Listen to the fourth instalment of the Choosing an Agency podcast.

Kelly, CEO of Rubbercheese who design and build websites for tourist attractions reveals the best brief she’s ever responded to and why it got the whole team excited. Discover why she’d like a dinner party with Walt Disney and Ricky Gervais, as well as why building rapport and having a transparent budget are critical when selecting and agency in episode four of Choosing An Agency.

Alex: Hello, and welcome to choosing an agency. My name’s Alex and I'm here to talk about how to select the right agency to grow your business, giving you the inside line on things to look out for the next time you need external support. I'll be interviewing industry figures from all manner of backgrounds to get hints and tips on the things to consider when choosing an agency. Today, I'm joined by the fantastic Kelly Molson from Rubber Cheese. Hi, Kelly.

Kelly: Hello – oh, jazz hands.

Alex: That would come across great on the podcast. For people are just meeting me for the first time, could you share a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Kelly: Yes, so my name is Kelly Molson. As Alex said, I have been running my agency with my lovely co-founder, Paul for 18 years now. My agency is called Rubber Cheese and we design and build websites and systems and platforms for visitor and tourist attractions. So, we really love to support organisations that help make people make lasting memories. That's what we're all about.

Alex: Oh, fantastic. And in terms of your experience of the agency world, what were you doing before Rubber Cheese?

Kelly: So, I was a graphic designer, before Rubber Cheese and that's where the last proper job that I had - it’s where I met Paul, my co-founder. And I'd been brought into the company that he worked at as a print designer, but then that kind of changed into a web design role, which I had no experience of whatsoever. But bearing in mind, this was 20 years ago, and flash animation was just about making its peak launch.v

Alex: Wow.

Kelly: It was quite a while ago. But yeah, before that I was a trained designer, I used to work as a wine and whiskey label designer. At one point I did packaging design, I did some brand design. So yeah, the last job that I had where I met Paul was kind of my first experience of Web and Digital. I think I've barely only just about had an email address at that point.

Alex: The first job that I had; I remember there's one computer between six of us. And the first day you could go to the stationery cupboard and if you smoked you could get a company ashtray. I don’t think they’d do that these days.

Kelly: I don’t think – that’s not the one thing anymore, is it?

Alex: And so, then you've also done a fantastic series of podcasts where you were interviewing other agency owners as well.

Kelly: Oh, not podcast, but I did do - I did a really amazing interview series about – it started in 2017. So, long story short, it came about because of The Wow Company’s bench press report. So, they launched a bench festival and there was a stat in there that said that 27% of agencies in the UK were run by women, and I was like that’s rubbish, there should be more. Where are they all? Then I started to look around at my own network and was like, oh well, I know about four. So, that's not great, is it? That’s part of the problem right – I don’t know enough of them myself. So, I set out to find as many as I could, and then interview them and just talk about how they set up their agencies, how they felt about this kind of imbalance in the sector, what amazing things they've done in their career, you know, what challenges that they've had to overcome. It was awesome, you know, I've met brilliant women who were just doing incredible things in the industry and from that interview series that kind of turned into running mastermind events for women in the sector. Then I started to run a meetup in Cambridge, which was for everyone in the sector, really. So, it's men, women, freelancers, anyone that kind of wanted to learn and grow and understand about agency world. And what was really good is because I carried out all these interviews, I was able to bring in everyone from our network to talk at these events. So, it was really great. And then COVID hit, and I couldn’t do any live ones anymore. And I was sad.

Alex: And I think there's almost like a dovetailing with that. I think what's happened for me since COVID hit, is before that I was just hiding out. And I've now made the decision to sort of try and be a little bit more visible and I’ve met more agency owners since COVID hit than I have done the preceding 10-20 years.

Kelly: Yeah, it's really great. I think like journey that you've been on in kind of putting yourself out there and speaking to other agency owners is quite transformative, isn't it?

Alex: And the conversations you have, sometimes people that come from a different background, whether that is gender, or race sometimes have the most insightful conversations where I can learn a lot more about the challenges that different people have to sort of overcome. That kind of thing.

Kelly: Yeah, absolutely agree.

Alex: So, Kelly, I’ve known you for a while so to get a feel for who you are – I was looking forward to this – if you could invite four people, past or present, to a meal, who would you invite?

