Bespoke stands strong thanks to key cornerstone
To a degree, Greg Busch and Mike Boykin really owe this guy, “Bob from procurement.”
As one of Busch’s final pitch meetings for GMR Marketing wound down in 2014, Bob stood in the corner and asked Busch how hands-on he would be with the account if GMR won the business. Busch paused, then answered honestly: He would build a great team to handle the account, but Bob’s company probably wouldn’t see him very much.
Busch didn’t win the business.
Busch and Boykin had been at GMR for over 15 years by then. The company was in the midst of a merger and their roles were changing. An entrepreneurial desire continued to grow inside of them, and “Bob from procurement” gave the pair the nudge they needed to set out on their own and launch a sports marketing agency built on one key cornerstone: Senior executives would be involved in every aspect of the partnership, and at every step, not just the pitch meeting.
The duo partnered with investors John Compton and Gordon Whitener to start Bespoke Sports & Entertainment, which turned 5 years old this month. Busch and Boykin endured slow early days but followed their vision to create a growing boutique sports marketing shop.
“It’s been highly rewarding, both personally and professionally,” Busch said, “and really just proof of concept.”
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Newly on their own, Busch and Boykin needed a name. They weren’t going to name their company after themselves and they didn’t want an acronym or a rollercoaster-sounding buzzword. The pair sat in Boykin’s driveway one evening with a few beers and dozens of names on a list. “And Mike hated all of them,” Busch said.
Eventually they settled on “Bespoke,” a word derived from the tailoring industry meaning custom-made. That “just made too much sense,” according to Busch.
Boykin and Busch have over 50 years of combined marketing experience, but some details of running a business were completely alien to them. Once Bespoke’s first copier was set up, the installer asked if they had any paper to test out the machine. No one had bought copy paper.
There were many meetings in the first six months where Boykin and Busch performed well but the potential client couldn’t take the risk on a startup, or needed more scale than Bespoke could provide.
“We thought the adaption would be much quicker than it was,” Busch said. “You had to really preach the gospel.”
The pair organized roadshows and met with former clients to pitch their new venture. The effort paid off around the seven-month mark when Bespoke was signed to design and manage Academy Sports + Outdoors’ weekly activation tour with the “SEC Nation” college football pregame show. Tom Lamb, Academy chief marketing officer, said all of the agencies chasing Academy’s business promised undivided attention.
“I knew from [Bespoke] that I would actually get it,” Lamb said.
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Charlotte-based Bespoke has 20 clients, including eight on retainer. The company handles a mix of properties, brands and events involved with the NFL, NHL, NASCAR, college football and MLS, and also works on stadium naming rights and venue partnerships. Boykin said 90% of the company’s business stems from prior relationships or referrals.
“We go into pitches against all of those larger agencies and I just love our shot,” Busch said. “At minimum, we’re going to be different; won’t always win, but we’re happy to be in that spot.”
There have been blips. Click n’ Close prematurely ended a sponsorship deal with NASCAR in 2018 after just one year, and Pilot Flying J unexpectedly halted a sponsorship and advertising deal with ESPN two years early.
But most of the news has been good. Bespoke was named to the Inc. 5,000 most successful companies in America in mid-August, slotting in at No. 1,574. The company experienced 262% revenue growth in the last three years, including 2018 revenue of $6.1 million, and was named one of Chief Marketer’s top 200 firms.
Bespoke started with three employees and has added three or four each year to reach its current 20, eight of whom are senior executives, Busch said. What Bespoke lacks in numbers, it makes up for in experience.
“If a company is going to spend a million dollars, they want that person on the other side of the table to have some gray hairs, some wrinkles, some experience,” said Todd Koesters, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina who has known Boykin and Busch for over 20 years from their time together at GMR.
Bespoke has been an acquisition target in recent years. But neither Busch nor Boykin are interested in selling, instead saying they’re keeping their eyes open for acquisitions that would bring more talent and capability into the firm’s fold. That represents Bespoke’s biggest challenge moving forward: balancing the tenets of its name with the need and urge to grow the business.
“I think we’ve been pretty true to that,” Boykin said. “I think we’ve been able to stay the course.”