It was the end of Summer 2011, I had taken a few days off and was just mulling over ‘life’ (what car I wanted next, how I was going to fit in going to the gym more, and more importantly… my role as a Creative Director and joint owner of a small digital marketing agency). I asked myself the following question…
Am I creating the best possible work I can? The answer was simple… No.
Somewhere along the way, I had stopped doing what I was good at. My passion for digital design, and my desire to “get creative” were over-run by the operational challenges of running a burgeoning agency. The upshot was that I lost day to day contact with my clients who gave me the inspiration to create digital work that delivered results.
It was time to make some changes…time to get my mojo back.
I have to be honest, walking away from a company that I helped to build for nearly five years wasn’t easy, but I needed to do this for me – I was excited! I was driven again, and this time I wanted to do things differently.
Full-service agencies, can they really be specialists?
I knew what I wanted to do, but I needed to be clear WHY (before I knew Simon Sinek) I wanted to do it. I started to look at all the other agencies in the immediate area, and then the larger agencies in Leeds and Manchester.
One thing was clear, they all seemed to want to offer a ‘Full Service’ approach to their clients. They were all either multi-service agencies or at least striving to be. However, what did become apparent is that most just wanted to get bigger and 90% of the agencies had no core specialism anymore.
Branding companies designing Websites, PR companies offering Branding and Event Management, SEO bolted on everything!
I had a specialism and I wanted to stick to it. I had a huge amount of knowledge in digital creative as well as how to work with new and existing brands online. I knew more about User Interface and Experience than anything else… so in that classic light bulb moment, I knew that this was going to be my new company.
I set up a company that would ‘Take Brands Online’… I set up Tall.
Why Tall? Well, Why not? – It’s easy to remember and if you ever get the pleasure to meet me in real life, you’ll get to see the subtle link with me… (6ft 4″).
A new start
After running my previous business The Digital Consortium with two other business partners, I decided to do it on my own a setup Tall. I want to do things my way, focusing on the area of loved, Digital Creative.
The year of change
2012 started slowly and whilst I was focused on building my own client base, I also had to pay the bills. So, at first, I worked alongside larger agencies on a freelance basis to support their digital offering. I was more expensive than many freelancers, but as soon as they saw my work and realised my background and digital knowledge, the higher rate was quickly forgotten.
It gave me the confidence to know that this was right – taking brands successfully online is in demand.
By this time my gorgeous baby girl had come along so it was a matter of juggling new business meetings with 12:00 am, 2:00 am and 4:00 am baby feeds and nappy changing.
I started to set out my business strategy at 6:00 am meetings with my good friend, mentor and part-time colleague Bob Bond. Bob helped me focus on what I had set out to do; reminding me constantly WHY I had done what I did and also just to get my house in order… finally, things started to work. New clients came on-board. They were excited and along with that my knowledge and skills resulted in online digital marketing working for them.
It was time to expand but I wanted to do it differently this time. I wanted like-minded, passionate, experienced people to work with me so we could all grow together – no hand-holding.
I employed a talented designer and made him head of design. To ensure we didn’t get distracted from what we’re both good at, and to stop us from getting bogged down in developing strategy documents (which in my case is being dyslexic so it could take a while…) I wanted to bring someone on board to help and Lee Thawley was just the person for the job. Lee was a Client Services Director at one of the leading design groups in Leeds and today she helps clients understand marketing. She currently works on an on-going basis with the team at Tall pitching, planning, writing and co-ordinating key digital campaigns for our clients.
A great year
2013 saw us continue to grow… Based at the Tower Works in Leeds, we were focused on why we do what we do? We work with large and small clients, as well as team up as digital partners to those agencies that know it’s best to stick to what they’re good at. We’re creating some of the finest digital marketing workarounds and generally having a bloody good time doing it.
Not always smooth sailing
The back end of 2013 saw my first few mistakes as a business owner. In my eagerness to grow I took on a few bad clients as they didn’t truly fit what Tall was about. They were unreasonable with their demand vs their budget, plus they didn’t pay on time and one didn’t even pay at all! This hurts especially when at the time every penny counted. I also lost my first employee due to personal circumstances which ultimately is something you have to expect running a business. However, as it was so early on in Tall as a business it came as a bit of a shock. So, because of this, it was time for me to really get my head down and get refocused after a few setbacks.
Chuffed to bits… As they say in Yorkshire
In February of 2014 we got our first real break! We were officially appointed to provide the Yorkshire Building Society with all of their digital communications across their whole brand portfolio. This included not just Yorkshire Building Society but also Chelsea, Barnsley and Norwich & Peterborough Building Societies.
Not only was this a great opportunity to showcase our knowledge, creativity and expertise but it gave us the income needed to grow and really define Tall’s next steps.
2014 was the year I took on my next big commitment; a three-year lease on a ground floor office in Holbeck, Leeds. I needed to invest a lot of time and energy in making a run-down space (previously newsagents) something we could all love. I didn’t like the idea of bank loans, and they probably wouldn’t have entertained us then anyway. The recession was still very much hitting the UK so rather than taking a pay rise or bonus for myself, I reinvested in the business. I made the office into something special for the Tall employees and clients to use.
