Alice Kahrmann interviews David Johnstone, Commercial Director of AD, award-winning, creative digital agency in London and Glasgow.

What exactly happens in a digital agency? For those not immersed in the algorithm fuelled work of tech it can seem a bit of a myth. ‘We’ve had people thinking we’re an Internet café or IT specialists,’ laughs David Johnstone, Commercial Director of AD , one of the UK’s most established ‘digital partners’ - that’s the new buzzword (plenty more of those later). He’s a Glaswegian with a mellifluous accent layered over a mind humming with industrious efficiency, no surprise he has over seventeen years experience working for brands such as Hewlett Packard. He’s recently overseen the acquisition of Manchester based Fluid creativity, not to mention being keeper of three UK offices (with one eye on the office dog) pulling in clients including EDF Energy Group, University of Southampton, The Young Vic, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Benromach and the BBC. So yes he’s rather well placed to offer up some insights into what digital agencies do and quite why they are so vital.

Agencies offer up a lot more than just ‘digital services’; to go into the nitty gritty, strategy is at the core; UX (User Experience) & IA (Information Architecture, the skill of organizing a site to be at its most responsive and user friendly); complex web development; agile project management; content strategy; SEO & analytics; social media; PPC; email marketing; online display advertising and on-going account management of web projects. But what does that mean to the layman? What exactly has Johnstone been doing today? ‘As one of the shareholders I wear a number of different hats,’ he says, ‘we’re in the middle of pulling together a large proposal for a great digital transformation project with a well known London venue. So a lot of my day has consisted of preparing the proposal document and outlining our previous work on similar projects.’

‘As an agency over the last year or so we’ve really tried to reposition ourselves as not just a web design or marketing agency but in a true sense a ‘digital partner’ who will be working with them for the next three, four or five years (it’s a bit of a buzzword at the moment) it’s about the digital transformation of the venue… What we see from a lot of organisations these days is for digital to not just be something that’s done as an additional thing but a core part of everything they do.’

AD are currently recruiting (sit up and watch youth of tomorrow) and it’s on ‘quite a large scale’. ‘We’ve been looking at the type of people we acquire so instead of the traditional recruitment process we’ve actually stepped back and looked at what we need the team to be.’

‘One of the things we did at the end of the year,’ Johnstone says with pride, ‘we put the whole agency through an Agile training course, ‘agile’ is another buzz word’ (‘buzz methodology’ no less) ‘for project delivery/management… We believe it’s the best way to deliver large scale development projects.’ 

‘At the core of the agile philosophy are these roles called,’ he laughs,’ (silly titles): Scrum Master, Product Owner and Product Team.’ This transitions from the more traditional roles within an agency: Product Manager, Account Manager, Ops Director for example. Rather than do it bit by bit AD decided to shut the agency for a few days, with the whole team engaged in training.

‘Part of what we’re doing at the moment is to do away with the traditional roles, with obviously a commitment to training. We can’t just change people’s titles and then say that’s what you are now… We’re six months into it and we’re seeing massive benefits into the time in which projects are delivered. A year ago these terms were hardly being talked about, now you’re starting to see agencies really adopting both in terms of how they promote themselves and how they deliver internally.’

As if that wasn’t enough AD are the main sponsor for the Women in Business Awards (held recently in Manchester). ‘It’s a great business development opportunity,’ Johnstone says, ‘so I’ve been using my network to invite certain key people who we know. It’s a lunch at The Lowry, a boozy afternoon!’

Given that people know so little about what goes on behind the hallowed doors (Johnstone affirms that even mothers and fathers of colleagues have no idea what it is they do), what would he most like people to know? ‘I would like people to see digital agencies (certainly more mature ones like us that have been around for a while) as professional services - the same way if you’re doing accounts you would speak to an accountant, if you’re signing something you would speak to your lawyer.’

Of course the major brands desperate to harness the power of the viral push are the ones who most need this help, what is the biggest mistake he sees them making at the outset? ‘There’s never one complete truth but when a brand doesn’t approach a project with clearly defined goals and business objectives. I’ve been doing this for a while now and thankfully, lately I haven’t heard the phrase ‘Why do you want a website’ the answer being ‘because they have one’. Six, seven, eight years ago companies, brands would say that. They have to be driven by real KPIs (Key Performance Indicator) and real objectives. If that’s at the heart of doing it, working with an agency that can tease those out - then it’s a good start.’

And what of social media (or just ‘social’ to use the buzzword). ‘There’s a constant: if you’re doing good relevant content that appeals to your target market philosophy…’ you’re doing well is the inference. ‘If the content doesn’t resonate with your target audience then it kind of all falls down.’

