It’s Shout Digital’s fourth birthday, and with that name you’d expect a razzamatazz. Instead, a cathedralic calm fills its spacious offices. No balloons. No nostril-tickler of a fizzy drink. Not even enough folk to fill a ballroom. Instead, an air of confidence and concentration - possibly the vital clues to the outstanding success of this digital specialist.
The client list amassed so quickly is remarkable, including as it does Sage the global provider of business management software, Nova International sports management and Bond Dickinson, the 200-year-old law firm 35th in the top 100 UK law firms.
With a £1.1m turnover likely to double this year, and 35% growth in three months recently, how’s such speedy progress achieved? Gary Boon, founder and chief executive officer, responds as if still curious himself. “It’s interesting for us,” he says. “We’re not traditional in how we generate growth. We don’t have a dedicated business development function. We’ve grown largely through word of mouth.
“The traditional business development pattern of having people go out or pick up the phone and cold call isn’t something we do. We try to develop through people we’ve come to know and some contacts I’ve been able to make through my limited networking.
“It’s not that I’m no great networker or don’t want to be. It’s just I’m naturally fairly quiet. So growth has come from word of mouth. People knock on our door to talk about projects. Through that we’ve gone from three people four years ago to 14 last year and 24 today - all specialists, no jacks of all trades.”
The firm at Garth Heads, overlooking the winking eye bridge on Newcastle’s side of the Tyne, builds websites, does online marketing, builds mobile applications and provides digital strategy. Its real value emerges, Boon says, when clients ask how digital can work for their business.
Shout Digital is especially reputable for its expertise with apps. It has devised one for Nova on training for the Great North Run, one for the construction industry, and an alert for Bond Dickinson enabling human resource managers and directors to quickly solve complex calculations surrounding maternity, paternity and adoption leave.
The construction app assembled for 4Projects Construction now has 30,000 customers using a cloud based system for project collaboration. They range from global bluechip clients to regional businesses whose experts and key contributors can work together on documentation and 3D models though physically they may be widely apart and requiring guaranteed confidentiality.
For OK magazine it has provided an app where anyone obsessed with following the footsteps of celebs can dine where they have dined, or visit nightclubs they went to. Who was spotted there and when? To some this may sound a sad existence but, as Boon points out, it goes with the whole celeb ethos. “We built that, and through agents, OK can intimate straight away if celebs are about to appear somewhere.”
His deepest admiration seems reserved for Nova, “a fantastic North East organisation, great to work with and iconic for a number of reasons.” Shout Digital likes to sit alongside an organisation like that - “people who show what they stand for and who show the rest of the country that it’s perfect being here.”
All progress to date is organic, the ethos being to grow with quality of work the firm’s spokesman. “Where we are today, I’d like to see us continue a level of growth and even accelerate it,” Boon admits. “But we have to put in a more formal business development function. We’re looking at that. To sustain our present growth level that’s what we must do.”
Intense regional competition is a stimulus already, a launch pad that has led to 52% of the workload being national now. “The North East’s a fantastic region for digital, a fantastic challenge for competition.” he says. “That keeps us on our toes to make sure what we deliver is on a par, if not above, what others are trying to deliver.
“We try to put across a high level of thought over what a client wants from us. When people engage with us, or ask us to pitch on a project, they’re asking a serious question because ultimately what we do digitally is
there to affect the client’s business and what revenue they generate. They’re looking for return on investment.
“So it’s about giving confidence that you understand across the whole eclectic mix these days. Be it mobile, smartphone, app development, website, intranet or whatever, you can come with a holistic approach that, even if they only engage on one of those things, you’ll know how that might fit into a wider digital strategy.
“That, I think, is where our difference is. We’re holistic, and from a business with perspective to understand the end aim of a client’s business, and what value we can bring it through digital. What works for client A may not work for client B. Everything’s bespoke.”
Boon was previously with another digital agency in the North East for several years. He’d worked on global digital strategies for the likes of Bupa and BBC. He’d also previously spent 14 years working with UK banks, devising solutions such as chip and pin security on cash machines. So his personal background was both highly technical as well as strategic.
Then, the wing-flexing... “We all at some point in our lives, I think, yearn to work for ourselves. I decided in mid-recession 2009 to do my own thing. Two directors who’d worked with me wanted to be a part of that, and I’ve also shareholders who were involved during the set-up.”
One is Ian Baggett, another impressive entrepreneur, creator of Adderstone Group in property development. Then there’s Paul Walker, ex-chief executive of Sage, and Jason McKay, former head of GLG, Europe’s third largest hedge fund which, in 2010, became a wholly owned subsidiary of British alternative investment manager Man plc, and now as part of that oversees funds of around US$26.2bn.