Kelly: I honestly think this is the hardest question. I could sit and answer this differently every single day so this today’s four people I would invite. This is todays. My first one would be Walt Disney.

Alex: Wow.

Kelly: So, the reason that I put Walt Disney is, we do work in the attraction sector and I think if you are going to choose anybody from that sector to speak to, Walt Disney has to be top of the list, right? What he has created in terms of the ultimate memory making experience and customer service experience as well, that – he’s at the top. He's just been able to create something, whether it's the park or the films or the animations or now you know, with Disney Plus - it’s something that is making those magic memories for millions of people all over the world. And I think that is an incredible achievement.

Alex: Absolutely, as a legacy that's phenomenal.

Kelly: Completely, but I think also the resilience that he showed as well, you know, when he started out, he just got knocked back over and over and over and over again, in terms of like the animation stuff that he was doing, whether it was going to work, was this park a crazy idea? So, I think that he would be a great guest. And then my second one would be Abigail Ahern. So, she she's an interior designer, and I have a real kind of interior design passion outside of work and what I love about her is she's like a real maximalist designer. So, she is all about colour, you know, paint your walls, your skirting boards, your ceilings, all in the same colour, rich textures, loads of kind of bringing the outside in. So, they call it biophilic design. So, you're making sure that you've got lots of natural light, and you've got lots of, you know, kinds of plants and foliage in your house as well. And so, I think that she would be a very interesting person to have.

Alex: And I've learnt something today. So, I will be researching biophilic design and then talking to people like I know what I'm talking about. Ah, that’s biophilic design that is.

Kelly: So, in my background here which you can’t see – you can only see video - I did have a beautiful array of houseplants on my mantelpiece in the background here. But unfortunately, I'm really terrible with houseplants, and they all died.

Alex: We have plants in the office, and they've all perished over the last year.

Kelly: All right. So, my fourth person would be Ricky Gervais. Not just because I do think that he's hilarious, but he has the most incredible skill for creating lovable, heartwarming characters. So, I don't know if you've watched Afterlife – the series -

Alex: Yes, absolutely.

Kelly: I think for me, that is the most incredible series that truly encapsulates what grief can be like for a person. That program is the one program that has made me cry with tears of laughter one minute, and then sob tears of pain the next. He just has this amazing ability to create the most emotive characters and I think I would love to - also it’d be a laugh, right? I'd love to have him at the dinner table.

Alex: Absolutely. And I was watching Afterlife - the series - around the time my poor old mum passed away. And that thing about, it’s not really something you talk about, is that whole approach that he has to some of the really toughest subjects in life. It’s quite powerful, isn't it?

Kelly: Oh completely, I totally sympathise with the situation that you were in while you were watching him, and it’s been a good few years since we lost our twins. But the same, I can remember watching it and the way that he approached the stages of grief that you go through, you know, those real kinds of anger. You hate the world, and you hate everyone in it, because they're not - they can't give you what you want back. And he approached it in such a real way, but also, you know, incredibly humorous. It's hilarious, but also, it's so raw. And so, you know, it really, really just grabs you by the heartstrings completely.

Alex: Absolutely. So, number four?

Kelly: David Attenborough.

Alex: Oh, wow.

Kelly: Who wouldn't want David Attenborough at a dinner party, right? He's got incredible stories. He's seen the world and all of the creatures in it. I just would have so many questions about all of the creatures and also his take on dinosaurs – I’m not going to lie, I’m a bit of a dinosaur freak. I'd want to know; would he want them to come back as in a la Jurassic Park and his brother. Would that -

Alex: That's the question, isn't it?

Kelly: Yeah. I mean, I would but I wouldn't want the whole like eating people thing to happen. But I'm really down with maybe miniature dinosaurs coming back -

Alex: A diplodocus or something like that?

Kelly: The friendly ones, you know the vegasaurus.

Alex: With advances in genetics, a sort of miniature Diplodocus could be yours. And so, I think I get a real feel for who you are Kelly and the reason we're doing this podcast series is to try and help clients get better working relationships with agencies that they're choosing. And so, we've got some questions that look into that. So, what factors are included in the best brief that you've seen?

