Edward East played a part in disrupting the advertising industry when he co-founded the influencer marketing agency Billion Dollar Boy in 2014.
He saw a future for this new form of marketing when he worked in Los Angeles and noticed that major film studios were paying YouTube influencers to promote films.
Starting from a tiny office in London’s Fitzrovia with two colleagues, and £230,000 raised through family and friends, East grew the business rapidly. Now aged 36, he heads a company with a team of 132, and offices in London, Bristol, New York and New Orleans. Turnover to April 2022 was £17.1mn.
Demand for Billion Dollar Boy’s services reaches its peak in the run-up to Christmas, often alongside traditional TV advertising. The agency has worked with brands including Mulberry, Sainsbury, Primark and Nintendo; and individuals including footballer Raheem Sterling, and chefs Gordon Ramsay and Nigella Lawson.
Born: Paddington, London, October 22, 1986
Education: 2000-05: Winchester College, Hampshire
2006-10: University of Virginia (UVA), Charlottesville, Virginia. BA International Relations
Career: 2010-11: Analyst for private equity firm Origo Partners, in Ulan Bator, Outer Mongolia, prospecting for copper and gold
April 2011-March 2012: placement in analytics and social media team at Digitas LBi, east London
2012-2014: joined Los Angeles film company, Exclusive Media, managing social media channels
2014: Co-founded Billion Dollar Boy with Thom Walters (London) and Permele Doyle (New York)
Lives: Kensington, west London, with wife Laetitia and son Arthur
Did you think you would get to where you are?
I’m very surprised at where I am now. Running my own business was a pipe dream. I chose the name Billion Dollar Boy after my favourite singer, Pharrell Williams, who has a fashion label, Billionaire Boys Club.
When I was 17, I wanted to be entrepreneurial like my family. My brother Tom, a lawyer, launched the first environmentally friendly taxi service. My father is a movie producer and my mother has made TV documentaries.
At boarding school, I liked buying and selling food. I would often sell tuck and supermarket sweets to fellow students at a profit. If I bought pizzas that were “buy one get one free”, I would sell two.
I had to retake my A/S and A-levels multiple times to get passable grades, because I had put my efforts into trading. In the lower sixth, after two years’ buying and selling tuck, sweets and pizzas for a profit, I was banned from doing it by the school. They thought it wasn’t fair on the other students!
Was your first £1mn a major milestone?
Yes, it was. We reached that figure last August, with a profit of £1.07mn. As I track our performance indicators daily, I had a good idea it was coming. This profit is an indicator of success in our business but not the only one. Our team will receive a portion of up to 15 per cent in the company’s profit share scheme. The rest we will invest in new team members and technology, and in building up our cash reserves. We are totally debt free.
Has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business?
When the pandemic hit, most of the traditional advertising methods shut down, because production crews were not allowed to work together. TV commercials are no different from making films. This meant brands had to find a new way to produce advertising, which is where we came in. We outsourced all production of content to thousands of influencers who could create the content at home.
The negative side of the lockdown was that some of our retail clients without a digital presence shut down overnight. However, we came out of the pandemic positively because of the rapid growth of social media.
Have you found it difficult to recruit staff in recent months?
In recent months, no, but for the first six months of last year, 100 per cent yes. There was high demand for people who had our skills but very little supply. We wanted to recruit staff with the knowledge and experience of influencer marketing, the skills to develop the service and their own networks of influencers.
Are you planning for tough times ahead?
Yes, we are, but hopefully we can survive. We will continue to invest in innovative technology and new teams and services.
However, we plan to do this with a more measured approach than previously. I believe in taking sensible risks. Having had so much academic failure and painful job interviews I have become resourceful.
What did you have to sacrifice to start the business?
I had to leave America, which was sad for me, because I had a real opportunity to develop my career in Los Angeles. My employer, Exclusive Media, offered me a decent salary, and the scope to be at the epicentre of social media, because the West Coast is where it began. I had a US visa for another three years. I gave up many networking opportunities by leaving Los Angeles, but I did not want to be an employee. I had to come home to start my own venture.
What was the most challenging period of your career?
It was balancing and managing cash flow in the early years of the business.
For the first three years we offered two services. One was influencer marketing. The other was helping TV and movie companies sell advertising on clips of their films on YouTube.
The YouTube business was slow growing but profitable. The influencer part had not become profitable but was growing fast. There was so much pressure on our time, it would have been impossible to carry on running two strands of the business.
Permele is a close friend of mine from university in America. She had worked for Estée Lauder in digital PR for seven years. Thom is a colleague from the movie business who has a great digital marketing knowledge.
I focused on the YouTube side while the others concentrated on the influencer marketing. Then we took a big risk in 2015 to sell our profitable YouTube advertising business to reinvest the proceeds, £375,000, in the increasing but lossmaking influencer marketing side.
We made the right decision. In 2016 we landed several major influencer contracts with L’Oréal, Coach and Estée Lauder.
Around the same time, we faced another challenge. We were on a precipice, running out of cash. I had a call from HM Revenue & Customs to say we owed them £25,000 VAT, that I did not even know about. HMRC agreed we could pay the bill in halves so we did not have to take out a loan.
What was your best preparation for business?
Part of it was the support and inspiration from my father. Also, had I not worked in the film industry, I would never have stumbled upon this gap in the market.
I felt I was so unemployable. The first job I could find was overseas, in Ulan Bator. Working in mining in Outer Mongolia, I found it thrilling to be involved in a rapidly growing area. There was a crazy market where they sold everything from black market rifles to horse milk and bearskin jackets. After a year I wanted to move to Hong Kong, but I did not pass the final interview with Jardine Matheson.
What is your basic business philosophy?
Our approach is to treat your clients like friends and treat your team like best friends. Historically, advertising has had a culture with undertones of misogyny and nepotism. One advertising premise is that the client is always right. We have learned that is not always the case and can lead to your team burning out.
What do you consider as an indulgence?
Since lockdown I have become a fly fishing enthusiast, on the rivers Itchen and the Test, close to Winchester. I catch brown trout that you can smoke like salmon. You don’t always catch a fish, so it is a rewarding moment when you do. It takes practice and patience for sure.
Do you believe in leaving everything to your family?
I have a will, leaving everything to my wife and son. If my wife and I were to die, we have put a trust in place so that any children could only draw on it at certain ages. I believe in giving to charity, but I am not thinking about that right now.
Do you want to carry on till you drop?
I love the industry I’m working in and building the business, so I would look to continue for many years. We would like to expand the business to 1,000 people within five years, opening an office in California, and European cities like Paris, Berlin and Copenhagen.
Have you made any pension provision?
I have never thought too deeply about a pension. It feels insignificant because I am only thinking about the here and now. I have a company pension with Billion Dollar Boy, with £16,400 in my fund. We introduced company pensions in 2018.