Tell me a little bit about yourself. What’s your background/career path?
Firstly, thank you for asking me to do this. I’ve found your interviews really interesting – there’s such a good range of experience represented in the series.
I am the co-founder of ast + red, a small digital studio based in Edinburgh (although I now work from Cambridge!). I have an art college background, in fine art, but I have always been interested in design and communication.
After graduating, my first job was in retail. In my spare time I also worked on small, mainly digital, graphic design projects – having taken a course in web design in the final year of college. Ten years ago I went freelance. Those were the days when a designer might also build a website themselves! In order to take on bigger projects, I later teamed up with my now colleague Jai, a developer.
It may not seem relevant, but the insight gained from my time in retail (at Scottish interiors, textile and product design firm Anta) was invaluable. Working in an SME often means you work in many different roles. Significantly, I also saw the results of effective marketing (some of which was produced by me!). It had a big influence on what I’ve gone on to do.
Tell me about your agency. What is it you do and what prompted you to start up your own?
As a digital planning and development unit, ast + red works with a group of independent specialists in graphic design, SEO, PR and copywriting. Together, we collaborate on marketing strategy for small businesses and organsiations; we don’t think of ourselves as an agency in the traditional sense. As the jobs have grown, by necessity we have needed to work with a larger team of people. A cooperative approach has also allowed for flexibility, but I also really enjoy working in an ‘agency’ setting with talented specialists.
We have built close relationships with two brilliant graphic designers, Gail Turpin Design and Bremner Design. Although we are separate companies, we are colleagues. Therefore, we can provide clients with an almost seamless service. This is partly achieved by literal closeness: our studios have been in the same building for a number of years.
My own area is now planning, information architecture and strategy – more of the big picture of design and content. This also involves a lot of client facing. The business continues to evolve: I’m also doing some consultancy work.
Our clients are generally in the creative, hospitality or food and drink sectors. It is fascinating: they are all different. We work with them to produce on-brand, high quality websites and digital collateral at competitive rates.
We realised recently that most of our clients are female (I remember you finding this interesting when we first met, Kelly!). They are a formidable, inspiring bunch. I’ve started to look at this in more detail. Is it us? Is it the sectors in which our clients operate? Is it the way clients find us?
What do you think are the most important issues for developing your company culture?
It seems pedestrian, but the telephone is an important part of our culture. I work from Cambridge (and have been for the last couple of years – a move due to my other half’s job), while my colleagues are in Edinburgh. Email is great but, in the absence of daily meetings, a phone call can be so much more efficient, minimising misunderstandings, improving camaraderie, and helping to foster a culture of honesty.
The Drill Hall, the building that houses our Edinburgh studio, has had a big impact on our company culture: it is home to a vibrant community of creatives; studios are affordable with flexible leases; the onsite café – extremely important! – provides a great social hub and space for informal meetings.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a woman in business?
I feel fortunate that being a woman in business has not, in itself, presented any major challenges so far (although there have been plenty of challenges!). However, I’ve come to understand that lapses in confidence might be something that I share with other women. Just recognising this has helped.
The Wow Company’s recent survey of 471 agency owners across the UK has the figures as Female 27% – Male 73%. Can you share your thoughts on this?
I initially found this surprising, and then wondered about the figures for independents/freelancers in this sector. Thinking about my own networks, female agency owners are indeed scarce, whereas I know a lot of women working independently on a smaller scale. I hope the agency headline figures are on the move.
Do you have a mentor, or are you a member of an agency owner community?
Nothing formal, but I’m lucky to have a network of people to discuss professional matters and challenges with. I also find that I learn a lot from clients, especially those with whom we work with over a longer period of time.
Do you feel as a female agency founder, they offer the level of support you need? Do you need additional support that isn’t currently available?
At the moment, I’m not sure that I need female-specific support. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think such initiatives are necessary, and important. It’s great if they do exist.
What other female founders inspire you?
Starting my working life in a company that was co-founded by a woman (Annie Stewart of Anta) has left an important impression on me. It made it seem utterly normal, to me, for a woman to run her own business. I also find regular inspiration in the female business owners to whom we provide services.
In terms of design agencies, Lucy Richards of StudioLR is a founder I admire, and her studio has a really distinctive, thoughtful approach.
Before I started working with the designer Gail Turpin I found her inspiring – she had worked for many years at top London agencies on global brands, before deciding to go independent, move back to Edinburgh, and bring her considerable expertise to smaller clients. Gail is a passionate believer in the value and power of good design; I’ve learnt so much from her.
As an example of the changes that the digital revolution has brought, I find what Jessica Ford has done as co-founder at Ravelry, the social network for knitters, incredibly inspiring. This network has allowed knit designers – who are predominantly women, of all ages – to found their own businesses and sell their patterns worldwide.
What do you think makes a great agency?
People! But that’s not people as individuals – it’s people as community, and the way we work together. Collective pride in work, respect for colleagues, honesty (even when it’s difficult). And diplomacy.
What would be your one piece of advice to future leaders?
It’s what I saw with my first boss: a woman running her own business is business as usual.