In this special episode of SO… What’s Up? Chelsea talks to SO Marketing Founders James and Richard about how the agency came about and the journey they’ve been on in the last 15 years.
SO turns 15!
Podcast SO turns 15!
Hi everyone, and welcome to a special edition of so what’s up this week mark so marketing’s 15th birthday. So I’m here with founders, James, I believe in Richard leaving to find out why they created the agency and how it’s grown over the years.
So tell me a bit about what you were both doing before you started. So marketing, James,
I was working as a marketing manager and it distribution had been for a number of years. And before that, my very first business back in 1999, was a web agency, little sort of two man band company back when the internet was first starting out. So I was bringing those web skills to the company that I was working at as a marketing manager. And I was sort of dealing with clients and partners and working on marketing campaigns, at the same time as sort of moving them towards an E commerce kind of world. I’d taken a few jobs in it distribution, marketing, and then just due to a relocation, just decided to sort of branch out on our own really, but obviously, before that, I’d met Richard, who was actually working at the partner agency that I was using at the time to do our creative work.
Nice. So how about you rich?
Well, I followed a slightly different route and stayed in education for quite some time, from school to college, from college to university, the usual route that most people take, along the way, doing creative courses, pretty much graphic design, primarily print a little bit of digital and things at University started to evolve quite quickly in the digital sector. So it was quite fast moving when I was at university, and at that time, I was also freelancing, a bit like James, a little company, by myself in the bedroom at home, and it was doing really well really, really well but still needed that full time job to pay the bills. And to obviously, get by I finished university decided to put more effort into the freelance side of things got too much work on so worked evenings, and then in the daytime worked in a job as a graphic designer. In the day working alongside James really, he was one of our biggest clients. So we got on really well, we had to work side by side on pretty much every project for James. And that’s kind of where the relationship started.
So how did SEO Marketing come about then?
It was just one of those. I do a lot of things on the spur of the moment, as everybody knows, and it was just like, Okay, well, I was sort of done really with having a full time job. And for somebody else, I thought, You know what, I’ve got plenty of bits of freelance clients. Anyway, Richard’s got some freelance clients, it makes sense that we do something together really, because what you tend to find in agencies, like ours is is often a complementary skill set between founders. Ours, obviously was sort of a digital web technical side for myself, and the creative print and design side of things for rich. So all the clients that we sort of had, especially on the early days had a combination of both of our services, really, and obviously back in those early days, we had to do absolutely everything. Yeah, not compared to sort of nowadays where we’ve got more staff that sort of help out and deal with clients. Yeah, when you start our business, you do literally everything. And you work until 910 11 o’clock at night, every night. So yeah, it was a interesting time is really, especially because, literally within a month of starting their business, my wife got pregnant as well. And so within Yeah, nine months, we also had a baby in the office. So it was a bit of a interesting first year really.
Yeah, it’s quite an exciting time. Busy, busy long days from 6am. Till, like James says 11 o’clock, and at times at a 30 to 40 Minute Travel home as well. So it was quite challenging. And most days we get in the office and wonder if the other person slept in the office or not. So during the admin duties design, and we went quite heavily at the time into email marketing as well, that was pretty much 90% of the business we used to do. We worked well together, we got on together, we pretty much live together in the office. So we spent less time with our families than we did were there with each other. So we learned to work really well together. Both of our skill sets are totally different in a way but still, we both need each other to complete every single project. So it’s quite efficient. We were really efficient for a small business. We had our own building. James actually set that up with his wife Catherine just before I joined so I continued my full time job doing work in the evenings whilst we built so marketing, and then I was free to leave and join the team really. And that’s what we did. So we set up there in a tiny little office and Cheadle sweet shop at the front. People didn’t know we even existed because the majority of the clients were London based anyway, so we really didn’t need the retail frontage. Yeah, everything from there is history.
And why did you choose Staffordshire as a base for the agency if most of your clients were London based?
