Marketing agency keeps up with cutting edge of digital
Ican has experienced its strongest period of growth to date in the past three years
Siobhan Lavery: “We have to retain staff . . . Head hunting is constant. There’s a dearth of digital talent in the market.”
When Siobhan Lavery joined digital marketing agency Ican as an account executive in 2000, she was given a Golden Pages and told to go and get some clients. Fourteen years ago, online advertising was a difficult sell.
“It was back in the days when people weren’t really using the internet,” she says. “I was meeting brand managers, teaching them how to use the internet, talking about the merits of digital and, thirdly, selling them online advertising.”
Lavery, who is now Ican’s managing director, says that both she and the agency have grown up with the digital media industry. The days of knocking on doors to sell display advertising on key websites are long gone; the team’s work now encompasses everything from viral video campaigns and Facebook competitions to web design and social media monitoring.
Growth was slow during the early years and Ican only survived the dot-com crash thanks to the investment of Denis O’Brien, who retains an 80 per cent of the company.
Having survived, Ican was well-positioned to take advantage of emerging opportunities when digital spending re-emerged. “We had the name, so we were the first place people called,” says Lavery. “It was nice to get incoming calls.”
The company grew steadily until 2009 when it “fell off a cliff”. However, the past three years have seen Ican experience its strongest period of growth to date, a fact that Lavery puts down to market trends: these days every business wants a digital strategy.
The biggest challenge for a company that positions itself at the cutting edge of digital is how to not only keep up with technological developments but also translate them quickly into strategies for clients.
“It’s about remaining agile and being able to respond,” says Lavery. “We have to allow time for training; that’s absolutely critical. Each manager sets it up, so enough time is given to research.”
She says key technological and consumer developments that have shaped the company over the past 15 years include the introduction of search, the increased popularity of videos thanks to higher broadband penetration, the rise of social media and, most recently, the move to mobile.
“From a usage perspective, mobile is where it’s at,” says Lavery. “It’s added a layer of complexity. Social has changed because of mobile. Four out of 10 people are accessing Facebook through mobile but they scan it differently. We have to look at how to cut through.”
Ican employs 33 staff, divided between a creative team that comes up with ideas, creative technologists who look at how to make the ideas happen and programmers who bring the campaigns to life. A cross-agency innovation team is charged with making sure everyone is up to date with new trends and has the right skills to capitalise on them.
However, Lavery says that a lot of the time the business is about persuading clients not to do something. “It’s all about relevance. Clients get very stressed because they have heard about Facebook or Twitter or a mobile site. They need to step back and look at what is relevant to the business.”
Perhaps surprisingly for a digital company operating in the digital age, Ican has also extended its offering to encompass traditional media such as print and television. Lavery says this decision, made at a time when most traditional agencies were expanding into digital marketing, was driven by a demand for full service agencies.
“For years, there were specialisms and traditional advertising took the lion’s share of the budget. Now the market is for digital-centred campaigns supported by traditional, so we do that. We go where the money is.”
The company is now looking to expand, but in a way that doesn’t compromise its reaction time for new technology.
“We need to remain agile. How can we do this if we grow too much or too quickly? We want to retain our size and agility but replicate the business in other markets.”
Lavery plans to set up sister offices in other cities, modelling these businesses on what works in Dublin and keeping each one tight enough that it can respond quickly to new challenges. The first new office will be in Belfast and then the company will head across the Irish Sea with possible locations including Glasgow and Manchester.
Recruitment is an issue, particularly getting people who are experienced in what is still a very young sector.
“We have to retain staff; that’s my biggest challenge,” says Lavery. “Head hunting is constant. There’s a dearth of digital talent in the market.”