Protein's Will Rowe talks early adopters, audience insights and brands “doing good”

Elliott Haworth
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It’s not about social reach. We’re not looking for YouTubers with 20m followers (Source: Greg Sigston / City AM)

"I was a really bad web designer... that’s how it all started,” chuckles Will Rowe, founder and chief executive of Protein.

We’re in his Shoreditch office, a space resembling the bedroom of my teenage dreams; a well trodden cow hide is stretched over the corrugated steel floor below shelves laden with volumes of glossy magazines. There’s a framed, signed, Wu Tang Clan poster on the wall near an illuminated Pantone “mood calendar,” designed by Rowe himself.

It’s all really cool.

Protein is a motley business, but its primary objective is helping brands grow through consumer research, and creating relationships with early adopters of trends. “The clue is in the name,” says Rowe.

“Our core belief is that people don’t trust brands, they trust other people”. I ask him why: “why do you think? The same reason they don’t trust politicians. They lie, they misrepresent, they can be unethical.”

Good brands

Rowe’s solution is simple. By 2020, Protein will work exclusively with “good” companies. “This is driven by our research – by what we see our audience asking for from brands,” he says, adding that “I also want our staff to feel a little bit better about the work that we do. After all, we are in advertising”.

But how do you construe “good”? “It’s a ‘good’ question,” says Rowe. “We are defining that. Not all companies are good, so we will work with them to make them better. We do lots of work with Anheuser-Busch (AB) for instance. We’re currently running a corporate social responsibility programme for them in the US, for Stella Artois, with a partnership. The work is great and the reason is great – and yes, AB is a phenomenally large company – but every company can do things better. It’s trying, and working hard for it.”


The two key components of Protein’s business can be boiled down to two simple terms: understanding and connecting. Helping brands to understand who their customers are, and connecting them with what Rowe describes as “early adopters”. “These guys, they create the trends. The early adopters are the guys and girls who really take whatever the ‘new new’ is and adopt it for the mainstream.”

Borne from a belief that people don’t trust brands, Protein has chosen to instead focus on “people to people marketing”. That is, finding trendsetters – be it in fashion, food or whatever else – to promote brands to a core audience, from which it can grow and find the route to mass market. “If you get it right with these people [early adopters], you’re going to get it right with the mainstream,” says Rowe.

I ask him whether Protein is a social influencer marketing agency: “absolutely not,” he says, ardently. “It’s about their [early adopters] behaviour and attitude, their mindset, approach and social groups. And more importantly, their offline influence. A key point of difference to our competitors is that it’s not about social reach – we’re not looking for YouTubers with 20m followers.”

Rowe again uses the example of a Stella Artois campaign Protein ran for AB, The A-Z of Hosting Beautifully, featuring John Legend. “So, there’s 26 letters in the alphabet, we used 26 talents; one for each letter. But some of the names we included in there, looking through them, you would be like, ‘they only have 2,000 followers’. But it’s not really about the follower count, it’s about who they are, the work they produce, and the influence within the world that they’re talking to.”

Protein's Audience Reports offer insights into fundamental changes marketers need to make to their strategies (Source: Protein)


Protein’s efficiency in connecting brands with market makers stems from understanding the markets in which its clients exist to an infinitesimal degree.

Its latest research, The Drinks Report, is a snapshot of the alcohol industry, analysing key behavioural changes that brands can tap into. It also produces its annual Audience Report, with insights into fundamental changes marketers need to make to their strategies, aggregated from the responses of nearly 5,000 early adopters from around the world.

The results are interesting, and Rowe takes them on board. His belief that brands should be “good” stems from a finding that 77 per cent of early adopters believe brands have an obligation to improve the world, for example.

Not all are so prosaic. Knowing that 76 per cent of early adopters find brands going in unexpected directions appealing, or that 61 per cent prefer to spend on experiences over products can shape the way brands and consumers interact.

I ask Rowe how brands can tap into Protein’s insights, and how they can “create an experience” for consumers. “Open a bar,” his candid reply. “Nah, I’m being facetious. It’s not a bad idea though.

“There’s a few drivers; stuffocation – we’ve reached peak stuff. The world of too many things. So people aren’t buying as much, but when they do, they’re looking for better quality, and experience comes off the back of that. They’re realising that it’s not about owning things, it’s about doing things.”

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