For myself, it was? Well, at the time James lived near the office, it was as simple as that I found a nice little office, we both agreed it was a great move. And then I realised that struggle 30 to 40 minutes at least. And if there was traffic, it was about an hour or so. So it wasn’t ideal for me initially, because I lived quite far away. But I’m fine with early mornings, whereas James isn’t.
Yeah, and to be fair, yeah, it’s like recess in the reason being that it was literally two minutes from my house. So yeah, it’s if you’re going to pick somewhere to go, you pick the closest place to be honest. But library says, Yeah, we have a lot of clients all around the country. And we’re always travelling around the country meeting clients on site at their own location. So our physical office location sort of didn’t matter really, as much as the the work that we were putting out for the clients, as times evolved, that our offices become more of a sort of destination for people to come in visitors rather than I think that we have to do have to have. So yeah, especially in the sort of post COVID world is becoming more of a flexible space that we don’t necessarily all work from now, on a full time basis. But certainly back in sort of 2005, it was, yeah, we were living in the office library.
So 15 years is a long time in a constantly changing world. How would you say so marketing has evolved over the years.
And it’s probably unrecognisable really from where we were back then. And I often think about the staff that we had sort of back in the first sort of three, four or five years. If they came back to us now would they recognise the company? We offer primarily digital services now. And so that’s an always changing landscape. Yeah, just give you an example. Some of the things that we have to bear in mind are the constant evolution of things like legal obligations for clients websites, like, for example, when GDPR came in, that was a really big change that we then had to go back over all of our existing clients to tell them about and to help them with, we really have to be seen as the supportive agency that are there to help the clients adapt to what’s coming next. Yeah, digital marketing, never changes when sort of always changes, but it’s always an ongoing thing that’s going to require clients to keep on changing their strategy. So yeah, their requirement for an agency for us will always be there. And so we will always be there to help the client sort of tell them about the latest things that are coming along how algorithms are changing, what’s now going to work better for them. Nga, people can’t stay still. And we’re, we’re the same as an agency. We’re not We can’t stay still, because we just be out of date, if we did,
there’s been a lot of changes over the last 15 years. One thing from a business perspective we’ve always focused on is as a company to be as stable as possibly possible to allow growth that’s not slower growth, really, we’ve grown slower than some other agencies, because we want to be stable financially, we want to make sure we don’t make the wrong decisions. And everybody’s got a job at the end of the day. So things are, like James mentioned, constantly changing. We hit things like credit crunches. COVID things are, and we were always quite good at forward planning. And we react to that situation during COVID. During the credit crunch, the very first time I remember being back in Cheadle is quite a worrying time, because the majority of our large IT clients, they basically cut all spend on a digital level. So we quickly went over to print, it saved our bacon, we were quite stable. In fact, we grew throughout that period when a lot of companies are suffering, and then come out the other side of the really strong print side again, and a really strong digital side service. So I think that’s what allowed the next five years of growth from there, concentrating on both sectors really.
So can you tell me about some of the highlights and that you’ve both had over the last 15 years?
It’s been a hard one to answer that, really. And we, we’ve really had the opportunity to work with some amazing clients, amazing people. I think one of the things that really sticks out in my mind was about two or three years ago where we sort of helped out creating a celebrity video for a local charity that we were doing a rebrand of. So we got to meet some really amazing famous people who are ambassadors for the charity. And we film them we work with them to create this sort of promotional launch video for a new part of this particular charity. And then seeing the impact that the creative work that we produce there makes for the service users and the people that work there. And that was really quite rewarding thing that we’ve did
offer me One of the main highlights was moving to leak. So we moved to leak. And that’s why I was living at the time. So no more travelling for me and it’s on my doorstep and not James’s bought, the building is absolutely amazing. We’ve managed to get a really iconic building and leap that’s got plenty of room for growth. So that was a good thing for me and all that another real big highlight for me was the team, we had quite a large change of team over the last few years. But we’ve the team that we’ve got have all got the same mindset, we’re all going in the same direction, we’re all equally as driven. So we’re really excited about what the future is going to bring, we can sit we’ve we’re always forward thinking at least one maybe two years in advance of all the things we want to do. So yeah, that was one of the main highlights really?
