Sitting under the shelter of a giant garden shed is an unusually sedate spot for a conflab about the breakneck paced digital world.
Zeal Media founder Jane Slimming, however, wouldn’t have it any other way. And so, amidst the wood-panelled serenity, she charts the supersonic rise of her fast-growing empire.
It’s worth noting that the setting for our interview is pretty smart as far as sheds go. There’s a flat screen TV nailed to the wall, a set of skis displayed in the corner and a scented candle for added atmosphere.
Oh, and it stands inside an ultra-modern office in which 15 or so well turned out staff are beavering away at computers and devices.
Zeal, based in the Tower Works building in Leeds, has doubled its annual turnover every year since its launch in 2010 and is currently at around the £1.5m-a-year mark.
The firm, which prefers an indoor shed and Astroturf garden as its meetings spot, has evolved from purely an online advertising company into a thriving digital agency offering an intertwined mix of marketing, advertising and development.
“You can’t tell somebody that you have a good product and expect them to believe it. People are far too savvy,” says Jane, the 33-year-old whose firm is a small but
growing patch in what is the UK’s biggest digital and creative industry hub in terms of staff outside London.
And savvy people who control marketing budgets are increasingly switching on to Jane and her team’s approach. Nimbleness and a passion for continually researching an ever-changing industry have, says Jane, paid off. A glance at Zeal’s client list supports her theory, with Leeds Bradford Airport, British American Tobacco, Kwiksave and luxury brand retailer Page & Cooper among her customers.
The marketing, PR and advertising game has transformed dramatically in recent years – with lines blurring and old methods becoming obsolete – but the Leeds firm has been quick to respond and kick on into several growth areas.
These include online strategy, search engine optimisation, web design and development, email marketing and social media management. But for all the pioneering methodology of the digital age, Jane says it is good old fashioned creativity that is flavour of the month.
Jane says: “It is now about the way you communicate with people and find those conversations that have a relevance to your business or product. It’s about joining the conversation rather than forcing the conversation. Back in the ‘Mad Men’ era if you had a really creative idea and it had legs, you could do something with it because people weren’t used to seeing adverts. Then the media age came along and it was all about who had the most money to shout the loudest.
“Now it has come down to creativity again. If you have a really creative idea, it doesn’t matter necessarily that you’ve got a small budget. If you look at most videos on You Tube they are not huge big scale productions; they are things like cats playing pianos.
This has created a more level playing field for brands.”
With Jane having both youth and a wealth of industry experience on her side, she’s well placed to run a marketing agency fit for the 21st century.
She originally worked in the chartered accountancy sector for Baker Tilly before moving into marketing and communications through an account manager post at agency Mediavest Leeds.
Here she began to cut her teeth in the marketing industry, working on behalf of some of the group’s biggest clients. However, with entrepreneurial dreams beginning to form, she soon started plotting a future at the controls of her own business. She left Mediavest after three years having learned some vital lessons.
She says: “The good thing about working at a small agency is there were no barriers to my progression. Within a year I was running the jet2.com account, which at the time had the largest advertising spend in the North. So I was doing all their outdoor, national and regional press.” With Jane becoming increasingly interested in the digital sector, she then
sought to take her career purely into online-focused activities.
“Digital was an area that I was really interested in. When it first came on the scene, all the offline people were like ‘oh it is rubbish’. It was a bit like they were the cool kids and those in digital were the geeks.”
Successive account manager and account director roles at Acceleris Marketing Communications and Brilliant Media later gave Jane the opportunity to dive head first into the world of digital communications.
But her ambition to set up her own business was becoming too great to ignore, especially as it would enable her to embrace the latest digital trends unhindered. While the reality of going it alone threw up more than its fair share of challenges, she was determined enough to make it work.
“I started working out of a friend’s flat,” she says. “You couldn’t get Wi-fi in the lounge so I had to sit on the floor by the front door. Very quickly I moved into an office, where I was joined by Mike Jaques from Brilliant Media.
“I never really questioned it would be a success. The first thing I did was go through all my old contacts and I was really surprised with the amount of people who wanted to help me. The first cheque we got was from The Roast Café in Leeds and, as the client is so significant for us, we recently held our 4th birthday party there. They are our smallest client and usually pay us in sandwiches, which we’re more than happy with.”
From the off the business immersed itself in digital communications, with Jane’s first cheque coming from a social media project. However, with many businesses still in the dark ages in 2010, Jane began to realise that she needed to offer services that allowed clients to play catch up, including web development and design.
She says: “When we started off we were zero digital. It was just online marketing and we just drove traffic to web sites. However, there came a point where we were creating loads of traffic for clients but none of it was converting into sales. So with Mike’s technical background he changed their websites to make sure they converted better.
“At that point we said, ‘why don’t we just build websites from scratch?’ We were a bit reluctant but, after sitting in a number of pitches by other web agencies to one of our clients, I realised that we could definitely do a better job.”
Zeal soon evolved and launched a number of divisions, focussing on areas such as social media (Zeal Buzz), blogger outreach, creative campaigns and content generation. However, Jane is keen to stress that adding new services isn’t just about appearing to be up to date with the latest industry trends, but that they must be strategically linked as part of an overall service.
She says: “You can’t do social media without a decent content strategy and you can’t really do PR without social media. Those things are really strongly interlinked. The message is definitely getting through to people that content is crucial. You can see by the blogs that we write and the fact that they are actually read. I think that one of the most important things going forward is knowing how everything works together and getting people the right touch points in their media.”
As Zeal continues to grow it has emerged as a fearsome adversary of larger London agencies.
“I think there has been a trend towards shying away from the London agencies. We actually do things, instead of taking 18 meetings to discuss doing them. I say to people hand on heart, we are better than those agencies, far, far better and far, far more cost effective. A lot of our really large clients know that now.”
So, what does the future hold for the business? It looks to have already outgrown its current site and Jane admits she is now considering a new, roomier home for her staff somewhere in Leeds. Whether or not the shed will go with them remains to be seen.
Perhaps not given that it is so big it had to be winched up through an open window when it was first installed, breaking all manner of health and safety regulations. With ambitions to become a large agency, Jane is keen to build up her relatively young team with even more talent through the apprenticeships at the Leeds City College programme.
She says: “I don’t care if someone has got a degree or not. If someone has a level of intelligence and a hard working attitude there are huge opportunities within our sector.
Nobody is perfect, but we are offering somebody an absolutely brilliant chance to walk into a job at an agency.
“I have seen a lot of agencies which, as they get bigger, change their culture and forget what it was that motivated them in the first place. I said when I first launched the business that I was going to grow a big agency and that I wasn’t going to lose sight of our core principles.”