In search of search: the history of Further
Further co-founder Steve Jaggard describes the early days of the search marketing agency that he co-founded with Zak Ireson in 2006.
What’s your professional background?
I started in advertising as a copywriter. From my studies in business and marketing, my advertising lecturer, an ex-JWT head, said I had what it took, so I went out into the world and tried to get a job.
54 letters to 54 agencies later I couldn’t get a job. Then, a small Cambridgeshire agency said they might have a place, but it was on a YTS scheme paying £27.50 a week for six months. I needed to get on that ladder so I took it.
Over six months working with a great art director, I learnt a lot. Part of the reason I took the poorly paid job was because the guy who was running the agency was an extremely good copywriter who wanted to do things properly. Together we worshipped the two David’s – Abbott and Ogilvy – legends of the ad world.
I stayed on for another twelve months at that agency, during which time I worked extremely closely with the art director. Our relationship grew and we decided to go out on our own – forming what we called our own little ‘creative hot shop’.
It was a tough regime as we were freelance creatives working for top London agencies, and agencies spread from Somerset and Norfolk. Our days consisted of meeting clients and taking briefs and at night we did the actual work. It was hard going, but it taught us what we did and didn’t want to do.
A 40-strong Norfolk agency we were working for took a shine to us and made us an offer to join as junior partners. We worked for some big clients for the agency – TV, radio, cinema, advertising, posters, whatever. We also won quite a few awards – national and international – and created one of the first ever ‘live performance’ outdoor poster campaigns.
Explain how you started your first agency?
Together with one other guy fresh out of a leading London financial agency, we were three juniors on the board alongside the two key elder stakeholders. After a few years there were the inevitable differences in visions of the future. The outgoing directors were thinking of retirement. We were looking to invest and wanted to move location, while they were, as we all would, looking to their pensions and retirement.
The inevitable split happened and the three of us set up another agency called The Point – the first integrated communications agency in East Anglia. It was ahead of its time really and is still going now, some 23 years later. I stay in in touch with the guys and the team because it was a big part of my life.
What prompted the decision to move on again?
After 11 years of working at The Point, we won a big piece of business and everyone was whooping and cheering… apart from me. That’s what told me that it was time… I needed a new challenge, I needed something new – a very early mid-life crisis if you like…
My partners thought I was completely mad. They bought my shares and I spent the next 18 months in the wilderness while deciding what I wanted to do next. I was trying all sorts of different things: from creative problem-solving for consumer magazine groups such as IPC titles to creating funky, yet functional thinking spaces within offices, from mentoring businesses on their brand and marketing to judging for a number of prestigious awards.
How and why did Further come into existence?
I was working on an idea I’d had and was put in touch with a really talented designer named Zak Ireson, who I’d met when he was a very young client at Archant – and who had since left to start his own design and web business.
After a few weeks of working on designs for my new internet business ideas, it became clear that we were both on the same page: each of us wanted to come up with something new. Six months of brainstorming together and something approaching 110 different new business concepts later…it struck us that no one in the region was tapping into the growing digital marketing industry – in 2006 there just wasn’t such a thing up here, especially in terms of search marketing.
We did some research which showed that, at that time, very few clients would recommend their digital marketing agency to anyone else. It was very much a case of clients trying to learn and understand from techs. The customers just got lost and frustrated, deadlines rarely being adhered to. Some of these early web companies didn’t really consider customer service or smart project management. Something needed to change.
We knew that being in Norwich shouldn’t be a barrier, as other great digital industry leaders such as Foolproof (UX), OMG (affiliates) and at the time, Soup (creative digital) had grown from bases here. Further would be about industry-leading SEO, customer service and – and this was the lightbulb moment for me – measurability in all we did.
What were the earliest challenges for Further?
As a new and small agency in the SEO space, we needed creds before big brands would start to look at us, and companies in Norfolk would stare blankly back at you when you talked about SEO in 2006.
The people in that space at the time were selling ‘the dark arts’ of SEO, but we were trying to doing something different, more ethical: to start with, we built high quality, well thought-through websites and win client trust that way, before we started talking about SEO. We’d say, ‘this is your shiny new car’, (the website) ‘now you need to put some fuel in it, and that fuel is SEO and PPC’.
We built good relationships with a number of clients for whom we went on to build retained contracts from – some are still with us today. And that was the plan: to move away from a design-and-build agency, to a digital marketing agency. But it had to be this ‘reverse-sell’ as a start point, until the market started to gain some maturity.
What were some of the agency’s early highlights?
There are some moments that stick in the mind: we were recommended to do a large job for the largest daily newspaper in the UAE, Gulf News. It took four months of trying to deal with Dubai and the project managers heading up the project, trying to get our first major international project over the line. It was a big project across 17 sites – but little old Further managed it. Nothing could stop us now!
We still only had six or seven people, but the recommendation of the agency in Amsterdam went a long way and we beat the likes of Razorfish to it. It was a great boost to us and a stepping stone to bigger projects.
