'We own the political market', says MessageSpace co-founder Jag Singh

Matthew Chapman meets Jag Singh, who gives brands cheap access to the 'Jeremy Clarkson audience' through an influential blogging network.

The UK is still reeling from a Brexit vote that has created deep divisions in the country and left many licking their wounds.

A small company called MessageSpace, an amalgamation of an ad network and agency, was also split by the referendum result, but it was primarily professional pride at stake.

Sitting in the Hospital Club in London, MessageSpace’s 30-year-old co-founder Jag Singh talks of his frustration that he was not able to help the remain vote claim victory after working on the Conservatives In campaign.

"This is the first election I have lost for eight years since [working on] Hillary Clinton’s in 2008 so it is slightly annoying," Singh says. "Especially because my business partner Paul Staines was working for the other side."

Staines, founder of often controversial yet highly influential right-wing blog Guido Fawkes, was, somewhat ironically, providing Labour Leave with MessageSpace’s political consulting expertise and algorithms.

The concept of the same ad agency working on opposing sides during an election would be anathema to the more traditional creative shops.

However, Singh claims that MessageSpace is set up to avoid any conflicts of interest.

"We have very strong Chinese walls and a very strong interest in maintaining that because we know, if one sacks us, the other is going to sack us," Singh says. "Westminster is a very small world."

Just how small a world is evident from the story of the founding of MessageSpace.

It was launched ten years ago by the pioneers of the UK’s political blogging scene. Singh describes the time as being like the "Wild West", as broadcasters such as Sky News scrambled to air the opinions of bloggers.

Singh set up a group blog called Labourhome in early 2006 with blogger Alex Hilton and met Staines through him. Staines separately introduced Iain Dale, the LBC presenter and founder of political publisher Biteback Publishing, to Singh. 

"The blogosphere wasn’t that big back then," Singh says. It was a meeting between these four bloggers where the idea of MessageSpace came to life.

"Four guys went to a bar and three of them come out business partners saying: ‘Let’s create an ad network and monetise it.’"

Dale was the only one unable to invest his time in MessageSpace due to him focusing his efforts on pursuing a career in politics and being in the process of launching internet TV station 18 Doughty Street.

The other three forged ahead despite having no experience of the advertising industry and Hilton was later bought out in 2008 to leave Singh and Staines as the only shareholders.

There were initially five sites on the network, which included Labourhome, Guido Fawkes and ConservativeHome. "Our first client said we want 50,000 ad impressions and it took us about a month to deliver those," Singh says. "It has been a remarkable journey over the last ten years, where now we deliver 50,000 ad impressions within half-an-hour."

Singh says traffic and revenue have grown "exponentially" since the early years, with annual revenues now "just touching seven figures".

MessageSpace currently has only five freelance staff and is "very profitable", and despite its small size now acts as the exclusive ad network for most of the major political blogs.

"We focused on the political market and we now own it basically," Singh says. "At the last general election, Google came to us because they wanted to reach political influencers and activists. When you have Google coming to you to do a media buy, that validates what we’ve been doing."

Blogs on the network even include those of individual politicians such as Ukip’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, who asks to be paid in a rather unusual manner.

"The quirk about Douglas is that because he is such a fiscally responsible person, he wants payment in gold," Singh says. "Every month instead of sending him a wire transfer, we are sending him a gold nugget."

It is not only lobbyists who are advertising on the MessageSpace network of sites.

"We have a lot of big brands saying it is a cheaper way of reaching the Jeremy Clarkson type of audience," Singh says. "It is skewed more towards wealthy educated older males and is a cheaper way of reaching them than a big buy in the FT."

Despite having access to such a comprehensive network of political blogs, MessageSpace decided to expand into media and planning four years ago when it realised "sometimes clients want to saturate more than just the political market".

Singh then ventured into native advertising in 2014, having previously dismissed the concept.

"When we first started MessageSpace, we went around all the public affairs firms and they all asked: ‘Can we just write the article and you publish it?’" Singh says. "And we all said that is unethical. Fast-forward eight years and we realised we can do that, but we make sure it is all above the fold and very specifically says it is sponsored content and who sponsored it."

Singh adds that the company has its own ethical guidelines, which he claims some rivals do not have.

MessageSpace is able to have its fingers in so many pies with such a tiny staff because of software it has developed in-house, according to Singh.

"We have software that automates all our processes from the order management of sales to the billing and the reporting so we don’t actually need a bookkeeper," Singh says. "One of the ideas we are bouncing about is do we spin that software out as a service company aimed at ad networks and agencies and publishers?"

MessageSpace has considered licensing the software but believes that if it is still attached to an ad agency and network, then deals could be hampered by competitive concerns.

Singh and Staines are considering a sale of MessageSpace and claim to have had expressions of interest from a couple of big political mag-azine publishers, which are particularly intrigued by the automation software.

Singh says there is no hurry for a sale and a relaxed approach is possible because the company has never required large amounts of capital.

A big deal fell through in 2012 after Singh and Staines baulked at onerous clauses that would be activated if the company missed long-term revenue targets.

After MessageSpace, Singh, whose early background is in mathematics, is destined to step back from the world of politics. Singh suggests that he will focus his energies on being an investor and build on those investments he has made within the marketing and ad-tech world.

After his company partly helped deliver the Brexit vote, Singh is now seeking to help start-up accelerator Collider and the ad industry work out the best response.

"It has happened – let’s accept it and make the best of it," Singh concludes. "I am still optimistic."


Singh has been on both the winning and losing sides of British referendums, having previously helped the No to AV campaign prevail. Despite himself being a Remain supporter, Singh argues that the campaign to stay in the European Union was an intimidating marketing task.

"Thinking about it as a marketer, whatever you sell on the campaign trail – whether it is a person or an idea – is basically the same concept as selling something on a product shelf such as a can of peanuts or bottle of Toilet Duck," Singh says. "And the EU as a product is a shit product. On top of that, we were selling the renegotiation that David Cameron did – that was also pretty shit and not a great product."

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