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Business & Economy

Raman Sehgal: Maintaining the momentum

A good number of start-ups begin life in an entrepreneur’s back bedroom, though not all of them go on to become internationally-based enterprises. But that’s what Raman Sehgal has achieved with ramarketing, the communications agency he conceived more than a decade ago in a Gateshead flat. And with significant fresh investment from private equity firm NorthEdge now bolstering plans to expand further across Europe and strengthen an existing US presence, Raman tells Steven Hugill why the Newcastle-headquartered business’ growth streak is far from slowing down.

Raman Sehgal has always had a head for numbers.

Throw him some figures in a meeting and his mental arithmetic promptly kicks in, arriving at answers while others are still carrying over digits on pen and paper, or waiting for phone-based apps to open.

It began early, from his days as a young lad working behind the shop counter in his parents’ post office, where he would decipher percentage discounts and apply offers to chocolate bars and other convenience goods.

Such savviness is part of the reason why ramarketing – the part-eponymously named communications agency Raman founded in a Gateshead flat nearly 13 years ago – is now an internationally-recognised player across the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector.

And it will be integral to the business’ next growth phase too, with global president Raman crunching the digits to expand into central Europe and marry a base in Boston with another US hub.

Mention one number, however, and he sinks a little in his chair.

To speak of £100,000 is to cause Raman to squeeze his eyes tightly shut and raise a hand to cover his face.

A few years ago, in response to ramarketing’s momentum, Raman needed to shift cash from the company’s basic bank account to a specialist corporate entity.

Things, however, didn’t quite go to plan.

A slip of the finger sent the sum spiralling into the digital ether – where it sat for three, angst-ridden days.

“I can laugh about it now, but I was s******g myself at the time!” says Raman.

“I was sat in bed, and even said to my wife Selena, ‘imagine if I sent this to the wrong account’.

“I was knackered; it was the end of a long day, and I got one digit wrong. 

“I was in a real panic and phoned Santander, whereupon I was told there was a 90 per cent chance it would come back – I was like, ‘what about the other ten per cent!?’

“And it did, somewhat unbelievably, eventually arrive at the intended bank account; I think, because I was just one digit out, the system recognised where I was trying to send the money.

“What a lesson – I certainly don’t transfer money when I’m tired now!”

The tale – and Raman isn’t short of other such anecdotes – is a salutary window into an entrepreneur’s world, where early-stage slips and trips leave scars that track back to numerous moments on the parlous journey to success.

A number of his stumbles are documented in The Floundering Founder, the book Raman penned during lockdown while living in a two-bed Boston apartment, and which provides torch light for start-ups groping in the dark. 

He says: “I do look back and think, ‘I can’t believe I made those mistakes’, but I’m much better for them.

“Putting things down in words feels like a bit of a legacy for all the things I’ve learned, and it’s a class feeling when you hear a chapter, paragraph or sentence has had an impact on someone.

“And my mistakes have helped – and continue to help – the business’ culture too.

“One of our values is ‘have a go’ – something might not work, but you’ll learn in trying. 

“It’s in our DNA to push ourselves, and it’s one of the many reasons clients like us.”

The picture, however, could all have been so different.

Founding a company wasn’t necessarily a life’s dream; it was, admits Raman, somewhat of a happy accident.

Having graduated from Northumbria University with a marketing degree at the turn of the millennium, he headed to London, where he spent a year working for Heinz on its tomato ketchup brand before departing on an eleven-and-a-half-month, round-the-world trip.

While not quite matching Heinz’s famous 57 figure, the expedition nevertheless took in a good number of countries and continents, including the US, Australia and New Zealand, and South East Asia.

Yet it was upon his return where his life journey truly began.

With job offers in the North East and London on the table, Raman – who grew up in the West Denton Park area of Newcastle – eschewed the capital’s attractions for a junior account executive role with Karol Marketing in late 2004.

It was a watershed moment, for not only did it bring Raman home, but it returned him to the wider marketing family, a reunion that would later prove the catalyst for ramarketing’s conception.

His new adventure, though, didn’t begin entirely smoothly.

As the new account lead for Northumberland-based medicine maker The Specials Laboratory, Raman incurred the wrath of co-founder Fiona Cruickshank after missing their first meeting.

A frustrated Fiona sought answers.

Raman, she discovered, was ill – one of the very few sick days he’s ever taken, he says – but the message hadn’t been passed on.

Nevertheless, it still took a little time for the relationship to bed in, to the extent that, writing the foreword in Raman’s book, Fiona admits to acting like “such a cow” towards him.

“What a way to make an impression!” he laughs.

“I knew nothing about the pharmaceutical sector or clinical trials, but I loved working among the industry, and loved working for an entrepreneur like Fiona.

“She had two companies – The Specials Laboratory and contract manufacturer SCM Pharma.

“She sold the former and, by 2008, I was working for the latter as its head of marketing. 

“At the same time, Sharon Griffiths, managing director at The Specials Laboratory, asked me if I fancied doing their PR and website in my spare time?

“This was all in addition to what I was doing full-time; it was nothing more than a side-gig,” says Raman, who, prior to joining Fiona full-time had also added time at PR agency Cool Blue, in Middlesbrough, to his CV.

He adds: “For the first couple of years of ramarketing, I was still effectively working full-time in my agency job while providing marketing support on the side.

“I was living in Edinburgh as Selena was training to become a doctor, and things grew to the extent that I had six or seven clients.

“I went down to three days a week full-time to balance things and eventually Dianne Sharp, my boss at SCM Pharma, said, ‘you need to go and do this properly’ – so I did.

“I remember putting a post on social media in the summer of 2011, saying, ‘this is the jump moment – I’m really doing this’.

