Getting To Know Buttermilk Co-Founder, Jamie Ray
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Tell us a bit about your role! Is there a “typical” day?
My day is anything but typical. When we founded the business, my time was spent on client-facing activity and project management. Fast forward 7 years, and now that we have scaled up significantly, I am focused on driving growth– and once the dotted line is signed, managing that growth.
In real terms, this involves working closely on a daily basis with Motez, the other founder of the business. We suffer from a healthy paranoia that our offering is never quite perfect. The moment complacency sets in you end up falling behind in an industry as fast-moving as Influencer Marketing.
At the moment, I am particularly focused on our international expansion as we continue to grow our offices in the US and Middle East. While our offering is already global, we want to build an infrastructure that helps us to cater to as many time zones as possible.
Outside of this, we are working on an internal tech build. We have developed the most robust workflow that allows us to work with 1000s of influencers at one time. Packaging this into a seamless tech solution for clients will continue to give us an unfair advantage.
What was the biggest challenge in getting to your current position?
In the early days, heavily funded agencies were our greatest threat. We were adamant that we wanted organic growth, through sheer will and determination. We were the underdog for a long period of time. We couldn’t throw endless resources at pitches.
In hindsight, bootstrapping was the best decision we ever made. It taught us the basic principles of running a business; always scaling up at a reasonable rate, and never finding ourselves high and dry. Cashflow is everything, never spend more than earned. We have experienced and mastered every process from a grassroots level. Everything from client pitching, proposal delivery and finance management, to sprinting to the post office to deliver products to influencers.
This first-hand experience has led us to create watertight processes for our employees. We believe empathy is a critical component to leading a workforce and as founders we have it - we were in the trenches performing the same tasks as our employees yesterday.
What is your personal background and what role did it play in your career?
Upon graduating from Bristol, I reluctantly pursued a career in law. After my law conversion, I secured a prestigious training contract with a big law firm in the city. I picked up the same suit as the man next to me on the tube, before deciding that the environment wasn’t for me. I pivoted, moving into a bottom-of-the-food-chain intern role at a talent agency. And I loved it.
From legal eagle to tea boy. However, I never regretted my decision. I felt more at ease in an environment that encouraged lateral thinking.
However, after learning the basics of marketing, I had the itch to build something myself. In collaboration with my best friend, Buttermilk was born…
On reflection, I cherish my background in Law. Building and managing a start-up is chaotic, emotionally draining, and the reason that most fail.
The legal side of my brain has kept me grounded, equipped with logic, reason, simplicity – a sense of perspective. This created a yin and yang relationship with Motez. He would push the needle with passion and vigour, and it was my job to make sure it landed in the right vein.
What is your biggest career-related win? What is your biggest loss?
Dior was our first and sweetest win, high-fiving each other at ‘our office’ - which happened to be the Krispy Kreme donut store on the A3. The staff wondered what was wrong with us, and why we had been sitting at computers there for the past 6 months. The answer, of course, was free and fast Wi-Fi.
We got out, we met people, we showed our personalities and passion. One of these people happened to hold sway within the LVMH group, he liked us as people and bought into the Buttermilk vision.
It is a reminder that sometimes you don’t need 100 contacts, just the one right one. We convinced Dior that we were a better option than an 80-person, global agency. 6 years later and they are still a client of ours.
Our biggest loss was in 2019, when we lost out on a major pitch for TikTok. The platform was in its infancy, and they were looking to bring new and niche creators onto the platform. We just lost out on the pitch, but we learned from it. We are now an approved TikTok partner.
Which individuals and/or agencies do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?
In the early days, we made the decision to not look left or right too much. We weren’t interested in the echo chamber; we didn't want a sales script to become a variation of our competitors. We have respect for all other agencies that have made a name for themselves, but we wanted to make our own mark on the space without constantly looking over the garden fence.
I have drawn my inspiration from elsewhere. Our Chairman Mike Mathieson founded Cake Agency - which later was acquired by Havas in 2008. Mike built his business on the premise of doing things differently.
Talk is cheap, and Mike walked the walk. He helped pioneer the brand entertainment space, and some of the stunts Cake pulled off are mind-blowing. He has the perfect balance of tenacity, pragmatism and conviction. This is what makes a successful entrepreneur, I strive to follow suit.
Outside of agency land, I admire the brand innovators that build cult followings. Ronnie Fieg of Kith is a visionary who utilises brand, pop culture and talent in amazing ways. Kith lookbooks feature the likes of Bryan Cranston through to Adrian Grenier. It takes a special mind to dissect the value of a brand and intersect it into culture, media and entertainment. Hopefully, we can serve up influencer partnerships with this level of creativity.
