Tell us a little bit about First 10. How it was established and what is unique about it?
There wasn’t in truth a ‘grand plan’ as such and it’s not a big entrepreneur story. I worked in agencies and on the client side within TUI Travel and got fed up of corporate life. I learned what I could and felt it wasn’t for me anymore and that it was time for me to make a leap. I was very confident in myself and thought things will figure themselves out. I set out with the idea that a big-ticket, high day-rate, low-volume 4-hour work week, Tim Ferriss kind of thing would be really great. But to be honest, I hated it. I hated the boredom of having to sit on my own a lot of the time and crunch through work. That wasn’t really for me. At the same time, there were a few other guys I had worked with in the past and we started to collaborate on projects.
Quite naturally the four of us formed a business. It just seemed to be a coming together of like-minded individuals around client needs. For instance, a client would ask me to develop a web application, but I don’t do that so I would look after the strategy element, the planning and someone else would look after the details of project managing; another would build it and design it and so on. We likewise emerged in this web-development world. It was very natural and it was nothing like what I expected, because in truth, I pretty much hate agencies as a world. I don’t like the industry we are in. So it was rather ironic that I ended up creating something in the agency space.
We didn’t really commit to First 10 until maybe a year later. The first 18 months was quite casual. It was almost like we were a collective pulling projects through. We were very much individuals with our own businesses trading under a name. Then we shifted in the way we pay ourselves, the way we approached, the way we committed. Since then we pretty much doubled every year in terms of size. But it’s been a fine ride.
The idea of not liking agencies and the distrust of it is what has driven First 10. It is rather a paradox in a sense, but we have used that to shape the kind of company that we are. We believe in how we work and what we do. To be honest, I don’t look at other agencies for that very reason. I don’t really respect a lot of what they do. The agencies that I do respect are the game-changers, the ones that set the bar. I look at them with a sense of awe. I don’t see them as agencies, I see them as pioneers; whether they are marketing pioneers, design pioneers, or whatever it is that they offer. The agency work can be quite vacuous; people of mediocre talent clustering together to produce mediocre products. There are too many. It’s a cluttered world and I didn’t really want to get into it. But I don’t have any regrets. It’s been great so far.
How diverse are your services and expertise?
At the moment it’s almost like a bell-curve. We’ve gone from being not very diverse doing pretty much just web projects to being very diverse. Until last year or the beginning of this year we were very diverse. We were broadly into the areas of content generation, motion graphics, and design; and from a web development end, engaging in all kinds of web development work from e-commerce to interactive platforms, communities and the marketing side, the planning and the activation.
What I have realised though is that we are moving away from what we promised and we are becoming an agency. So this year has been about how to correct that, and how we come back to what we are and what we want to be and where we want to go with a clear mission and purpose. This purpose isn’t to build an agency in a ‘transactional’ sense, which is consequence of doing great purposeful work. The transactions aspect looks after itself. Getting sales is not very difficult but building a company that matters is exceptionally difficult.
According to my experience, as you layer on more people if there isn’t a purpose the company wanders. We end up working with many of the wrong clients because we say yes to too many things. Ultimately, you become sales-led and transaction-led. So we have had to stop that and come back to what we are and what we want to do and find a purposeful direction.
How competitive do you think the industry is and how challenging is running a small independent amidst that?
The agency world is immensely competitive, and it shifts and speeds. I have been doing this for 20 years and I would say the competition is not only from other agencies but also from the big groups as well. Agencies move in such a way that they ‘eat’ each other and end up being part of bigger systems. At the same time you also have a bottom-up freelancer world, where we started. So this is a very difficult system to compete against.
But having said that, I believe that viewing competition in any market is really a choice. If you decide that you want to compete you will; and you will commoditise, start to look at each other and compare yourself with everyone. Competition is a choice; a choice of products, how to behave and what to think. So for us, this year has been about avoiding that and making different choices so that we don’t have competition. For us there is no such thing as competition because we have a great degree of focus and purpose. The agency world I think is heading off the cliff. Within three years’ time, five at the very most, I don’t think we would see a diverse agency-dependent set up. Instead we will see agencies that are much more orientated around content and value generation. There will almost be a higher order because the consumers will be driving that. Ultimately, brands want to drive in consumers but the consumer behaviours are fundamentally shifting. They are becoming anti-advertising. People seek services that are ad-free and they are prepared to pay a reasonable amount to avoid it. They seek to run away from anything that snaps attention and interest because there are far more interesting things to do; because we don’t need thousands of messages a day and that’s evident through the way people use ad-blockers or choose to shift to paid services like Netflix. The knock on effect to this is that brands have to change the way they communicate and promote. So it’s not about promotion, it’s about value generation, which means in turn that they will need a different type of agency.
Look at a lot of the agencies in Leeds, the creative agencies, digital agencies and so on. They are all generalists. They have fallen into the same trap that First 10 has, where you train to just provide commoditised services rather than value generation. You can make clearer choices about what kind of agency or freelancer you want to be.