Kelly: Right, I have got a brilliant example of the best brief I've ever seen because it was for a pitch that we won actually – I’m very proud of this one that we won. So, the best brief I've ever seen was from Eureka, the National Children's Museum, and for lots of different factors. So, what they articulated really well in their brief was all of the things that we have to go through to evaluate whether we go ahead with a tender or not. So, they showcased what the brief for the project was, what their requirements were – in a lot of detail actually, they were really clear about it. They put in a budget, they put in realistic timeframes, they explained how they were going to feedback to people and whether you got through to the next stage or not.

Alex: That's really valuable, isn't it?

Kelly: Yeah, and that was a really good. That was awesome, actually – so, you were going to get feedback whether you got through or not, so everybody got feedback. And I'm telling, it's only now, 40 agencies tendered for this, they did put an open tender out and they – so, there was a lot of work that they had to do. They talked about what that process would be, they talked about how many agencies would go through to the next stage, what that next stage would look like. Also, what was really respectful about the brief was that they, at the second stage - so I think they were going to take five or six agencies through to the interview stage and at that stage they did want to see creative. Now, this is always a really tricky subject, because a lot of agencies don't like to do creative, and we don't actually - it's not something that we’re keen to do. However, they offered to pay. So, they offered to pay a fee for the creative work that would be carried out. And if I'm honest, it probably wouldn't have covered all of the work that any of the agencies put in, but it was an element of respect for those ideas you were going to be creating.

Alex: There is nothing worse than going into a pitch and being ghosted and getting no feedback. And I just think that commitment to good feedback really stands out, but then also to actually pay for design work and that kind of thing so they can see what your thinking’s like – it shows a true understanding of what it’s like to work with an agency.

Kelly: Absolutely. And just like that level of respect for people's time as well, I thought was incredible but there were two other things that they did. So, that for me is a perfect – that’s what we need to know to know whether we’re going to go through with it or not. But then they did something else, which I've hardly ever seen in a brief is that they really used the organisation's tone of voice to write that brief. So actually, it was fun. You know, the way that they spoke, the terminology they used was all of the same stuff that they would use to communicate with their audience and with their visitors. Eureka is an incredibly fun, interactive Children's Museum, it is a magic, magic place. Their brief used the same terminology, used that same kind of tone of voice so, you were really excited about it and it showcased what they were going to be like to work with. A lot of briefs are just - so dull, they're so kind of staid and regimented, and this was like a breath of fresh air. And they also, as well as the kind of, okay, this is this is what we need to do, this is what we need to achieve; we need a new website; we need it to do these things. They also threw in a couple of business challenges that they were having, and that was quite interesting because it allowed you to kind of change the scope of what the project was. So, they had this kind of challenge that wasn't really related to the website project at all. It was just, you know, we've got this issue where we have really long queues in October, our October half term is ridiculously busy, it’s wet, people have to queue up outside. They might have had to queue for an hour to get in, and they might then have to queue for another hour once they're in to convert their ticket into an annual pass. So, what do you think about this? And so, it gave a really kind of open-ended challenge that was, oh yeah, this is interesting, there’s loads of stuff we can do to solve this.

Alex: And that sort of impactful problem solving is a fantastic thing for an agency. To be able to take away a client's pain is awesome.

Kelly: Absolutely. And you've got no boundaries with that as well. It was so open, there's so many places you could go with that. It made it really interesting and really exciting. I think anyone that that would have got that brief, there's no way they would have turned it down.

Alex: Oh, fantastic. And so, in terms of our brief, you mentioned budgets, how important are budgets?

Kelly: I mean, they're really important, right? We get asked to tender for stuff on a weekly basis, which is brilliant, you know, lovely that your name’s out there, and you're being recognised, and they feel that you're a good fit for them. But you're only a good fit for them if you can solve their challenges within the budget that they've got. And so, you know, it's really difficult, you can't go for every tender that you're given. It's impossible. You've really got to evaluate carefully, whether you will win that, you know, what's your chance of winning that tender? And if there isn't any budget, how do you know where the boundaries are? You could spend a week pulling together the most incredible tender pitch, you know, pitch document, proposal, whatever you want to call it. If they have 10 grand to spend, but what you're showcasing is, look you need to spend 50k on this – and we’ll do all these incredible things for you. You're so misaligned, and it's just a waste of time for everybody involved, it's a waste of time for the agency, it's a waste of time for the client. So, I think you have to be upfront about the budgets, and it's not so the agency can go to the max of it - it's just so they know, if they can provide you a solution, that's going to be a really - it's going to work effectively for you within that budget.

