Q&A with Dr Simon Biltcliffe, Founder and CEO at WEBMART

Media 7 | October 14, 2021

Dr Simon Biltcliffe, Founder and CEO at WEBMART, is also an eco-evangelist at Enviromail. He is an award-winning CEO, public speaker, and business expert. He is widely acclaimed for his talks on Marxist-capitalist business principles, alongside his talks on employee motivation and running a thriving 21st-century business. He founded an integrated print marketing agency, Webmart, in 1996, which is based on and run by these principles.

But, capitalism is a flawed system: it doesn't consider the environmental impact of what you do naturally.



MEDIA 7: So let's begin with you telling us a little bit about your professional journey.
DR SIMON BILTCLIFFE:
I'm Simon Biltcliffe. I'm 56, good heavens! I left University and got a job in a printing company, producing holograms of all things. But at the time, print (along with TV and radio) was a preeminent marketing channel for advertisers to talk to their customers - and there certainly was a huge market for it. We were dealing with massive volumes of printing, as the largest printer in the UK. I was a Sales Director of the commercial web offset advertising side and doing rather well. I won an award which sent me and my best customer out to Japan. The interesting thing about that was at the time (in 1993), I went to the NEC labs, which was the innovation lab for Nippon Electricals, which is a huge company. There, for the first time ever in my life, I saw what you would now call a Kindle. This was in 1993, way before the internet was a thing that everybody could access. But you pressed the thing and the page actually turned into digital content. And I came back, almost like Moses coming down the mountain, back to printing, while I kept thinking, “This is the future, digitally”. Anyway, a very long story short, the company decided that they were going to carry on with printing, and they didn't want to go into digital media. So I decided to start Webmart as a print management business, so I could still do the printing side - which was very big at the time - but also to start understanding more about the digital journey that we were going to go on through marketing.

We developed our own software to a certain setup in 1996. From there we continued to develop our software to streamline the process of getting prices for printing, benchmarking pricing, and project management over time to today, where we are now an integrated marketing company. We have a very strong base in physical marketing - like Point of Sale, direct mail - using digitally enabled workflows to produce physical marketing, outdoor billboards, packaging, etc. But obviously, as you move to get more closely aligned to your customer strategy by combining what they're trying to achieve with what you're doing as a marketing provider, you naturally start talking more about data. We’ve invested quite a lot of time, expertise, money in understanding our customers. We do data profiling and segmenting to make sure that we understand the different market opportunities for them on four programs. We want to either expand, reactivate, get referrals from their existing customers, or find new customers. So, in profiling their data to identify the kind of customers that are successful for them now and finding more of them, it expands cross-selling service lines or products to their existing customers whilst also reactivating older customers, or encouraging ideal customers to refer other people who might be interested in their products and service. When we speak to any customer, one of those four areas is a pain point for them at the moment. We work with them and their senior in-house team to create a strategy for delivering a greater return on investment for their marketing spend. That's where we are now; we use our own software and expertise to work end-to-end, from creating to ideation, all the way through to marketing execution and attribution to get the return on investment. We’ve gone from selling a commodity – print - to where we are now as an integrated marketing services company in Webmart’s 25-year journey.


M7: What is the Marxist-Capitalist business model that you have implemented at WEBMART?
DSB:
Right. Well, we run a slightly different business model. We call it a Marxist-Capitalist business. In many ways, it’s a capitalist business. It's a for-profit business. But, capitalism is a flawed system: it doesn't consider the environmental impact of what you do naturally. You must take that as a separate aspect. It also looks very narrowly at simply the financial return of the owners or the stakeholders, whereas we look at it more broadly. We use capitalism to create the wealth, but we then use Marxist principles to redistribute the surplus profits; the profits above what we need to reinvest in the business, back to the people that made it. Every year, we have a bonus that everybody receives, based on how successful we are as a team. But we also look at three different ways. Rather than only looking at the financial aspect, we look at what is the Intellectual, Emotional, and Financial returns that we can deliver to ourselves, our suppliers, and our clients. We map all three of those and look at the environmental impact of what we do, and factor that into the cost side of our business.

We have now invested over the years in what we call the Webmart Oxygen Farm, which is a rewilding scheme that we have in Scotland. We’re establishing 166 acres of woodland over the next 20 years. It also allows us to bring new products to the market like Enviromail, which is a unique way of offsetting the postage carbon footprint of every piece of mail that we send out. We send out millions of highly targeted, data-driven direct mail for our customers. We want to be the partner of choice for companies who are looking to go through the journey to carbon neutrality, and we want to be the carbon-neutral marketing provider for them. When considering carbon emissions scopes, your supply chain is part of scope three. We want to be the zero-emission provider of all your marketing support collateral, and services. We are making sure that all of the products that we consult on, recommend and project-manage for our customers are the least carbon-embedded products available. And then we offset the remaining carbon through quality, highly accredited offsetting schemes.

