Amazing stories: The Drum catches up with digital agency Amaze as part of 20/2000 visionaries series

Originally spun-out from a university research unit, creative and technical agency Amaze has been pushing the boundaries of digital communication since before the rise of the internet. In the latest of The Drum’s 20/2000 Visionaries series of features, where we mark the 25th anniversary of London digital agency Precedent by celebrating 20 top digital shops founded before 2000, The Drum finds out more about the pivotal moments in Amaze’s history.

Amaze has a uniquely academic origin among UK digital agencies in that it began life, in 1995, as a spin-out of the Learning Methods Unit (LMU) at Liverpool John Moores University. Led by Peter Fowler, along with the late Roy Stringer, the unit was formed to explore how digital and emerging new media would change the ways that we learn and communicate. Together, the founders nurtured the development of a multimedia agency that within two years was bought and run as an independent commercial business.

CEO Natalie Gross, who joined the agency in 1999, says: “The founders anticipated that digital would drive a social and technological revolution. Their clear vision of the future commercial landscape – long before there was a bandwidth or the technology to facilitate it – made them want to lead the way.

“In terms of market need, Amaze saw a different and better way of engaging with information in order to deliver an outcome. In the early days it was a learning outcome, but we knew we could extend that to a commercial outcome, to a social outcome or even a political outcome.”

This innovative approach to presenting information delivered early success for the agency when it was approached by a publisher to produce a CD-rom for a book on the subject of immunology. Rather than simply produce a text and picture based work, Amaze used its own 3D navigation structure – the Navihedron – to create an interactive 3D model of the human body. Amaze’s solution so successfully presented complex information in an accessible way that the CD-Rom went on to beat Microsoft Encarta (the software giant’s flagship encyclopaedia product at the time) in a number of European product awards.

Amaze’s CTO, Matt Clarke, who also first joined the agency in 1999, explains that the technological limitations of the time posed a real challenge to the business’s ethos of innovation: “The biggest challenge prior to 1999 was that we were dealing with a broadband media type, but the tools available to most people at the time weren’t capable of carrying rich media, so you had to physically shift content via laser disks or CD-roms. When we started to move forward, we had the challenge of constraining our creativity in line with the evolution of the internet and server technology of the time."

Amaze's work for Pizza Hut

AHEAD OF THE CURVE

Amaze was to continue its habit of being ahead of the curve when, in 1999, it was hired by Volkswagen to support a fledgling online networking project. This was a client win that Amaze CCO Wendy Stonefield describes as “massive” for the agency.

“It was our first major European deal and the nature of work was cutting edge,” says Stonefield, who became part of the Amaze team in 2004. “We were commissioned to support the development of an online and offline community – Volkswagen Zoon – aimed at future drivers. The project pioneered social networking tools and saw us produce interactive and editorial content that, for me, still rivals anything you’ll see today. As a result, Volkswagen Zoon quickly became the second largest youth site in Germany.”

Success with Volkswagen led to further high-profile automotive clients and in 2002 the agency began work with Toyota to deliver strategy, brand, creative and feature rich solutions across 28 European markets. Then, in 2004, it became Lexus’s European digital partner, delivering strategy, design and build and digital communications across 42 markets.

Natalie Gross, CEO, Amaze

Another significant win of the early 2000s was PWC, developing a global e-learning platform to support its audit division. However, as Gross recalls, despite the steady flow of new business, the agency also suffered a few set backs around this time.

“As a company we were always early to the marketplace, and in 2002 and 2003 we recognised the transformational potential of digital and brought in people in from the big five consulting companies to create our own e-business consultancy,” says Gross. “The reality was that this was maybe five years too early for the marketplace and people were not quite ready to buy a lot of the services we had on offer.”

Gross, however, has no regrets: “Sometimes you need to question the norm and not just be thinking a year or so into the future, but five to 10 years into the future to really do something differently. Unless you challenge the norms nothing ever changes and you don’t evolve.”

In 2007, the agency was to evolve again when it became part of the Manchester-based media company Hasgrove Group. This move, says Stonefield, “enabled Amaze to establish itself a leading marketing and technology consultancy and to work with global brands like Coca-Cola.”

The ASICS Australia site

THE WORLD STAGE

In the years that followed, Amaze would go on to secure its first major global contract with Unilever, with responsibility for strategic co-ordination and implementation support across the corporate brand’s entire digital operation. This opened up further new business wins, including working with industrial textile company Coats, and in 2012 Amaze’s appointment as global e-commerce partner to sports clothing and equipment brand Asics confirmed the agency’s status as a digital player on the world stage.

This highly successful period culminated in Amaze being acquired by St Ives Group in 2013 to establish a new digital solutions pillar within the group’s marketing services division.

According to Stonefield, the acquisition provides the agency with the support and investment it needs to accelerate its growth and expand into new territories. “Moving forward, we’ll continue to build on our commerce practice and capabilities, which we see as integral to our wider digital proposition moving forward,” she says. “Our key focus is building on the success we’ve had in terms of global enterprise level deals and evolving our offering in line with where we think our clients need to be in an omnichannel world.”

Clarke, meanwhile, adds: “Connected consumers, big data, content management and engagement are still treated as separate disciplines but need to be combined into one unified approach. Vendors won’t do that; it will be businesses like Amaze that will make it all work together.”

Today, Amaze employs more than 230 staff across its UK offices in London, Manchester, and Liverpool. Gross acknowledges the debt owed to the agency’s founders and credits all the talented staff and management, particularly the current senior team, who have helped to keep the company at the forefront of the industry along the way.

She says: “20 years ago we envisaged this connected omnichannel brand world that we see today, and we saw it clearly because of the visionary people that led the business. It has been a long time coming for the digital capacity and advancements in technology to catch up and allow us to realise this for our clients, but, at last, that time has truly arrived.”

Which, all things considered, is truly an amazing story.

This interview was originally published within The Drum magazine's 3 September issue, available to purchase through The Drum Store.

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