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

The first episode of Choosing an Agency features Ross Davies, Founder of purpose-led digital design agency Strafe Creative.

In this candid interview they discuss basketball, Aerosmith, working with non-profits, allowing your agency to interrogate your business challenges and the importance of probing your agencies values.

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 and things to consider when choosing an agency. I’m joined today by Ross Davies from Strafe Creative.

Ross: Hello.

Alex: For people who are just meeting you for the first time, can you share a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Ross: Yeah, of course. I’m Ross from Strafe Creative. We are a design agency based in Nottingham and London, and I guess our big thing is kind of purpose led design. So, what that means is we obviously want something to look aesthetically beautiful but for us the whole thing is conversion. So, we want to make sure that whatever we create works really well and drives through sales and more profits into our clients’ businesses. I guess that’s one side of it. And then the other side is we do quite a bit work in nonprofit, kind of with getting food to the vulnerable, and that's another part of it. And I guess I’m a father as well. So, that's a little bit of an overview for you.

Alex: Awesome. And to get a little bit more of a feel for who you are, if you can invite four people, past or present -

Ross: Yeah.

Alex: To any meal, who would you choose?

Ross: Okay, so I'm going to start with the late great Kobe Bryant. Obviously, Kobe is not with us anymore. I can't not include him. I'm a huge, huge basketball fan, being a six-foot white person with limited athletic ability, but I actually love basketball. So, from my point of view Kobe’s been the omnipresent in my life since I was really young. I grew to this height when I was 10 so they thought I was going to be absolutely huge. So, because of that I got thrown into all the basketball camps, and all these sorts of things. I just didn’t grow. I just literally grew to this height and I never grew again.

Alex: Wow.

Ross: So, I’d have to have Kobe there just to learn from his mindset and what he’s doing, and he’s always been around. And my second one is probably also going to be a little boring because it’s also going to be basketball related. So, apologies. But I’d have to have Michael Jordan. I don't know if you've watched the Netflix documentary -

Alex: Absolutely. I have , yea  yea.

Ross: That was amazing. I’d already seen that he’s done quite a lot of documentaries before. And, you know, his drive and his competitiveness and how he approaches things even just from a mindset point of view, regardless of basketball. I think it’s just something we can all learn from.

Alex: Would him and Kobe get on?

Ross: Yeah. Supposedly anyway, I’m saying this like I know them but obviously I don’t. But supposedly Jordan was like a big brother to Kobe and kind of mentored him and went through stuff. I think even just having those two together would be pretty cool. Third one we can have some – I’m going to go with someone like Steve Tyler. So, my favourite band is Aerosmith.

Alex: Wow.

Ross: Always has been. I think I got it from my dad. So, he was a massive fan and I kind of grew up with it, and we had the chance to go see them in Vegas. And that was just incredible.

Alex: I imagine it was really quiet, sort of -

Ross: It was mental. It was absolutely mental. I’ve never been to a concert like it. I mean, obviously it's just how they do stuff in Vegas isn’t it? But it was incredible, and I think just his, even just kind of the learning and they’ve been around for 50 years. It’s mental. It was meant to have been actually this year I think or last year, it was meant to be their 50th tour. Like their 50th year tour. So, the fact that they’ve managed to reinvent themselves and I think their overall approach is that they don’t take life too seriously. And they’re still enjoyed. I think some of their songs, there’s stuff they’ve been playing for 50 years and they still enjoy playing them. There’s got to be something in that you can kind of take from so I’d love to hear some crazy ass stories from him. That’d be pretty cool.

Alex: And they were quite excessive hell-raisers.

Ross: They were back in the day. I think he’s teetotal now. But I think that would be the stories, right? You get to hear all of those crazy stories and what he's done, and they’ve been 50 years in that business. The number of – the plethora of people that he must have met would be absolute crazy. And then what fourth person? We need some light-heartedness so probably have Kevin Hart because A, he’s well funny. But he’s an author, he’s an actor, he’s a comedian, he's an entrepreneur. He's got like these vitamins and protein companies and he’s just so hard-working. I read his autobiography and stuff like that and it’s where he came from and what he's been through and how hard he works. That would be pretty cool to kind of be inspired by some of that and also probably just laugh a lot. I think he’d be funny.

Alex: He’d be absolutely hilarious. He'd have everyone in stitches. And what, would you go out for hamburgers or something?

Ross: Ah, I don’t know mate. Hadn’t thought about that. Yeah, why not?

Alex: Quite a heavy American sort of contingency?

Ross: Yeah, I have. I’ve unnecessarily gone very American. So yeah, I’d probably go for burgers and stuff like that. You could do a fancy meal with them. I think that'd be weird. I wouldn’t want to be dressed up; I’d want to be relaxed.