Alex: So, what would be the reasons why clients wouldn't give you a budget?

Kelly: I think one, there's a fear - that they think agencies are going to go to the top end of it all the time. So, you know, if we say 20 grand, you're just going to come back and say it will cost 20 grand, but it might cost 20 grand. I think genuinely sometimes there's a lack of a kind of understanding of what digital costs, depending on the scale of the organisation that you're working with. We get inquiries from quite small visitor attractions that, you know, they've managed to get by with something that's been okay for now - but they know they need to invest in digital, but they just don't really know what that investment needs to look like or they don’t know the reality of how long stuff takes and what stuff costs. So, I think they're the two biggest things. People don't like talking about money, do they?

Alex: I was always a little bit bashful about asking clients about direct commercial questions, and I'd leave it to the end. And you end up in a situation where you have that exact scenario you painted, whereby you're pitching too high, and they're just not got a budget and they say no straight away. So, if you actually ask a question where you actually frame the budget, you know, it's not going to cost you 50,000 pounds, but it might be 10,000 pounds, or would you need it to be 2000 pounds - they've got some sort of scale where they can get a feel for, commercially, where their organisation fits in.

Kelly: Yeah, and I've definitely done what you've done in the past and been apprehensive about talking about money too soon, because I think I didn't want - I hadn’t wanted to give that impression that that's all we care about. But actually now, it’s a really early part of that conversation and framing it like you said. Are we looking at a project where you're looking to invest between 10 to 20? Or, if I told you what we're talking about today is probably going to be near on, like 40 to 50 – how does that make you feel? If they don't really want to give you specifics, you do get at least a range of where they're at and what they're comfortable with.

Alex: Absolutely, absolutely. So, is there anything else that's really important when you're qualifying leads as an agency?

Kelly: So, actually we use a tool, and you know, the team at Cactus are amazing. So, they have a tool called the qual score and it lists a number of questions and you read the brief and you kind of you look at the questions and you give it a score from one to zero. So, one of the biggest things for me is - budget is up there. Another really big one for me is like can we speak to you? So, can we have a conversation with you, and can we ask you questions? Not just you know, an email over clarifying questions or stick them on one of those dreadful portals, can we actually have a face to face, albeit over zoom chat about what you're trying to achieve? Because for me, it's rapport, that’s the biggest part of working with an agency is, do you get on with them? I just can't fathom why any organisation wants to go through the portal process where they don't get to speak to an agency. You know, the first interaction they have with an agency is when an agency is pitching, and a pitch isn’t that conversational. So, you're not really getting to understand what it would be like to work with them, you're just getting the showcase of what they can deliver.

Alex: Yeah, you're getting the agency sort of jazz hands rather than this is who they are, and this is what they’re like to talk to. It's almost like an Instagram version of an agency, isn't it? Where it’s their best selves rather than, actually, this is who they are.

Kelly: Yeah. And the most important thing really is - this conversation on this kind of level, you know, asking questions, what are the real challenges? So, that for me is number one and then budget, realistic timeframes. And actually, has the budget been approved? It’s interesting, because that happens quite a lot where there’s a budget, but then that might need to be funded and that budget isn't actually in place. So, you're not going to get a decision about that project for goodness knows how long. Are you going to get feedback? It’s critical. You can only improve with feedback. So, if you're not going to get it, then what's the point?

Alex: For a client when they are selecting agencies, what things can they do to look up and check on an agency's reputation?

