What I Learned… Selling Pest Control Products, with Chris Attewell of Search Laboratory
Chris Attewell is managing director of Search Laboratory, a Leeds-based digital marketing agency which was acquired by Havas Group earlier this month. His career began, surprisingly enough, as a traveling sales representative for a pest control company. It would be childish to suggest that pest control has a direct link to his work in marketing – anyway, we sat down with him to find out what impact it has had on his career since.
Hi Chris! We know you best as the boss of Search Laboratory – but I’ve heard digital marketing hasn’t always been your game…
I studied languages at university and spent time studying and working in France, including as a teaching assistant at a French high school. When I graduated, I wanted to use my French but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do – all I knew was that I absolutely didn’t want to be a teacher.
I ended up getting a job with a company in the UK that made electric fly swatters – those machines you see in commercial kitchens with blue lights. They exported all over the world and had customers all over Europe, and I was hired as a sales representative for the French market.
How do you learn the ropes of a pest control business?
There were some difficulties at the beginning. I had never done sales before, let alone in French, so there was a steep learning curve. I was given the Pages Jaunes (Yellow Pages) for each region of France and told to start at the beginning and call all the pest control companies in the country to introduce the company and try to bring them to buy fly swatters from us instead of their usual manufacturer.
Doing cold-calling for the first time – in a foreign language, trying to sell the benefits of British-made products to French pest controllers – taught me a lesson in resilience.
I booked sales trips to France once a month where I traveled across the country visiting clients and prospects. The company would pay for the flights, a rental car and a week’s worth of hotels, so there was a lot of pressure for me to bring back the orders to at least cover the costs. Being alone on the road, there was nowhere to hide. If I worked hard, I would see the returns – if I didn’t, it was a pretty miserable return to the office to face the music.
Lots of information on the different markets…
This role opened my eyes to the world of exporting and cross-border trade. The business started as a family business in Yorkshire, but has achieved significant growth by looking beyond the domestic market. They have also fully understood the importance of localizing their business strategy and product offering in major international markets, which enables them to compete effectively with suppliers in the local market.
Search Laboratory started out as a specialized multilingual search agency, and managing global campaigns is still a big part of what we do. I believe this direct experience of growing international market share puts me in an ideal position to advise clients and prospects on global expansion.
What lessons have you learned from your time on the road?
An important lesson I learned from being on the road alone with significant costs over my head was the importance of approaching the role as if it were my own business. Success or failure was up to me, and I quickly learned to appreciate the value of making a profit.
It also gave me the confidence that I could go out and develop something from scratch, in a foreign country. When the opportunity arose to move to New York to create Search Laboratory USA, I did not hesitate to take up the challenge. It meant starting from scratch with no customers or pipeline, and there were tough times to get things off the ground. The lessons I learned selling fly swatters to French pest control have served me well. Our US operations now represent approximately 40% of our total revenue, and in 2021 we opened our second US office in Austin, Texas.
Would you recommend a job as a traveling sales rep – or pest control – to someone starting out in the industry now?
I firmly believe that some work experience in sales is a solid foundation for any career in business. It’s not for everyone – the pressure can be high, it involves a lot of rejection and you hit terrible low points. But you quickly learn how important it is for any business to generate revenue (and profit), and you see that the good times easily outweigh the bad if you work hard.
I would also recommend anyone starting out in their career to accept situations where you are outside of your comfort zone. I really like it Quote from Richard Branson“If someone offers you an amazing opportunity but you’re not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later.” This is especially true in digital, where there is constant change. There are always new things to learn and new opportunities to seize. We always had our eye on the next opportunity and weren’t afraid to go for it. I think that’s one of the main things that made Search Laboratory so successful.