The big interview: David Lewis, chief executive of Lewis Creative Consultants

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A strategic and creative marketing agency that has worked with Santander, ScottishPower and National Museums Scotland, Lewis Creative Consultants boasts modern offices in Leith with the likes of a cycle desk and a tech fund corner home to Lego and drones. There’s also a whole section of its website devoted to technology, from apps and e-commerce to database design and hosting.

Such offerings are in sharp contrast to the traditional practices in place 45 years ago, when the firm that bills itself as one of Scotland’s longest-established creative agencies was launched in the Borders by Ray Lewis, tapping into the area’s flourishing knitwear industry.

His son David has since taken over the firm, which has grown from a one-man band to 30 staff. And Lewis junior stresses that while the equipment used has evolved from darkrooms, sheets of paper, glue and colouring pencils to mouse, keyboard, monitor and beyond, the fundamentals of strong design transcend technology.

“We try and instil it in our team about getting the basics right… a computer is a tool, but it’s not the be-all and end-all,” he says.

He learned key aspects from his father, who had worked as a typesetter and was keen to pass on an understanding of how type works and how to present it effectively, often using a newspaper to showcase examples of font, line length, and so on.

“He said ‘you’ll be nothing unless you know about typography’. He gave me an appreciation for what that was and I think that’s given me a great foundation.”

Born into the family business, he grew up spending “every spare moment” there, the benefits of which included access to the studio as well as learning from “amazing designers in traditional techniques”.

Describing himself as a designer by trade with a passion for “making things look nice and lining things up”, he took his first official pay packet from the firm aged 19, and became MD 15 years ago.

Five years ago he bought the business and this year became chief executive, with Barry Hynd appointed MD. The firm has moved away from employing several members of the family – including Lewis’ mother and brother at one point – as they gradually left.

Lewis says: “What I wanted to do, especially when I took over, was to transform [the business model] a little bit into making it a more proper business, I would call it, a real organised business,” he says, none the less keen to stress his father’s achievements and continued contribution to this day.

Lewis says that his strong design roots proved an advantage when moving to more client-facing work, and therefore able to communicate his vision. “I have to admit I’m not a great artist, but I can do scribbles and visuals that people understand quite quickly.”

Agencies inevitably evolve and find new niches, and a key point in the development of Lewis was securing work from Scottish Provident, since rebranded as Royal London that acquired it in 2008. The original contract was worth just a few hundred pounds, but snowballed into more than 15 years’ work, with several contracts for many divisions of Spanish banking giant Santander.

These include a website relaunch for its Santander for Intermediaries division, as well as work for platform James Hay, which became part of Santander in 2004 and in 2010 was sold to the IFG Group.

The Lewis agency is currently on its fourth continued contract with Santander for Intermediaries, has worked with Close Brothers Asset Management for nigh on a decade, and helped industry body Origo become a “forward thinking fintech company with presence”.

Other clients span a fairly diverse range of activity, including Transport for Edinburgh, mental health campaign See Me, the Edinburgh Corn Exchange, and footwear specialist Hunter Boot. As for other potential sectors, the agency “would never turn any work away if we thought it matched our values and our ethos”, says Lewis.

Awards such as digital agency of the year have been picked up over the years. But Lewis notes sizeable pressures on the sector, not least the pitching model, whereby agencies have to “jump through rings of fire” to please the client and effectively give away their best ideas for free to win the job.

“It’s been the scourge of the industry – everybody accepts it,” he says. There are some “amazingly talented” agencies in Scotland and more broadly across the UK, he continues, “but they’re put up in a ‘beauty pageant’ or ‘boxing match’ every week to pitch and give away their work for free”.

Agencies are also being squeezed from above and below. There are marketing teams being built out by the likes of accountancy giants KPMG and Deloitte – the latter has integrated creative agency Acne and proposition design consultancy Market Gravity into Deloitte Digital, for example. And there are what Lewis describes as highly talented “one-man bands” who can deliver on quality but undercut significantly on price, for example building a website for a mere £300.

Lewis says his agency has therefore developed a strategy of being highly selective about pitches, and calculating the risk-reward trade-off.

But the business is also seeking out clients and opportunities by going deep into a sector, or finding a new area, where it can apply an innovative approach to gaps and hurdles.

“Even say in asset management, they all have similar challenges,” says the chief executive. “They all have similar fears, similar issues, whether that’s internal or [their] audience.”

His agency looks to bring experience from previous projects or “dig deeper” and try and find solutions that are not on the client’s radar, perhaps focusing on a niche group of clients.

Lewis saw its most recent annual turnover settle at about the £2 million mark. But looking ahead – with one, three, and ten-year plans in hand – he says targets are less focused on financial “vanity metrics” and more on company culture. The agency last month ranked top for workplace culture among all UK SMEs, with Lewis saying at the time that “it comes down to each person in the business to represent and influence our values, our focus and our future plans”.

A transfer of equity to the rest of the team is also mooted in the longer-term, although he declines to give a more specific timescale. Co-operative Development Scotland, the arm of Scottish Enterprise focused on collaborative and employee ownership business models, has estimated that about 16,000 employers in Scotland will be looking to transfer ownership in the next five years.

As for deal activity in the agency sector, it was announced in July that fellow Edinburgh-based creative entity Whitespace was being acquired by Dentsu Aegis Network after the Scottish firm underwent a management buyout in 2010. Lewis doesn’t rule out his own organisation being taken over by a bigger player, but stresses that it aims to be independent and draw its own path.

“We know we’ve got the skills, we know we’ve got the passion, we know we’ve got the team,” he continues, adding that takeover deals do not always achieve the desired outcome.

“I’m very keen to make sure that we build a team, that team takes us forward – if [a takeover] were to happen years and years down the line then the team who are there would benefit from that. I know from being in this for a long time that I need to employ the best people, who are far more talented in areas than me.”

And he cites his own father saying after a meeting that he didn’t understand a word of the digital aspects that had been discussed. “He knew his expertise had run its course… He could still be a great manager of people but he knew that I was probably overtaking him and going faster than he could do. I know that will happen with me at some point [and so] we’re on the hunt for talented people.”