On the outside, Royal Court on Sovereign Street in Leeds is a fairly ordinary converted mill office building.
Even walking into the foyer, nothing particularly grabs you, except perhaps the artists’ impressions on the wall of nearby office schemes that have yet to come to fruition.
But go up in the lift to the offices of digital marketing agency Twentysix, and once they let you in, you will feel almost as if you are in another world.
For a start, a huge office buzzing with over 100 young and obviously enthusiastic people confronts you.
Walls are decked with colourful posters of all the work the agency is currently working on.
And if you are lucky enough to be ushered into one of the range of meeting rooms the company has on its lower floor, you are in for an even greater surprise.
Many of the meeting rooms are decked out in radically different styles. There’s a white room, all minimalist for those sniffy purists who like that kind of thing.
There’s a green room, filled to the brim with houseplants and flowers to keep our eco-sensitive friends happy.
Best of all is the room that has been decked out just like managing director Gail Dudleston’s mother’s front sitting room.
It is, perhaps the first time I have conducted a business interview sitting on a brown velour sofa with a ragged fringe, with one of those 1970s electric bar fires roaring away in the fireplace and what a friend of mine refers to as a “squashed cat carpet” to look at.
It may sound like the kind of very trendy office interior that is typical in the digital sector and which you either find endearing or annoying. But this is a deadly serious operation at work here.
Twentysix is the digital arm of a group of marketing agencies that come under the Media Square banner. Late in 2011 the parent company, which had been listed, took itself private.
Like many companies, it struggled to pay off its debts – although all creditors at the time were repaid in the deal.
Notwithstanding that, the Leeds part of the business is thriving. Every one of the meeting rooms, for example, is fitted out with video and audio conferencing facilities so that the agency can be connected not just with its clients all around the world, but with its staff who may be out there too.
The agency already has representation in London and New York, and has just taken on an employee to sell its wares to the Asian market in Singapore.
Yes, this is truly a global player: Dudleston says having your main development team in a UK regional centre like Leeds is not a problem.
“It used to be an issue when we were smaller,” she says. “But it’s because of the way the agency has grown. Agencies used to be very Londoncentric in the 1980s and 1990s, but a digital business, by the nature of what it is, is remote, and you can be anywhere in the world. We have a great talent pool here, and our rate card can be less because of lower property costs and overheads.
“Plus,” she adds, with a smile, “we have the northern approach to business, which is about getting things done right.” The agency has indeed grown.
Dudleston, who had a career in direct marketing including working for Leeds-based JDA, came to manage the business in 2006 when she says it was just six people under a railway arch in Leeds.
“We had a lap dancing club on one side, and a bar on the other,” she says. “It was just following dotcom boom and bust, when digital was just taking off, and we had some great clients. But it was quite badly run when I took over. I think I was the last ditch attempt to turn it round.”
She claims she had been told it was a direct marketing agency when she took the job on, and it was only when she arrived that she realised it wasn’t that at all.
For someone who had up until then only known the old ways of direct marketing – print mailing shots, flyers and so on – it has been a steep learning curve to switch to digital and to manage the growth of an agency as large as this, but she says she would never go back now.
“Digital marketing is really direct marketing on steroids,” she says. “It is faster, more exciting, and gets results quicker. It is also more enabling: with technology you can do anything. I find it very difficult to believe that I used to work on direct marketing packs that used to take eight weeks to get out the door.” She says the change is partly reflected in the way we all lead our lives now.
“Once you become steeped in digital, it’s the world you live in,” she says.
“I do everything online now. I bought my car online, and I bought my horse online. Obviously I went to see it first, but I found it through a website.” The change has also been reflected in the way marketing now works.
“It has taken a while for digital to be sat at that top table with other marketing disciplines,” she says.
“Over the years I have often seen digital being treated as a bit of an afterthought. But now it is definitely at the top table. One client we started working with three years ago had digital as a very small element of the marketing they did. It’s now 50% of their business.”
But this word “digital” is of course banded around a fair bit, and people often have different interpretations of what it means.
What, according to Dudleston is the “digital” marketing that Twentysix does? Taking a deep breath, she starts off.
“The core of what we do is design and build our client’s main asset online, which is usually their website.
“As part of that we will be looking at their user needs, at the requirements and behaviours of their target audience, and will then design a site for them based on brand guidelines.” A good example of a major project that the agency has done – one that she is allowed to talk about – is the website the agency designed for Gatwick Airport.
