With an average age of 21, they may look like interns, but Social Chain is one of Britain’s most influential companies
Should you ever want a job at the social media agency Social Chain I wouldn’t recommend sending in your CV. The bosses here have little truck with CVs, largely because, by their own admission, if they had ever tried to write their own the documents would not exactly sparkle. Both of the company’s founders are university dropouts (and one was expelled from school), yet their business, set up in 2014, is reckoned to have turned over £6 million last year.
What they want to know is how creative, how funny, how original applicants are, so hopefuls will have to do better than posting a boring old letter. One person applied by flying an owl into the office with a USB stick attached to its leg (and even then they didn’t get a job). A young woman who worked upstairs at another company in the converted cotton mill in Manchester where Social Chain is based sent a set of fired clay tools that she had made, themed around a prison breakout. The coded message was that she was trapped in the wrong job and longed to escape and join them (she was hired). So you can see that a bog-standard résumé wouldn’t quite cut it.
There is a head of happiness who organises staff birthday gifts
You have probably never heard of this company, which employs just over 100 staff whose average age is 21 and some of whom are so young they still work from their bedrooms, but its influence is immense. They are described as the “kids who decide what all the other kids talk about” and the “social media illuminati”, and have cornered a market. Put simply, the company has bought up social media accounts with huge numbers of followers and then used them as a means to advertise.
So great is the company’s reach via pages such as Hogwarts Logic, Medieval Reactions, Student Problems and Exam Problems (it owns 400 accounts, some with 50,000 followers and some with more than three million) that it can manipulate the topics or companies that trend on Twitter within minutes; some pundits have described it as “taking over the internet”.
Here’s an example. The day before I meet Steve Bartlett, Social Chain’s co-founder and chief executive, he has been to Disneyland Paris for a meeting. One of the Disney executives challenged him to make something Disney-related become a top-trending subject there and then. He phoned his colleague Hannah Anderson in Manchester (she incidentally was training to be a primary school teacher before she joined Social Chain, where she is creative director) and asked her to think up a suitable hashtag. She did: #DisneyScenesIWillNeverGetOver.
“Within 25 minutes we had a Disney hashtag which was the most talked about thing in Britain,” says Bartlett, who was able to walk on stage and show what they had just done. “It trended for nine hours. I left Paris and it was still trending.” (FYI, the scene when Dumbo’s mother is caged and rocks him in her trunk seems to have moved the most number of people.) Some might describe it as a subtle form of mind control, but that in a sense is what marketing has always been.
It may look easy, but it is a specific skill and instinct that you probably only have if you’re a millennial or a Generation Z. The trick is to communicate something in a way that instantly resonates, is completely understood and invites participation. “I’m pretty sure we have more influence [over the younger audience] than any other media owner in this part of the world,” says Bartlett, who at 24 is one of the oldest at Social Chain. “We have a huge amount of influence over a generation of people and it is hugely helped by the fact that we are of that generation.”
He points at a young man across the room who set up a site called Sporf from his bedroom at university. It offers sports news in a different, more buzzy and social media-literate way that will resonate with young people on Instagram and Twitter, where it has nearly a million followers. “We went out and found people like him,” Bartlett says. “A lot are in this room and [there are] about 20 who work from home because they’re too young to be in this room.” Such lucky teens have monetised their hobby.
One of the babies of the office is Jason Fisher, 18, who is the head of video and began making mini-films and putting them on YouTube when he was at primary school. His grandfather gave him a camcorder when he was seven and it started from there. He learnt stop-motion animation and made films with Lego. He dropped out of a film and TV course to join Social Chain in April (his parents fully supported this) and has not regretted it one iota. He has already worked with global giants including Apple and Warner Bros. His first week was spent working with Puma.
Bartlett dropped out of a business studies course at Manchester Metropolitan University after a single lecture and still isn’t entirely convinced he was in the right one because he hadn’t even collected his timetable. Whatever it was, he knew it wasn’t for him. He went to school in Plymouth and, even though he was a bright pupil, he was expelled when his attendance dipped to 20 per cent.
“My teacher said: ‘You are a lovely person, just hopeless.’ I just never did my homework. I would never come to class. I was bored.” He had entrepreneurial spirit, wanted to get on with creating his own business and found it hard to sit in a room listening to someone spout facts. “If I had written a CV it would have been pretty pathetic: expelled, dropped out of university, no qualifications,” he says, laughing, “so how can I expect these people to?”
