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Step into my office: Return on why being a Northern agency is so brilliant

Guy Levine featured in Step into my office

'Step into my office', focuses on the challenges and the opportunities facing agencies this year. We will be taking a sneak peek into the lives of agencies, how they work, what their motivations are and what their thoughts are on the current state of the industry.

We spoke to Guy Levine, managing director at Manchester based agency Return who discusses marketing agencies developing their own software, the challenges of an increasingly competitive digital space, and how he’s proud to run a Northern agency.

So, what does the agency do?

Our motivation is pretty simple: we love working with ambitious brands looking for rapid growth in challenging markets. We partner with our clients to help them improve their customer acquisition, increase their basket values and retain their most valuable customers. We do this through a mix of digital channels – everything from paid social and content marketing to technical SEO, conversion rate optimisation and paid search.

How long have you been around?

Return was founded in 2008, which makes us seem like one of the old boys now, but we’ve worked hard to ensure we never lose our start-up mentality.

What makes you different from your peers?

We have a relentless focus on generating a return for our clients, which is where the brand name came from. We will only work on projects where we fully understand the commercials of the client and have a strategy which can deliver improved results and new opportunities.

Once we have a deep understanding of a brand, we are then able to analyse the online journeys their potential customers are taking when they make purchase decisions, so we can make sure our clients are in the right place, at the right time, with the right message and the perfect offer.

What have been the biggest challenges over the last year?

The biggest challenge has been scaling Return. We have a hugely ambitious vision, which will take us to being a truly market-leading independent agency. However, the challenge of constant innovation, systems, processes, recruitment and team development keeps us on our toes.

Scaling doesn’t just mean growing the agency by recruiting more people – it’s about ensuring we don’t lose the qualities that helped make Return what it is today. Our start-up mentality is really important to us, but it can be challenging to keep the same flexibility, passion, focus and lightning-fast decision-making as your team expands.

What do you see as the biggest opportunities over the next year?

I think the biggest opportunity is doing new stuff! There are now so many agencies doing the same thing that innovation has gone a bit stale. Clients have access to the same talent pool as agencies now, so we have to offer something different. We see a massive opportunity in technology – specifically in developing platforms capable of adding a new level of scale and insight into campaigns.

What do you think the biggest challenges are facing digital marketing agencies over the next few years?

With growing competition, increasingly savvy clients, and the destabilising effects of Brexit to contend with, the next couple of years are sure to throw up plenty of challenges for agencies.

In my view, one of the biggest challenges will be how to differentiate yourself from the competition. Every agency has access to the same tools; the same methods of working; the same expertise; and ultimately, the same desire to be recognised as the best. But as an agency, if you don’t offer something different, it becomes much harder to demonstrate the genuine, unique value you bring to your clients.

As digital marketing continues to mature, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to make big gains for your clients by doing something completely groundbreaking. But that means the ability to identify innovative ways to solve new and existing problems will become even more valuable.

Another obvious threat to agencies comes from the clients themselves. As I pointed out previously, we share a talent pool with clients. Naturally, that means many will consider taking their business in-house. As agencies, it’s up to us to demonstrate that we can be flexible, transparent and diligent enough to eradicate any possible advantages of going in-house.

Where are you based and why this location?

Return is very much a Manchester agency. The city is packed full of talented people and offers fantastic access to clients, particularly in the growing tech and ecommerce sectors.

We’ve been based in Manchester since day one, moving from serviced offices to our first “proper” office, and eventually to our current location just off Deansgate, which we’ve been in since March 2016. When I think about how our offices have changed in the nine years since we started out, it really shows me how far we’ve come as an agency.

One thing I love about our new office is the open-plan layout, with everyone sharing the same floor space. I don’t believe in separate offices for senior management, as it creates unnecessary separation and a feeling of “them and us”.

How important is location for you?

I’m extremely proud to run a Northern agency. Manchester is an amazing city, and I’ve loved seeing it grow into a genuine creative hub over the past decade or so.

However, last month we opened a London office too, which was a major step for Return. Importantly, we saw this as a strategic expansion, rather than as a necessity for us to be taken seriously – I think it’s vital to have a local footprint in order to truly serve a geographical location.

Do you feel the office needs to be quirky and irreverent or simply functional?

A year or so ago, I would have said an office should be a nice space, but that function is the most important thing. As long as I’ve got my laptop I’m happy to work anywhere, and that’s always been my attitude. However, if I could do our most recent office move again, I’d try to create something more fun.

I never used to see a “fun” office as being a big issue. But now I appreciate that this approach puts you at risk of missing out on the cultural advantages of having a space in the office where people can chill out and have fun, and that encourages creativity.

As we grow and recruit more people from more diverse backgrounds, and with different skillsets and interests, I’ve increasingly felt that having a fun space would actually help to improve productivity. Importantly, we’re in a competitive talent market, and a cool office space can be a real differentiator. Of course, the challenge is deciding whether to spend £150,000 on an office fit-out, or to invest that money in the growth of the agency.

Current clients?

We have extensive expertise across a wide range of markets, but our real speciality lies in helping fast-growth ecommerce businesses to acquire and retain more of their ideal customers. Some of our biggest success stories of the past few months include natural health and weight loss brand Bootea, vintage-style womenswear retailer Joanie, and fast fashion footwear brand Public Desire.

Three projects you were most proud of in the last year?

We’ve been fortunate enough to work on some really exciting, innovative projects for our clients over the past 12 months, so it’s not easy to single out individual campaigns. But these are three projects that particularly stick in my mind:

The Sole Supplier, one of Europe’s biggest sneaker affiliates, needed our help to reverse the slow-down in growth of their organic traffic. We identified that they were vulnerable to short-term fluctuations in product activity and availability. Through a combination of technical SEO, improving the site architecture and raising brand awareness through content marketing, we’ve helped to double the client’s monthly organic traffic.

One of our most exciting projects is also one of our most recent. We started working with Lounge Underwear in February, and within just a few weeks we’ve managed to make big gains for them through dynamic Facebook remarketing. After a lot of work from our social team to get it up and running, the advantages – automatically pulling items you’ve viewed on site from the product feed into a Facebook carousel – have delivered some fantastic results.

Joanie Clothing is a new brand with a new website and ambitious growth targets. Our Paid Search team were in close contact with Joanie’s developers to get the best possible data feed set up, and didn’t let the complete lack of any historical data stop them putting together some fantastic campaigns. We’ve been working really closely with the client’s in-house team ever since, and they’re delighted with the results being achieved.

Recent wins

There really have been plenty of highlights over the last year, from bringing exciting new clients onboard to moving into our new office.

Some of my proudest moments have involved being nominated for – and winning – some really prestigious awards, including Best SEO & PPC at the Prolific North Awards, and Best Property & Construction Campaign at the Northern Marketing Awards. Another major milestone was the recent opening of our London office, which we hope will be a real stepping stone to help us win some big clients in the capital.

Thanks to the hard work of our paid search team, we were last year awarded Google Premier Partner status – the highest rank in the Google Partner programme – proving that we’re the cream of the crop when it comes to our PPC offering. It’s been a massive help when pitching for new business, and has helped to reinforce our expertise to our existing clients.

Finally, on a personal level, I’ve been lucky enough to speak to some brilliant digital marketers, entrepreneurs and fellow agency owners at lots of cool events across the UK. I’m looking forward to talking at plenty more events over the coming months!

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