Search Laboratory’s founder Ian Harris on ethical marketing and the joy of letting go
Almost a year on from Havas snapping up Leeds-based digital marketing shop Search Laboratory, we catch up with the agency’s founder, Ian Harris, to talk data, ethics and stepping back from your baby.
Ian Harris tells The Drum about founding his agency and letting it go / Ankush Minda via Unsplash
Symbolically enough, when we dial in to talk to Search Laboratory’s founder Ian Harris, we find him in a “back room” of his Leeds house from which he started the agency way back in 2005. Recalling those early stages, Harris remembers a certain “embarrassment” at interviewing early hires in his dining room, kicking children’s toys out of the way.
It’s a far cry from the agency’s present situation: over 150 staff, mostly to be found in its Leeds HQ (a brutalist slab called The BlokHaus) but also in New York and Austin, all under the payroll of Havas, which bought the agency from Harris last year.
‘A fair job for a fair amount of money’
With a background in mathematics, Harris’s introduction to the internet was a master’s degree in ‘virtual environments’ in the 90s, before taking web development gigs and eventually landing at translation agency TheBigWord. He left to start Search Laboratory during the noughties SEO boom.
These were boom times in the SEO world, he says, with a wild west of dodgy practices emerging. “The search marketing companies were making a lot of money and getting kickbacks from Google. There was a lot of ripping off going on.”
With his experience at the translation agency in hand, Harris set up Search Laboratory to offer multi-lingual pay-per-click (PPC) services. The beauty of the agency’s early approach to SEO, he says, is that a data-based method itself led away from the kinds of hucksterism endemic elsewhere in the PPC world. His team developed a system to bid on keywords in multiple languages based on statistics, later known as BidLab. “We branded it at one point ‘ethical digital marketing’, which sounds redundant; like Fairtrade bananas – why on earth would you sell a banana that’s not Fairtrade? But it resonated in the industry. Maths doesn’t lie.”
From there, the calling card of digital marketing “with no magic or snake oil” grew: to English language PPC and later SEO, analytics and display advertising. Harris’s principles, he says, remained steady throughout: “to do a fair job for a fair amount of money and do it right“. “£10,000 a month seemed to be the fee that people charged back then and I don’t know what they were doing. Nobody knew what they were doing.”
Ethics remains key for Harris and his agency: it recently announced a B Corp certification and Harris beams when asked about his proudest achievement: nine appearances in the Sunday Times’ ‘100 best places to work’.
‘Global right from the start’
Harris never hired huge teams of translators or opened offices outside of the UK and US, but his business was “global from the start”. While other marketing businesses have been discovering a newly borderless world since 2020, Search Laboratory’s multilingual approach always lent itself to finding work far beyond its native Yorkshire. “Our first client was in New York because the first thing we did was set up a PPC campaign of our own – both globally and multilingually.”
Having stumbled on this global approach stands the agency in good stead, he says. “Rather than going out to multiple agencies – one in Spain, one in France, one in Germany, say – people come to us and we use the same statistics across the board, giving them a dashboard to their world. It’s quite a compelling message.”
‘Letting go is a wonderful process’
Harris hired chief executive Chris Attewell back in 2018, long before the agency’s sale, and has been on a long transition to an executive chair role ever since. While many struggle with the process of passing the baton, he’s effusive about the “wonderful process” of transitioning and hiring new talent to take the business in new directions. Smart owners, he says, start that transition early. “Your first handover should be to get someone really, really good at sales. A lot of agency owners think they’re brilliant at sales and that they’re the only one that can talk about their agency. They’re not. So that was transition number one.”
Next was an operations director – and on it goes. “The more that goes on, the more you have to let go of. It hasn’t been my baby for quite a while. Everyone’s good. They’re all good at what they do. I don’t have any problem with stepping away if I’m not needed.”
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