Tom Fleming spoke to marketing boss Katie Morris about why the recession is no time for downsizing.
At no time in the last decade has marketing communications been such a challenging game.
With a global recession hitting marketing budgets harder than ever, the public all a-twitter with new media and the traditional media channels shutting down left, right and centre, marketing is not a place for the faint hearted.
However, Katie Morris, chief executive at Seal, one of Birmingham’s most respected and successful marketing/PR and design consultancies, is in a better place than most to tackle these phenomena.
Polished, media savyy and full of energy, Katie is delighted with where the agency is, even in today’s turbulent times. Rather than regressing in recession, the agency has been able to make confident steps forward, investing in a state of the art new flagship office for its Birmingham team and increasing its headcount over the past few months.
Just this week, with special guest celebrated BBC presenter, Fiona Bruce, Seal’s new Commercial Street headquarters has been launched after being painstakingly sculpted from an empty shell which they acquired just under a year ago.
“Every sheet of glass, every room shape, table and chair, has been agonised over. This place says a lot about what we are and where we are as a brand” she said.
Split in to two halves, one to house the marketing and design teams plus the newly-acquired digital team and the other the PR division, the stylish glass building is a bastion of 21st century chic. It’s fully armoured with modern marketing agency must-haves like a colourful ‘chill out’ area to inspire creativity, a steel and glass staircase, even a handmade boardroom table which seats 20 and weighs in at an impressive 279 kilos of glass and 300 kilos of brushed steel.
The building was a vision shared by her business partner and husband, Chris. “We have always been a bit coy about being a double act at work– in case people conjure up a twee image of a couple in matching aran sweaters! However, hopefully when you meet us it becomes apparent we are a very different kind of animal with complementary skills. It works on both home and work levels – we have the same goals and dreams and achieving them together is the ultimate for me.”
The infectiously positive mother-of-one was born and raised in Shropshire (the home of Seal’s second office), escaping to the ‘big city’ at 18 to read English at London University.
Her first job was as ‘dogsbody’ at a small advertising agency on Regent Street, where she worked her way up through a string of London PR and marketing agencies before being appointed as Board Director at Clarion, an agency she claims is still one of London’s best PR operations.
In fact, ‘ultimate’ is a word that Katie uses a lot. “I have to confess to being a bit black or white – sitting on the fence is not my style. Good decisions rarely get made in shades of grey. I can’t stand things to be half-hearted or nearly good enough. It’s something I prize in people too - I can accept we all make mistakes sometimes as long as we are passionate about what we do 100 per cent committed.”
Having had daughter Olivia, built up contacts and won business across a plethora of brands from Warburtons to Nasdaq, Katie decided to make the big move back to the Midlands whilst maintaining her directorship at Clarion on a reduced three-day week.
“When I had Olivia, like a lot of people I think my priorities changed. Not in terms of loving my career and being in a profession that stimulated me, but other things take on greater significance,” she said.
“Things like having enough time to consider the really important things like education. In West London there was a 400-strong waiting list for places at the school around the corner and children had sat exams at three - just to keep a place on the short list years later. It all just seemed crazy and suddenly I had this homing instinct and knew I needed to get back to my Midlands roots.
“For years I’d worked completely flat-out and was thrilled to finally be having a little bit of ‘me time’ but it just didn’t feel right. Olivia was at school all day of course and whilst I’d been looking forward to leisurely lunches with friends, being able to do those things that I normally squeezed into a lunch hour – within months I was ready for the next challenge.”
Any spare time was subsequently filled with consultancy work for local clients, including one of the region’s leading businesses, Morris & Company.
Two years later, Chris Morris, younger son of company Chairman, Bill Morris, returned from a ten-year stint in London marketing communications to join the family business.
Initially ‘Spirit’ was a two-man band, operating from office space on the ground floor of Morris’ HQ in Shrewsbury but with their experience and contacts they quickly attracted some blue chip clients like South Africa’s leading Kumala Wine brand and Piccadilly Circus Partnership in central London – winning against London agencies on many occasions. Gradually the team and business grew, a solid 30 per cent year on year - their first employee Julie Price is still with the business today as senior account director.
“At the outset, secretly I was nervous of highlighting our location outside London – I had been there a long time with many London-centric clients. Our mantra was ‘big agency experience without big agency baggage’ and I think that struck a chord with many marketing directors tiring of the inflated fees of some London agencies and being passed down the line once the deal was done. They were looking for the experience and creativity that comes with senior people but without the overheads. 2005 was a golden year. It was the year Chris and I married and the year we bought Seal. We knew if we were going to be really serious about this business, we needed to grow and expand so we started looking to acquire an agency that matched us in terms of culture and clients.”
The pair set about securing a ‘dream list’ of Birmingham agencies. The agency at the top of the list was Seal Communications, operated by Birmingham PR guru Steve Dann. Within ten minutes of meeting Steve they knew they’d found the right place and within months they had acquired it and were running the agency themselves. Several years later, Katie has honed the business into a brand she is fiercely proud of but she credits the people she works with in helping her and Chris to achieve this.
“It’s our people. To this day it’s my favourite part of the job. Really getting under the skin of people you work with. I have never been of the opinion that great agencies are full of clones. Variety is after all the spice of life and one of the things I am proud of is the individuality of all our people – although collectively we all believe in the same philosophy.”
This philosophy is emblazoned on their walls when you enter both Seal offices – ‘best to work with and best to work for’. It’s brave and it’s confident and indicative of how the agency has attracted no fewer than eight new business wins in the last two months. Add to this the coup of securing world-famous tyre brand, Michelin, at the beginning of 2009, and you could assume it has all been plain sailing.
“We have concentrated huge effort and investment in Birmingham because it is home to one of the most vibrant PR and marketing scenes outside London. It is very exciting to be unveiling our new Seal HQ next week where we now have the space and opportunity to really reach our full potential. My main worry is keeping my wallet in check with the Mailbox only a stone’s throw away.”