Fast forward to Everita and Andy joining the team as our Project Manager and Senior Designer (now my Senior Project Manager and Head of Design). They brought fresh blood, enthusiasm and real energy to Tall. I truly felt they believed what Tall was about and I wasn’t disappointed. As a team of 5 we produced some of Tall’s best work to date. A mortgage campaign that smashed expectation and a fantastic campaign for YBS and the Tour de Yorkshire.
We were really punching above our weight
Christmas of 2014 saw us winning the Digital Awards 2014 for Best Advertising for the Tour de Yorkshire campaign we created for Yorkshire Building Society. We were up against some impressive entries for brands including Google and Sony. Nevertheless, we were delighted that the judges fell for our campaign creative just as much as the public did over the summer.
2015 welcomed an animator/designer join the Tall team as our new account. We were putting out multiple campaigns and websites that delivered really great results.
We never did employ a new business development manager as all-out work came from word of mouth. Because of this, it was so important that every project was top-notch so that people would talk about us in a positive light.
Awards, digital magazines, e-commerce sites, storytelling content, digital screens and MANY film and photo shoots saw Tall’s portfolio bursting with fantastic, creative brilliance.
Lost one and along came a few big ones
You just don’t know what is around the corner in this line of work. So when I was invited to the Yorkshire Building Society offices without much an agenda my gut said something was up.
Turns out…. I was right.
YBS had decided to go with a full services agency. This meant us, along with a lot of other agencies were out. I was pretty stunned to say the least. I knew that the work we did was damn bloody good so it was even harder for me to swallow. Not to mention how difficult it was to break the news to the team.
*Side note, this is when things started to get a little weird*
In 2015 we were asked to help the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) with promoting the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup™. They gave us a great budget and allowed us to really push ourselves to deliver something pretty epic. Our ‘something epic’ turned out to be four riders on the top of a 30ft tower of Casteller’s in the middle of Barcelona.
Oh yeah… this could maybe be classed as a small distraction but I got married the same day as the shoot!
FEI cranked things up a notch when they then asked us to lead a very large awareness campaign for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Another decent budget for another great project.
What could go wrong?
Three things actually…
- Loss of focus
- A battle at the top
Me and the (then) Head of Design were consumed by the RIO project. Flying to China, Japan and other multiple trips for planning sessions over in Geneva…it soaked up every minute of our time.
What should have happened is that I should have let the team, lead by the Head of Design run the project rather than me also being tied up with all the details. BUT… I didn’t. I couldn’t let go. This as a result made the other parts of the business suffer. New business slowed, growing our current client relationships slowed. Everything started to slow.
I made the biggest decision since setting up Tall. I handed over the Creative Director reigns to the Head of Design and took on more of an operational role. This decision, as it turned out, was not a good one for me what so ever.
Sadly, we lost a good chunk of the delivery part of the Rio Campaign which wasn’t great as we’d just committed to a new larger office to accommodate more staff. With the Rio campaign now finished as was the money coming in from it.
Then, low and behold, Brexit hit. Marketing budgets seemed to be held back, finding new business was very tough and we’d lost some business somewhere along the way. I later found that me being away from the client was as a large factor in some of the losses.
Not good… Not good at all
2016 was Tall’s worst year to date. Unfortunately, I had to act quick. We battled on for months, but in the end I have to make half the team redundant. It honestly was a very tough thing for me to do which took all my strength and then some! It’s something I’d rather never have to do again.
It enabled Tall to live another day.
The first day back in 2017 was the make or break for me. If things didn’t start to pick up, my only option was to close the business. Thankfully I’d had an idea. I’d gone all the way back to the WHY I started Tall. I had an opportunity to strip it right back and give it another go.
I was back in the Creative Director seat, which made me feel right at home again. I knew I needed someone to help me with operations and who could help Tall fill in the tech holes which had started appearing. I approached Behrooz Saeed; owner of 79, a good friend and someone I’d collaborated with many times before. We’d delivered projects that we were incredibly proud of (which clients loved). The results were conclusive! We ‘got’ each other and more importantly we discovered that our skills and talents are much greater when put together than apart. A few months down the line, we decided to make the commitment. Through a shared agreement, Tall officially acquired 79 and incorporated it into our business. BAU, but better. We then proceeded to notify our clients.
We have long recognised that creative thinking isn’t just about how a concept looks on screen. It’s how it functions – with the user and for the user. It’s how it integrates data, platforms and networks.
The technology matters just as much as the creative. It’s very exciting to finally have creative, along with technical expertise under one roof as a core part of the offering. Now Tall can make sure every experience is enhanced by the best use of the right technology. Both existing and emerging.
2018/9 will still have its challenges, especially come March’s Brexit decisions, but we have a very strong team again and a clear vision on how we can help the business through the complex world of digital marketing.
Personally, I feel a stronger businessman with the mistakes and lessons I’ve learnt over the past few years.
Nobody ever said it would be easy.
Guy Utley Creative Director and Co-Owner of Tall.