20/2000: Metia's Steve Ellis on digital transformation
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, Steve Ellis of Metia Group recalls the pivotal moments in the history of the agency.
For readers too young to remember 1988, it went something like this: Thatcher, acid wash denim, I Should be so Lucky, Cocktail and Coming to America.
And in London, Steve Ellis (an economics graduate with an editorial background) launched a marketing agency called Write Image.
Ellis says: “It’s not so unusual these days for marketers to have a background in maths or economics but it was pretty rare back then. All the mathematically inclined students tended to go one way into accounting or science, and all the arts inclined kids went into marketing or the creative industries. Thankfully, I found myself on the wrong side of the fence.”
Ellis’s co-founders included a marketer experienced in delivering in-house programmes for large corporations across multiple countries, of whom he says: “That was an important perspective to have inside the agency. It gave us a clear understanding, from the outset, of what large companies were trying to achieve and how they defined success.”
Ellis believes the agency quickly differentiated itself from much of the competition by having a strong focus on its clients’ business success. The agency’s creative output was not the be-all-and-end-all of its work: “My background in economics meant that the concept of using measurement and analytics to determine a return on investment was embedded in the genetics of the agency.
“It’s always been part of our culture to align our goals with those of our clients. Agencies can very easily start to develop an ‘us’ and ‘them’ perspective in relation to clients and the best way to avoid that is to work in close collaboration, with a team embedded onsite if necessary, working towards the same goals. It’s an approach that been successful for us and has kept clients with us for a long time.”
Focusing primarily on the B2B technology sector, early clients included hi-tech names such as Compaq Computer, Tandem and Digital Equipment Corporation, with the agency typically working on integrated marketing programmes, often using software applications to reach the audience.
“Back then, B2B and the technology sector were viewed as niche areas within marketing circles. There were lots of agencies who didn’t want to get their hands dirty with it, which was great for us,” says Ellis.
“Of course, by working closely with technology clients, we were exposed to emerging technologies early on, and encouraged to adopt and apply technology in our marketing programmes. That gave us a headstart on more mainstream agencies, which didn’t get on the technology path until much more recently. By contrast, we hired our first developers over 18 years ago.
“In hindsight, I tend to say that our focus on the tech sector was a masterpiece of strategic planning. In fact, we would have been a bit dim not to pick up on the implications of the technologies we were helping to market. We quickly identified that tech was fundamentally changing marketing and we needed to embrace it.”
A major milestone in the agency’s history was winning Microsoft as a client in 1994: “There’s a bit of magic about handling an account like Microsoft,” says Ellis. “It gives everyone inside the agency a buzz to beworking with brands of that scale and, in turn, it gives us an increased profile among the industry and other prospective clients.”
The fact the agency still works with Microsoft today, over 20 years later, suggests its formula works. With Microsoft on board, the agency continued to grow steadily throughout the late 90s and emerged from the dotcom crash of the millennium “relatively unscathed” thanks to very limited exposure to the hi-tech start-up sector, which was decimated by the burst investment bubble. “Most of our clients were – and remain – large corporates,” says Ellis.
Headquartered in London, the agency created its first US office in Seattle in 2000, later opening two further international offices in Singapore (in 2004) and Austin (in 2013).
Ellis explains: “Most large corporations tend to divide the world up into North America (East coast and West coast), EMEA and APAC. We wanted to be located where our clients’ core centres were. Having people in those geographies makes it easier for us to win and retain global businesses.”
2001 saw the agency land another tech giant, Dell and begin another long-standing relationship that exists to this day. “We recently watched Michael Dell deliver the keynote at the annual Dell World event and behind him was a wall of customer logos, each pointing to an example of storytelling created for Dell through our content programmes. That gives us a buzz, seeing our work up on the big stage,” says Ellis.
Having changed its name to Metia Group in 2005, the agency’s B2B focus remains strong through clients such as Brother and the British Chambers of Commerce. Major account wins over the past decade have included banking software giants Misys and FIS, with the segue into financial tech signalling a broadening and deepening of the agency’s traditional client base.
Ellis says: “There’s been an evolution in that we now work with people like ITN Productions and the BBC – media and publishing companies who have realised they now need to think like digital businesses. For the last 20 years, IT firms have been using digital to engage audiences of different types and flavours, to provide a great online experience and to do it in ways that can be scaled massively without incurring significant additional costs. Our expertise in those techniques is now very attractive to publishers, to banks and to retailers, which now want to become digital businesses.
“The techniques of content creation and community building that we’ve learned working with technology companies are suddenly much more applicable to mainstream brands. We see a big opportunity for us to step out beyond the technology arena and work with businesses of scale across all sectors looking to use digital in new and original ways.”
Now a global agency employing more than 140 digital marketing professionals (including specialist advocacy, content and influence teams), Metia was named Microsoft’s ‘global brand value supplier of the year’ in 2013.
Ellis says: “There’s a journey you go through when growing an agency. I’ve always felt that a small company is a fantastic place to work because all new recruits work closely with the leadership of the business and get to soak up the company culture by spending time with the people who created it. The trick is to keep the same levels of enthusiasm and direction within the company as things begin to get bigger. The way we’ve done that is to keep everyone excited by working with bigger clients on bigger projects, year-on-year. For example, we’re currently For example, we’re currently delivering marketing solutions into 51 different countries, so we’re working at a global scale and that’s always going to be exciting to be involved in.
“We’ve come a long way since 1988 but with our heritage of using customer storytelling, content syndication and digital channels to connect with key client audiences, our expertise has never been more in demand.”
This feature was first published in The Drum's 26 November issue.
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