An Innovative Approach: interview with Lyle McCalmont of Leighton

Leighton's CEO Lyle McCalmont

Lyle McCalmont heads up growing North East digital shop Leighton and was behind the recent launch of the agency’s very own innovation department. Here Richard Draycott, associate editor of The Drum and managing director of The Drum Network, catches up with the 33-year-old CEO as he shares his vision for the future.

Ask the chief executive of any digital agency to write down the key values that drive their business forward and this marketing journalist would be confident enough to wager a crisp pink £50 note that the word ‘innovation’ would appear high on that list. Innovation, in marketing terms, is an attitude – an approach to meeting clients’ challenges with new solutions and a willingness to identify and exploit business opportunities as soon as they present themselves. A vital ingredient for any ambitious marketing business in the digital age.

The nearby cities of Durham and Sunderland may have long and rich histories, but on meeting Lyle McCalmont, the CEO of North East-based digital agency Leighton, it’s evident that he has his eyes fixed firmly on the future for his agency – a future that holds ideas, creativity and innovation close to its heart.

Launched in 1992 by respected North East entrepreneur Paul Callaghan, the Leighton Group has spawned a number of innovative divisions over the years, many of which have been sold as valuable enterprises in their own right. Starting life as a publishing business, the group first branched out into domain names, with Callaghan launching a division called Domain Names, which grew quickly to have eight global offices before being sold to Verisign in the US. Leighton Group’s ability to spot areas of opportunity, and then create innovative products and services in those areas, is impressive and has seen the creation of businesses such as 4Projects for the construction sector; Communicator Corp, an email marketing specialist that was sold to Trinity Mirror; WorkCast Corporation, an online events platform and SaleCycle, an online shopping cart abandonment platform.

But it is Leighton that has been making waves recently under the guidance of its impressively young 33-year-old CEO McCalmont, who has been growing the group’s digital agency rapidly by working with the type of clients that would make any agency envious – British Airways, Sage, Tourism Australia, Avios and Home Group to name a few.

“Over the last four years Leighton has grown considerably,” says McCalmont. “Our turnover has increased around 30 per cent year-on-year and we now have everything in place to grow significantly as an agency. We recently opened an office in London and we are now actively developing our offering for a global audience.

“Seven years ago there were just 10 of us here and you could say we sat on the periphery of some of the clients we still work with now. But today we’ve got almost 100 staff on board with a nearly a third of that number joining us in the first six months of 2014 alone, so it’s been pretty rapid growth.”

Not surprisingly, client service and retention is a key factor in the agency’s growth and continued success. The team has now worked with British Airways for more than a decade, providing a full complement of digital services, as McCalmont outlines.

“Travel and tourism is our main vertical, although we also have experience in retail and finance. British Airways is our biggest client and we support it in a number of areas such as design and UX, development, project management, business analysis and more. We work with a number of areas of the business including IT, flight operations and brand and marketing through both its Newcastle and London offices.

“We work with Sage and have recently supported Avios with a UX refresh, which included some insightful work on usability testing, concepts and various drafts through the design stages. We’ve carried out work with RM Education around its online communities and we have recently signed a three year contract with Home Group, one of the UK’s largest social housing groups, to carry out all of its web and mobile function.”

So, the agency’s journey from small digital up-start to established UK digital agency is well underway, however McCalmont himself has had an altogether more interesting and unusual journey up the leadership ladder. While agency CEOs are more traditionally spawned from within account management departments, McCalmont began his agency life at Leighton as a developer, a heritage that he believes now gives him a big advantage as the head of the agency.

He says: “My passion was always digital, so I came in to the business as a front end developer. I was very ambitious and I got the opportunity to lead the team and after that an opportunity came up as client services manager. I focused on working hard, delivering good work for clients and worked my way up in the business. Then the opportunity to take over as CEO of Leighton came up and I took it.”

McCalmont continues: “Coming from a development background gives me a really firm understanding of what is involved in any given project. So, if I’m with a client and they have a requirement for a piece of work then I have a good understanding of what will be involved, which means I can talk comfortably with them about the project, I know what is possible and what timescales will be involved. I think clients appreciate that in a CEO.”

While the Leighton Group has always maintained its innovative approach to business, McCalmont has recently taken that to another level with the launch of a four-strong innovation division called Leighton Labs, which is tasked with researching, testing and sampling new technologies or digital platforms that could be of interest to either a Leighton client or to the Leighton Group itself.

He says: “In terms of innovation we have a great deal of talent here, with over 200 people in the group as a whole, so we have set up Leighton Labs to focus and continue to grow the ideas and innovation part of our business. It’s an R&D department taken to the next level and is made up of a senior manager, a business analyst, a developer and designer, all of whom are totally focusing on the leading edge of the digital industry. For example, at the moment we are researching iBeacon technology and looking at different markets to see what opportunities exist either for our clients or for our group to set up another standalone business.”

“I think Leighton Labs will be a huge benefit to existing clients as we can share the knowledge we gain across the various parts of our business. It is a big investment for us because in the past most of our start-up businesses have come as a direct response to a client requirement, so this is a bit of a shift, but we are all very keen and feeling very positive about what we are going to get from it.”

McCalmont has recently been through a review of the business and is implementing a three year plan to really move Leighton forward. So, what does McCalmont want the Leighton business to look like in three years’ time?

“We will continue to bring in top quality designers and developers and additional digitally savvy project and account managers. We’ll also have an even stronger management team in place by then and continue to improve our new business function. In terms of numbers we’d like Leighton to become a £10m business and there’s no reason why we can’t achieve that in that time.”

After spending an hour in McCalmont’s company I would be tempted to wager another crisp pink £50 note that he will achieve those goals in the next three years. And what’s more, that would see McCalmont aged just 36, so he still has plenty of time to take Leighton on an even bigger journey. Watch this space.

www.leighton.com

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