After leaving his course, Bartlett started up a digital business called Wallpark. Then he noticed the funny Twitter account Student Problems, run by a student, Dominic McGregor, who set it up after he ran out of toilet paper. Bartlett contacted McGregor, and the idea of buying up successful social media accounts, consolidating them into a group and using them as a means to advertise was born. McGregor also dropped out of university and together they set about looking for successful pages and persuading the creators to come on board.
The question is, do pages lose their credibility if they start being used as ad hoardings? If you follow an account for its cynical humour, is that undermined when it starts trying to flog you a pair of trainers? “I’d like to think that we use our communities in a very smart way,” says Bartlett, adding that they will only put up content that would resonate with that audience. Often they “don’t look like adverts in the traditional sense”. They will, he says, use humour, live streams and competitions, for instance, designed in a way that engages young people.
But is it always clear to the audience? In August last year the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) issued a warning to Social Chain after investigating its marketing practices. It had found that between March and July 2015 it had used its own social media accounts and arranged for widely followed social media personalities to promote films, games and apps without readers being told the content was paid-for advertising and that it may have been difficult “to distinguish from other posts, conversations and jokes they appeared alongside”. Social Chain was not fined but it did agree to undertakings that all ads would be clearly labelled as such. Not doing so risks breaching consumer protection law.
McGregor, the chief operating officer, says that at the time the issue was a grey area because the legislation had been designed largely for print and TV advertising, not social media. He says the company then worked with the CMA to develop protocols and is now “leading the way” for advertising standards on social media. However, not all celebrities may be aware of the rules. This week The Times reported that elsewhere some are still flouting consumer law to promote products on Instagram without disclosing payment. The report said that industry insiders claim ignorance of the rules and “toothless regulation” allowed people such as Wayne Rooney and Cara Delevingne effectively to post “stealth advertisements”.
Bartlett says that they “have to be transparent that we are advertising”. This might take the form of a hashtag indicating that it is an advert, or sponsored. “The [advertising] laws weren’t created for social media, so we’ve had to work quite hard to get it right,” he says. How much a young person will realise that they are being targeted for advertising is impossible to tell. I would guess that many don’t know that the person tweeting things to them isn’t a nerdy teen in their bedroom any more but a full-time employee at Social Chain. But the potency of this method is great because it probably doesn’t feel like a corporate is advertising to you, but a friend.
Last year, Social Chain pulled off a brilliant hoax in the lead-up to the Soccerex global convention in Manchester when it invented an unknown 16-year-old footballer, Rex Secco (see what they did there?), and tweeted that he had been signed by Arsenal for £34 million. It went viral, with one person even claiming that they had been watching Secco play for years, and provided an interesting comment on gullibility and the post-truth world. Bartlett got on stage and revealed that it was a hoax at the convention.
The business has offices in London, New York and Berlin, and looks certain to grow further. “We have a vision for where we are going,” says Bartlett, “but we also operate in a space and an industry which changes every time we wake up.”
Advertising isn’t the only thing that Social Chain does differently. Its headquarters, in the exposed-brick and steel former mill, is designed like a millennial’s dream. There is a ball pool and a slide, hanging chairs, pods, a free bar, free food and two office french bulldogs, Louie and Pablo. A huge painting on the wall by a local graffiti artist depicts the Last Supper, with all the disciples on phones and iPads. On the front window of the building, looking out on to Portland Street, is a picture of Steve Jobs with his quote “Ideas don’t happen in the boardroom, they happen in corridors.”
Oh, and there is a head of happiness in the form of the 25-year-old musician Kiera Lawlor, who I think we can confidently say is the only person in Britain with this job title. It is her brief to ensure that the staff are content and their skills are developed since the focus is on fostering and retaining their talent pool. So she organises gifts and celebrations for every staff member’s birthday, plans company nights out, sets up the office each day with refreshments, mentors people and listen to their problems. She will also theme the office on, say, Valentine’s Day, national nachos day and gin and tonic day. Staff are also allowed unlimited holiday. Yes, really. If they need a month off they can have it. Yet they are so into their work that most, in practice, don’t take much time off at all. “Everyone respects the freedom we are given,” Lawlor says. “People don’t want to take the mickey. It’s an amazing culture here.”
Bartlett is passionate about valuing the workforce. “Most companies, to show they ‘care’, stick a suggestion box in the corner and say, ‘If you have a problem, write it down and put it in there.’ What a way to show people that you do not care,” he says. “People are the most important resource in any business, or they should be. We invest in everything else, why wouldn’t we invest in the people?”