Five Minutes With: Nick Cooke, Co-founder of The Goat Agency

Nick Cooke, Co-founder of The Goat Agency
Nick Cooke, Co-founder of The Goat Agency, discusses the challenges of building the business from scratch and the benefits of working with friends

Over the years, many have attempted to start a business with friends, and many have failed. 

The Goat Agency, launched by Nick Cooke alongside Arron Shepherd and Harry Hugo, in 2015, stands out from the crowd as a rare success story. 

Since its inception, Goat has continued to thrive and progress, becoming a world-leading social media and influencer marketing agency with more than 350 employees spread across the UK, the US and Singapore. 

In 2019, the business was named Europe’s fastest-growing agency by Adweek, before making the shortlist for Campaign's Global Agency of the Year Awards in 2022.

Earlier this year, Goat was acquired by WPP and merged with its influencer marketing solution, INCA, creating the industry’s first truly global influencer marketing agency.

Here, Cooke – who has maintained a leadership role within the agency – discusses the challenges of building Goat from scratch and the benefits of working with friends. 

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Tell us a bit about yourself and your career so far

I suppose my career has been quite unusual. My first job was part of a small, five-person life coaching business where, after joining as an intern, I ended up running the corporate division selling coaching and workshops to big corporates. 

The experience I gained there was hugely valuable, as I learned how to cold call, present, speak to senior leaders and, ultimately, sell. However, being a massive Arsenal fan, I always wanted to work in sport, so I ended up moving to a sports social networking startup called Sportlobster, which happened to be run by one of my fellow Goat Co-founders, Arron Shepherd.

I joined at the same time as our third and final Co-founder, Harry Hugo, and quickly became integral to the business' growth, running a 20-person marketing team within two years. It was there that Arron, Harry and I discovered the power of influencer marketing and, in 2015, we decided to make the leap to start our own influencer marketing agency. 

That was eight years ago and The Goat Agency’s incredible growth journey culminated in our sale of the business to WPP in March. We’re now more than 350 employees across 35 local markets, working with some of the world’s biggest and most exciting brands. 

What inspired you to launch The Goat Agency?

I think I always wanted to be an entrepreneur deep down – even if slightly subconsciously. I was exposed to a lot of entrepreneurs quite early in my career, which was extremely valuable.  

While at Sportlobster, I also began to understand the world of social media creators. This was at a time when 'influencer marketing' as a concept didn’t really exist – at least not like it does today. Once we saw how powerful they [creators] could be as a marketing channel, we knew there were huge opportunities, and we believed in ourselves enough to take the first leap and become one of the first movers. 

How would you describe Goat and its main activities? 

I would describe us as the most scaled and comprehensive global influencer marketing agency.

It’s a mad, fast-paced, disruptor business leading the way in our category and encouraging clients to take calculated risks and explore new areas of marketing.  

We’re hot on maintaining very high standards across the board, while having a great laugh doing it. We have a youthful team which is key for this space. Some of our youngest employees are insanely impressive in terms of their knowledge. They teach me things every day, which I love. 

In terms of our main activities, we deliver social-first marketing campaigns for brands, utilising the power of creators. This involves everything from the creative strategy behind a campaign, identifying the right creator partners to bring it to life and amplifying content through paid media, to measuring the impact and results on key metrics like awareness, engagement, consideration and conversions. 

Now, as part of GroupM Nexus, these capabilities are even bigger and better, as we’re able to combine our unrivalled data, insights and influencer expertise with a global team of performance experts to achieve even greater scale. 

What was it like building a business from scratch alongside friends? 

People always ask me, 'should I start a business with friends?' I think it’s absolutely possible, but it depends on what basis that friendship was built. For example, I met Arron and Harry through work so, while we are friends, we’ve always been good at maintaining a separation between personal and professional.  

Looking back to starting the business, for me it didn’t feel like a risk. I think that was also because I had such faith in our vision and I really trusted my partners in their skills. We all went into it knowing that most businesses fail, but we were excited by the challenge and it drove us even harder. Harry and Arron’s mentality is truly amazing; they have such belief in themselves and that really inspired me. 

What stands Goat out from the crowd in the context of influencer marketing agencies?  

The crowd has certainly grown over the last couple of years! When we started there was no-one doing influencer marketing, apart from us and maybe two or three other agencies, at least in the UK. I suppose we helped to build an industry!

Now, the landscape is maturing and it's becoming harder to stand out. The advantage we had was that we were the first mover. We’ve always had a good reputation and we've always innovated, so we've got the scale that others don't – especially with our global remit. We have a really strong team of specialists meaning we can always aim to be one step ahead. 

The real differentiator is the fact we’ve got so much historic data on influencers at our fingertips. Rather than a PR, content or creative channel, we very much see it as a data-driven media channel. 

We also guarantee results for our clients. This was something that Arron, Harry and I felt passionately about when starting Goat; we wanted to build an agency that would always deliver on promised KPIs. By guaranteeing deliverables, clients know exactly what they’re getting for their budget at a minimum – normally we over-deliver! 

How significant was the acquisition of Goat by WPP earlier this year? 

Very significant. We've always been disruptive in our positioning because we know more and more spend is going into influencer and social-first marketing – even if slowly. So, prior to the actual acquisition, we already thought holding companies should look to invest in influencer agencies because it's incredibly hard to build from within.  

It was also exciting for the whole team, especially those who had been through the startup journey and were ready to work for a big company and the experiences that come with it.  

Finally, it was a significant moment for the industry more broadly as, ultimately, we were the first major influencer acquisition by a holding company in the UK. I'm looking forward to the same thing happening for lots of the other agencies in the space, because they're all very impressive. 

Have you been surprised by the growth of Goat over the past eight years? 

Yes and no. There were always elements of surprise, especially in the early years when we'd win a big client or sign our biggest deal. We always set targets that felt unrealistic – but then we'd find a way to hit them, so we really started to believe in ourselves. There are lots of great memories to reflect on. Maybe we're just bonkers, or maybe we knew that setting ambitious goals and maintaining a belief we’d hit them was the only way to scale quickly. 

What are your goals for the next 12-18 months? 

As always, what we need to achieve as a business is clearly laid out in terms of targets. Personally, I’m keen to keep learning about being part of a holding company, understanding how it works and the new dynamics. 

I’m particularly excited about expanding the team, especially across global markets. 

What's the best piece of advice you've ever received? 

Perspective. As important and significant every pitch, client and moment of growth is, you simply can’t stress over every little thing. It’s important to have some perspective and remember that, at the end of the day, it’s still just work. Worry about the really big things and approach them head on, but don’t waste time sweating the small stuff. 

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For more business insights, check out the latest edition of Business Chief Middle East & Africa and be sure to follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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