If you could go back to your teenage years, would you have done things differently? Do you have any regrets?
I would like to think I’d tell myself to work hard and aim for good grades but that never leads anywhere interesting.
I was lucky enough to go to a great school, but in hindsight, the significance of grades was consistently overstated. You are told either get A* or live in a box in a puddle on the end of a cigarette butt. I did well in my exams, but plenty of people didn't, and they’re at the top of their respective fields. With the knowledge I have now, I would have put less pressure on myself in those formal moments of measurement.
Studying is a great tool to instil strong work ethics and strive for great values. But the reality is, no one will read your thesis outside of academic context, and your brain will soon be flooded with stresses, strains and beauty of the real world.
If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?
Sighing next to a printer in a Law firm. I like to think I would have escaped one way or another.
Prior to Buttermilk, I was flirting with the sports world. I love sports, I love the commercial evolution of sports more. When you look at what a show like Drive to Survive did to expand the F1 fanbase, it’s mind-blowing. There is great potential to expand this format, Rugby in particular is primed for reinvention; it has the raw ingredients of entertainment, but they are stuck under the rubble of a commercial trainwreck.
My best-kept secret is one day I want to jump brand side and build something else alongside Motez. We’ve marketed thousands of products, we wouldn’t mind marketing my own. Men’s skincare has always fascinated me, and so has golf. Harry Styles is selling nail varnish for men, and Macklemore is selling golf wear. This is fertile soil, but we are not quite ready to plant anything.
What’s your one big dream for the future of the industry?
The perception of the word ‘Influencer’. To not represent the disingenuous z-list celebrity pouting with teeth whitening products, but rather the niche content creator.
This shift is being driven by platforms like TikTok, which are geared to place less emphasis on follower count. It’s a content meritocracy, you can go viral with 1000 or 1 million followers. A level playing field, where grassroots creativity is the backbone of driving authentic engagement. Our brand fan offering at Buttermilk aims to tap into this notion that ‘everyone is an influencer’.
What are your top tips for aspiring creative professionals?
Hard skills and pieces of paper will help get you in the room, but an overreliance will work to your detriment. I am always looking for unquantifiable magic in someone. The way they communicate, their curiosity, the stories they tell, the energy they inject into the room. We’re an industry of people, not robots.
Also, say yes. In my early twenties, I interrogated every professional decision as though it were life and death. Your gut is right without exception, follow it. Even if it didn’t work out as expected, it will lead you somewhere aligned with what you need.
What are your top tips for other creative leaders?
Take all the flack when things go wrong and none of the credit when things go right. To be a leader is a selfless pursuit; you have to completely remove your ego from every situation.
Be malleable, be emotionally intelligent. Practice what you preach. The topic of company culture is often minimised as secondary to ‘business’, but you can’t separate the two. Ruling by fear pushes your business longevity into the grave.
Figure out what makes people tick; some people respond to brutal honesty, others need an arm around the shoulder. Don’t be the CEO in a corner office communicating through a PA. Learn about where people came from, and you’ll get a clearer sense for where they are going.
When you think about your team, what is the thing that matters to you the most?
I wouldn’t want a single person we hire to wake up in the morning and dread coming to work. I am fiercely competitive and ambitious, which is often reflected in the type of people we hire. However, it is important to frame ambition against the reality of life - we are helping sell lipstick, not solving world peace.
We try to foster a fun and inclusive atmosphere and we consistently receive feedback that our staff have ‘never worked at a place like Buttermilk’. The challenge is to retain this company ethos as we grow - so far, we are doing a pretty good job.
Do you have any websites, books or resources you would recommend?
Balance traditional with progressive publications. It is a reflection of the marketing landscape we occupy, one day we are speaking to a traditional FMCG, the next a heavily funded challenger start-up. It depends on the context of who you are speaking to. At times tradition is security, at others, decay.
Ways of working and ways of appointing agencies are often worlds apart. Knowledge is power, don’t come to a pitch empty-handed. Campaign is a publication that will clue you in to the traditional sphere. Tech Crunch and Crunchbase pave the way for start-up information.
For a bedtime read, I would recommend ‘The End of Marketing’ by Carlos Gil. An overview of the reality that in today's digital landscape, it has never been easier to reach customers, it is therefore harder to engage them. Carlos Gil highlights this dichotomy and highlights the need for strategic precision in digital marketing.
Outside of this, there is no better resource than to scroll your socials from a user perspective. What is trending? What is going to trend? How are the platforms adapting to try and crack the code? If you work in the digital space ignoring social is simply is not an option.