What do you think it was that they saw over the larger agencies?
We came across as very passionate about what we do. They also recognised that the people who did the presentations would be the people they would be working with. We put our hearts and souls into that. We were always at the end of the phone, at their beck and call. We way over-serviced them, but, we saw it as a great loss leader – and it was, with the emphasis on leader, not loss!
What is Further’s approach to talent?
When we started, we were suddenly dealing with a new discipline and a new breed of practitioners we’d never worked with before. These were youngsters who were highly intelligent and knew far more about the discipline than we did, but they weren’t conventional employees of a marketing agency… yet. They’d be up all night reading blogs or playing computer games, so sleep patterns were non-existent. It was a challenge, but we still aimed to find and retain the best talent we could.
After a while we grew to a size where we could see we needed a new layer of the team. We needed client services. Lots of SEO and technical agencies had failed because the experts didn’t know how to talk to clients, how to put things in laymen’s terms or deal with process.
We decided very quickly to get somebody in to set up a client services team. Louisa had worked with me at a previous agency and had excelled. She was so self-motivated, she’d put herself CIM training in her spare time while bringing up a young son – and out-achieved the young-and-singles on the same course. So we persuaded Lou to get back into the agency game and lead our Client service offering.
How have you seen the digital marketing landscape change?
In the early days of SEO, we had a some very skilled technical SEO people, but as a creative and brand man, I have to say I couldn’t quite get my head around it at first. Back then, to put it bluntly, SEO involved being voted up or down search engine rankings by sometimes un-related websites and blogs that bore no relation to your consumers or even seen by your consumer. It just didn’t seem like real marketing to me.
In fact, there was a lot of gaming of Google’s less-sophisticated system going on, with unethical methods being deployed by many agencies. As a result, the search engines didn’t give the useful results to searchers. In fact, all too often, the SERPs were dominated by directories with no content whatsoever. While we pushed the envelope on occasion, and won several awards for our innovation, we always refrained from the dodgy practices that would at some point later become outlawed.
Today, thankfully, we see a different search landscape, especially in terms of organic search – one where those focused on providing the user with the best answer to their result are rewarded, as are those trusted brands. Hurrah, brand is back in fashion! By focusing their efforts on ‘what is good content’, they’re increasingly able to reward ‘good content’ and make sure people get the most useful, relevant results. SEO used to be quite a separate discipline, now it’s all part of our marketing mix.
As a discipline, content marketing is growing and spreading, and we’re back to creativity and great relevant storytelling. But – and this is the important thing for me – it’s not just creativity for creativity’s sake, it’s informed by data and insight, it has parameters and uses benchmarking so that we can measure every aspect of it. Measurement and attribution are key as we move forward, so that’s where we excel and invest.
How have you seen Further change over the years?
Few other industries have changed as much as ours in these last ten years – and it’s been change for the better. Google’s changes to algorithms were always making the experience better for the user. Their focus was on delivering the best content, and the best content would always be the most genuine.
For us the big decision has been what to focus on to differentiate ourselves. I’ve always been keen for us to specialise, to be recognised as a national and international player within what we do rather than another jack-of-all-trades agency. As such we have employed and invested around talent in our key areas of data and analytics, strategy, tech SEO, conversion optimisation, as well as paid search and social.
But we are no longer working in silos of service lines: creative people over here thinking up ideas, while the data people are over there doing their thing. Our approach is about getting the disciplines working together because the best results come from working together towards the client’s goals.
What do you see as the future of digital marketing for Further?
The thing Further does really well is saying to our clients: ‘right, give us your objectives, let’s agree goals and KPIs’. We’ll then determine an outline strategy to achieve these using what we feel confident is the right mix of tools to meet those objectives.
We then review where we are after three months and maybe hone the mix of tools to be deployed over the next period. It’s what I call a ‘continual cycle of results improvement’ – sorry it sounds like marketing bullshit, but it’s the best way I can think to describe it.
That’s what Further will give you. We don’t just do a PPC campaign or some link-building, we look at the whole ecosystem. It gives us more control to achieve the set targets – and our clients a greater chance of meeting them. Win win!
And finally, what’s the vision of future for Further?
We’ve got big ambitions for Further. We’ve been in fairly unsettled economic times over the last few years and at the same time we’ve had to contend with the changes that have happened in our industry. We’ve had a period of consolidation but seen continued growth in core clients as they see the benefit of our new approach.
The last 12 months has seen people opening up to new ideas and new ways forward. Budgets and spending are starting to grow, and Further is growing too. We’re looking to expand Further within the target footprint with offices in Cambridge, as well as London, complementing the main hub in Norwich.
In addition, we are surging forward in analytics, measurement, predictive modelling and attribution and 2017 will see the launch of our first IP in these areas.
We will continue to build, and invest in, our brilliant team of people and we’re winning business again at a satisfying rate. There’s a real vision and ambition to push the agency forward – we’re in exciting times.