a game changer. If you don’t have a mobile strategy today, you may not have a tomorrow.

Is Somo making money? Have you taken investment?

Yes, we’re making money. I wouldn’t be doing it if we weren’t! Revenue is in the tens of millions. We took a minor investment from MMC Ventures, which we ring-fenced to help us build our tech platforms.

Is your field competitive?

I think it’s hard to come in to market now. After six years, we know what’s right, how to build technology and how much things cost. We have that history now.

The competition we face today in digital marketing is more from the systems integrators like Accenture, Cap Gemini or Sapient Nitro.

How are you preparing for the blurring of the boundary between online and offline?

I wouldn’t say we’re a mobile business anyway. We build solutions for connected world, and that’s increasingly combining online and offline. Especially in the luxury and premium space, where people often research online, come into the store, do more research.

So, for example we helped Audi build an experience store at the Westfield Shopping Centre in London. Inside we used a variety of technologies including augmented and virtual reality to help people experience the car via mobile and tablet.

The idea is get people excited so they buy – today at a dealership but eventually online.