When agencies go bust, they often go down taking staff, clients and suppliers with them. But when Sense announced that it was to shut in a brief letter on its own site last week, there was something that struck a chord about the pride and responsibility that it maintained – right until the not-so-bitter end.
Aidan Cook admits to being a little taken aback. Sense Internet, Leeds’s first web design company and the agency he has helmed as MD for 15 years, closed last Tuesday, and the messages haven’t stopped coming in. “I keep being told that we’ve done things the right way,” Cook says. “I find it bemusing when people say there is another way to do it.”The goodwill gestures have been pouring in since Cook and his fellow Sense directors announced they were closing the business in an open letter published on the agency’s website. It explained that Sense was a company shutting down rather than going bust, a company that had no intention of leaving a trail of out of pocket clients, staff and suppliers in its wake.Sense’s shutdown was not enforced by debt, because the agency made a point of not borrowing any money. Instead it was pre-emptive. Cook says “a lot of clients” had seen a slowdown in their consumers’ spending and this had affected projects the agency had been expecting to work on. He wasn’t prepared to gamble on the situation suddenly improving.“Last October we had 40 plus employees. We just thought, ‘shit, if we calculate how much it’s going to cost to make everyone redundant and make sure they get paid their redundancy pay it’s going to cost us shitloads’.”CLOSING DOWN CALMLY
Rather than put livelihoods at risk, Sense started the process of “closing down calmly” three months ago, giving clients and staff time to find new agencies.“One of the things about running a company is that you get exposed to this gigantic soap opera of everybody else’s lives… their new house, their mortgage, their family, their new baby, all that stuff.“It’s a lot more reassuring when you know they’ve all gone into new jobs straight away.”Despite drawing praise for doing things honourably, Cook cannot imagine handling the closure in any other way. “I think that directors and owners of companies ought to be a lot more liable than they are,” he says. “There should be some simple calculations about when a company is solvent, when it is trading legally.”He admits that he never imagined having to make big decisions like this when the company was started by “four friends in a garden in Headingley with a borrowed computer”. Much has changed since those heady days in the mid-nineties, and not just the increasing level of responsibility that has fallen on these friends’ shoulders.“It is astonishing sometimes when you realise how much has changed and how fast. That first three or four years was the interesting bit because it was still very much a case of is this going to go anywhere, is this going to take off?“Most of us didn’t have mobiles – they were still looked on as being yuppie twat phones. For Asda, who had no online trading, we did their first website which was a little piece of brochure work with Archie Norman saying how fun it was to work there.”CATCHING ON
Cook recalls that some clients weren’t even sure what the internet was when Sense started – but it didn’t take long for that to change. “The moment when I realised when things were changing or had changed, was seeing a cover disc from some magazine which was a free Yahoo, dial-up internet account installation disc. I remember seeing that just outside my house in the gutter and thinking, ‘fucking hell, if we’ve become rubbish then this stuff is actually catching on’. “The other thing was when I saw a UPS van with ups.com written on the side. It was like ‘god, people are actually starting to brand their vehicles with URLs’.”Recent history reminds us that some investors got a little too excited about the potential of the internet, prompting the dot com crash of the early noughties. Before the virtual world came crashing down Cook remembers suitors trying to sound out Sense about cashing in.“We never aspired to global domination,” he laughs. “We realised very quickly that we were a service agency rather than a dot com. We had people in the late 90s trying to get us to consider floatation and were like, ‘there’s 10 of us! Why would we float? What possible value would we have to investors?’ But they were like, ‘you’re an internet business!’”Sense instead opted to operate of its own devices, attracting clients including Travelodge, Warburtons, Rizla, Helly Hansen and Yorkshire Electricity. In the agency’s final few months Cook, who now plans to do some consultancy work part-time, has been helping its current crop of clients find new agencies. Compared to Leeds’s formative digital days, he says the competitive city of today is “achieving its potential”.“In general I think the state of the industry in Leeds is a pretty strong one. You’ve got good, solid national and international agencies based here. One of our clients from a FTSE 100 company, when we were talking to them about replacement agencies, said he didn’t want to work with London agencies because they outsource everything anyway.”BEST PLACE TO WORK
Observers on Twitter and our website lament that Sense, part of Leeds’s digital DNA for so long, will no longer be around. One ex-employee left a comment on our website describing it as the “best place to work ever”. Cook says the letter on Sense’s site was intended as an act of gratitude to the 110 staff who have passed through the agency’s doors down the years.“To be honest the challenge there was to avoid going into too much of a nostalgia-fest reverie. Because there are so many classic and key moments which I would love to renew and revisit, from the development director dressing as Roland Rat for no particular reason for two days and walking past glass offices during meetings to account directors skinny dipping with clients at 2am, there’s a wealth of that shit.“We were gonna put something up about being very proud when we see what they’ve gone on to achieve but even that sounded as if we were taking some credit for the fact that they were all very skilled, intelligent people in the first place and we were lucky to have them here.“But yeah, that’s done now and we didn’t want to go out on a flat note. We ran a good place to work for as many of us as possible for as long as possible. And when we accidentally started up 15 years ago we couldn’t have asked for much more.”