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Q&A: Kolab Digital’s new managing director Debbie Harvey on strategy, synergy and self-belief

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By Michael Feeley, Founder and chief exec

July 6, 2016 | 5 min read

Debbie Harvey was recently appointed managing director at Kolab, the digital arm of the Ferrier Pearce Creative Group (FPCG) having served as the group’s strategic director for 4 years. The Drum spoke to Harvey to find out more…

Q. Congratulations on your new role! What led to the move?

I had been working closely with Kolab in recent years, in the context of my role as strategic director with Group, so I was familiar with the team, the culture and the clients and I was a big admirer of the work they were producing.

In some ways, this is a move sideways and a move up at the same time for me, but it doesn’t actually feel like a massive change of direction. My previous role always involved a good volume of ‘digital’ and, culturally, the agile, collaborative way that Kolab works was very attractive to me. My skillset has been largely focused on customer insights and behaviours and developing a strategic overview of digital activity for clients, so I’m confident that I can lead the agency to further success.

I’m lucky in the respect that I’m joining Kolab as managing director with the team’s respect, support and confidence already in place. That puts me at a massive advantage over a new MD coming in from the outside.

How do you hope to set Kolab apart from its competitors?

There are so many digital agencies out there wanting to do a bit of everything, so we are focused on brand and digital, design and development, while also blending in research and development, for example bespoke solutions around CRM systems.

The agency’s name, ‘Kolab’, gives a clue in that we work in genuine collaboration with our clients, even basing ourselves on the client’s site if we need to. Lots of people say that they’re collaborative but it’s part of our process to spend time understanding the culture of our clients’ organisations and learning about the challenges they face in detail. The second half of our name – the ‘lab’ part – points to the fact that we’re in the innovation business and are never afraid to try new approaches and ideas to deliver the results our clients want.

We have a core team of 9 at Kolab, including our own development and design teams and our core client relationship team, and we also work with FPCG’s wider studio team of 40, allowing us to blend the specific skills needed into each individual project, reducing timescales and costs for our clients.

Is there a particular sector or type of client Kolab is targeting?

Kolab is still relatively young as an agency but we’ve been very successful at retaining clients and winning repeat business. That’s allowed us to build up some great case studies and a strong profile in certain sectors – in ‘arts and heritage’ and ‘destination marketing’ for example.

We worked with the Institute of Conservation, helping them migrate and enhance some of their membership services online. We’ve delivered a great project on the life and times of Capability Brown for the Landscape Institute. We’re currently working closely with British Land on Paddington Central, building it up as a destination. We’ve built up lots of synergies to draw on in the ‘destination’ area and we intend to keep developing that side of our business.

We’re also focused on the FMCG market having recently delivered a very successful project for Texas Joe’s, the beef jerky brand. We’re also about to start some work with Old Spike, a speciality coffee house brand.

Essentially we’ll keep looking at what we do well and continue to build on that. The bulk of new leads we’re seeing are coming from referrals so we’re clearly on the right track.

As a woman leading a digital organisation, what do you think can be done to address the gender imbalance in the industry?

I’ve been a member of the executive management group for FPCG for the last four or five years. I’m fortunate in that I work within an organisation that recognized managerial potential within me and allowed me to develop my skills in a collaborative and supportive environment.

Even then, though, I really needed to spend time over the past couple of years developing my own levels of self-belief, before I felt ready to take the leap up to an MD role. For me, that involved taking Google’s Squared Online course, which was really important for me in that it helped me to underpin and reassure myself about the knowledge and skills I had built up in relation to digital.

I think that there are, and will continue to be, lots of opportunities for women working in the digital marketing industries to move into management and start to redress the gender imbalance that we keep reading so much about. In the end, though, every woman has to make that breakthrough for themselves, to believe ‘yes, I can’ and make it happen.

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