Alex: In chairs -

Ross: And burgers. Stuff like that. So yeah.

Alex: Four very successful people with very different mindsets.

Ross: Yeah, think so. I don't know if that's a good thing that reveals about me or a bad thing. I’ll let you pass judgement on that.

Alex: I think it’d just be quite interesting, be quite vibrant.

Ross: Yeah, that'd be cool.

Alex: So, in turn, on the business side of things with Strafe, what's the project or piece of work that you guys are most proud of?

Ross: So probably the main one is actually one that we just launched back in October, November last year 2020. And it's for a company called Adventure Base, so kind of a shard for them. But they do adventure holidays. So, for example, you know, you want to climb Everest base camp, or you want to climb Mont Blanc or something like that. It’s like four, five days that you can go away, and they take you up there with the guides, and they do everything and take you back down again. And I think that project just ticked so many boxes. It was just a really cool project. So, I guess first off is from a client perspective, they were just so good to work with, like a really, really nice work relationship there.

Alex: And to have the foresight to be able to do that kind of project, whilst during the most significant economic downturn -

Ross: Yep.

Alex: Ever is quite sort of far forward thinking.

Ross: I mean, they were still selling holidays anyway, but they were just having to put these reassurances in place and stuff. But I guess there’s two parts to this that I really, really like. Before our version of the site went live, they were selling. They were selling like XX per month. But most of that were people coming to the site and then everyone had to pick up the phone, and everyone would send loads of emails. There was loads of back and forth. There was so much admin and so much salesmanship and so much, I’d persuade, and I’d have go in to try to get people to buy. Whereas when our sites were live, because of the way we approach stuff and it’s all conversion focused, that they’ve gone from 10% of people buying directly through the site to 75% of people buying directly through the site without any need for calls and additional things. But as well as that we've pretty much doubled sales. It paid for itself in the first month. So first off, A, we should charge more money, right? But just that sort of approach, it’s a really nice one because in the market it really stands out now. It's really good. So, you know, bearing in mind that it went live in October. So, you know, they were still selling in the middle of COVID, still selling really well. And you know that those kinds of conversions have continued. So that's a really, really cool one. So that's one we're really, really proud of. And then the other one is we set up right at the start of COVID last March and so actually we’ve come up to - I think pretty much at a year that we opened it is a not-for-profit. We’re just becoming a charity at the moment, a not-for-profit called Open Kitchens. Where we, I guess we are working with companies with excess food. So, for example, the airline company used to buy loads of food and then it stopped buying it, but that food was still produced. So, that excess food had to go somewhere. We're working with all the restaurants that closed who have available kitchens. And then we're working with 11,000 charities where all the vulnerable people are. And we basically build websites and donation systems and logistics apps and all these different things to essentially bring the three of them together.

Alex: Wow, that's awesome. That's really good.

Ross: Yeah, we've raised half a million pounds. We've done about 250,000 meals now. And we've got people like Hilton Hotels on and Chelsea Football Club and Super Dry. And all these big donations and these people helping, and it's been amazing. So, that's probably from that point of view. Obviously, we aren't making money on that. It's not about making money on that one. But it's been amazing.

Alex: And there is a part of being a business owner when you can actually do some good and actually step up and go over and above just, you know, being not-for profit. That's absolutely amazing. And to help some of the most disadvantaged people in society regarding the prevalence of food banks, and that kind of at the moment I think is amazing. You guys should be really proud of that.

Ross: Cheers bud, no it’s really cool. So yeah, that probably should have been my main one but there’s definitely two.

Alex: Excellent. And so, I think the reason why I started wanting to do this podcast was to try and help clients get the best from their agency. So that could be PR agencies, creative agencies, companies like us in terms of SEO and PPC or yourselves with regards to web design and web app development. And so, what I wanted to try and do was to be able to formulate a series of conversations where clients can almost get the inside line on how to get the best out of their agencies -

Ross: Yep.

Alex: And so, in terms of, you know, what are your views on what can be done to improve the quality of work a client gets?

