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Digital Services

  • 20 May 2021
  • 5 min read
  • by John Rowley

A Bold DNA

With challenges including a global pandemic and a digital revolution, how does a creative agency keep its head above the water? John Rowley, Non-Executive Director at Leith takes us on a whistle-stop tour of Leith's history to find out.

To paraphrase Theresa Russell in the 1987, neo-noir thriller Black Widow, “Success is difficult”. It’s difficult because there’s no rule book. Arguably failures and setbacks are much easier to deal with, emotionally draining and demotivating yes, but, in the business context, the numbers usually frame your decisions.

With success, you have endless possibilities and not every door you open is the right one.

Success is more than difficult, it’s downright dangerous. There’s a form of inertia with success, the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” form of inertia. It’s also called boiling frog syndrome. Nokia suffered from it at the height of their mobile phone leadership in 2008. By early 2011 the market belonged to Apple and Samsung and there was no way back for Nokia. Enduring success stories are rare in any market, not least in an industry as fickle as creativity.

But the common thread in the few enduring success stories there are across business, sport, politics and culture is a single, compelling attribute - the willingness to evolve and adapt, an appetite for learning, early adoption and reinvention.

In the world of commercial creativity Leith has done exactly that. Beneath its swan-like progress it has overcome numerous bumps in the road - agility and innovation have always been its friend, part of its DNA from day one. In a world where advertising agencies did their hardest to sound like solicitors, Leith chose to name itself after the place where it was born and at a time not associated with creativity but much more with docks, hard drinking and a burgeoning drugs culture.

For Leith, the driving force has always been creativity and, inherent in that, a desire for originality. While the brands & issues the agency worked on were often familiar ones, the ads that promoted them were not. And it was that boldness that first established and still sustains the agency’s reputation today. It’s not just boldness of ideas but a willingness to evolve as the world changes around it. Embracing planning back in the day, for example, has only ever enhanced the agency’s creative output, while many other agencies in the same era viewed it with suspicion and have long fallen by the wayside as a result.

2021 marks a new chapter in that evolution, following successful extensions into brand strategy, design, social media, experiential and Health, Leith has now made it boldest move to date by absorbing a complement of 40 ‘techies’ to reinforce its existing, highly skilled, but relatively boutique, digital team - fundamentally reinforcing its promise to deliver bold ideas regardless of channel and format.

Richard Marsham (CEO), Leigh Dobson (Client Partner - Digital) and Ben Ausden (CTO) pictured as Leith announces merger with its sister Digital Agency in 2020.

The shift is more significant than it probably sounds. There’s plenty of creative agencies out there who claim digital capability but in truth it’s more of an add-on than a genuine shift in thinking and approach - treating digital infrastructure and channels as if they’re advertising formats serves no useful purpose. And, of course, plenty of digital agencies who claim a creative pedigree although the output rarely confirms it, certainly not with decades of award winning proof to back it up.

Bringing both disciplines, communities and even cultures (and they are quite distinct) together under one roof is at the heart of this latest evolution. Boldest of all is the emphasis on the design and build of digital infrastructure and technical search capability. When you include the much-expanded Leith Social team, this becomes the whole nine yards, with the promise of being able to determine the customer journey from awareness & consideration through to ultimate purchase and recurring revenues.

The weeds beckon

There are clearly many traps on the road to that ambition. Delivering quality on digital-first client briefs draws you inexorably into the detail and the inherent conflicts that exist within that landscape. There’s always a danger that small tribes form, finding comfort in the benchmarks of their chosen discipline. Not even SEO and UX are the most comfortable of bedfellows, introduce brand into that equation and it becomes a potential bun fight for client priorities.

With that challenge in mind probably more emphasis has been placed on integration than with any previous shifts in the Leith toolkit over its 36 year history.

Seeing to the horizon

However, the most significant opportunity, and one the agency is grabbing with both hands, is the ability to take a genuine helicopter view of the customer journey, from building awareness and consideration through to purchase for commercial briefs or engagement & sign up for issue-based clients. That holistic view is promised by many but can often be simply a peek over the fence at other disciplines rather than genuinely embracing them. Brands and Issues rarely live neatly in a single marketing construct - human lives are messy and so getting them to change course effectively needs to be equally multifaceted. Software design is all the better when it understands what delivered its audience and the aspirations they hold.

Underpinning this latest move and what makes it all the more likely to succeed, is the sheer range and scale of client issues and challenges that the agency addresses. From high-net-worth exclusivity to kitchen sink, from fintech to fizzy drinks and from global pandemics to fast food delivery in the small hours. That level of exposure to people’s lives and behavioural instincts lend itself naturally to understanding how digitally delivered assets can either be centre stage or powerfully influential en route to the client’s objective.

With that backdrop and its new talent pool you can guarantee that Leith solutions will be holistic, technically nailed and, most importantly: bold.

John Rowley

John Rowley

Non-Executive Director

John started his career with The Leith Agency in 1989 and worked as account lead across many of its iconic brand campaigns including Tennent’s Lager, Irn Bru, Bank of Scotland, Standard Life and ScottishPower. As Group CEO he led the relationship with Cello and latterly supported the establishment of the agency’s Health practice and Digital Marketing capability. He became a Non Executive Director in 2020.