Kelly: So, this is really current at the moment. So, what we're finding is a lot of the tenders that we’re being asked to be part of, they’re speaking to like 10 or 12 agencies. I think anywhere between eight and 12 agencies at the moment. Yeah, it's blowing my mind a little bit. One, because I think that's way too many. I think about the client and the work that they're going to have to do to evaluate that, and then I'm like, okay well if this is going out to eight to 12 agencies, are they going to give those eight to 12 agencies feedback? They’re not, are they? They’re going to run out of time, it will get parked. So, I think the first thing they can do is do their own pre-qualification and look at three agencies. I think three, four agencies max. And that’s looking at things like, if you are in a specific sector, do you want your agency to have specific sector experience? You know, is that really important to you? Or do you want someone who's got service experience? So, you know, they build apps, but they're not necessarily focused on the sector that you work in. What is the fit that you really want? So, do your own kind of groundwork and then I think, obviously, check out what the agencies do in terms of what case studies that they’ve got on their website, then have a conversation with them. See if you like them - that's really important. And I would speak to, you know, speaking to clients, I think speaking to existing agency clients is important, but I also think it might be interesting to speak to clients that are no longer clients as well. So, to get a feel for what it was like - okay, for instance, I know that if someone comes to me tomorrow from an attraction that wants once a new website, there's like five or six clients that I can send their way, and they'll give us glowing testimonials, which is amazing, right? But is that a true representation? You might want to speak to an ex-client who you don't have a bad relationship with you anymore, but you don't work with them for whatever reason. And then you're kind of getting the whole picture.

Alex: Absolutely.

Kelly: I’m probably shooting myself in the foot here, but I think that's quite important.

Alex: Yeah. And I think there is the, you know, each agency, there's reality of what it's like to work with them. And so, to find out how things have gone on, you know, when everything works out, and it's beautifully aligned, and you've got the perfect version of them, but also when things sort of maybe don't quite work out as well - see how they handled and manage that situation.

Kelly: Yeah, because things come up for a reason. It's not necessarily that that relationship’s broken down, its just projects come up for re-tender. The agency might have chosen not to, how did they handle that handover process with the new agency, you know, what have they been like to deal with? Has there been any challenges with that? And I think it's stuff like that, that showcases what an agency's kind of real values and stuff are as well.

Alex: Absolutely.

Kelly: And potentially looking at their suppliers as well and talking to them. How do they deal with their suppliers? I think it could be quite an interesting learning curve for an agency too.

Alex: So, in terms of signs that a client can look out for, that an agency’s a a good fit or a bad fit, what would be on the list for that kind of thing?

Kelly: I'm going to go back to this whole speaking to them thing, because I think that the rapport is vital. So, if you get on with them, if you can see that your values are aligned, if you feel that you can trust them, and there's a mutual respect, backwards and forwards there between the client - this comes back to why we tend to steer away from those very kind of Portal driven tenders, because you just don't get the opportunity to do that, and it doesn’t seem to make any sense. I think going back to, do you need that agency to have that experience in your sector? So, if that's really important for you, you need to be looking at, do they have case studies that clearly show that they work within your sector? Are they speaking at events that are sector focus? What's the content that they're pushing out? What research projects are they working on? What's their understanding of your challenges and how far do they go to understand them? Are they excited about the project? What energy are they bringing into the project? So, going back to the Eureka brief, we got that brief really late. We had a week before the tender deadline, and we got put in touch with them. We had a really great email conversation and I jumped on the phone, had a chat with them. And I was like, right, look, we're down in Essex and we want to come to Halifax and visit the site, and see what it’s like before we put a tender in. We've got to get a real feel for the place.

Alex: That’s not a short journey either.

Kelly: No, it’s a good three-hour drive. I didn't think that we could propose properly without understanding what it was like there, to get a feel for it and so, it was really important for us. And I think that showed them a real commitment that we wanted to work with them, but we had a week. So, they were really accommodating, they actually extended the tender for a few extra days, so we could do that. We drove all the way up to Halifax and we met with the comms and marketing manager, who was brilliant, she gave us a little bit of time face-to-face. She did say, this was another good thing about brief, if agencies wanted to visit, if they wanted to come in, she would meet them face-to-face. So, she gave everybody a little bit of time face-to-face, which was really lovely. And then we got let kind of let loose on the centre. So, we could walk around the museum, we could see how kids were interacting with it, and what it kind of brought, you know, the fun levels that it brought to them. But what we found out afterwards, that we thought was a bit odd is that I think of the 40 submissions that they had, something like 10, or 15 of them were from agencies who'd never visited the centre. So, they hadn't been to Eureka, they hadn’t been to visit the museum. I couldn't understand how you could really understand the challenges that that organisation has without going there as an attraction, seeing it and how it operates.