“Going on my own was a risky step, but I already had the comfort blanket of some clients.”

Time, as they say, is a healer, and as Raman took the first steps on his entrepreneurial expedition, he found Fiona a perfect navigator.

With his informal mentor having long lent a sympathetic ear, the pair upped their relationship when Raman felt the weight of carrying a start-up begin to get too heavy.

Meeting over a cup of tea, they signed an investment deal within a few weeks, which saw Fiona join ramarketing as its non-executive chair.

Armed with financial security, and renewed confidence, Raman began building his business.

At the time, the venture’s client list spanned numerous sectors.

It included Dragons’ Den and Strictly Come Dancing star Sara Davies, who was growing the Crafter’s Companion business she founded while at university from offices above her parents’ decorating shop in Coundon, near Bishop Auckland, County Durham.

“It was me and a handful of freelancers for a few years,” says Raman, whose endeavour – which is headquartered in Newcastle’s Carliol Square and also includes a Manchester office – now employs 55 people, and is expected to have around 70 staff internationally by the end of the year.

He says: “It was chaotic and fun, and I was ferociously learning on the job.

“I remember pitching £15,000 for a project with a Danish pharmaceutical manufacturer in 2014, and learning soon after that we were asking for a third of what other agencies were putting forward.

“We very nearly lost the contract because the client thought it sounded too good to be true.

“In the end, we were successful, thanks to our specialist approach and knowledge, but, of much greater value, was me seeing that we were one of the only companies in the world with expertise in this niche.

“And that was crucial because it provided the foundations to pivot in 2016.

“We’d always had a solid core of life science and pharmaceutical clients, alongside other sector operators on our books, but we took the decision to focus solely on the global pharmaceutical and biotechnology supply chain.

“To this day, it stands as the best decision I’ve ever made in business.

“It’s an ever-growing industry; there will always be the need for new drugs – just look at COVID-19.”

A key strut in ramarketing’s ongoing progress is its base in Boston, the US city at the heart of healthcare innovation, which, reveals Raman, alongside other advances, has helped the firm grow four-fold.

To get there, he was again spurred by advice from Fiona, with the company’s Massachusetts hub – led by Raman – opening in early 2019.

He says: “From a business perspective, the expansion was very natural.

“Boston, and Massachusetts as a whole, sits at the epicentre of pharmaceutical and biotechnology development – it is to healthcare what Silicon Valley is to technology.

“We’d already picked up some business in the US from companies wanting to raise their European profile, and, on the back of that, some Europe-based clients wanted us to do the same for them across the Atlantic.

“So, helped by the Department for International Trade, we went to look at offices, and I remember sitting with Fiona at the airport in Boston. 

“Selena and I had two boys at the time – Niko and Enzo – she was training to be an anaesthetist, and we thought we’d bought our ‘house for life’ in the North East. 

“I said to Fiona, ‘five years ago, I’d have done this’, and she turned to me and said, ‘just do it!’

“I came back and talked to Selena, who was really supportive.

“I’d spent a lot of time with people who spoke with regret about not taking opportunities earlier in life.

“As I saw things, we had nothing to lose; if we had hated it, we could have come straight back.”

In the end, the move went very well, though it wasn’t without some challenges.

“When we got there in February, it was -20C, with 15 inches of snow on the ground – it was absolutely brass,” laughs Raman.

“But we settled quickly, the kids got into nursery and school and the very defined seasons helped too – from May until late in the year it is brilliant sunshine.

“We saw a lot as well,” says Raman, who has now moved back to the North East with Selena, Niko and Enzo, as well as Ari, the couple’s third son, who was born in Boston.

He adds: “We were there as the US went through some real soul-searching, not just with COVID-19 but the Black Lives Matter movement and the last presidential election.

“Boston is very blue and anti-Trump, and we were playing football when it was announced Joe Biden had won.

“Suddenly, car horns started blaring and people came out of their homes smashing pots and pans together.

“By the time we got back to our place, the main street was full of people, drinking and celebrating; it was an amazing, euphoric moment in time to observe as an outsider.”

The Boston party may have acted as a farewell to one of the most divisive figures in political history, and Raman may have traversed back to the UK, but both events, he says, by no means mark a swansong to ramarketing’s growth ambitions.

Living in the US gave Raman time to mark out a blueprint for its next phase, which will include a central European base, in either Switzerland or Germany, and a second US office.

Both ventures, he hopes, will come to fruition over the next 18 months.

And they will be helped by recent investment from lower mid-market private equity firm NorthEdge, which announced its support for ramarketing as North East Times last month went to print.

He says: “We have a real window of opportunity to become the best agency in the world in our space.

“To get there is going to require ambition, risk-taking and teamwork, but I know we can do it.

“We were the fastest-growing communications agency in the UK last year, and have played a role in the journey of numerous businesses from relatively small entities to employing hundreds of staff. 

“We’re extremely proud of that but equally super ambitious for more success.

“The market is buoyant, we’ll have growth of between 30 and 40 per cent this year, and we are more than ready to extend our presence.

“And NorthEdge’s support will really help us.

“Finding the right partner for our next phase of growth was critical, and from the outset, NorthEdge had a strong understanding of our business, our industry and our aims for the future, while mirroring our own values.

“We are evolving into the type of next generation growth partner our clients will need in the future; data-driven, embedded in industry and truly global. 

“That type of ambition requires the right partner, and I’m really looking forward to growing the business with NorthEdge over the coming years.”

He adds: “We’ve gone from a cool, up-and-coming agency to a very significant business.

“I’m having such a blast and feel so lucky to be on this journey.

“And who knows where we’ll end up.”