Mark Mason: How I survived the dotcom crash

Frustration drove Mark Mason into the digital marketing business. After riding out the dotcom boom and bust, he sold up at the top of the market in 2008.

What drove Mark Mason, 46, into the marketing business? Pure "frustration", he says. In the early 1990s, he was working as a salesman for a silicon-chip manufacturer. He felt that the advertising agency hired by his firm was making his job more difficult. "They had no real understanding of the products we were trying to sell." He was convinced he "could do a better job" and after four years was ready to set up on his own.

He teamed up with a like-minded former colleague Simon Zimbler, but the pair realised they needed a partner with marketing experience. In 1996 they struck a deal with London-based agency, Anderson & Lembke. They agreed to set up a tech-focused joint venture in Bristol's "Silicon Gorge". Mason and Zimbler each owned 10%. "Bristol was the obvious choice; it's the centre of British digital talent and creativity."

They offered the usual services such as direct marketing, media advertising and event sponsorship. Where they had an edge was "in the digital marketing space". The internet "was taking off. Firms knew they wanted to raise their web profile but they weren't sure how." Mason and Zimbler helped firms set up websites and attract visitors. Clients were drawn to their background in technology. "Customers enjoyed speaking to people who actually knew what their product did." Inspired by their success, the duo tried to buy a larger stake in the joint venture, but Anderson & Lembke refused. By 1997 they felt they "had no choice but to walk out for nothing". But they didn't go far; they set up their new firm, Mason Zimbler, across the road. And while they could not "poach" clients, "there was no law stopping them coming to us".

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By early 2001, Mason Zimbler had built up a steady client base, including big names such as Microsoft and Toshiba. The firm had 40 staff and was generating £2m a year in sales. But confidence in the sector was fragile. "Companies had spent heavily on Y2K measures before 2000 and had less digital spend the next year." The dotcom bust wasn't helping, and when the terror attacks of September 11th 2001 happened, it was the last straw for many firms. Mason Zimbler was forced to switch into "survival mode" for the next two years, as its customer base shrank. "Within a year we had shed three-quarters of our staff, but we were still making losses." After three tough years, Zimbler decided to sell out. "I guess he had become disillusioned with the firm but I held on because I knew that the market would come back."

Mason was spot on. By 2004 firms were growing their web-advertising budgets. Mason's agency was now one of the more established in the sector. "By surviving the crisis we proved ourselves." By 2007 he had 60 staff. Yet the more successful the company became, "the less I enjoyed it", missing "being at the coal face". In January 2008 he sold out for £5m. "It was great timing as I sold at the top of the market. But to be honest it was more luck than judgement." He's already moved into making custom smartphone applications for businesses, setting up a new firm, Mubaloo, with young developer Ben Trewhella. "I had been looking at the smartphone market for a while but when I met Ben I realised that this was someone who could help me make it happen."

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.


After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the London bureau. 


James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. 


He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.