Last week Cheshire viral-games specialist Matmi swept the board at the Big Chip Awards. The Drum caught up with MD Jeff Coghlan to discuss the agency's future, and how he recovered from the tragic death of his business partner and friend.
Tell us how you first got involved in all this...
I’m 38 now so it must’ve been when I was like 12 or something. My uncle was a professor of computing (at the University of Manchester) and he gave me a computer to use that was made of wood. I just had a passion for computers – I was a proper geek.
So how did you put that to use?
I was a tearaway teenager, didn’t have much and was stacking shelves in a supermarket when I finished college. I then realised I needed to put my computer talents to some good and started doing some administrator jobs at different companies. At the end of the 90s I thought ‘this internet thing’s great but why’s everyone just putting text on it, why’s no one making it fun?’
So that’s where Matmi started then, back in 2001...
My boss at a company called Network Clinic at the time said if you set the company up I’ll give you office space here and I’ll have shares in the company as well. So that was the plan. We did a game called Monster Poolside Sumo to promote our own services and five million people played it in a couple of months. We thought ‘wait up, what happens if we do this for another brand?’ So we started doing it for other companies. First of all we were working with local companies then we got things through from Comic Relief and Nestle... now we work with some of the biggest blue chips in the world.
So things were going well. But then you were faced with tragedy...
Unfortunately a year in my business partner Atheer, who had been at Network Clinic, died in a horrific car crash. I was left with Matmi but also had to try and sort his company out. He had a wife and two babies; it was a horrifically awful situation. He was in a car with clients at the time... it was just a horrible, horrible year. I didn’t own anything to do with his company but I helped his wife to wind it up and sort it out and try to make sure everyone was okay. Matmi just stayed on its own. I ended up buying his brother and his wife out so it was 100 percent us. That was a massive knockback because Atheer was not only a wonderful friend but also a great inspiration, someone who believed in me. It was a very sad part of my life but I think in a way it made me determined to do even more. It was a difficult time but we pulled through it.
It’s now 10 years since Matmi started. How do you reflect on that?
It’s quite humbling to be honest. When you look who we work with... we’re not a massive company by any means, there’s probably about 25 of us. For a company based in Macclesfield, Cheshire getting a call from United Airlines is a little bizarre... we’re still taken aback by it but we know we’re very good at what we do.
What makes Matmi different in your opinion?
I guess where we’re unusual is that no one has ever left. I think the reason for that is one: we’re a nice company to work for and we do great stuff; and two: we’re in Macclesfield. In London a lot of people poach staff. What it allows us to do is ensure our quality of work is consistent. In other companies you get a lot of staff movement and the quality can be up and down. I’ve never run a company before so just thought it was normal that people don’t leave.
Where do you think the web is heading?
The future for us is social, IPTV and mobile... conventional websites are a dying breed I’m afraid. I think the rise of casual games has changed stuff quite a lot. More women play online games than men. Still a lot of big companies and a lot of big ad agencies will spend millions on TV and have a bit left to spend on digital. But digital is where the audience are. When we first started making games it was far more male-dominated. The whole social thing is about your ego and that’s a game in itself.
Do you still find yourself drawn to this technology, and social media, outside work?
One thing that’s annoying me about myself at the moment is that if I don’t feel like I’m connected – as in if I haven’t got my phone, my iPad or an internet connection – I feel naked. I don’t understand why I feel this way. I don’t do as much social interaction as I used to. Social is great but so many people just talk absolute nonsense and I have less time for the nonsense. If anything new comes up we have to jump straight on it and understand how it works. We do play a lot of games at work – but that is work!
How do you switch off from it all?
I don’t sleep much. My brain is pretty much on the pulse all the time. However, that was becoming a problem because as the company started to grow I had to come up with more creative ideas – and I was bogged down with things like company policies which was driving me mad. So I decided to take up gardening. Now I grow all our own vegetables. I find that a wonderful, wonderful way to relax and disappear for a while. That’s one of the reasons we’re here in Macclesfield and not in London. Although most of my clients are in London, New York, San Francisco – hardly any up north to be honest, we need more northern clients – I’m definitely more suited to the countryside and would not handle it well living in a big city.
Do you think Matmi will always be just in Macclesfield then?
No, mostly definitely not. Matmi has plans to expand into different countries in the world. Maybe in the future there’ll be an America or mainland Europe office. Considering half our business came from America last year, and this year the majority of our business has come from the States, it is something that I have to consider. Now that doesn’t mean I’m going to have to be in those areas permanently by any means.
Would it be hard to give up that control to people on the other side of the world?
Totally and utterly. But that’s something we’ve done at Matmi here recently. I’ve just been through the painful process of doing it. I’m not going to lie to you and say it wasn’t difficult. But after those pains of getting other people to do things you realise that they can probably do it better than you in the first place!
Matmi is 10 years old. Where will it be in another 10?
I think Matmi will become one of the dominant forces in digital advertising, marketing, branded entertainment. I see us expanding a lot more in different countries. I see myself less in Matmi. I’m currently working with a couple of other people on a large social project which is probably going to take a year and a half to develop – I can’t really tell you much about it just now! The problem is a lot of these enormous social brands and gaming brands are in the States, so we want to put Britain on the map and show them what we can do. We’ve got some ground-breaking ideas that should revolutionise gaming and music on the web.