The pioneering Belgian agency for social networking, Social.Lab, has been part of the WPP/Ogilvy group for two years. Not content with just being part of a large international group, it is developing its brand in other new markets such as the UK and US.

pictureWhen a Belgian start-up is bought up by a large foreign group, it is not unusual to find it absorbed, or even diluted. In the best of cases, the name continues but it is not rare that it is replaced and, generally, its founders leave following integration, not being able to stand not taking decisions about their baby. But in the case of Social.Lab, the history which is unfolding is different. The agency, a pioneer in marketing through social networks in Belgium (Facebook primarily but also Twitter, Instagram, etc.) was acquired in December 2013 by the communication holding company WPP (190,000 payroll across 112 countries) to work closely with Ogilvy throughout the world. Ogilvy was not unknown to Social.Lab as the two companies had worked together for a 10 month campaign of the European Parliament for the European elections.

After two years within the WPP giant, the Belgian firm has not only retained its autonomy but, in addition, it is developing activities in important markets such as the United Kingdom and the United States. When in December 2013 Ogilvy obtained 80% of the stock of the young Belgian company via WPP, its two founders, Yves Baudechon and Gilles Bindels (joined by Cedric Van Kan one year after the creation of the company) publicly proclaimed their ambition to carry on developing and exporting their agency. The critics did not really believe this arguing that their founders had wanted above all to sell their business to the highest bidder.


Ninety people, most abroad

Winding forward two years it seems that the ambition of the owners of Social.Lab has not been to purely and simply separate from the company to enjoy life, but to find growth beyond the Belgian frontiers by aligning with a group with deep pockets and a rich portfolio of clients. At the moment of acquisition, Social.Lab was mainly active in Belgium with some activity in France and the Netherlands. Today Social.Lab has infused its teams abroad by installing on a long-term basis 10 Belgians (three in New York, one in London, two in Paris, four in Amsterdam).

In order to expand its activities the company employs no less than 90 people, half of which are outside Belgium at four offices. It has strengthened its presence in France (12 staff in Paris) and in the Netherlands, but also taken its suitcases to London and the United States. Top of the order is New York where Social.Lab is located within Ogilvy’s offices in Manhattan. An entity which next year should account for no less than 50% of Social.Lab’s income. In the States, the agency already has a good list of clients. It has for example taken the world lead on social networking strategy for the giant IBM.

Since its acquisition by WPP/Ogilvy, Social.Lab has doubled its turnover and aims to achieve 50 million euros by the end of 2018.

How does this bunch of Belgian entrepreneurs explain this success? “We have not approached these customers in order to generate influence on social networks, but we have aimed at performance and the conversion of Facebook users into customers”, says Yves Baudechon. Roughly speaking they have replicated the formula which they had used earlier in their careers as serial entrepreneurs when they launched the email marketing start-up JustForYou, sold on to Belgacom two years after its creation. The idea was already to use email as a channel for attracting and retaining customers and not just as a simple means of communication and promotion. It is the same for Facebook. “We rapidly focused on the aspect of conversion. The goal was straightaway to transform the attraction to the brand into a sales action”, adds Gilles Bindels. In doing this Social.Lab distinguished itself from other agencies which at the beginning mainly aimed at having the most fans by implementing a real communication strategy on Facebook and other social networks.

Of course, the young company has continued to manage pages and amplify communication, but conversion has been the priority. Today the content of a branded page on Facebook only accounts for a few percent of the free audience. To reach more people you have to ‘amplify’ i.e. buy publicity. Social.Lab has not only built up some unique experience but also has developed proprietary methodologies and tools. It is doubtless one of the elements which seduced WPP and Ogilvy and which continues to place Social.Lab on the map within the group. The agencies of the group have essentially creative expertise. The Belgian start-up is therefore complementary.


Structured partnerships

Aligning with Ogilvy is in the spirit of what Social.Lab has always done for its development, including in Belgium. Having a keen eye for the world of advertising, Yves Baudechon and his acolytes rapidly realised that they could not be isolated from the rest of the market, and that digital marketing and classic advertising would be closely linked for a long time to come. Social.Lab rapidly positioned itself as a partner of the mainstream media agencies. “This was essential to accelerate the growth of our company in Belgium”, the two founders recall. “In the universe of social networking where everything moves so quickly, it was necessary to grab a place rapidly.” To achieve this, Social.Lab decided to organise itself in a number of entities such as So.Space for the Space agency, and So.Zen within ZenithOptimedia.

Before its acquisition by WPP/Ogilvy, Social.Lab had already raised its profile in the Belgian market by winning an important number of nice social networking contracts such as Loterie Nationale, Ikea, Oasis, BMW, Ferrero and Electrabel. For Philips Worldwide, the agency installed no less than seven full-time employees within the headquarters of the firm in Amsterdam to amplify the social content of the brand towards seven countries including the United States. Since it joined WPP, Social.Lab has continued to pull in contracts both via Ogilvy and directly. At the beginning of the year, it became the social media agency of Nespresso for the creation of content and the management of its Facebook pages and its Twitter accounts in 24 countries. What are the ambitions of Social.Lab? To continue to sign new customers to fuel its activity. Since its acquisition by WPP/Ogilvy, Social.Lab has doubled its turnover and aims to achieve 50 million euros by the end of 2018.

Another objective is to open new offices as opportunities arise. However, Yves Baudechon and Gilles Bindels remain careful: “We are expanding in start-up mode. Each time we open an office, it becomes another company, another structure. We only want to create new local structures if there is a solid business plan which exceeds one million euros of revenues from the first year.” One of its objectives would be to cover Asia as well as Latin America, before other countries where the little Belgians could go and give lessons on social networking.