Tom Scotney speaks with Suzanne Linton, the head of Leamington-based Freestyle Interactive.
When Suzanne Linton started what would become Freestyle Interactive in 1996, it was a way to get out of the rat race of working in a career as a chartered accountant.
But during the last decade the digital agency based in a converted barn outside Leamington Spa has grown to become one of the best-known names in the business, and the third-largest agency of its type outside London.
The firm has clients ranging from Alstom to Advantage West Midlands to swimmer Rebecca Adlington, and has recently started a major foreign contract with car giant Volvo.
The company has expanded in Leamington along with the area’s mini-boom in computer games, and is known as one of the best names in the West Midlands as a digital agency.
And, while the digital sector has suffered from the global financial downturn, Suzanne says the key to beating the recession in the digital world is to constantly innovate, innovate and innovate.
The firm has changed hugely since it started out making CDs and DVDs for companies, and Suzanne said it was vital always to stay ahead of the curve, even though it could often be difficult predicting where things would go next in the fast-paced world of new media.
“It’s difficult staying ahead of the curve on everything,” she says. “You have to realise what to back, because different markets have different predilections. Texting’s big here, but isn’t in the United States, mobile is just taking off, you have to keep your knowledge current but you can’t back every horse. Social media is an area that’s very new to a lot of people but has quickly grown to become something absolutely huge.”
Futurology has become the most important part of businesses as the digital sector becomes more and more crowded, with more and more competitors to keep ahead of. Suzanne says networking and learning from other firms has been the way Freestyle has kept ahead of its competitors.
“Part of being ahead is about being part of industry groups, and forming partnerships with other like-minded companies,” she says. “You’ve got to look at the culture and personality of the company. We will quite often work with other companies to deliver a project and understand more about how they work.”
The firm also has a history of diversifying and not being tied down to a single strand of work, an approach that has helped them as budgets become tighter in the recession. This has meant a huge number of people coming through the doors with different skills.
But one of the problems of working in this way has been the difficulty of beating the London brain drain and attracting the best people to the region. While the digital profile of the region is improving it is still difficult to avoid the mass of media work being done in the capital.
But Suzanne says the image of the region is starting to change, and high-tech companies have an important role to play themselves in turning the West Midlands into an attractive destination for the top graduates and digital thinkers.
“One of our challenges is attracting talent to the region,” she says. “Digital is very London-centric, you only have a few pools of experts outside London. Birmingham is growing in its digital capability, as is Leamington with all the games companies.
“But I think we have to make it change, it won’t happen by itself overnight. Part of it is about getting down to London and making them aware that there’s life outside the M25.
“The number of people I have met who moved to Birmingham and didn’t want to come but then liked it is amazing. You want to say ‘can you go out and tell a lot of other people that?’ It’s all about us getting our faces into London.”
The network of people and companies built up by the firm helped it take its first steps outside UK business. The most recent contract with Volvo came off the back of a recommendation from an existing customer, a pattern which Suzanne says has been very helpful for the firm.
“It’s a big step getting into that kind of foreign market,” she says. “You can’t just hop on over in the car and have a chat. Networking was a big part of it and I don’t think we really realised that when the company started.
“It’s all about who you know and the reputation you carry with you. The contact we have at Alstom is someone we have known for 13 years, but we have only just started working with them in the last two years. It’s all about referral and relations.”
Suzanne started up Freestyle after deciding against a career in accounting. She had picked up accountancy at an early age, doing the books for her father’s carpet business in Manchester.
But the spirit of entrepreneurship gained from growing up as part of a business stuck with her, as it did with the rest of the family.
She says: “I never really saw an end career in accountancy, and when the opportunity arose I took a loan to set up my own company with two other people in 1996. At that time it was about jumping off the rat race and just having the work-life balance but it never worked out that way, it just grew. My father was self-employed and I am one of four, and three of us are self-employed now. I think it was that experience of growing up seeing how a business works. The basics of good business were trialled at an early age.
“I think it’s all about the entrepreneurial spirit, you see when an opportunity arises and you match that opportunity and provide a service.
“Everything changes. That’s what’s great about it, an agency is about having a whole load of specialisms all offering their expertise to clients. You grow and you experience what you are doing.”