Considering the carbon footprint across all the marketing that they do, be it digital or physical, from ideation through to execution and return to that, it has this circular economy kind of approach to it. Post-COVID-19, that’s something that has come higher up on the agenda of our customers. And we've been ahead of the game for many years. We bought the Oxygen Farm seven years ago, and we're going through the process now of rewilding it. When I talk to other business owners, that's something that they're very interested in because they never thought they could run their own scheme along these lines. Because we've gone through that process quite often, now I'm being brought into several meetings to talk about the environmental position of Webmart and doing a kind of consultation with them on their environmental footprint, their approach to reducing their carbon footprint to avoid greenwashing and ensure it is deeply embedded within the internal and external processes that they do going forward. And that's a huge change from a few years ago.


Differentiating your value proposition as an employer, to the client-side and on the supply side, is important.



M7: So you've spoken a lot about your Marxist capitalist business strategies. Could you please tell us a little bit about your worldview about Marxist capitalism in the marketing industry at the moment?
DSB:
Yeah, it's interesting. If you look at Gen Z, young people under 25, a purpose is a massive part of the reason they want to work for a job. And having a meaningful, purposeful organization to put your talent into is critical. Now, certainly in the UK, and I'm sure India is the same, the best people are really hard to find. There are organizations like Google that can throw an infinite amount of money at people and, usually, you can't compete with people to pay the highest price. However, if you look at it intellectually, emotionally, and financially and wrap that around an environmental and purposeful organization, you've got a strong value proposition for onboarding talent and retaining talent in your business. Differentiating your value proposition as an employer, as well as to the client-side and on the supply side, is important.

This is something that the Marxist-Capitalist ethos allows alignment throughout the business. A lot of the challenges that many people who are listening to or reading this podcast will have, are about alignment, succession planning, talent management, and getting the best people in your organization so that you can deliver the best service to your clients and your suppliers. We've got a model that works. It's been proven for 25 years, and we've been consistently profitable. We’ve evolved significantly from the traditional print marketplace in the UK - the same as in India and around the world - as digital marketing emerged and absorbed a lot of market share. But we've been able to pivot our offer to reflect that. By using the principles of Marxist-Capitalism, we’ve remained a very profitable and viable business by creating the value and the wealth, the alignment, the KPIs and the targets, and then using profits to reinvest in the business, and anything surplus to that, we can share.

That really builds a centripetal force into the business so that the bigger we get, the stronger we get, the better we get, the more people stay with us because there is a really strong purpose as to why they're doing it. They're not just working for a faceless organization; they're working for something which is there to stand for something and to prove that there are different ways of running a business than the conventional one. We used to be seen as a bit of a weird kind of approach. What you tend to find now, is that once people have engaged with us, they're interested because a lot of the operational challenges that they're finding in their own organization can be resolved by approaching things in a slightly different way. And that lateral thinking is something that is valued now more than pre-COVID-19 times, especially to appeal to the next generation of talent that comes into the workforce.


M7: So do you think this kind of lateral thinking is something that companies are trying to implement with how the workforce has changed after the pandemic? How do you think your clients are implementing it into their business strategies?
DSB:
Going forward, business as usual will change. We’ve all become much more adept at using video calls like we're on today. It means that now, of course, we will see people again, but it will be 10% as many meetings that we used to have. These meetings will be more meaningful, and the transition will be better for the environment as well. But we equally don't want to not see customers if there’s unique value in the face-to-face relationship, which is the case quite often. But instead of doing it all the time, you can do it on special occasions. We have a very advanced portal where, for years, we've been able to use our marketing resource platforms and digital asset management for templating. But customers rarely adopted it. Now, because internal systems have had to be digitized because of working from home, the adoption of a digital marketing platform to augment a hybrid approach - where there is still a relationship manager - but more you can do online as well, is far better received.

So, brand guardianship, streamlining of procurement, digital asset management - all of these things are available along with approval permissions. Every stage which would normally require talk to somebody else to get approved or get the relevant purchase orders, we've got an end-to-end digital process. You can run your marketing from a smartphone or from your desktop. I think that digital adoption in the B2B world has come on quite significantly. And it's catching up quite quickly with what's happened for the last 10 years to a greater or lesser degree in the B2C world as well. Similarly, we see that with the use of QR codes. They were clunky and people didn't really know how to use them. Now, when you take a picture of it with your smartphone, it takes you to a landing page. For a physical piece of marketing, before you couldn't accurately measure the return on investment and now you can have direct attribution from the physical marketing that you send to customers. That's a mind-blowing opportunity for a lot of marketing companies. And, of course, you don't have the Google Tax - you don't have to pay for the search engine keyword.

We were looking at having the same amount of responsiveness with offline marketing as you'd expect with online marketing. It's becoming a much more cost-effective way of acquiring new customers than targeting people going through a search engine. So, marketers are much more open-minded now to offline marketing now that we have a response device on physical marketing and combine that with data. We know when the piece of mail is going through the door so that they can map the response in a curve in the same way as you would on a Google Dashboard. And that's powerful because physical marketing has much more prominence and gravitas than just doing digital. If you do a mix of both, that is ideal - the two together give you a much better response than doing either alone. So you can do a trigger-based initiative, both programmatically physically, and programmatically digitally. But bringing it all into one location, where you can see all your online and offline marketing, is pretty powerful.

