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Founders Stories

Building Our Own Destiny: Total Media's Rise from Soho Startup to National Media Pioneer

With a 90 per cent pitch conversion rate, BCorp status, and a first class behavioural strategy, we talk to Total Media's founders on their 40 year journey

By Dani Gibson

From only three people working out of a rented room in Soho in 1982, Total Media's story demonstrates a resilience and ability to adapt that has meant the company is still thriving into its fifth decade.

Reflecting on their journey, chairman Mike Sell and group CEO Guy Sellers say there's a palpable sense of energy that defines Total Media's ethos. As Sell puts it: "It's this drive that has propelled us through the industry's challenges, setting us apart from the competition."

The once thriving independent media sector is now much diminished and Total Media's uniqueness shines through, fuelled by impressive talents like UK CEO Tom Laranjo. Looking back, Total Media recognised early on that they had a choice. According to Sellers, "Instead of succumbing to the temptation of chasing cheap media, we opted for a different path, focusing on planning and targeting advertising with precision." In an era where media agencies were often dubbed "bucket shops", all fixated on the same cheap media game, Total Media's strategic approach set them apart.

As for how Total Media came together, it's a tale of shared ambitions. As Sell recalls, "I kickstarted the journey with another Mike, while Guy found himself freelancing after crossing paths with us in Campaign magazine." Hooking up together was a leap into the unknown, but one they embraced with gusto.

Their initial ambition was clear: to be the go-to agency for launches. Total Media set out to carve a niche for itself, focusing on launching products with flair and finesse. According to Sellers, "We became known as the go-to agency for arts-based projects, leveraging our expertise to make an impact in the industry."

But as time went on, they realised the need to evolve. As Sell explains, "That's when Tom Larango entered the picture, bringing with him a fresh perspective rooted in behavioural science. It was a game-changer, reshaping our approach to clients and problems alike."

Success, for Total Media, has always been about more than just public success. According to Sellers, "It's about establishing a clear point of difference, a unique selling proposition that resonates with our clients." And as they continue to grow and adapt, that ethos remains at the core of everything they do.

How do you think you've changed as leaders over the years?

Mike Sell: I recognised fairly early on that you have to let go, particularly if it's your own business that you're starting up. You want to have your hands on the reins on everything. But obviously, if you're successful and you grow to any extent, you have to give other people licence to get on and do stuff, which I have successfully done over the years. For me that was the biggest challenge.

Guy Sellers: I've had to be less anxious because that's very infectious. I'm a better listener than I was, that was probably the biggest change for me as I enjoy talking. But hearing what other people wanted to say is probably more interesting and more useful.

What are some valuable lessons that you've learned from running this successful agency for so long?

Sellers: When starting an agency, setbacks can feel deeply personal. Losing an account or failing to win one can hit hard. However, it's crucial not to let these setbacks discourage you. Resilience is key in this industry. To embark on this journey, you need to be reasonably resilient. Realise that things are rarely as perfect as they seem, but they're also not as dire as they may appear. The truth lies somewhere in between, and it's important not to let setbacks derail you from your course.

Sell: Don't compromise on business terms just because you're a startup. It may be tempting when you lack substantial income, but if your offer is strong, clients will pay market rates. During our initial years, we attracted major clients by offering compelling services. We stood firm on our terms and didn't let clients dictate terms to us. Confidence in your product is key—don't back down on your terms. If your product is good enough, clients will pay for it.

What is your one great success story?

Sellers: We've recruited some outstanding talent. Tom (Laranjo), in particular, has been a game changer for us. Additionally, we had a former president of a major network who successfully completed our Total Media Academy and has since achieved remarkable success. Another individual who started with us is now serving as a speechwriter for John Major, the Baron O'Shaughnessy, despite being relatively young.

Our positioning strategy has been transformative for us, but it's worth noting that others have also made significant contributions.

Sell: I take particular pride in our B Corp accreditation. We were the first media independent to achieve this recognition. B Corp accreditation assesses how a business operates from both a social and environmental standpoint. We made concerted efforts to align with these principles to secure our accreditation, which has been renewed multiple times since. While I'm unsure if other media agencies have since obtained this accreditation, we were the first in this regard by a considerable margin.

Is there one thing that you would want to do again?

Sellers: We should have implemented Behavioural [the agency's positioning is 'the behavioural planning agency' and it has a thriving behavioural science consultancy called Behave] sooner. We spent too much time deliberating instead of taking action.

Looking back, we would certainly repeat the process, but with more courage. The lesson here is clear: every time you relocate or alter the company's appearance, it's an opportunity for growth. We transitioned from a humble double garage to a proper office space, which eventually led us to our current location in Soho. This move has significantly boosted our billing since 2020. It's evident that not only the services we offer but also our physical presence plays a role in our success. Situated in the heart of Soho, we've created an attractive and employee-friendly environment. If I could change one thing, it would be to expedite our arrival here.

Sell: Evidenced by a piece written by Tony Douglas about 20 years ago, he described Total Media as the quiet child in the corner of the classroom. This characterisation stemmed from one of the largest media independent table assessments given at the time. In retrospect, we should have been more assertive from the outset. In those early days, we were perhaps too humble. At the age of 75, I wouldn't repeat that approach. However, do I regret our initial approach? Absolutely not. It was the right decision for both of us. Yet, if I have one regret, it's that we didn't pursue our goals more vigorously from the beginning.

What's are you looking to hedge your bets on next?

Sell: An agency capable of delving beyond mere definitions for marketing companies, exploring the motivations behind consumer behaviour, is invaluable. It involves developing behavioural science concepts, a capability that distinguishes companies. Historically, media agencies focused on defining the characteristics, both social and demographic, of their clients' buyers. They understood what actions consumers took but often neglected the reasons behind them. This is precisely what we're addressing now: Why do consumers make those decisions? For me, this is a crucial missing piece of the puzzle.

Sellers: It will also involve a lot of AI at some point. The next step is using a lot more in the offer.

What has been the key to your longevity and resilliance?

Sell: You can only pursue the strategy of buying cheap goods up to a certain extent; there must be a limit to that approach.

The agency's evolution is interesting, especially when it occurs while you remain at its helm. You have remained an integral part of the agency's operations throughout. There hasn't been a moment where you decided to step back due to changing times; instead, you have remained actively involved in the business. We've maintained clear leadership within the company, supported by a strong board, many of whom have been with us for decades. This is because we function exceptionally well as a team, valuing and incorporating input from all members.

Sellers: Setting up a business can initially seem daunting, as Mike experienced when he, along with the other Mike and a receptionist, began in a double garage. However, over time, the fear diminishes, and focus sharpens on the task at hand. Despite the long hours and sacrifices, such as spending late nights away from home, working six or seven days a week, the independence and control gained make it all worthwhile. The journey involves giving up a lot, but ultimately leads to building one's own destiny.


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