Describe your role in no more than 100 words.
My role is primarily about determining our strategy for growing Status. I spend a significant part of my day-to-day looking at opportunities and planning how we’ll develop the business to achieve the objectives we’ve set. When necessary, I also support our clients with business and marketing strategy, and I support our senior team with operational management. I’m still actively involved in marketing and business development.
What is it the company does?
We’re a digital agency specialising in customer and user experience design.
We work globally with organisations of all sizes. Our service portfolio includes search marketing, website design and build, mobile apps, inbound content marketing, social media, data and analytics… in fact, anything ‘digital’ that a business might use to build its brand and connect with customers online.
We think of ourselves as a ‘disruptive strategic partner’ that helps ambitious businesses to radically transform their approach to digital marketing by becoming more customer-centric, and by improving how they use digital technologies to grow revenue and improve ROI.
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
I set up my first business selling windsurfing kit in the early 90’s while I was at college. In 1997 I began working as a project engineer. My boss at the time seemed to think I had an aptitude for business so he sent me on day release for two years to study business management and administration - something which would eventually prove to be very useful when I started Status!
It was around this time that commercial use of the World Wide Web was really starting to explode. Early browsers like Mosaic and Netscape Navigator were making it easy for people to get online, and businesses of all shapes and sizes were launching websites to get their products in front of them. I started to dabble with website design and eventually left project engineering behind to start working as a freelance consultant, helping small businesses create websites and figure out how they could use the internet to grow their businesses.
After a couple of years of freelancing I decided I needed a regular income and more experience working with bigger brands and businesses if I was ever going to make a decent living out of the internet.
I went to work as business development manager for a digital agency in Newcastle. I had a great couple of years in this role, and I learned a huge amount about web design and software development working with a super talented group of people.
In 2007, I moved to become Head of Digital at Newcastle Advertising Agency, Different. I spent a little over 3 years at Different before leaving to set up Status in 2011.
To be honest, very little about my career was planned; I looked for and took opportunities when I saw them, and I learned some great lessons from some very talented people along the way.
What do you believe makes a great leader?
I think all great leaders are great diplomats who stay true to their nature and work hard to create a culture that brings different types of people together to achieve progress.
I also think great leaders tend to have great instincts. There’s a lot you can learn about business in a classroom, but when it comes down to it, many of the decisions I make every day are based partly on gut instinct. There have been occasions when I’ve ignored my gut instinct, usually to my detriment.
Finally, I think the best leaders know their limits. Rather than trying to do everything themselves, they get really good at spotting great talent, building teams and then creating an environment which enables people to succeed in pursuit of a shared goal. The very best leaders work with and through other people, sharing their success along the way, and learning together when failures inevitably happen.
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
It’s tricky to pick one! The biggest challenge I’ve had by far is finding the people I need to build my team and grow my business. It’s vital for a growing digital agency to employ highly skilled, adaptable and ambitious people who are eager to stay abreast of trends in technology and marketing.
Initiatives such as Dynamo and Digital Union, along with creative tech clusters like the one at Hoults Yard, where Status is based, and Science Central are doing great work to help build the region’s profile and bring talent to the North East. The hard reality though is the North East still has a small talent pool compared with places like London and Manchester. Agencies like Status therefore have to focus on creating a happy and productive workplace culture, and on winning exciting work that will help us to attract the best people.
Another significant challenge for me was accepting that mistakes will happen.
Although my leadership ethos has always been to enable good people do good things, when I started the business I naturally wanted to make sure everything we did for our clients was perfect. In an attempt to head off every conceivable problem, I got involved with all aspects of the business, from deciding how the desks in the office should be laid out, to testing the websites and apps we built. I knew this wasn’t a sustainable approach but it was my baby, and I was determined nothing would go wrong. It did, of course, but fast forward a few years and as we’ve strengthened our team, I’ve learned to relax a little. I now embrace the occasional failure as a useful business development tool, and I focus on supporting people when things go wrong, so we can understand where we need to improve our skills or tweak our processes to ensure we don’t repeat mistakes.
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
Just like anyone else really. I spend time with my family and friends and I get outside to ride my bike or windsurf whenever possible.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
That’s a while ago now…. I wanted to be a pirate - I was a huge Treasure Island fan!
I read somewhere that entrepreneurs are like pirates crossed with Navy SEALs – they have the spirit of a pirate and the discipline of a SEAL. I’m definitely more pirate than navy SEAL but I can run with that!
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
My biggest gripe is when people are quick to point out our problems but slow to suggest solutions, or when people are inflexible and slow to adapt.
As a digital business operating in a rapidly changing environment it’s essential we have a dynamic and forward-thinking team. I want to work with problems solvers, not mood hoovers; I like to employ people who want to lead, regardless of their role or seniority. We work hard during our recruitment process to find engaged, proactive people who want to test their boundaries.
I also hate hype, and hype culture, which is a real challenge for a person who works in the tech sector! I get more than a little frustrated when agency execs, go off the deep end pitching the latest thing, simply because it’s the latest thing, without really taking time to understand how it can benefit their client’s business. I’m all for early adoption if there’s an opportunity to deliver something which proves a concept, but I think being at the bleeding edge has to be balanced against robust strategies that ensure the money our clients spend with us is going to come back to them.
Where do you see the company in five years time?
Given we work in the digital sector, the only certainty is that our business will look completely different!
This rapidly evolving marketing landscape will in turn drive significant changes in the skills we need at Status, as well as the future direction of the business. In fact, we’ve already started to evolve in this direction. Our team which used to consist mainly of web designers and developers, now includes user experience designers, data-analysts and consumer psychologists. Our work increasingly looks at the whole customer ecosystem, looking at all brand touchpoints, rather than focusing solely on websites or mobile apps.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
1. Don’t ignore your instincts.
There’s a lot you can learn about business from a text book. The numbers will paint a picture for you and customers will always have an opinion, but when it comes down to it, I believe your own instincts are incredibly powerful. Personally I’ve learned to ignore them at my peril.
2. Work smart not hard.
I just don’t buy the whole “I work 20 hours a day” thing. Sure, when you start a business you have to do whatever it takes to get it off the ground and make things happen, but as you grow I think it’s important to be able to step back and let people more talented than you take over. As your business grows, I think it’s important to focus on planning, and directing and enabling people, not ‘doing’. I once asked a friend of mine who always seemed to be on holiday how he managed to take so much time away from his business. His response was “if the business doesn’t work when the boss isn’t there, it’s a bad business!"
3. Be ready to adapt
I started Status in 2011 with a five-year plan. Two years in I had to tear it up and write a new one. I think it’s essential that business owners practice looking around corners, especially these days as business models can be disrupted by technology quicker than a new prime minister can be appointed.
4. Play fair
I’m a huge believer in doing the right thing by people. Whether it’s your customers, suppliers or your staff, treat people properly and you’ll be lucky.