Entrepreneur Interview: with Amy Jackson, Unwritten Creative
Posted on the 14 March 2016
From a sales and marketing background, Amy spent her early career working in-house for blue-chip organisations such as TUI and Sage; and it was during her time at the software giant where she met co-founder of Unwritten, Lisa Eaton.
In 2003, with a few years in-house experience under her belt, Amy took a marketing agency role, discovering that the fast pace, variety and challenge that came from managing multiple brands was something she loved. The next 10 years were spent gaining experience in some of the region’s best known agencies.
The arrival of her first child in 2010, and some of the complications that immediately followed, gave her a fresh and more serious perspective on life and work in general. It made Amy focus hard on what she wanted from the next chapter.
Having remained good friends with Lisa, who was now co-managing a creative agency whose MD was thinking about future retirement options, she joined the team and together they increased turnover, built a strong capable workforce and introduced a digital department.
Within two years talks turned to a management takeover but when, after months of negotiations, discussions were put on hold, rather than feel disappointed, Amy and Lisa felt a mixture of relief and massive excitement. So much so, that within minutes of driving away it was agreed - they were setting up on their own.
So where were your first business premises?
Our first office was in Hoult’s Yard. It was good to be around other creative businesses, some of whom we collaborated with and others became clients. We’d planned to be in this space for three years, but we grew a lot faster than expected and had to move just after one. We’re now at Citygate House in the centre on Newcastle. It’s a beautiful listed building, with lots of space, high ceilings and exposed beams. It has a colourful past, it has been both a lunatic asylum and a work house, I suppose as a busy creative agency we combine a bit of both!
You’re growing faster than expected?
Yes, our growth plans were very much slow and steady, but it didn’t happen like that. We’ve picked up a lot of great clients, they include Visit England through NGI, we created a high profile marketing campaign promoting the launch of the United Airlines flights from Newcastle to New York, and we’ve just completed a similar project advertising the region to Scandinavian tourists.
This is the point where I normally ask about the recession and how it affected your business, but I don’t suppose that applies to you.
It doesn’t directly no, but it’s important to understand how the recession affected our clients. Many of them still talk about it. When companies have to tighten their belts the marketing budget is often one of the first things to go. In my experience, the companies that succeeded despite the recession tell us they didn’t cut marketing spend. It’s companies like these, ones with dedicated marketing teams that understand the impact that a strong brand can have on their bottom line, that weathered the storm well and in honesty that's who we work best with.
How is your market changing?
A lot of experienced marketing managers are feeling the strain brought about by new technologies. With changes in the digital world some traditional marketing methods taught have been turned on their head. We work hard to keep abreast of change but always with a sceptical and analytic eye.
What would you say your unique selling point is?
We are a brand and a digital consultancy, but fantastic design doesn’t set us apart from our competitors. Just as good legal advice doesn’t set one good law firm apart from another. It's the buyer persona research we carry out before embarking upon a brand or digital project that really helps ensure our work is not only beautifully executed but highly relevant and results driven.
We help the teams we work with to adopt a more targeted approach to marketing, a one focused on achieving their organisational sales and marketing objectives. We talk to key stakeholders, customer facing staff and look closely at the top 20% of our clients' customer base to create a set of buyer personas. We're then able to develop key messages we know specific buyer types are likely to engage with. This avoids the over use of generic / one size fits all marketing.
So how do you handle internal motivation and staff rewards?
Our brand as an employer is as important to us as our brand as a service. We want to attract good clients, so we need the best people on board, experts in their fields. To achieve this we have a standard package of staff benefits and on top of that we look at the motivation of each individual.
Flexible working suits some people, especially parents, the ability to come in late and make it up at a convenient time can be a bigger motivator than money for some. When we’re recruiting we ask people what it would take to get them to leave their current role, and what it would take to make them stay.
What about your own motivation, how does this compare to when you started this business?
It’s exactly the same as when I started, although given we have only been in business for two years this July I suppose that’s not too surprising. Ask me in ten years’ time! The pace of business at the moment is a strong motivating factor for me, landing a new client is always a boost, as is taking on a new employee who I feel is going to be great for the team and the business overall.
Has mentoring helped your business in any way?
Definitely, it’s been a huge part of our success. We met a couple of different mentors through the Entrepreneurs’ Forum, and have built a strong relationship with David Shiel of Explain Research. We met David at a pivotal point in the business, we’d taken on a huge project with the refurbishment of Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, in Newcastle, and we were extremely busy.
At that point Lisa and I were doing all of the account management which was more than a full time job, in addition to running the company on a day to day basis. We were so busy that we almost cancelled the mentoring meeting as it felt a little self-indulgent, I was sceptical on its benefits when there was so much 'real work' to do. I'm so glad we didn’t. David’s advice gave me the confidence to take on a new project manager and hire a financial director which freed up some of our time. In short, his advice was to be brave and to stop trying to do it all our self.
This allowed us to follow some more of his advice, which was to make sure we spend time working on the business, not just in the business. If it wasn’t for the Entrepreneurs’ Forum and mentoring I’m not sure we’d be in the position we’re in today.
You clearly have big plans for the future, care to tell me a bit more about them?
In the next two years we want to double the size of the company. In the immediate term we’re about to start hiring again, we’re looking to take on a new web developer. To support this we’ve rethought our organisational structure, allowing us room to scale up. How we currently do things has served us well so far, but it can only work up to a point.
Looking at our goals in a more qualitative way, we want to be the most credible and effective agency in the North East. Becoming this isn’t just about beautiful design, it’s about delivering a good ROI for our clients, and that can only come from an excellent team and a strong understanding of their buyers