Interview: Lyndsay Menzies on internet marketing

Having started out in pursuit of a career in chemistry, Lyndsay Menzies has been getting to grips with the science of internet search and marketing for the best part of two decades.
Lyndsay Menzies began in chemistry but jokes that she had the messiest lab coat in the year. Picture: Jane BarlowLyndsay Menzies began in chemistry but jokes that she had the messiest lab coat in the year. Picture: Jane Barlow
Lyndsay Menzies began in chemistry but jokes that she had the messiest lab coat in the year. Picture: Jane Barlow

In that time she has been involved in a trio of deals, culminating with a £332 million takeover three years ago, and is now busy writing a new chapter as chief executive of 8 Million Stories.

The digital marketing firm, which counts publisher Condé Nast and distiller William Grant & Sons among its clients, has about 20 staff across its head office in Edinburgh and an outpost in London, and sees Menzies reunited with the duo who helped her break into the internet industry in 1998.

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Fresh from a stint at oil major Shell, Menzies arrived in Edinburgh in search of a job and found a vacancy at Vertigo Web Design, run by husband and wife team Steve Leach and Heather 

“At that time Vertigo was very much about building websites, for people like Wolfson Microelectronics and Gillette,” says Oban-born Menzies at 8 Million Stories’ rather swanky offices on Queen Street. “But then it became apparent there was a gap in the market for search and we landed a couple of big contracts early on, including with MTV, and that was the start of it.”

Vertigo went on to become Bigmouthmedia (BMM), which in 2006 joined forces with German web marketing outfit Global Media in a deal engineered by private equity group Carlyle. Menzies explains that the tie-up, which saw BMM inherit 12 offices across ten countries, “was amazing but created a massive headache – you can imagine us rocking up in Germany, not being able to speak the language, wanting to talk about developing the business”.

Three years later BMM merged with Dutch group Lost Boys International (LBI), before being acquired by French advertising giant Publicis for €416m in 2012.

After combining maternity leave with a sabbatical on sun-kissed Majorca, Menzies is back in Edinburgh and again working with Leach – who chairs 8 Million Stories – and chief marketing officer Luscombe.

She says: “I’d originally planned to commute from Majorca but it’s not ideal with a small child and in August there’s no internet connection on the island because the population explodes. We still spend a lot of time out there.”

As well as Universal Music, client wins include high-end resorts operator Aman, which recently took up the top six floors of the Otemachi skyscraper in Tokyo and hosted David Beckham’s 40th birthday celebrations in Morocco.

“We’re starting off doing all their English language search and content work and then moving into Japanese, Chinese and Russian. We cover off some languages in-house and have a really strong network of consultants.”

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It’s a long way from an earlier career path that saw Menzies studying chemistry at Edinburgh Napier University, but she admits: “I wouldn’t have made a great chemist because I probably had the messiest lab coat out of everyone in my year, and that’s the sign of a very disorganised chemist.

“My dad was involved in oil and I wanted to get into the biochemistry side of things, and I did my dissertation on remediation options for North Sea oil rig drilling discharge. I loved it but I couldn’t see myself doing it as a career.”

With a laugh, Menzies adds: “I still know a lot about periodic tables, so it will come in handy one day when my son does chemistry at school.”

After graduating, she worked for Shell for about a year before heading off to go backpacking in Australia. Returning to Scotland after 18 months – having planned to be away for four – she joined Shell again before deciding to move to Edinburgh.

At that time, internet search was still in its infancy, with Google yet to become a household name, but Menzies was able to secure a job with Vertigo by telling Leach that the now-ubiquitous search engine was her favourite.

When the deal with LBI came along, BMM was the largest search marketing company in Europe, and clients were beginning to look beyond simply getting found on the internet and focusing on what they could offer customers.

“People were starting to think about cross-digital strategies and we could see that tech and content were going to be so important, and we really needed a strong creative arm in the business to do that,” Menzies says. “That was one of the major drivers behind the LBI deal, as they were the best fit for us.”

But by the time of the Publicis take-over, Menzies says she was spending too much on planes and wanted to get her feet back on the ground and become “nimble” again.

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She explains: “You lose sight of all that when you’re caught up in operational decisions, but being back at the coalface and working with clients helps me think about what direction to take the business in. It’s a refreshing change for me and work has become much more exciting – it’s back to what it was like at Bigmouthmedia.”

While keen to avoid a return to her globetrotting days, Menzies acknowledges that 8 Million Stories will eventually have to start looking at increasing its geographic footprint, with mainland Europe or the Far East among the likely first ports of call.

In the meantime, the focus is on the UK, but she says the proportion of staff in Edinburgh will probably remain at about 70 per cent, with the remainder in London.

She adds: “We’ll probably add another ten people to the headcount this year. There’s a growing community here and although certain creative roles are difficult to find in Edinburgh we don’t struggle from a tech and account management perspective. We get a lot of speculative CVs through the door.”

“We have great universities on our doorstep, and we’re great believers in nurturing home-grown talent.”