Interview: creative agency Scaramanga’s design-led approach

Simon Leadbetter on how he and his creative agency stepped up to support their clients, and their exciting future plans.

We spoke with former Croydon College student Simon Leadbetter to learn more about local agency Scaramanga and how they have developed a new animation service over the last few months. We also hear Simon’s advice for young people in Croydon who may be considering a digital career in the creative industry, based on his own personal experience.

Interview transcript

Asha

Hello, Simon. Thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed by Croydon Digital today. It’s nice to have you here. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, who you work for and where you’re based as well, please?

Simon

Yeah, hi. I’ll do my best to answer those challenging questions to start with.

So, I think I can just about remember my own name. I’m Simon Leadbetter. I’m one of the directors of an agency called Scaramanga Agency and this is our 20th year. So, we’ve been around for a while. And my job title, now, that’s a tough one to answer because I really dislike job titles, I’ve never really had one. But if you have to describe what I do, I’m probably now the Creative Director and Technical Director. I can probably explain why I do both roles as we go through this interview.

The company is based in Caterham and Kent – we have two offices. Our design and digital team are based in Kent and the marketing team, which do Social Media and Digital marketing, that kind of stuff, as well as traditional marketing, are based in Caterham. We are going to be hopefully located in Croydon very soon because we’re relocating the Caterham team to move to Croydon. So, we will have a stronger connection with Croydon Digital.

Asha

Excellent. Well, we look forward to welcoming you when you come to the area. We’ll certainly organise some drinks, too. Can you tell me a little bit about how you ended up in this area and in the agency world specifically, and how you got this position? I guess, really, what your story is.

Simon

Let’s rewind to the beginning. When I left school, I was one of these kids that really liked art. Knew I liked art, was rather good at it. At least I thought I was and started considering art college. I went around all the colleges and universities and they said there was this thing called graphic design that was appealing. I remember one of the lecturers they’re saying graphic design’s like being an artist, but you get paid for it. That was quite appealing.

So, I went off and studied graphic design. First at Kingston and then I moved on and did a Higher National Diploma in Croydon College and the art faculty there. That’s where it began. I am a product of Croydon College and I left there in— God, you know, I had to look up in LinkedIn when I left college because it was that long ago. I was in Croydon between 1990 and 1992. So, I left in ’92 and came straight out into a recession, which was brilliant. You know, desperate to get a job and there was no work to be had.

Fortunately, it’s always who you know not what you know. Through a friend of a friend of a friend I found a contact and got into a Typesetting Bureau. In those days before we had everything digital, we used to print films and they would be sent to the printer. They would make plates and then they would print material from that. I moved on to be a graphic designer there and then this thing called the web appeared. I was doing a bit of research on this just to get my timelines right and the first website was 1991. Then in 1993 there were 623 websites, in 1994 there were 2738 websites, and it was about then that I created my first website. It was probably unknown here. It was early days that I was intrigued by being able to design but program as well. Then that’s a full circle back to my role now. I trained as a graphic designer but back then I just loved the idea of programming. Home computers and stuff like that were just coming out. I loved the old VIC-20s and Commodore 64s of the day, so this was brilliant. It was programming and design. So, I built my first website around ’94 or ’95 when there were probably no more than about 10 thousand websites. If we leapfrog to today, I wouldn’t hazard a guess at how many websites are out there.

I’m still working as a web designer from those early days, so that’s kind of my journey and the reason why I do what I do now. I went off and found jobs, but eventually got to the point where I wanted to set up my own business. That’s the reason why I am where I am today as the director of a business. It’s always a scary leap of faith when you’re in a comfortable job paying you a salary, which is probably paying your mortgage at the time. Deciding to jack it all in and set up on my own is a big decision, but that’s what I did. And now the business has 10 — well, 9 employees. We’re just about to employ our 10th senior web developer and hopefully going strength to strength.

Asha

Well, it certainly sounds like your passion paid off for you. Thank you for telling us about your story. It would be great to find out a little bit more about what the agency does, the types of clients you work with and the types of projects you’re involved with on a day-to-day basis. And, I think quite importantly, how your business has been impacted by COVID if it has, or what changes you’ve had to make there as a team.