So contributors to strategy comprise four shareholders including Boon, plus technical director Phil Harvey, creative director Ian Mullen and digital director Andy Brown, people whose talents he’d previously interfaced with for
Paul Walker’s confident he’s backing a winner. “Its increasing profile beyond the region and within the industry makes it an excellent North East ambassador, and proves Shout Digital’s at the forefront of this fast moving and competitive industry,” he affirms.
They’ve got badges up. Shout’s been voted the North East’s best marketing business two years running in awards led by marketing publication The Drum. It’s been shortlisted for Digital Agency of the Year and, in Boon’s case personally, Managing Director of the Year. Now it hopes to penetrate The Drum Digital Top 100 Agencies within two years.
Operations started in the old Jesmond, Newcastle, telephone exchange that Adderstone Group had skilfully converted into modern offices. Expansion since has forced three moves in four years, and a run on space has re-arisen.
Love brought Boon to the North East, and the North East is where he loves to be. He was actually born in Nottingham and lived there for the first 13 of his 42 years. Then he moved with his parents to Dewsbury in Yorkshire, and in his early 20s gained a degree at Huddersfield University in electronics and computer science.
His first job arose in Sheffield then after a year he worked with NCR at Leeds. But he also spent time with the firm in London and Belfast, and lived in Chester while working for a client. Finally it was the North East. “You know, you get your girl friend and those sorts of things,” he explains. “So I’ve been in this region for about 18 years - a lot longer than elsewhere. And I’ve no plans to go anywhere else.”
More than that, it’s vital to him that business should support the region. “I don’t just mean Shout Digital, but other organisations too, both in digital and other sectors. We’ve a great opportunity to put the North East back on the map, making sure that from a regenerative aspect after the recession we all work together to make ours a thriving economy. I’ve always intended to create a business for the long term. It’s not just about making money. It’s also about putting jobs and expertise back into the economy. My family live in the North East. I want something here for my son to be able to aspire to, not having to go further afield to London or wherever. Being here, growing an agency on a national scale but rooted here, is important to me.”
Elder son Adam is 21 and a test analyst there. Younger son Ethan is nine, and the family live at Heaton, which is handy for the office. His wife Sharon is a key figure in the company too - finance manager. “She chases all the hard stuff I’m too lenient on, about getting money into the business.” While Shout Digital has a London office, Boon believes a global business can now be run from a region. He details: “While face to face meetings are still required, you can do that over Skype, conference call and video conferencing.
And while nothing beats meeting around a table on occasions, you can be in London by train in two hours fifty or even forty from Newcastle. Get there by 10am, get a full day’s work in, then do more work coming back on the train than you might in the office.
“We’ve had London based clients for three years. They’d confirm we serve them well. They remain with us. We get them results year on year from the North East. The model works.”
He does admit: “I’d have no problem about seeing the company sold eventually to a WPP or someone like that of this world. I don’t want to stay small. However, I do want us to become a top UK digital agency based in the North East but delivering nationally. We’re on a growth path there.” Boon can recruit appropriate talent within the region too. And that counts for a lot.
Difficult challenges ahead
Shout Digital is a member of W3C alongside the like of Apple, Microsoft and Facebook. It’s an elite international committee led by Britain’s Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web. So how does Boon feel about the excesses, corruption, pornography and fraud that were never intended?
“Difficult challenges have to be addressed,” he agrees. “The Government wants phone companies to help prevent people accessing pornography. You can do that to a certain point. “But people who want it always know how to circumvent the preventive technology put in place. It’s a constant battle. No easy thing. Everything possible should be done to prevent unsavoury material. But it’s always going to be evolving and ongoing. It will need global corporates such as Google and Microsoft to help build technology.
“On fraud, we’re working on numerous e-commerce projects for clients. One project I previously worked on was the BBC TV licensing website where one challenge was to stop people accessing other people’s accounts online. There are things that from a content perspective can be addressed online.But we must stay vigilant and continue to look at how we build secure systems. Here we manage all our own servers in our data centre near our office. It’s our servers. We constantly ensure they’re secured and look at what new threats are coming, ensuring our infrastructure, and how we’ve designed our systems, protect our clients’ businesses as much as possible. I can leverage from security I did for banks.”
And given Berners-Lee’s belief that the world wide web should traffic universal free communication, are newspapers and magazines ethical when putting some of their material behind pay walls? Boon considers: “I actually think they’re right. What they offer’s of value. Why not charge in the same way that you previously bought a newspaper? If they’re writing great content, why shouldn’t they charge online?”