Ross: So, yeah. I’ll have to come at this from, like web. I think the main one is kind of really defining what that purpose is meant to have been. And I think far too often, that can be really, really woolly. So, the example that we get a lot is we ask what people want from the site and they’re like, we just want people to contact us. Our argument would be that's just not defined enough. So, let's say, okay, you can either fill in a form, you can pick up the phone, you can do an appointment, you could use a live chat, or you could email them directly. So those are all five different ways someone could get in contact. Now, for me, what we want to do is we want to try to push a client to make a decision on which one is best because once we've defined what the overall purpose of the site is, it affects absolutely everything. So, let's say if we wanted to drive everyone to pick up the phone, then the site would be about, we'd have a lot more, I guess, human kind of side to the site. We’d talk a lot more and we’d probably have photography of people, like in the business, and we'd have them on the phone. And we’d talk about the fact that we’re trying to pick up the phone and speak to our experts and see how they can help you and get some one-on-one advice. Whereas if we push everyone to, like form, you design that very differently. So, you know, you have that more around – tell us about your business, what you want to do. Before we even pick up the phone, well, I've already done some research, we conclude. So, like, how you define those is very different. And for me, the other part of that is I want to speak to the sales team, I want to know how they want to do it. So, for example with Strafe, I don't really want to pick up the phone, because I want you to fill in the project planner, so that I could have already done some research. So, I already kind of tried to look up competitors. I can already have done a little bit of a quick audit of your website so I can potentially give you some pointers and prove that we know what we're talking about. So, actually, from a sales perspective, I'd much rather you fill in my project planner than pick up the phone to me. And I think a lot of that is overlooked. And because of that you end up with this side that’s like, hopefully they find the contact page and hopefully they get in touch. There’s stuff like that, that I think’s left too open and really, we want to define what that is, and then really push the user to try to do that one thing.

Alex: Absolutely. I think speaking to people in sales is always really interesting. Because when you have a conversation with them, you're able to uncover the pain points that they repeatedly as -

Ross: Experience.

Alex: Experience with customers and if you can understand the impact of that -

Ross: Yep.

Alex: With regards to web design, for example, that’s a tremendous call to action because you're alleviating that pain point, then people move through the conversion funnel 100%.

Ross: It’s like that example I gave before of Adventure Base, is one of the questions that their salespeople always get asked is okay, well what happens with the kit? Do I have to bring other kit? Do you give me the kit? Do I hire the kit? Once we've learned that from the sales staff, just design that into the site. But I sometimes feel like the marketing department doesn't speak to the sales department. So, then they build something that works well in certain ways but doesn't necessarily answer the things that the sales staff constantly get asked. So, that's definitely part of it.

Alex: Perfect. And then, very often clients will come and ask you to pitch for their business, what advice would you give clients to get the most out of that process?

Ross: I would say, let the agency prove their expertise. So, too often we get specs and briefs which are super detailed but it’s like, we want these 20 pages, we want the user to move around the site in this way and we want to do this end goal. And they basically kind of try to think about it all internally and go, hey, can you just build this? Can you quote on what we’ve essentially just said? The problem with that is obviously they're not experts in what we do. Just like we're not experts in what they do. So, the best way to get something out of the project is actually don't define what you think you want. Instead, give me loads of context about the business. Tell me about all the previous problems you've had with your other site. Tell me all about the problems that you've had in the business. Tell me the reasons why people should buy from you. Tell me why you’re better than your competitors. And then as an agency, let us figure that out. Let us come up with options. Because if you just give me a brief, the first thing is, I have to pick it apart anyway, if I'm going to do my job properly, so I'm going to pick it apart. But then you might have other agencies that don't pick it apart. So, then you’ve just got two or three quotes that are all exactly the same, because we’ll do exactly what you said and it’s X amount of money.

Alex: So, it’s not being too prescriptive and then -

Ross: I would much rather someone be like, here's a load of problems that we have, or here's loads of things we're trying to do, or you know, here's our goals. We're trying to do this. We're trying to achieve this; how do we get there? And then we can come up with what those are. Whereas too often people are like, yeah, we need a homepage, about page, service page, contact page and we need a live chat feature. And it's like, well, no, because I want you to learn more about your business, so you can see if what you just told me is right.

Alex: Absolutely. So, it doesn't give you any opportunity to actually demonstrate how transformational working with you can be. It's just meeting a brief for X, Y and Z.

Ross: Yeah, and I guess it just depends on the tier of the business I guess, at the end of the day. Some people will be like, I just need something really simple. And then that comes into well, are they the right agency? Are they the right company for us, I guess?

Alex: And sometimes when you are uncovering the brief, and you start interrogating it -

Ross: Yeah.

Alex: There is a sort of a pain threshold that clients will tolerate. And if you have to unpick things to such a degree, sometimes it puts the agency in a position whereby you're damaging the client relationship before you've actually started preparing the quote.