And how about some of the challenges and that you’re faced?
I think, almost kind of what Rich was saying, around sort of the stability side of the business? I mean, we Yeah, if we wanted to, we could we could grow significantly larger and very quickly. But yeah, one of the things that I’m very proud of is that we’ve never made anybody redundant in this business, and don’t intend to, because of our way that we we manage the company financially and the stability side of things. But that does bring with it other challenges, you know, who wouldn’t want extra members of staff to help out with the team whenever they needed them. But there’s a balance between over employing, and to get things done very quickly. And then putting those people’s jobs at risk, when you’ve got too many people when it’s possibly a little bit quieter. So it is a constant challenge, really, that for agencies like ours, just as that sort of balance of headcount versus work coming in. And it’s something that yeah, we probably spend time every single day, planning ahead for and yeah, we’ve been, quite Fortunately, we’ve grown by sort of one to one and a half people a year really ever since we’ve started. And that seems to be a quite a consistent way of growing for us. And other companies, you know, potentially might add 1020 people in a year. But we like to be very, very stable and gradual and make sure that we’re always going to be here for our clients and our customers.
I think following on from that, James, another challenge that we have face is finding local talent, believe it or not, we can put job adverts out there. And everybody seems to be going to the major cities, which did concern us at some point, I won’t lie, growing my team, but in particular, the creative team, we really did want some of the best designers around the best developers around and to find them there in the big cities, the majority of them are, we put job adverts out there locally when and it’s tricky to employ. And then all of a sudden, they started to come in out of the woodwork. And we realised that the majority of this, the team that we’ve actually got now, they’re all from leak or in around the surrounding areas, which is really, really, we weren’t expecting at all we didn’t know of them. And we normally know of them. And they they all approached us over time organically rather than when we’re employing so we tend to keep an eye out for talent or keep an eye out for talent all the time. But there has been a challenge. And it’s been worrying at times. But now we’ve actually got quite a pool of people who want to work for since the awards especially, we’ve won some really nice brands lately, as well as so we’ve got some lovely work. So everybody seems to want to work for us eliminate, which is fantastic position to be in. So when we should when we do come to expand them hoping we can just tap into that. That pool of people.
Definitely. And so last question, then what’s the best part of running a business for both of you?
I think you as a business owner, I’d be crazy not to say the flexibility that it gives you in terms of just be able to knit home for things like that. And yeah, I think I generally would struggle to work for somebody else. Now having had slightly more flexibility in that. But I think in our specific business, and just things like seeing the company being recognised for the work that we do. Yeah, so we’ve won a huge number of awards over the last five years only, I think it’s only like 20 to 25 awards and nominated nearly 60 times. And every time that sort of thing comes around is a really great thing for the team. It’s great to sort of show your appreciation for what, what everyone’s doing for our clients. And it’s great to get that feedback from clients as well. That we know that we’re doing a good job. So So yeah, I think there’s quite a few good parts really. But yeah, the thing is really, for me personally, it’s just the flexibility it gives us and having some good recognition for all the work that we’re doing.
Yes, I’m really it’s nice to be your own boss in a way not answering to other people doing things the way you believe they should be done. The best part of the role in the business for me is just just the team. We’d get on inside and outside of work and you don’t normally find that in my average day job before working for somebody else. The team was never so close or like a family. So I think that’s that’s the best part about running the business. Since you get to pick and choose who you work with, and they fit in with the ethos, so we’ve, they may have the ability, but if they don’t fit in with those as a family, let’s say, then it doesn’t tend to work. So the people we do employ all other similar mindset or get on inside and outside of work. So for me, that’s an important factor.
That’s great. Thank you very much for your time, both of us. Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed learning a little bit more about the CIO story and you’re excited to see where it goes. So yeah, stay tuned.