Strong as Steel: The Drum catches up with Steel London as part of its 20/2000 series
In the latest of The Drum’s 20/2000 Visionaries series, where we mark the 25th anniversary of London digital agency Precedent by celebrating 20 top digital shops founded prior to the year 2000, The Drum meets Steel London CEO Andy Hinder to find out more about the pivotal moments in his agency’s story so far.
“Our origin is probably quite different from other agencies,” says Andy Hinder, chief executive of Steel London. Hinder and his fellow directors, Les Hughes and Rob Dinsdale, all joined Steel in the mid-to-late 80s as junior graphic designers, just as the Apple Mac revolution was transforming the industry.
“The Steel we joined back then was a wellreputed below-the-line ad agency,” says Hinder. “So we honed our skills in the principle area of direct response campaigns.
“Even then, digital was starting to accelerate the production of creativity and we were enjoying that. The industry was becoming less aligned with print and edging more and more towards ‘new media’.”
Hinder credits his business partner Dinsdale with having the drive to keep travelling along the digital road when a strange new thing called ‘the internet’ emerged in the early 90s.
“At first, many regarded the internet as if it was some sort of witchcraft,” recalls Hinder. “However, there were also lots of businesses striving to understand how this could creatively enhance their brand and the value of their business.”
In 1993, Steel earned the chance to answer those questions when it won new cross-channel ferry brand SeaFrance as a client. Steel designed and developed SeaFrance’s first e-commerce solution, providing customers with a fast and easy way to book tickets online and positioning SeaFrance as the modern way to cross the channel.
“That was a turning point: the moment that the digital agency Steel London has become was born,” says Hinder. “We now had SeaFrance’s success as evidence of what a digital strategy could deliver for our other clients. It was perhaps a calculated risk to pursue digital at the time but, even today, our long heritage of digital innovation is something that attracts new clients.”
Major client wins were to follow throughout the late 90s, with Steel bringing on Debenhams in 1997 and AOL UK in 1998.
“The fact that we were Debenhams’ first ever digital agency and that we’re still its agency to this day is a massive point of pride for us,” says Hinder. “We’ve now been with Debenhams longer than many of the people who actually work there, so we’ve been living and breathing the brand for a long time.
“Within that one relationship we can trace the innovative development of digital creativity. In the early years, everything we did for Debenhams would get massive engagement simply because it was new and exciting. Today, now that the novelty value of digital marketing has long worn off for most consumers, the work we do is very strategic, highly tuned towards optimisation and led by intelligence.”
Hinder continues: “AOL UK was another important client for us. It embraced our drive for innovation and always let us try to push the boundaries for it.”
The approach produced some excellent results, including AOL’s first ever rich media campaign and the ISP becoming a content provider long before branded content moved into the mainstream.
An exciting time
When the dotcom crash of the early 00s hit, Hinder believes that Steel held strong thanks to its roots in direct marketing. “We were always focused on ROI, using real-time feedback and analysis to measure and adjust campaigns along the way, so a sudden surge of clients demanding ROI on their digital spending was actually good news for us.
“I remember the early 00s as a really exciting time creatively when digital stood for solutions that weren’t simply innovative for the sake of being innovative or tied to particular platforms or channels, they were wedded to commercial success. We maintain that ethos today.”
With Steel’s reputation growing “at a steady rate” new client wins continued throughout the 00s: Ladbrokes, Carphone Warehouse, lastminute.com, TalkTalk and Greggs among the highlights. Hinder believes that the diverse nature of Steel’s client roster is a reflection of the agency’s attitude and approach.
“We’ve worked hard to build an agency brand that is intelligent, creative, passionate and challenging. We’re defined by our attitude so we want to work with people with a similar attitude, regardless of sector. We need to be confident that a prospective client knows what they mean when they say they want to be ‘challenged’.
“We’re very down to earth in that there is no real veneer here. What you see is what you get and what you get is a very clearly defined attitude towards our work and getting the best for our clients.”
The late 00s brought some significant challenges for Steel, including the loss of lastminute.com to the recession and an internal restructuring centred on the agency maintaining its identity while continuing to grow.
“Size is vanity, reputation is sanity,” says Hinder. “In 2008, we made a conscious decision not to be defined by size. Our philosophy was always about growing the business by reputation. We were up to over 80 staff and we found that the pressures associated with that were suffocating the philosophy a little. The recession led us to take a hard look at ourselves and ask whether we were still the agency we wanted to be. We restructured the agency for the first time in its history and brought the headcount down to 60 or so, which may sound ‘anti-commercial’ but was actually the best thing we could have done to sharpen our focus on what was coming next.”
The strategy bore fruit. Since the turn of the new decade, Steel has attracted clients such as EA and BBC Worldwide, with the agency building a worldwide advertising intranet for the latter.
“Our culture is crucial to us. Over the years, we’ve been wooed by a number of potential suitors, which is very flattering, but there has never been the right cultural fit for us to get into bed with anyone. Maintaining our independence and being able to do things our way with partners that share our vision remains central to the way we work.”
And the future?
“Moving forward, we’ve been spending time considering what the role of agencies will be in 10 years. For me, we’re in a post-digital world, so even referring to ‘digital’ as a discipline is wrong to some extent, as it doesn’t reflect where we already are today. Our everyday experience is being shaped by digital devices and platforms and much of today’s digital landscape won’t exist in three or four years time, so where will that leave us?” says Hinder.
“Steel London is in the business of delivering rock solid communications solutions. We’ve defined our position for the future and it has two arms: Steel Minded, which refers to our research and planning or ‘creative intelligence’ phase, and Steel Made, which relates to our development and delivery capabilities or the ‘intelligent creativity’ phase. We think ours is an attitude than will serve us well, embracing the future and challenging an out of date agency model in a positive and proactive way.”
A mission statement with more than a dash of Steel about it.
This feature was first published in the 15 October issue of The Drum. You can purchase a copy via the The Drum Store here.