The Pistol's CEO on 12 years in the market and the future of digital

Jason Pollock
By Jason Pollock | 2 May 2023
Jaime Nosworthy

The Pistol's Jaime Nosworthy has seen a lot of changes at the agency since joining as an enterprise sales and marketing manager in 2015, then becoming CEO in February 2021. 

The agency is now 12 years old, with offices in Melbourne and Torquay in Victoria and Noosa in Queensland and more than 50 staff.

Nosworthy told AdNews that it wasn’t always a full-service digital agency and nor was it called The Pistol.

Co-founders Troy Townsend and Steve Hibberd started the business then known as Tiger Pistol to be a SaaS platform, playing around in the Facebook space when it was relatively new and capitalising on an opportunity to help small and local businesses maximise the value of business pages on Facebook.

“About six weeks after they launched the product, Mark Zuckerberg made that call to move everything to mobile and to change from business pages to timeline. They obviously learned through that that you needed to understand the roadmap of platforms if you were building off the back of big tech,” said Nosworthy.

“The way Troy and Steve were looking at the 2.0 version of our platform was to help small businesses advertise and drive business outcomes through Facebook advertising.  The guys rebuilt the platform to be focused on paid and leveraging the same principles around scalability and optimisation and kind of a no-touch advertising model for these advertisers.  It got some really, really great traction, specifically in the reseller space.  

“We unintentionally built an agency - we just felt like we were really on to something different. That led to us building a strategy team and a creative team and account service team and to having more of a full-service agency over the top.”

Fast-forwarding a few years, The Pistol sold that piece of technology (as well as the Tiger Pistol brand) after expanding to the US, and all of a sudden, it was just an agency, now called The Pistol, without the proprietary tech it previously owned - so the team started building tech again.

In 2020, retail media platform Zitcha came to life after being built by The Pistol. Focused initially on extension channels - activating Google, Facebook, TikTok, Pinterest etc through collaborative or retail media - that then evolved to being on-site, email and offline. Zitcha was sold in 2022 and spun off as an independent retail media platform, headed up by Townsend and Jack Byrne, founder of independent media agency Hatched.

Nosworthy said the culture of an agency and the way you think about solving problems is very different if the core is actually tech as opposed to service. Since The Pistol sold Zitcha, the agency has built an entire innovation arm of the business that operates like a labs function - listening to both clients and internal teams and trying to understand what's really hard in the market that’s blocking them from doing great work. 

“Historically, our business has really focused on doing the stuff that's hard,” said Nosworthy.

“A big part of what we do is infrastructure integration, the complexities of enhanced measurement, online to offline tracking, closed loop measurement, product catalogues - stuff that Meta, TikTok, Snapchat and all these partners actually lean on us to implement outside of our customer base, because agency groups typically don't want to touch it and brands don't know how to do it and don't have that technical expertise. 

“Another big focus for us right now is with all the headwinds that are happening in the landscape, how do we really help brands optimise their own channels so that we can acquire audiences through paid but then start to activate and reactivate them through their own channels so that there's not this over dependency on paid? 

“The last piece is our labs function, which is really focused on strategic application of AI. The last 12 months, we've been really focused on where brands are spending money or time that could easily be replaced, or at least enhanced, through AI models.” 

Nosworthy said this application of AI can involve things like focus group testing, customer service or even scalable conceptualisation. The Pistol works with a number of consumer-packaged goods (CPG) brands and leans into AI models to write content like recipes or use cases for products. 

“It’s just really thinking about how to use humans for the stuff that humans are really, really good at, but really leaning into emerging tech to help us scale but also get to market a lot more quickly,” Nosworthy told AdNews.

One example Nosworthy gave of this is around The Pistol’s innovation team. In response to being presented with a problem such as three creative concepts that the creative team is split as to what it thinks the right direction is for the client and lacking the time to do a focus group, the team can just whip up an AI model.

The innovation team will input the creative ideas through the model, based on the personas that the client is trying to target. The model can then provide feedback in terms of scoring around purchase intent and consideration set, as well as commentary as to the rationale of providing that score – and all within a matter of hours. 

“It's a great thing to lean into, as long as you're obviously intentional around how you're using it,” said Nosworthy.

“I think our mindset, natively being a tech business, is just to have a crack and fail fast and that can be really scary for some of the holdcos and some of the bigger businesses out there. That is just not the culture that they operate within.

“I have a lot of respect for those businesses, and they do great things, but for us, we think let's not over invest in it, but let's test it and see if we can add value to our clients quickly and in a meaningful way or drive efficiency into what we're doing internally so that there's more time for the strategic piece that that our clients get more value out of.” 

Over the past six months, the agency has won a number of notable new clients. 

