Happy silver birthday, The Reference!

Author: Alex Papanastassiou

Congratulations to The Reference on its 25th birthday anniversary!

The Reference (AKA ‘The Ref’) celebrated its silver birthday at a party near its head office in Ghent. And to mark the occasion, their CEO Anja Cappelle looked back on 25 years, shared with committed colleagues (casually called Reffers), loyal customers, and trusted partners.

The agency’s data scientists added some vibe to the event, having detected each guest’s favorite 90s music, based on survey answers. The starting point for a fun 90s revival.

Two and a half decades have flown by

The Emakina Group agency is going strong, with teams in Ghent, Antwerp and New York, all proudly serving a growing customer base, driven by the baseline ‘It’s more than digital, it’s your business’.

It all started at the end of 1993 with two visionary brothers.
Jo and Ben Caudron launched a company with some friends, in their living room near Dendermonde. Netscape was not born yet, there was no Internet Explorer, Chrome or Firefox. Hardly anyone knew the ‘Internet’ or thought it would become so fully intertwined with our lives.

The Reference CEO Anja Cappelle took her guests on a trip down memory lane

Isn’t getting data ON the internet a better idea?

Because 14.4 bps modems made funny noises the brothers asked Belgacom for an ISDN line. The telecom provider had to break open the main road to bring it to their home. At first Jo and Ben focused on getting data OFF the internet, explaining the company name: referencing information.

The wonder boys had one customer for this service, when they decided to put information ON the internet instead. Jan Van Den Bergh from advertising agency Quattro invited them to build that first website. And many sites were to follow: De Tijd, Cera Bank, StuBru, BASF, De Efteling, CM, …

Over the next years The Reference grew and laid the basis for today’s connotation of its name, doing a lot of ‘firsts’ in Belgium, from the first WAP, cyber tv, and e-commerce projects, to the first online newsletter and first SMS TV voting campaign.

A lean mean machine

But then the digital bubble burst. Luckily there was a solid foundation for a resurgence and a comeback. Anja Cappelle’s predecessor Alexander Van de Rostyne turned The Reference into a lean mean machine. Those hard times made The Reference resilient, forced the gang to do even better. And that didn’t go unnoticed. In 2007, The company became part of Emakina Group, and Anja took over its Management.

Anja Cappelle looks back to the early days when she joined the group …
‘The CEO of Emakina Group Brice Le Blevennec told me: ‘Anja, you’re 30 people today, now go forward and up to 100!’ I laughed, because I thought that was simply impossible. But clearly Brice doesn’t carry the title of Chief Visionary Officer without a good reason. With our 170 Reffers today we even overshot his prevision by a mile!’

More Firsts

The Reference has become the power house it is today by adding even more firsts in the market… They delivered the first Sitecore project in Belgium for Thomas Cook, and today they are a respected Sitecore Platinum partner.

The company also was the first true full-service agency in the Belgium, adding business strategists to its digital strategy team, and a Perform competence center to boost digital marketing, on line advertising and analytics (winning a string of awards).

The agency also invested in mobile, social and marketing automation, embraced the creative and Drupal team of Design is Dead (a sister agency in the group), and attracted top creatives and design talent to join its studio.

Multidisciplinary teams now create truly engaging multiple channel experiences, applying principles of service design, another new expertise. They build complex ecosystems with a best of breed approach (think micro-API’s, in combination with a framework like Umbraco, for instance!).

On-Site is another success story, with consultants working in team on the client’s site, addressing digital transformation challenges or adding hands and brains for specific areas of expertise.

Atlantic Crossing

2018 brought another first. The Reference was the first agency of Emakina Group to acquire an agency in the US. Its new team in the heart of Manhattan in combination with the group’s network in Europe and Asia gives clients the power to reach customers across the globe.

 The Reffers’ hard work pays off

The Reffers are hard at work for a string of exciting more recent customers, like Atlas Copco, Barry Callebaut, DP World Antwerp, BD Myshopi, Eneco, KitchenAid, KPMG, Niko, Pfizer, Van der Put , Vandersanden  and Xerius.

But also long-standing clients reaffirm their faith in The Reference.
Fluxys recently launched its brand-new website with the agency, 10 years after the initial collaboration.

Luminus, a customer for almost 20 years, trusted the team once again with their mobile app development and website overhaul.

And the journey with Shurgard also continues, five years after building their new website together. This collaboration today includes social strategy, On-Site consultants, and a new role as their main communication agency!

A new team: data and AI

Anja Cappelle concluded her speech by announcing a new initiative:
‘We’ve been building a strong data and AI team over the last months. We’re not about flashy buzzwords, instead we think these concepts should be applied correctly, timely and in the right business context. Regardless of the data maturity of organizations, we can help them today to define and bring the business value of their data into practice.’ 

Hats off to the 170 Reffers of today, and the many talents
that were part of this 25-year digital love story! Onward, from a silver to a glorious golden birthday!

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