Monday interview: John McLeish, Equator founder

Across the Atlantic and round the Equator, all in a day’s work for McLeish
Equator founder John McLeish sailed across the Atlantic last year. Picture: John DevlinEquator founder John McLeish sailed across the Atlantic last year. Picture: John Devlin
Equator founder John McLeish sailed across the Atlantic last year. Picture: John Devlin

IF THE company name hints at global aspirations, then Equator’s boss has the credentials to back these up. The Glasgow-based digital design and marketing agency has always taken a wider view of the world and almost 16 years on from its formation is gearing up for the next phase in its evolution.

When we catch up for our chat, founder and managing director John McLeish is busy with some last-minute packing prior to a couple of weeks of sun, sea and relaxation in Portugal. But it was a journey of a rather more challenging nature last year that provided some breathing space in which to ponder the future direction of the business.

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A keen mariner, McLeish opted to embark on one of the sailing world’s most rigorous trials – a 3,000-mile crossing of the Atlantic – competing against more than 250 other boats.

John McLeish admits to enjoying himself on the ski slopes. Picture: ContributedJohn McLeish admits to enjoying himself on the ski slopes. Picture: Contributed
John McLeish admits to enjoying himself on the ski slopes. Picture: Contributed

In understated tones, he describes it as “a race with lots of challenges”, though, just shy of four weeks after setting out, he successfully made it across the Pond.

“There are people I have spoken to who have done similar challenges and would never do it again but I would do it in a heartbeat,” McLeish enthuses. “It was very soul searching but when I came back to the business I had a fresh spring in my step and off we went onto another phase of Equator’s development.”

The firm was officially founded in November 1999 by McLeish, who was joined in his endeavour by creative director James Jefferson – the pair having worked together at ZigZag Communications.

The goal was to create a digital specialist in a world that was still caught up in the dot-com frenzy – just a year or so before the tech bubble burst.

Aided by some high-profile client wins including Jim McColl’s Clyde Blowers, hotel chain Malmaison and sports kit-maker Umbro, Equator got off to a flying start.

“I was in employment in a fairly senior level in a marketing organisation and felt that my own desires and ambitions were not being fulfilled,” recounts McLeish, who admits to working round the clock in those early days.

“At the time there was a significant opportunity for a firm to focus on the digital sector. We were fortunate to gain introductions with some blue-chip clients – one being Clyde Blowers which was a game changer for us. We got the chance, took it and proved to Jim McColl that we could deliver.

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“I also decided to invest in the right expertise from day one – the best and most appropriate lawyers, accountants and bankers for the business. I didn’t want it to be a small, lifestyle organisation. I wanted it to have the scale it has today so having that early support was crucial.”

More than a decade and a half on and the firm can vie for the title of largest digital agency in Scotland, with an overall headcount of about 130 and projected revenues this year in excess of £10 million.

The business has been self-financed and much of the growth traction has been organic, though McLeish also hints at possible acquisitions, saying the firm is “in a good position to capitalise on any opportunities”.

Last year’s Transatlantic adventure allowed the Equator chief to fine-tune the company’s business model.

“We have always been a results driven agency,” he says. “I believe we have really sophisticated technical talent and award-winning marketing expertise but we have to be results‑focused, whether that’s better revenues, efficiencies or increased awareness.

“We have recently gone through a further evolution of the business and looked closely at our proposition. Return on investment will still be at the heart of what we do, but digital is not a singular thing now, it’s about a joined-up experience for our customers whether that is online or offline.

“The future for Equator is about ideas for a connected world. Even the term digital agency has gone now.”

The business will also be cranking up the focus on key sectors it already has a lot of expertise in – targeting opportunities well beyond these shores as most of its clients are now headquartered outside Scotland.

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“We have a business development operation in the US which has started to build up some traction,” McLeish says. “One of our key strengths is in travel and leisure, and there are opportunities developing in Dubai and elsewhere in the Middle East.

“We feel we have created a strong blueprint in the UK. In the old days it was all about cold calling but now we find ourselves invited to tender for a lot of major brands, based on reputation and profile. We expect to roll out our blueprint in other territories.”

The firm, whose client base includes the likes of Tesco Bank, Rocco Forte and SSE, is also directing resources into grass roots training and development at it looks to attract and retain workers in what is a fiercely competitive marketplace.

“The talent pool is relatively thin on the ground in Scotland,” says McLeish. “We have spent a great deal of time over five or six years, working at a higher education and even school level to help create a framework for people coming into the market.

“It’s a very versatile sector,” he concludes.

“Every day there is something new and challenging.”


Job: Founder and managing director

Born: Helensburgh, 1970

Education: Scotland and USA

First job: Flip – trendy student shop – part-time during studies

Car: Spoilt for choice – Porsche 991 and Range Rover Sport

Music: All kinds of music – indie, rock, blues, dance… I was also classically trained on the piano and occasionally still tickle the ivories

Can’t live without: Time on the water (sailing)

Reading material: Business books and autobiographies

Favourite place: Beaches of Portugal or sunny alpine slopes – Let’s not forget Equator!

What makes you angry? Lack of common sense

Best thing about job: Working with talented, ambitious people