Simon

Right. Yeah, so we have got a mixture of sectors. We’re not sector-specific but we have quite a range and, broadly speaking, they fall into the Arts and Culture sector and the medium-sized businesses and up. What we typically do now is try to brand companies and help them reposition themselves. We’re all about business growth. Any business that wants somebody to do a brand for them, it’s not for the beautiful creation, what they’re doing it for is to grow their businesses and be more commercially successful. We are just providing services that help their business growth. So having a marketing team that will build a strategic marketing plan for the business and then being able to do the fulfilment on there regarding branding identity websites. Of course, e-marketing campaigns, social media marketing, we can provide that full package for that client.

Before I set up on my own, I worked in an agency that specialised in the Arts and Culture sector, so many of those clients have followed me because I’d worked with them a lot. We work for festivals to theatres to energy brokers to luxury watch manufacturers to High Court enforcement officers. You can tell just through that quick list that there’s quite a variety of clients that we will work for and the reason we can work for them is we’re design-led, or creativity lead. We use technology, of course we do, but it only supports what we offer as a solution. It’s not the thing that drives a solution. So, we’re able to apply our design thinking; we don’t have a cookie-cutter style design. We will look at the audience and try and find a solution that meets that brief, that we often write for ourselves. That’s an important thing to bear in mind. Sometimes you must define the brief with your client because your client won’t know the digital world or the web world or any other world that we occupy. They’re paying us to be experts, so we will provide that advice.

Rolling on from that, of course, we’re now living through this period of working from home and trying to run a business, and create business, and do new business. I think one of the most important things for our business is being adaptable to the market needs. Last week we launched a new service which is to create animated video sequences. We realised that there are a lot of businesses that wanted to get messages out to their audiences and their clients saying how they’re operating during the COVID-19 crisis, and obviously video is a powerful format. We all watch YouTube videos, and this is just a way of being able to access their audience. So we produce these animated videos because it doesn’t require any outside filming models, model releases. We can literally design and illustrate that on brand and produce that in the house and deliver it to our clients.

One of our existing clients is an energy supplier, they do energy costs. We’ve done some instructional videos for them and they’ve now commissioned us for a series because they’ve been so successful and well-received. Then the QE2 Centre in London, right near Westminster, saw these videos and they wanted us to produce one for their in-house display, for when new conference attendees turn up about their safety measures and stuff like that. It’s also broadcast on their website. Taking this flexible, adaptable approach and trying to find a service that suits the current industry needs is a key thing for our survival and perhaps many businesses. It’s those that can just adapt and flex a little bit, doesn’t take us away from our core. It just means that we can provide what’s required at this time. Out of it we might have a new service that we can then continue going forward and add it to our complement of services.

Asha

Well, absolutely. It sounds like that’s been a positive aspect of COVID in that you’ve been able to change your offering and meet the demands of what your clients need, which is great. In terms of where you guys see yourself in five years’ time, I’m hoping that you’ll still be in Croydon. What are your plans for the agency? Can you tell us a bit about what you’ve got coming up?

Simon

Sure. We’ve got this plan to grow— we’re growing ourselves. It was always the idea of Claire and me — she’s the other partner in the business — and her surname is Scaramanga, and hence where the name Scaramanga came from. We want to grow the business to have a small sizeable team. We don’t want to ever be massive, a huge London agency or anything like that. We want to occupy this space where there are medium to large-sized businesses that won’t want to pay London agency prices. Also, just the complexity around it but still require that service level. That’s where we’re trying to pitch ourselves towards is to provide these high in quality, high skills, but without the kind of the high price tag that, you know, a big massive London agency will provide. Working in Croydon and on the periphery of London means we can still service the London clients but also equally service all the clients that are around the kind of the periphery of London.

