20/2000 series: After 15 years in digital, Equator tells us why now the 'stakes are bigger than ever'

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 senior management team of Equator recap the pivotal moments of the Glasgow-based agency’s history.

Glasgow-based full service digital agency Equator has just celebrated its 15th birthday, having been officially founded in November 1999 by managing director John McLeish and creative director James Jefferson.

It was while working together at Zig Zag Communications that McLeish and Jefferson first struck upon the idea for Equator.

McLeish says: “At that time, traditional design and advertising agencies were dabbling a little in the digital space, but James and I felt that there was a significant opportunity for a digital specialist. The time was right. Equator was purely focused on digital from the outset, rather than morphing into digital from any other sort of agency, which I think was important in getting us off to a strong start.”

Working out of a small serviced office with a total of six staff, early projects for Equator included creating CD-Roms for sportswear brand Umbro, developing a global intranet for heavy engineering firm Clyde Blowers and developing the first website for boutique hotel chain Malmaison.

“We were fortunate enough to have great clients from day one, and they saw us through the dotcom crash,” says McLeish. “We took the decision early on not to waste time trying to ‘convert’ clients to digital. We focused on clients who embraced the concept, who had an obvious need and a clear opportunity to grow. Our strategy was to grow organically alongside our clients over the years.”

Jefferson adds: “From the outset, the majority of our clients have come from outside Scotland. In terms of being a pure-play digital agency, what very quickly set us apart was that we assembled a multi-disciplinary digital team that allowed us to do everything our clients required under one roof. At that time, there were a lot of digital specialists confined to their own particular areas of expertise, meaning clients’ project meetings could become cluttered with different voices and agendas. We offered an alternative to that.”

2001 saw a move to a larger office and the acquisition of digital design agency Syntonik Digital Media, with Syntonik’s managing director Garry Hamilton joining Equator as business development director, completing the agency’s senior management team. In the same year, it won cable telecoms company NTL as a client, which McLeish describes as “a massive, game-changing account”.

Moving on up

Remarkably for an agency founded shortly before the dotcom crash of the early 00s, Equator achieved double-digit growth year-on-year throughout this period.

Hamilton believes Equator’s firm focus of business results lay at the heart of this success. He says: “The whole ROI concept ran through the heart of the agency from the off, so the dotcom crash didn’t create many problems for us. There’s always a solid business reason for everything we do for our clients. Every time a new channel emerges into the market our approach has always been to ask ‘how do we get the best ROI from this?’ That’s true to this day.”

Equator established a strong foothold in the travel and hospitality sector (a key early adopter of web-based marketing) in the early 00s, winning clients including holiday park operator Haven Holidays, which represented the agency’s first major integrated account.

McLeish says: “Haven is a great example of a client with traditionally a blue-collar customer base really getting to grips with digital and transforming its business as a result. We grew its total online revenue from £4m to £54m over a four year period.”

During the mid 00s, McLeish believes clients began to wake up to the fact that digital agencies such as Equator could bring value to businesses across the board, rather than simply to the marcomms element.

He says: “After five or seven years in business, we found we were no longer regarded as the poor relation in discussions around the project management table. The business consultancy element of our work with clients grew and grew and our voice became stronger and stronger. We were the ones holding the bulk of the client’s budget and guiding the digital strategy.”

Further client wins in the financial services (including Axa Insurance) and utilities sectors, plus household consumer brands such as Oxy, continued to fuel Equator’s growth throughout the 00s, which, in turn, created some headaches for the management team along the way.

Jefferson says: “The single biggest challenge over the years has always been finding the right people to bring in at the right time. Scotland is our home and always will be, but it’s a fairly small labour market to draw on. We have high standards and the skills we need to bring in are often highly specialised and relatively new to the market. Our industry changes so quickly that the content of digital college and university courses is often out of date before students have time to graduate.”

In response, Jefferson is now a board member of Creative & Cultural Skills, a campaigning organisation to encourage youth employability through digital skills, and regularly interfaces with local colleges and universities to share the latest industry news and developments. The agency also recently established a partnership with Glasgow City College, setting students an annual creative challenge to win a paid internship at Equator.

Crossing borders

This decade has already seen Equator win new clients such as Tesco Bank, Macdonald Hotels, Disney, IHG (Intercontinental Hotel Group), utility provider SSE, hair care brand Paul Mitchell and National Australia Group (with Equator about to undertake “a huge project” for the banking giants according to McLeish). In 2013 Equator crossed the 100 staff mark for the first time, as well as opening a sales office in New York and a development facility in Kiev.

“Our last five years have really been about growing the agency to a particular scale, getting to the type of critical mass needed to successfully land global accounts,” says McLeish. “We’re there now.”

Looking back over the history of the agency has been an interesting experience, says McLeish. “It’s been a quick 15 years. Back in 1999, we were a few people working out of a serviced office. When I walk around our Glasgow office now, I see a 130-person agency living and breathing, people getting a buzz out of what they’re doing, lots of different sessions going on for a real variety of clients. To see the agency take on its own life like that has been fantastic. It’s been a great journey to date and we’re as passionate as we’ve ever been, if not more so, as the stakes are bigger than ever.”

Jefferson adds: “Some things have changed, of course. These days, we’re pitching in places like Monaco as opposed to Motherwell. We’re also not referring to ourselves as a ‘digital’ agency as often anymore. We’re a strategic agency, helping our clients to succeed in the digital world, whatever their sector or industry.”

As it enters its 16th year, Equator is clearly ready to play with the big boys.

This feature was first published in The Drum's 29 October issue.

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.