Alex: Absolutely. So, in a former life I used to work at an agency where they had a lot of clients with physical retail space. And so literally, each month, if you worked on an account, you'd have to go out and visit a new store of that client so that in conversation you could mention, we've been to, you know, this store, we saw that that was looking fantastic, we looked at the point of sale, or whatever it was. It just shows an interest in the client's business above and beyond just being in the phone and taking some bookings for media space and that kind of thing. We try and do it with our clients now. So, if they have an e commerce functionality on their site, we will make an order to have that thoughtful experience all the way through to checkout – there’s a box of random stuff in the office that at some point, we'll get around to putting on eBay. We try get stuff that we need but, you know -

Kelly: You could do competitions; you could do weird Instagram competitions for the prizes that you've got. That would be quite random.

Alex: I could give you some copper foil or copper tape or electromagnetic shielding stuff if you want it.

Kelly: Sure, I'd find a use for that somehow. But that's part of it. So, on that day, we purchased a ticket, you know, we went through the booking process, we bought a ticket, we queued up, we did the thing that everyone else would do to see how it was working for people. So, I think that's really important. Obviously COVID has affected that process so we haven't been able to do that in the past year, which I think has been quite difficult for us because you never really get a whole sense of the of the place until you're actually there. But – you know, what can you do?

Alex: In terms of looking at an agency and finding out whether they're a bad fit, is there anything that stands out there?

Kelly: I think just the flip of what I’ve said really. If you don't have a good rapport with them, if you feel you don't have that kind of level of trust, if they're not really engaging with the processes as much as you would hope they would. I hate that phrase and you know, going the extra mile, but I don't think visiting a visitor attraction before you put a tender in, is going the extra mile. I think that's part of the process and if you’ve got an agency that's not going to do that, are they going to care that much about it?

Alex: So, in terms of RFPs, requests for pitches, what is the dullest one that you've ever heard of?

Kelly: Oh, gosh. I don't want to name specifics because we did go through this. This is the one and only time we went through this process, but I think for me, it's those ones that use those formal tendering platforms. And they're usually, I'm really sorry, but they are usually kind of council driven or government driven, and they are just the dullest things ever. Honestly, I can't even - most of the time - I can't even understand the terminology that they use. They don’t speak like normal people, like me.

Alex: It's like some procurement, legalese, or something like that, where there's lots of hidden meanings and specific value attributed to questions that, unless you are aware of that world, can make it quite tricky to participate in.

Kelly: Yeah, it's really, really painful. And the things that they asked for as well, just incredible. We've got a million policies in place for a million different things. But then, when you go through these processes, that's the biggest part of the tender is, we need to see all of your 50 million processes and policies, please. And here's the space, here’s your inch space where you’ll write how you’ll actually do this project for us.

Alex: 100 words, yeah. And so, in terms of your space, are there any agencies that you really admire?

Kelly: Well, they don't work in the same sector as us but in the same space as us in terms of being you know, a digital agency. But I hugely admire Reflect Digital. I think Becky, who’s the MD there, she's incredible. She's such a powerhouse of fun, and insight, and she's one of the most kind of warm and caring people that I've ever met. What they do there is incredible, and they do fantastic digital work but one of the things that I really admire about them is how much they engage with the younger generation. They do loads of community focus work around schools and universities and really kind of highlighting what they do and getting work experience, people involved in graduate schemes and stuff like that. So, them for me, they’re number one of my - who do I admire?

Alex: Absolutely.

Kelly: Love them.

Alex: I really like on their website, where they have three lollipops in the middle as the sweet spot. And I think that they’re fantastic company, fantastic people.

Kelly: I also really like their mugs. So, just putting it out there Becky, I’d love one of your mugs with my mug on.

Alex: Excellent. Kelly, this has been great. Where can people find out more about you online?

Kelly: So, you can head to our website which is RubberCheese.com, or I am on LinkedIn. I’m just Kelly Molson on LinkedIn so you can connect with me on there. I do tweet. It's not always business related, I'm not going to lie. It's a bit random but I am the chief cheese over on Twitter as well.

Alex: Perfect. Thanks for joining me today.

Kelly: You are welcome. It's been a pleasure.

Alex: Thanks again. If you found the conversation useful, please join me again next time for Choosing an Agency.

Choosing an Agency is available for you to download from all the usual podcast platforms or find out more, here: www.AlexHolliman.com