‘There’s also not a case for not using the model because it exists, but rather standing back and knowing where your users will actually access the content.’ Are there any sites I wonder that David would love to get his hands on? He laughs knowingly, ‘We’re exposed to great sites day in day out, I think (I come via my love of shoes) the likes of Asos, those are brands that we’d like to do some work with, we’d like to help them.’

It was interesting during the election I observe, seeing the way the two main parties approached their web presence, minimal to the point of bland, I venture. Is that the way design is going now? ‘We’ve just launched the new Almeida Website. If you have a look at that it’s far from minimal. They really wanted to create a website that really got across their creative content, what they’re doing. Minimal design might say a lot of things about the political parties these days and the fact that they aren’t really willing to differentiate from each other. To say ‘this is who we are’. Certainly the way in which people digest content; we practice this content rich, content light philosophy where people don’t want to read; they have a Kindle for reading hundreds of pages of text. It’s not what they want from a web experience. Finding ways to get information across quickly in whatever fashion that is best for your brand and the cultural ethos is the thing here. We don’t like to go into the political side of things too much, but to say that the sites were fairly bland and minimal would perhaps reflect the current state of British Politics!’

Now back to this recruitment drive, say I were a candidate hoping to impress, what would I need to do? ‘One of the big things is that we’re big on diversity we don’t want a team of 35 exact same people. It’s that kind of intangible ‘do we think they fit and will help drive and inspire others?’

‘We have a big thing on trying to bring through graduates and interns, and actually one real success; our head of strategy actually came on board for four years as an intern and another of our interns works here full time, we promoted her today.’

‘When we do these interviews the one thing that I get frustrated about at is the fact that they might have done their various degrees, they might have done this that and the other, they might ‘say’ they want to work for a digital agency but what probably annoys me the most is that the barrier to entry in terms of self teaching; digital is so accessible, for us it’s not just about having a CV that says you did media studies or you read a book. I go back to that culture thing, you can’t beat a keen mind and common sense with a real passion for what we do, because that’s what we retain and win new business with - people seeing that we enjoy what we do and they should enjoy it too.’

Of course David’s own enjoyment is largely down to his own mentor. ‘A chap Ken Beattie, Ken has been mentoring me or driving me mental for thirteen years now and as much as he continues to learn he’s a great source of advice over the years. He’s a shareholder but he fulfils the chairman function, he’s one of these guys who works with a lot of businesses. He loves new tech companies, he’s constantly learning new things and being exposed to new scenarios.’

No doubt Beattie is proud of what Johnstone has achieved, the rewards being significant, not to mention gratifying; ‘Winning new business’ comes top of the list (‘Being the Commercial Director we all want a nice new project!), but also ‘hearing that the objectives of a client website have been met or learning they have won an award’, as several recently have, but what floats Johnstone’s boat most are the ‘anonymous reflections of the week’. ‘They’re all collated and sent round to the team – we get to see the amazing things people are doing across the agency, it’s good on a Friday!’ Which brings us to David’s favourite quote. ‘I’m looking at the board in the board room,’ he says (I can hear him smiling). Good design can only be achieved with good money, good work and good time.’ Ah that’s great I reply, ‘who said that?’ I ask. ‘I don’t know,’ he laughs, ‘It just says rule number 6.’

A snapshot of David’s life online:

His favourite app (at present):
There’s one for a new Bluetooth speaker that I just bought which is called The Pulse, it’s a LED speaker – you control the LEDs through the app, so that’s a kind of low brow one that’s quite good fun.

Another one we’ve been playing about with recently is called Charlie, basically Charlie synchs with your Google calendar. It’s acts as sort of your personal assistant; say I was meeting you today and you were in my diary, what Charlie would do is cross reference LinkedIn, all your social media activity and give me a bit of few tidbits about you and what you’ve done.

The last thing he bought online:
Quite sad actually, a toothbrush caddy. I always have this issue – obviously I have a toothbrush holder but there’s nowhere to put the toothpaste! Last night I spent an hour researching the best caddy. The one I actually wanted was sold out, I went for this minimal black one: two toothbrush holders and a toothpaste holder. I’m very particular about the things I have in my house!

Online publications:
Rather than have one, I’ve found that FB has become great at aggregating information for me. I typically use those, it’s a bit scary, the whole argument about Amazon telling you which books to read and then people not thinking for themselves.

His favourite book on digital:
A classic piece of UX (User experience) – everyone’s talking about that, it’s called  ‘Don’t Make Me Think’. As much as things move on, that’s quite an old book and the things it says haven’t really changed. You can’t really get away from common sense really.

Interview by Alice Kahrmann

June 2015