What would you say are some of First 10’s greatest achievements so far?
I would say the people are what I am most proud of. I love watching people grow. I like seeing people lead better and love the idea that First 10 can for a brief moment in their life help them on their journey to be whatever it is that they want to be. I’m gutted when someone leaves us. It’s awkward because we need to source someone else. But equally, I am very proud of what they were when they joined and what they are now. I am very keen to help them go forward and be successful and then move on to their own thing. What I have realised of late is that the biggest buzz is of people growing. We as a company grow by just investing in that growth. But people are only with us for a temporary period of time and I think we have to be fairly philosophical about that. That is how we can create a win-win while we’re all on the same bus.
Apart from people I guess I am proud of milestone client wins. PUMA was a very early win. I’m more proud of retaining that relationship four years on. As a part of this we are also working with Newcastle United. Football is a growing space for us and we are talking to them separately from PUMA about their digital strategy and platform. We were also the agency behind Joey Barton’s take over on Twitter and so on. Our job was to help him find his voice online, find his purpose and that’s been great as well.
It has been the same with Tilda. This year we are talking with Tilda about multi six figure programmes of work and I think it’s not about the work done but the fact that they still choose us. We were a small company constituting four of us. They chose us then and they choose us today. I am proud of the way we are able to now choose clients and pitch differently.
We have done that recently with Aviva. There will be a launch this year of a top secret project which was something that we pitched to their size, shape, and what they needed. We went through that process right through to delivery. It will go live in a few months’ time. I’m proud that we have been able to demonstrate that we can work in the way that we need to work rather than queue up and wait for work. I’m proud of many things but ultimately it has to be the people, because you are the sum total of the people and the processes of the organisation.
Having spoken about people and how they move on, do you believe there is an industry brain drain in Leeds?
No. I think many people move into Leeds as much as they move out. Now if anything, I believe there is a brain gain. I’m surprised how many people from the South want to move to the North. We get enquiries increasingly from London, we get CVs through from all sorts of talented individuals who we sometimes can’t respond to fast enough. We work with people in France, US and Australia. This is globalisation. I think we are now in a far more empowered society where people all over the world can work with each other.
What about losing talent to conglomerates?
Without a question it’s hard losing people to bigger outfits. I’m not sure about the details but I read somewhere that Sky are opening a large technology hub in Leeds and they will want heavy tech resources. That will no doubt hurt the agencies in the area. But then it’s the agencies’ responsibility to create the kind of place that a person wants to work in. It’s not Sky’s problem for wanting talent. They have every right to pay over the odds for talent.
So I think when it comes to small independents like First 10, it’s up to us a find ways to be attractive. We do that every year. We introduce features, we have small benefits and significant benefits like free health and pensions. We have been doing pensions for a year. It’s up to us to create that environment where people want to be, with the blend of perks we can afford to offer. A lot of those perks are about using your imagination rather than necessarily having deep pockets. Perhaps a little financial planning is needed, particularly on the pension front, but this is basically our responsibility. The conglomerate agencies have different challenges. In some ways I don’t envy them. I think we should concentrate on what we can do, what value we can generate and what reasons we can give for people to take someone like First 10 seriously rather than complain about something beyond our control.
What future plans do you have for First 10?
I think we are crossing a threshold this year. As a business we have always pivoted around. We have adjusted to our environment, to changing ideas, what we wanted to do and who we wanted to work with. I feel this year has been different. We have nearly 30 people with us now. That feels fundamentally different to when we were five or six people seated around the single table making rapid decisions. I think when we look forward it will be how we dial the focus on what choices we make: how we take our own advice, who our audience is, what products and services we can craft to serve them better and what ideas and production systems we will put in place to take to those audiences and markets. It is about catering to a very specific target market rather than operating as a generic digital service provider to anyone who walks in the door with a big enough cheque book. But saying that is easier than doing that. And I think this year has been a painful year. Someone referred to it the other day as ‘growing pains’ and I think that’s a very good expression. What is positive about all this is that we are in the game and we are pushing forward. And to be honest, I do enjoy the climb.
And finally, any concluding thoughts?
We are very keen to play our part in putting Leeds on the map, that’s an important priority for us. We want to create a sense of pride around that. One thing we agreed on when we set out was that whenever First 10 ceases to be, it will have made Leeds a better place having contributed in some way. And as we look forward we are looking at organising an event within the next few months. You don’t really see quality events for marketing and we thought it would be an interesting opportunity, so we are exploring the possibilities of that.
When I first started out, getting into work with the London based brands was a nightmare and it was quite hard to sell when you were from Leeds. We were often chosen because we were cheaper and had an appetite for risk. But now that is absolutely not the case. I think that is part of globalisation. The north south divide is now dissolving. If anything, I now get the sense when I am facing our clients in London - and that’s really where our clients are – that they like us being northern. I think that they like the fact that there is a significant difference: a different energy, a different set of ideas, and a different perspective that’s not part of the whole London clique so I’m excited to be part of kicking Leeds on and raising our profile and doing our bit around it.