“It was done in line with BAA’s sale of the airport,” she says, “and we had four months to put it together. We had to go live on a particular day, and as it happened we went live during the Icelandic ash cloud crisis, which was a bit of a challenge.” Other successes have included a website for game.co.uk.
“This was voted by Webcredible as moving from the 18th to the second most usable ecommerce site in the UK,” she says.
And there was Concrete4U, the world’s first ecommerce site for concrete. Putting together such a site was trickier than it sounds, because the issue with concrete is that if your customer over orders, he or she is effectively left with rock.
So the website had to be able to respond to customer’s exact requirements. Twentysix has a five-stage methodology when it comes to building websites, which is: discover, define, design, build, and maintain.
Dudleston says the most important part is probably the discovering.
“Discover is about finding out what the objectives are, and finding out about the brand and the IT that is available,” she says. “We leave no stone unturned. We do wireframes, then do clickable wireframes, and only then does the plan then go through to creative, and when that’s approved it goes to build. It is like building a house. You have got to get all your plans laid out to know what you are doing."
She says a website that has been through a good digital agency like hers should come out looking like a newly repaired bucket.
“A website is like a bucket with holes in, and our job is to plug those holes,” she says.
“That can have a massive uplift in people’s business. If you are in ecommerce, and you are only converting 2% of your visitors and spending loads on pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, our job is to get you to spend less on PPC but to fill the holes. That way we will be increasing your average order value, your revenue, and so on.”
But she also admits that her agency is not one that just tries to foist a website on anyone.
That is one of the reasons why Twentysix has moved into other digital areas as well. It launched a search division two and a half years ago, which is now 20 people strong. In 2010 it acquired a Huddersfield-based mobile development agency. And it now also employs six people in a social media team.
“Our first question with a new client really is: ‘Why do you need a website?’” she says.
“If you are in ecommerce then obviously you do. But if you are a communication brand, your best destination could be a Facebook page.” She says clients are slowly getting the hang of the idea of social media.
“Some don’t do it yet, so they just sit and watch, or they don’t know how to handle it. So we have a programme to bring new clients on board.”
She believes a digital agency – in fact any marketing agency – can only really be effective if it has a policy that you “spend the client’s money like its your own”.
It is an important consideration for a digital agency which, unlike more agencies in more established marketing fields, only has a tiny portion of retained income – everything else is commissions.
“You have to have that idea in your head all the time,” she says. “You also have to measure what you do, and make sure you know what you want out of it. If you can’t measure it, you shouldn’t be doing it.”
The hard reality of digital media, which, unlike traditional marketing, is instantly measurable, has clearly hit home.
Dudleston says this is one of the reasons why she much prefers a relationship where what you are doing is having dinner with the client, not waiting at the table.
“You need to be more like a consultant, rather than sat there waiting for the client to breathe,” she says.
“You really can’t be reactive. If you are you have missed the boat.” She says such an attitude is easy to foster because of the informal atmosphere she has fostered within Twentysix itself. Outside the meeting rooms, within the Leeds office there are no partitions at all. Dudleston herself sits in a corner, and if she is approached, she quips: “I say: ‘My name is Gail and I am happy to help.’”
There are managers with teams, but she insists she has tried to iron out “hierarchy and false status”.
As someone who worked as a manager in McDonald’s in an early part of her career, she says she has learned the importance of “getting stuck in”, and the hierarchy-free environment helps here.
“We have a really quick ‘think it do it’ culture,” she says. “If we think about something at nine o’clock, we do it by ten. If it takes you six months to do it, what is the point?” But it is clear that one thing that really motivates her is nurturing talent in a younger than usual office and watching it grow – a tricky thing to do for a woman boss in an office that is 80% male.
The company has always taken on two sandwich year students from the “M62 universities” every year – one in development and one in design – and many have come back to work for it at the end of their courses.
“It is great to take on a graduate as a junior, and two years later he is flying off to Geneva to present some work,” she says.
You kind of get the feeling, however, that there might be some more maternal instincts at play here as well.
Back in 2006 when she took over a company of only six employees, Dudleston introduced the practice of buying pizzas for all the staff every payday.
The company might have grown to 104 people now, but Pizza Friday, as she calls it, still continues.
“We have 104 pizzas delivered every payday,” she says. There must be some pizza deliveryman who is doing seriously well out of that.