Ross: Exactly, because you don’t want to come straight in and be like, this is rubbish. And that's wrong. That's wrong. That's wrong. So, it just sets it up. So, you know sometimes it’s more of a case of being like, I know you said this, but have you thought of this and we could do this. And how about this as an idea? And that’s fine. And obviously, the benefit of that is that it makes our quote look different to everyone else's. But for me I would much rather, like the best jobs come out of just we have these problems, and we want you to figure out what the best way of doing it is. And then I guess the benefit of that is they’ve already bought into our idea by the time they said yes, so it just makes the whole relationship together better. There’s a clear definement of -

Alex: It’ll be the thinking as an agency that differentiates you from just being a service thing of just putting together a website with a homepage, contact page, live stream, whatever. Actually it’s the structural thinking at the planning stage that’s really going to help you make an impact.

Ross: Yep. 100%.

Alex: Perfect. So, when the client’s speaking to an agency what are the signs that the agency is a good fit for that client?

Ross: So, I think I guess, an overall ethos. Do you have a similar ethos? Do you have a similar way of working - I think is going to be really key. So, here at Strafe, we’re very process driven. We know that if we take a project through a set process, we know it’s going to deliver a really high percentage like a high conversion rate. So, we want to make sure we run through that. So, you know, if a client wants to cut corners, or they don't want to do certain things, or they don't see the value in doing that, that becomes a lot harder sell because they’re not going to feel engaged in it. They’re not going to want to do it and then that genuinely makes that harder. So, I think that approach needs to be very similar. And I think you both need to be very, I guess, potentially kind of driven or goal orientated in the same way. So, you need to both be on the same kind of footing moving towards it. So, you know, if their goals are either way too lofty or unrealistic. I'd rather have that conversation with them early. Some people will just be like, oh we just need a new website. And then it’s like our job to try and like, let’s push for more or let’s try to do more with it. What if we did X and Y and can we do it? So, I think a lot of it comes down to that. And I think another one is just kind of a general respect for each other's expertise. So, we know what we're doing with our work but at the same time, we don't know that business, so we need to pick their brains and really understand that. And then the other thing is, someone like working with yourself Alex, is we want to make sure right at the start of our project if they’ve already got SEO companies and pay per click companies and PR companies and whoever else. We want that working relationship to be amazing, so we want to get involved right at the start of the project. So, you kind of want to make sure that you've got those bonds, you can work with them because there’s nothing worse than we just crack on with a project and find out just before launch, all the SEO companies are looking at it now. You’re like, if we had known they were involved we could have built that from the ground up with them.

Alex: Absolutely. The ability to play well with other agencies is crucially important. And to forge those relationships to the greater advantage of the client is critical.

Ross: Yeah. And then I guess the last one is just you want to make sure that you both work in a similar manner. So, from a point of view of we’re going to give you set deadlines as we want to make sure we’re working with someone who’s well organised and is going to get stuff done when they say they’re going to get them done. But that’s the other way for us so if we say to the client, we’ll have it done by Friday, we need to have it done by Friday. There's nothing worse than one side of that relationship being incredibly unorganised or wanting to work in a very different way to the other one. So, you just need to make sure you're relatively aligned, and I think you get that from a feel. You’ll get that from interacting with them to start with and, you know, asking to pick apart their process and what happens in these situations and what will you do here or what would you do if we forgot to do X? And I would try and get an understanding of worst scare scenarios of what happens in an agency and if an agency doesn’t have an answer for it, because they’re like we’ll make it up, that’s probably not the answer you want.

Alex: Yeah, absolutely. That makes sense. So, an interesting thing that I always think about is awards, and agency awards and being an award-winning agency. How important is that kind of thing for a client?

Ross: Lots of people view this in lots of different ways. Our argument is, and we say this to our clients, the more credible a company is, the more likely someone is to buy.  So, when we're creating a high converting site, we kind of want them to have awards, we want them to have credibility. And the normal one that I might use with a client is, let's say, you go on Amazon, for simple sake, we're buying a sprinkler head because I bought one this morning to plug into my hose, so I don’t have to stand outside and hose everything. You’ve got the exact same things because obviously, Amazon allows that. You've got the exact same thing on there, the exact same product. One of them’s got 25-star reviews, and the other one has zero but they’re both the same cost. Which one do you buy? I’ll just buy, even though it’s the same price, I’ll buy the one with five, with all the stars because in theory it’s more credible.

Alex: Absolutely.