In November, fashion retailer DECJUBA consolidated its social advertising, search engine marketing and SEO with The Pistol; February saw nature-driven tourism booking platform Riparide appoint the agency to manage its paid social advertising; and just a month ago, beverage company Vitasoy came onboard too, as it was announced The Pistol will manage digital strategy and planning for creative and media, including social media management, creative strategy and production.

Nosworthy said a key reason as to the success of The Pistol’s pitches lately comes down to a lot more accountability in the market at the moment, something that's been one of the agency’s core values for 12 years.  

 The Pistol team

The Pistol team

“We have a really strong belief and a really strong culture that clients should grow faster after they partner with us, so we hold our account teams accountable to accelerate the growth of our clients and we genuinely make their KPIs our KPIs,” said Nosworthy. 

“When you start to get into retail, for example - retail over the last 12 months and the next 12 months is a really interesting space with this fluctuation between online and in store and the extrapolation of the value of consumers in each of those areas and obviously the omnichannel customer too.

“Week by week the data is so different and you need a partner that is as accountable as you are as the marketing leader internally in those businesses to help you navigate that. That's really what we do with all of our clients.”

Nosworthy said the Vitasoy win was “really interesting” for The Pistol, because being a CPG brand, it's hard to track attribution, so the agency challenged them to think differently. 

“They're such an open-minded group of people who were comfortable with that, and they're not too proud to learn and we love that - we love to be the people that come in and provoke different ways of thinking,” said Nosworthy.

“Being agile is really important to us - not setting everything in stone and thinking that a quarterly media plan is reasonable in this market, because it's not – and we really believe in taking advantage of opportunities as they arise. 

“We don't do everything - we're a specialist in digital and that's really where we love to play and have a lot of passion, so we partner with the right people around us to round out that marketing set. We’re just really open to collaboration and really transparent in how we operate and that drives better results.”

Nosworthy says it’s currently one of the best times to be in digital. Despite The Pistol arriving early to the space - which was hard at times as the agency was waiting for the market to catch up – she said it was “awesome” over the last few years to see brands really start to double down on their own infrastructure and their martech. 

“It had been such an afterthought for so many businesses for so long, but COVID kind of gave a lot of businesses the space to really think about that, which paved really solid foundations for first party data strategies and starting to build their own audiences,” Nosworthy told AdNews.

“With the emergence of TikTok’s popularity in this market as well, it has significantly challenged marketers to think about creative and brand safety and relevance with their audiences.” 

Nosworthy says the debate around where that budget for platforms like TikTok should come from has seen some brands adopt the mindset of ‘I'll just pull from my Meta budget and I'll put it into Tik Tok’, but what Nosworthy says they're ignoring is that Meta may continue to be a very powerful channel for them to drive business outcomes and investment in Tik Tok, Pinterest or other channels that have evolved their advertising capabilities and become performance channels should be incremental. 

“I think the interesting thing from a budgeting perspective for a lot of these brands now is to think about agility and how their marketing budgets are defined as well,” said Nosworthy.

“We've seen some really big brands and partners of ours start to work in an agile budget way, where if we continue to hit a certain amount of return of ad spend (ROAS) for a media mix model or a defined attribution model, incremental investment just flows and opens up. In some instances, we're seeing that have up to a 24x ROAS improvement on a daily basis, purely because there was enough trust from the CFO in the CMO to capitalise on real time opportunities.

“With the connectivity but also the fragmentation of the digital space at the moment, attribution models and data connectivity creates an insanely exciting opportunity for marketers, but it also makes it a lot more complex for them. Those that are focused on the measurability of their impact, both on brand health through to conversion, are really going to come out on top.”

Nosworthy said that when you start to extrapolate the opportunity size and what they could be spending, brands in Australia are still generally under-investing in digital channels in her opinion, especially social channels. 

“I think that some brands think that just by showing up, it's going to work for them, but having a really intentional and integrated strategy is a non-negotiable for this. Just because you're there doesn't mean the channel’s going to deliver business outcomes for you,” said Nosworthy. 

“The interesting thing is TikTok has made brands really have to think about organic strategies again. There's a cost associated with having an organic TikTok strategy and there's a huge amount of attention spent on TikTok at the moment, so there's value on it, but it's just harder to demonstrate in an attribution model. 

“It's also really challenged creatives, because creators have to undo a lot of their training and thinking to be comfortable creating content for platforms like that. It's an interesting one from going from a very polished, brand perception to really having to let go and embracing ‘lo-fi’.” 

Whatever the future of digital marketing holds, Nosworthy is positive about the direction the agency is headed in, especially having just recently celebrated The Pistol’s 12th birthday and seeing how far it’s come since its days as a social media marketing platform for SMEs all those years ago.

“We've had a really fun start to the year, but the pace is what's really energising at the moment,” said Nosworthy.

“Just really having a crack at being focused on delivering measurable business outcomes for clients, but thinking about how to do it in a way that's super smart, super scalable, and more importantly agile, because we don't know what's going to happen in the market over the next few months.” 

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