Meet the founder of Purple Pilchard

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Ian Hills is the founder of Purple Pilchard, a small fleet-finned agency focused single-mindedly on nurturing fantastical food and drinks brands of tomorrow. 

Having worked for an array of blue chip brands: Britvic, Diageo, Tyco Toys, Ben & Jerry’s & RHM, Ian decided (after a 9 mths author sabbatical) to strike out on his own


Who or what inspired you to get started?

I was someone who never really enjoyed the early corporate phase of my life. I was late into marketing (23) possibly a result of a Modern History & International Relations degree from a ‘red brick’ university not being deemed the most cutting edge qualification. I actually had to sneak into the marketing department via the back door (via sales) to have my tilt at blue chip marketing courtesy of a fortuitous maternity leave.  

I was politely tucked away on a couple of peripheral spirits brands (although one is now ginormous) where I had to deal with smooth talking agencies who in truth weren’t interested in my teeny tiny budgets, and simply wanted to use me as a stepping stone to reach the big brands.

And yet working on an obscure Bajan golden rum was incredible because here was a small brand with limited distribution and a tight budget that nevertheless enjoyed a small yet vocal ‘cult’ following. Looking back I realised that this was the exact moment I became a disruptor brand advocate. Here was a small, fleet-footed brand with shallow pockets that consistently ran circles around its timid corporate peers.  


How do you set yourself apart from other businesses in your industry?

When Purple Pilchard was set up in 2004 there were very few agencies geared towards ‘fantastic incubator brands’ of tomorrow. These are nervy brands that need their hands held during their formative months, brands with teeny budgets that demand a significant amount of support, patience and encouragement to get them up & running. Today the advent of new technology, social media and a blossoming appreciation of food & drink (artisan, healthier living, indulgent….) means that there are countless smaller agencies (design, PR, social media, copywriting..) on hand to service their various needs.

I think enthusiasm and truth speaking enable me to stand proud of the pack. You will never find anyone more enthusiastic than me about a food or a drink brand that creates a distinct and defendable consumer need.


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By the same token I’ve never been afraid to speak my mind. Brands don’t have the funds to fritter funds away on foolish initiatives, so I’m also happy to tell a brand owner when I believe he’s about to make a howler. It’s a high risk strategy that doesn’t always work and yet a willingness to speak one’s mind has opened more doors for me than it’s closed.


What's the single most important decision you've made?

I know this might sound ridiculous but the name of my business Purple Pilchard was a two minute decision that has been pivotal to the ongoing appeal and longevity of my agency. For ages I feared that this tongue-in-cheek brand name was too frivolous to be taken seriously and yet curiously it’s a name that always made people smile and is practically impossible to forget.


Who is your target audience?

Any ambitious brand pioneers within the food & drink industry who aren’t put off by the notion of causing a stir and ruffling the feathers of the leading lights within their chosen food category.


If you could have one person record your voicemail, who would it be and why?

Jack Whitehall, his quick wit and capacity to think on his feet is the stuff of legends.

How did you conquer moments of sea doubt that often affect entrepreneurs - what pushes you through? 

It would be a fib to say there haven’t been periods of self-doubt. At the end of the day I operate in such a highly competitive marketplace where 7/10 start-ups will ultimately fall flat on their faces. I used to hate saying goodbye to a client, often taking it as a personal slight. And yet 14 years down the track I now appreciate that everything has a shelf life and however good a job you do, sometimes a fresh pair of eyes is what’s really needed.

I draw most strength from my clients in truth. Whilst I operate in a highly volatile, fast-moving sector the fact is I’m working with entrepreneurs who’ve often put everything on the line (savings, mortgage, family time….)to succeed.

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What's the most important question entrepreneurs should ask themselves?

Have I got the staying power to see this idea through to the end? Can I hold my nerve?


Thoughts on networking?

Something I never used to take too seriously (my biggest single regret).  I used to believe that my back catalogue of work was enough but now I appreciate that I operate in a small goldfish bowl industry know that being well connected is the key to everything.


What are habits are key to success?

Stubborness, tenacity and inner belief – PLUS humility (holding your hand up when you stuff up).


What are your thoughts on failure as an entrepreneur?

Everyone needs ‘tough’ times so when things are going well you truly appreciate what you have.


Top marketing tip to grow a niche business?

Never become detached from your business. What makes a small business stand out from a faceless corporate is the ‘real‘people at the helm. Too many entrepreneurs choose to step into the shadows as their brand grows, forgetting that it was their infectious enthusiasm that sat at the heart of the brand’s early success. 

Learn to hold your tongue – there will be fallouts from time to time and it’s important not to get obsessed about always having the last word!  Making someone look foolish rarely ends well whatever the provocation.


Find out more about Purple Pilchard here and connect on Twitter.