Ross: For me, it's the same sort of approach for the awards that if I had two very similar portfolios of design agencies, they both looked pretty good. Pricewise, we’ve got quotes on them both and we can’t really decide but one of them’s won 10 or 20 different European awards and the other one’s won one, that’s probably going to be my tipping point or personally that’s how I view it. And generally, that's what we'll do with our clients and then we just know, having those awards on makes a big difference. So, for me, it is important, there is a slight caveat to that, that I'll add in that you can obviously get really just rubbish awards don't mean anything. You know, you can pay 200 quid and you can win an award under this and there's ones out there, so I won't name any of them. But there's ones where we get constant messages that’ll just be like, hey, you’ve won, like we've not entered them, we've not done anything. They're like, hey, pay us 200 quid and you can have this award and we’re like, no that’s not the point. The point is, I guess from an ethics point of view is we want to make sure we've submitted something and put a case together to prove it, and then actually win it off the back of it. Rather than just, oh yeah, you're the only one that entered so you've won the award, or it’s this rubbish award. I think, for me, awards are really important, but it has to be in the context of, you know, it has to be a valid award that makes it, that proves you are good at what you do.

Alex: I wholeheartedly agree with that because there are industry outstanding awards that are absolutely phenomenal. So, it could be Google Premier partner awards are in the top 1% of the top 3%. That as an award has real value. One where, as an agency, you get an anonymous email saying send us 500 pounds for your award, they’re so light touch but you still end up with the same result. So, as a client it’s about interrogating the awards, speaking to the agency owners and the team about the process, you know, about what was that like. How did you win that? And unpicking it so you can ensure that the agency you’re engaging with has an award that is credible and has real meaningful value.

Ross: Yeah. So, for me the awards are great to have but it’s part of my pitch. If we’ve got an award, part of it is the story. It’s the story of how you win that award, that for me is really critical and it gets forgotten. So, it’s not a case of we’re winners or defining the pitch. I might say, just before we skip past, these are the awards. I'm not going to go into detail on all the awards. But let me just quickly talk about the story behind this one.

Alex: Yep.

Ross: Because that one could be really relevant to what they're doing. And I think that's kind of part of it.

Alex: I think there's something in the psychology of an agency. So, if an agency earns a proper reward versus an agency that hasn't won the award, there's something in the mentality and the mindset -

Ross: Yeah, agreed. And some people say like, we don't go forward, we just focus on client results and stuff but actually loads of awards are that. Loads of awards are not based on the appearance, especially with design and we enter a lot of awards and some of them are for the aesthetics and the appearance. But a lot of them are purely for the results that we've given to the client. We won, in 2019, for website of the year and it was purely based on results. It didn’t matter how the website looked; it was the fact that it went from zero sales to 900 grand in six months. That’s what was important. It was the really high conversion rate.

Alex: Absolutely. So, that's a meaningful difference to that business.

Ross: Yep. So, I guess that’s the difference in it. So, yeah, it’s a tough one but I do get the understanding of you know, we just focus on clients and stuff, but for us it helps in a lot of ways.

Alex: To wrap things up, are there any red flags a client should look out for when speaking to an agency?

Ross: The first one I would just say is, it's really hard to get a red flag in isolation. You need to get quotes from multiple agencies to spot a red flag. It's kind of the way I put it. So, for example, you get three quotes: one comes back at 50k, one comes back at 43k, one comes back at 10k. I'd be like, maybe they’ve never done a project of this size and they don't realise or they’re just trying to get it, or they've completely misunderstood the brief. But if you only got a quote from one of them and you were like, oh that’s 10k bargain, I thought it was going to be 30k. That’s why that context of having those comparison options is going to be really, really key and then it’s the same with the timescales. If someone says it’s five months, the other company says it’s four and a half months and one company say, it's two weeks, you'd be like, I don't think I've understood the brief. But it's surprising how often that can happen. I’m taking that to the extreme, but you might have someone that goes, well one of the other agencies said they could do it in two months. There’s just no way. There’s no way you could do that for six months work so it’s just highlighting that out to them is really, really important.

Alex: So, that allows the client to then see the context of each individual and the merits of it.

Ross: And I’d say the last one is just not again, using this kind of context term but having limited context on the quote. What I mean by that is if someone’s said, for 20k we’ll build you a website and it doesn’t go into any huge detail on what’s included, what’s the functionality and what are the pages and how it’s going to work - It leaves so much grey area of the client going well, I thought it was going work in this way. And then them saying, well I thought it was going to work in this way and obviously quite a lot of the time what it will be is that the client will think it’s going to work in this really complex and awesome automated way. And the developer’s just doing whatever’s easiest. So, for me, the red flag is making sure that proposal is really detailed, and the client knows what they're getting for the money. And if it's not detailed and they don’t really know what they’re getting for money, that for me is a red flag because it means further down the line you don't 100% know what you're getting for your money.

Alex: I think that makes absolute sense.

Ross: Cool.

Alex: This has been great. So, where can people find out more about you online?

Ross: We are Strafe Creative.co.uk

Alex: Thanks for listening. 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