Who starts a new digital agency in the middle of a global recession? Ben Young and Duncan Shand, that’s who. Since its inception in late 2009, Young & Shand has grown from a company of two to a company of 31, and now Young is taking off to New York to see if the company can continue that growth and success in one of the industry’s most competitive markets. That’s all despite the fact that neither Young nor Shand had even worked in an agency before starting the business.
We talk to co-founder and managing director Duncan Shand about the company’s plans and why its clients still need a specialist digital agency.
Duncan Shand (right) talks to development manager Izac Hancock.
2009 was probably the worst year to start a business. Did you think that maybe you were a bit crazy?
Well, there’s always people who think they’re a bit crazy. We were both working for ourselves anyway. We weren’t working for other agencies on big, fat salaries, we weren’t in happy corporate roles with expense accounts, we were both having to hunt and kill our own work anyway. So we were used to that. In actual fact coming together as a partnership made things a lot easier for both of us. It’s hard to build a business as just one person, but as a strong partnership we can make decisions faster, we can bounce things off each other, we can divide and conquer. It made sense and worked really well.
How did you grow the company so quickly?
There’s lots of companies that have grown a lot faster - you look at Xero, you look at Google, you look at Facebook, and they’ve probably grown a lot faster than we have.
But in this industry it’s a pretty big growth.
Yeah, I suppose it is. I think that’s about being aggressive and wanting to grow. And it’s about being focused, and hopefully being good at what we do, and bringing in really good people. At the end of the day it’s all about the people and it’s about the technology, and it’s about getting both of those working right.
We’ve always had a philosophy of hiring early, so we will bring in the right person before we have the work for them, and they tend to get filled up. It won’t take long, it’ll take two or three weeks and they’ll be at capacity. But we try to get people on rather than winning a pitch and then trying to find the people to do the work, so it’s a bit of a different approach I think. I think 90 percent of the success comes down to a great partnership between Ben, and Dan [Phillips, group account director] and I, so really the three of us, and bringing in great people that step up and just get the job done.
What does your online work entail?
We call ourselves a full-service digital agency, so we take a digital approach to a client’s brief and just like any other agency we’ll try to understand their problems, try and understand what they want to do and what their challenge is, and then we’ll creatively solve that and build whatever we need to build. That could be anything from a campaign to a Facebook app to a website to email to banners to dirty old SEO and adwords. So anything in the digital world we will take a look at and try to solve the problem. We take a digitally-focused approach to it, and sometimes that might mean we do a few extra traditional things around the edges, but it’s always going to be a digital solution first and foremost.
What kind of traditional stuff do you do?
That really only comes into play with our smaller clients, a client that doesn’t have the budget to work with a big agency. So we might do some posters, or a press ad, or some fliers and some video. Bearing in mind we do video for all of our clients, because online video is really important.
On bigger clients we’re working with people like DDB on Cadbury, and working really well with them. They take the brand lead, we’re in there with the digital ideas and together we came up with a really great creative concept on the Cadbury Dreams campaign.
We built the website, we’re doing all the digital advertising, banner ads, display ads, Facebook side of things there. It was a DDB idea and we did all the design work for the website.
You do a lot of social media work. How do you measure that?
We do a lot of social media work, but it’s probably a third of our business. We’ll split it into web work, promotional work, and there’ll always be a social element. Social’s an important part of digital these days, you can’t ignore it.
The great thing about digital these days is everything’s measurable. You can measure everything which makes it great, because I’m an ex-accountant. I flipped - sitting in my Dilbert cubicle all day, I had to get out. But we always bring that performance-based approach to every project. Our clients know if they’re getting good results because they can just look at their analytics and see every click, every impression, every sale from every campaign that we do.
So with social, that’s not about the number of ‘likes’ that Facebook page has, it’s about how you can translate that into real, tangible business. That’s what it’s about. You want a decent number of likes, that’s your audience, but you also want to create content that’s engaging and get then to interact with you. You want people to enjoy that Facebook post or that sponsored story or that video.
You did a Snapchat campaign recently with Skinny - how do you stay on top of those emerging platforms?
Innovation and learning is kind of at the core of what we do. So we have to stay ahead of the game, but then we have to be putting things in place in the market that we know is going to work. We’re always looking at the edge to know what’s interesting, and how can we apply that.
So that’s a lot of what Ben brings to the table. He’s the technologist, he understands how things work, he researches it, it’s his passion. It’s my passion too, but Ben’s in there 110 percent of the time. Ben’s always researching and we have a blog full of new ideas that we find around the web.
Ben and Dan went to Ad:Tech last year in November to find out what’s happening at the forefront. It’s a bit part of why Ben’s going to New York to set up an office, so he can be in the most high-pressure, demanding market in the world. We think we’re pretty good here, but we want to see and test ourselves to see if we can be good over there.
So Ben’s going over permanently?
Yeah, he’s going on Thursday [15 August]. We’ve already got a guy over there who’s cold-calling, knocking on doors, so Ben’s going in to really get some revenue going and see if we can make it work.
So a lot of big ad and marketing agencies are doing digital now - why do you think your clients are coming to a specialist agency?
It depends on the size. I think digital’s different. A traditional agency can say they do digital, they can see cool digital things, but at the end of the day they’re really going to focus on the core idea and executing that with traditional first, which probably means a large TVC campaign and everything else, which is really sexy. And it’s easy to let the sexy things get in the way of what’s going to work from a digital point of view.
Digital’s really tricky. It’s not as easy as making a press ad or a TVC. Digital requires quite a different set of people. So next door [in the Young & Shand office] we’ve got a team of digital designers, front-end coders and back-end devs. They are geeks. And they are proud geeks, and they love it, and they’re fantastic at what they do. Most digital agencies don’t have the same number of geeks in the room that we do, so when we do things we do it all ourselves. We don’t outsource it.