Continuing The Drum’s series profiling 20 great digital shops launched prior to 2000, Freestyle’s Alan Cooper remembers the key moments so far, from starting out in a Midlands basement flat to launching an office in Paris.
“We didn’t set out to become a digital agency,” says Alan Cooper, co-founder and new business director of Freestyle Interactive. “None of the three founders had any particular skills in that area. Actually, at the very beginning, we didn’t see ourselves as an agency at all.”With a name based on the founders’ shared passion for competitive swimming, Freestyle began life in 1996 as a video production house, working from a basement flat in Leamington Spa. Initially the agency was servicing one lone client, Land Rover. “We were lucky to be involved in automotive for the outset,” recalls Cooper. “As a sector, they tend to think big and are prepared to take a few risks. They were pretty bouyant times, the late 90s. Our very first job was a 10-day shoot in Spain, so it wasn’t a bad way to kick things off.”Within a couple of years, Freestyle had half a dozen staff, was based in a converted barn, and had added other big automotive names such as MG Rover and BMW to its roster. Its introduction to electronic media came when it was asked to produce CD-Roms, a project which, in turn, led it to “delve into the internet”. Realising that video had become less viable for distribution via the internet, Freestyle shifted its focus to web design and build. The agency’s first large digital project, however, was not a website, but a digital asset management environment: a major piece of work that would fuel the agency’s growth up to the turn of the millennium.Beyond automotive
“When the dotcom bubble burst in 1999 we weren’t really doing a lot of campaign work, so we didn’t get caught up in that,” says Cooper. “We hadn’t really been a campaign-based agency. Right from the start, we’ve worked closely with communications departments as well as marketing departments and the work that we’ve done has tended to be strategic and longer term.”By 2002, now with more than 20 staff, Freestyle had diversified beyond the automotive sector, bringing an array of clients on board such as Taylor Wimpey, Bryant Homes, Simple Skincare, RBS and Drambuie, as well as making headway in continental Europe.“One of the bonuses of starting out with automotive clients is that we were always thinking big,” says Cooper. “We were never afraid of being international, so by the early noughties, we’d be regularly popping over to France to visit clients.”By the mid-noughties, Freestyle had grown to 40 people, bought its own (bigger) barn, and added new clients including ICI, Baxi, Amtico and Alstom, demanding that Freestyle continued to add new team members strategically. “We were strong on technology and had our own content management system, which was a necessary step at the time. We were doing a lot more work in information architecture, before it became user experience, and had to boost our resources in that area. We took steps to beef up the creative side of the business and we also brought in some traditional project management skills from outside of the digital industry – we secured the talent we needed and provided training in digital skills where necessary.” By 2008, Freestyle had added further big name clients including Arriva Bus, Volvo and Lloyds TSB and, more significantly, the agency became a net exporter for the first time, doing more business overseas than in the UK. In addition to developing websites, it was working with customers to produce extranets, develop asset management system and create content-based campaign activity.“That period saw the beginning of some important relationships for us that have lasted a long time,” says Cooper. “By the end of the decade we had around 55 people, about 60 per cent of our work was in B2B rather than B2C, and we had around 50 per cent of our clients on a retainer model. We had totally moved away from being a project-based organisation to one that worked on long-term strategic initiatives with clients.”Paris beckons
Freestyle chose to bypass London in favour of opening an office in Paris in 2011, a move Cooper describes as “an important part of our history and a crucial part of our future”. He says: “We were finding more and more work in Europe, particularly France, so to have a registered office on the mainland was important to our clients. Since then we’ve secured more clients in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Germany, so that’s a clear an indication of where we see the business going.”Cooper describes “the incredible increase in the pace of everything” as the single greatest change in the industry since Freestyle’s formation, but argues that, in terms of the agency’s evolution, the key goals have remained consistent throughout the years.“Our ambitions have never been purely about growth in terms of agency size or revenues. Growth in our culture, reputation, staff and client satisfaction have always been equally important. If we’d just been about size we probably wouldn’t be based in a barn, but we believe we can be a great agency for our staff and our clients and do brilliant work, retaining a sense of perspective along the way.”He adds: “At the end of the day, the important thing is that it’s still as much fun today as it was on day one. We’re probably working harder, faster and smarter than we’ve ever done before, but the team still has the same level of energy and passion in the business.”According to Cooper, Freestyle is already looking forward to a 20th anniversary party in 2016 and is planning to mark the occasion in a suitably ‘old school’ manner: with the production of a commemorative CD-Rom.This feature was first published in The Drum's 28 May issue, available for subscribers to download here. If you're not a subscriber you can purchase a copy of the latest issue here or subscribe here.