And we find in the post-COVID-19 era, that a lot of marketing departments have downsized and want to outsource to fewer people. There is an opportunity to broaden out the reach because if you've got one supplier who can do end-to-end - from ideation and creative artwork, data profiling, through to digital and physical marketing - do the data capture attribution and reporting, that's really compelling. I think there's been a big change in marketing departments as well as the client-side because the talent that you need to run it all yourself is both expensive and scary. And it's very difficult to manage multiple relationships in each marketing channel. And they're looking to aggregate together and make it a simpler marketing execution platform than their current service than it could ever be before.


Physical marketing has much more prominence and gravitas than just doing digital.



M7: How do you come up with effective marketing strategies that appeal to your consumers?
DSB:
Well, it depends on the marketplace. I think the common theme is that everything should have a response device on it. You should be able to capture responses on every individual piece. And that's a big change from what it was before. Now with the rise of events and experiential marketing, we know that you need to have much better data capture so it works more effectively than it did before, then using artificial intelligence to do business analysis in real-time. Using data that feeds into AI platforms to look for trends within the response to devices is something -  that is at a very early stage for many, but there are some using it extremely effectively. And I think rather than an individual program, it is the individual approach that you take. This is where it's difficult as an individual siloed supplier to be able to offer that service to customers. So, for our suppliers, this is where they can get unique value from working with us because we can help them with some of their customers.

A lot of our suppliers have customers wanting what we offer. We offer through them (sometimes in partnership with them) a much broader range of services and a different approach than they would have been able to do on their own. It's a double-sided market, both client-side and through supply side, with opportunities to have this more attributed, data-driven, and smart approach to marketing. With a lot of e-commerce businesses that are very much digital-only, we then show them the potential of offline marketing, where you can get a very similar attribution, approach and style, and reporting, and they’re surprised. It means that there is a real gap in the market for the kind of service that physical marketing providers can do if they approach it in a digitally native way. On both the account management side and the sales side, you need to talk in digital terminology. If you can do it digitally then you can do it offline, but there's a gap in skillset to translate that into the physical world.

And that's a big opportunity for lots of companies to step in on behalf of their customers. And, again, it is a journey. You need the right talents to be that communicator. You need people who are adept at both digital and physical marketing. That's why you need to attract the talent to go to market with, which goes back to the purpose-driven company. You can't just say, “We are a distribution role” or “We are a mailing house”. You need to have a greater purpose to attract the talent to give you that translation layer between what you do, and the customers who may want your service. It is a cultural shift for many.


M7: That's true. The industry has definitely evolved a lot, but we have to still have a long way to go. So lastly, what is your marketing workflow to stand out in overly saturated market spaces?
DSB:
Well, I think being a distinctively different style of a company is interesting. If you’re familiar with the analogy, but we're Marmite- you either love us or don’t. So, in many respects, we are true to ourselves, and we have been a partner you’d want to retain if you are looking for a refreshing approach to marketing and one that is very purpose-driven and is quite selective with the kind of customers that we are going to want to work with. It's a two-way street, we won't sell anything that we don't believe is good for the environment or for people. We're targeting the kind of customers that we want to engage with as well as the other way around. What you tend to find then is that by having an alignment with the purpose of your customer; all their products and services they offer on wellbeing or health and so on; then you have more to talk about - more value you can add - because you're looking at those things through a similar ethical lens, and there’s a better network that you can build. So that helps us with referrals.

For example, we're in the process of becoming a B Corporation. B Corp is a big network of ethical businesses. Hopefully, we'll get that later this year. This brings a whole cadre of similar businesses into the marketing pipeline because you’re all trying to make the world a bit better, and you have an ethical standard that you must live by. You must have active and proactive policies to move your products and services and your customers along the lines of a more ethical and environmentally enlightened approach. So, by nature, you've got much more of commonality between the companies that are wanting to go on this journey than others that don't. And to be honest, there are plenty of other suppliers out there that can deal with companies that want to go in a traditional way. We'll even put them in touch with you. There's no point pushing water uphill rather than pushing downhill. And that ethical stance is quite a band of brothers and sisters. We're all kind of trying to do right and that, to me is a nicer way of working.

ABOUT WEBMART

Webmart is entirely self-funded, independent, and focused on building trusting and cooperative relationships in the wonderful world of print marketing. Though their background is in buying and managing print services for their customers, these days they’re just as likely to consult on driving up marketing ROI through omnichannel marketing campaigns as specifying large volume print. They’re a business whose core motivation is to do good and help those around them while doing business. They’ve developed their own business philosophy called Marxist-capitalism where they use capitalism to generate the income and Marxism to distribute the value created back to the Webmarteers and society at large.

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WEBMART

WEBMART

Webmart is entirely self-funded, independent, and focused on building trusting and cooperative relationships in the wonderful world of print marketing. Though their background is in buying and managing print services for their customers, these days they’re just as likely to consult on driving up mar...

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