We’re going to grow the web team. We’re going to grow the design team, but we’re going to try and grow that organically and not too fast. Grow the services as well. We mentioned about creating this new animated video, we could only do that with the team we’ve got, and that team were willing to adapt their skills and try new things. Without their tenacity and their ability to learn and try new skills we couldn’t deliver this service. It’s not just the business that needs to change, sometimes it’s also the individuals and being willing to learn new skills. That would be another – I know, I’ve digressed a little bit of where we’re going to be. We’re going to grow but we’re going to grow with the right people. I think any business owner is only as good as the employees and the people that they work with.

Asha

Absolutely. Well, it sounds like you’ve got some extremely exciting plans. We hope to follow you on that journey as you go ahead with that. Just thinking about yourself and the fact that you went to Croydon College, what message would you like to give to young people in Croydon who may be considering a career in a digital creative industry? Words of wisdom from you.

Simon

Okay. First thing is don’t worry about qualifications, worry about your drive and your energy into learning, and be curious. I told you my story. The internet, believe it or not, didn’t really exist when I went to college and started learning to be a designer. But I grabbed this opportunity and it served me well because I was keen to learn a new skill even though I didn’t know how to do it. You’re going to go out into the commercial world and not know how to do a lot of things, but honesty is such a core characteristic I value. If you don’t know something, make sure you go and learn how to do it because any employer wants that person that’s willing to learn and won’t hide their mistakes. You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to make wrong choices, but it’s really important that you really apply yourself and never give up. I didn’t have all the skills I have at the beginning, none of us do.

I’m self-taught, as well. I had to learn the web and all the different languages by working late in the evening and stuff like that, and just don’t expect things to be handed to you on a platter. You’ve got to work hard and, when you do go out for a job, do the best possible thing and make sure you’re talking to that individual. I mean, it doesn’t matter what sector you’re in, but if you’re applying for a job, make sure that you know what you’re applying for, and the company you’re applying to and have an answer to their questions. Why do you want to work for this company? So many people don’t have an answer and you will already be a step ahead if you’ve taken that move. When you start you might think, “well, I don’t have much to show.” If you don’t then create something, do your own personal project and make sure that you express your keenness and desire in whatever field you’re applying for. That’s my advice, it’s a lot of hard work but if you want it then you’re going to do it.

Asha

That’s really sound advice. Thank you for that, Simon. I think it’s safe to say, and fair to say that we are continually learning in our jobs. That never stops, really.

Simon

Always be curious. Always be curious.

Asha

Absolutely. And lastly, obviously you guys are coming to Croydon which we’re extremely excited about. We know that a lot of the guys working in Caterham don’t live too far from Croydon. What are you missing about Croydon now? What are you big fan of in Croydon?

Simon

Well, that’s a good question. Obviously, we want to relocate our business because there’s a vibrancy and there’s lots of opportunity within Croydon. It’s also close touchpoint to Central London and all the transport and connections. That’s one of the key reasons why we want to be there. There’s a lot more going on in Croydon than in Caterham, Caterham is quite a lot quieter. The team will be keen to be in that vibrancy. I know there’s a bit of a digital hub going somewhere along the Croydon Flyover, and that that’s obviously interesting. Just being surrounded by people in the same field is quite inspiring. One of the things that I like is being close to competition, if that’s weird. Why hide yourself away and not be involved in that exciting bubble where you can all be competing against, but also be learning off each other. So, there’s that, and I think you have a BoxPark now that you didn’t have when I went to College.

Asha

We do, yes.

Simon

I’m a massive fan of that stuff. I told you we work in the Cultural and Arts sector, and theatre, and food, and beer, and— you have it, you name it. We’re a big fan of it. Having more of that would be a good thing. It feels like it’s a place of opportunity, which is exactly what any business wants. So, that would be my answer.

Asha

Great answers.

Simon

I’m looking forward to coming back and seeing what I’ve missed in all the intervening years.

Asha

Well, there has been a lot of change. I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised. We look forward to grabbing a beer with you when you’re back in the Cronx. Thank you so much for taking the time out to speak with us, Simon. We really appreciate it. I’ve really enjoyed hearing about you and your plans, and what the future holds. Exciting times ahead.

Simon

Well, first of all, a haircut.

Asha

We’re all in the same boat there. Take care, thank you very much. Bye.

Simon

Thank you. Bye.

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