Chris Ailey founded search agency iThinkMedia from his converted garage in 2008 and has grown the company to 23 staff.
CA: After leaving school I worked for Today newspaper at News International formatting sketched layout pages into a computer program before they went to print. When the newspaper closed I found myself stuck in a dead-end job, working nights in an aircraft hangar – something had to change!
What I did at the newspaper was very similar to building tables in HTML. The Internet was brand new at that stage and I saw an opportunity. Armed with a paperback book on HTML and a Clamshell Apple Mac laptop with Photoshop installed, I sat up late for many nights learning how to code and become a web designer. I was determined not to spend my life doing a job I hated!
It was true grit and determination that got me through this stage and eventually I became good enough to leave my job. I went to work alongside my friend Adam Clarke in 1998 who owned a graphic design agency, to offer a website design offering to his clients. I took a 50% pay cut and took my first gamble. It was also my first taste of building a business and offering a service. I owe a lot to Adam for what he taught me about design.
It’s hard to believe now but back then business owners were unsure if “this internet thing” would ever take off. So in order to justify the cost of us building a website we also had to find a way of getting traffic to their shiny new websites. This is where I started learning about SEO and used the old PPC platforms Overture and Espotting (there was no Google Adwords in those days) to drive instant traffic from search engines.
In 2006 I became a web designer for PC World. To my astonishment SEO was a word nobody had ever heard of and the website wasn’t optimised. After achieving a number of position 1 rankings for competitive head terms like “apple ipods, laptops, computers, desktop PCs and photo printers” I was promoted to Search Marketing Manager. I learnt so much here especially how big brands operate and how to market on a large scale in a highly competitive retail sector. I worked closely with Google and I learnt about the corporate world – most importantly what I would expect from an agency sitting on the other side of the desk as a client.
CA: Probably the biggest reason for my decision to be my own boss was that my son was born prematurely at 24 weeks and was in intensive care for four months. It was very touch and go as to whether he’d pull through and I was lucky to have an amazing boss in Leighanne Maxwell at PC World who helped me take a lot of time off and work remotely when I could. It was clear that my son would need a lot of extra care. In hindsight, if I hadn’t started on my own it would be impossible for me to have a normal job now as he was later diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and autism, is confined to a wheelchair and I’m now his primary carer.
I had built up a good track record – in my final year at PC World I drove £80million revenue, £30 million from SEO and £50 million from PPC, from a £1 million budget (I still have the analytics screenshots somewhere!). When the option of redundancy came along I took it and started iThinkMedia.
The timing was perfect. The Internet was up-and-coming, I was in a great position to be at the forefront of search and I had a great network of connections from PC World. If I was going to give it a go, it was now.
This was the most crucial part of my career and luckily for me two of my old colleagues also took the opportunity to leave. I approached them for freelance work and my first two clients were Mothercare and Blacks Leisure. This kick-started the agency and set the tone for the calibre of clients we have continued to work with. I was able to bring in my first employee Daniel Bianchini who previously worked in my Search team at PC World. Dan has since gone on to become a reputable SEO consultant in his own right. We worked tirelessly to establish the agency and our services in those early days – implementing all the work ourselves directly onto our clients’ websites.
Another reason is that I really needed to work for myself and I believed that I could achieve this. I had a vision of what work should be like, I wasn’t a fan of the corporate politics I experienced at PC World and I knew I could make it work. I go a lot by gut instinct and a big believer of “if it feels right and you work hard enough, you can make it happen”.
CA: There have been so many, the first client win, moving into our own office, building a team, recruiting high level, experienced marketers like Syed and Katie in my team. Watching junior members of the team develop is definitely something I enjoy and even when employees move on I’m proud to see what they have gone on to achieve. For example, Phil Stevens an early PPC junior was a photocopier salesman when he joined, he now works for Google in Canada. Dominic Corr who is now our PPC Manager sold me a suit in Next in 2011. We ran a work experience intern with Hatfield university and Ryan Manning joined the team once he graduated. He is now leading the Content Distribution team for MediaCom in Australia.
Being named “Employer of the Year” at the Hertfordshire SME awards was a very, very proud moment. This proved that I’ve achieved my original dream of making iThinkMedia a great place to work. It’s testament to how far we’ve come, this award isn’t just about me, one person does not make a company a great place to work.
Winning eBay as a client was definitely a career high and propelled us to the next level. We had to travel to Berlin to present to the global SEO team. It gave me a sense of achievement and proved that we are good enough to offer search engine marketing at the very highest level.
CA: It has to be the people, how we do things and our culture. My main aim when creating a business was to make it a fun place to work, a business where staff could achieve their ambitions and wouldn’t want to leave. Working at iThinkMedia is very different to other places and I think you get a feel for that as soon as you visit our office.
I’ve always aimed for us to talk in layman’s terms, be as transparent as possible and deliver the highest quality work – all with a smile. Without the right people in place the agency wouldn’t be the same. People buy from people, trust has to be in place, you have to be credible and you have to be someone that you would want to work with.
I also like to think I’ve led from the front. I’ve never been scared to tell a CEO how it is, I’m a big believer in being honest from the off. If an idea is rubbish – say so. If a target is silly – tell them. Why just nod politely and say what people want to hear? That won’t improve their marketing.
CA: The next 12 months plan is to really focus on our own marketing and maintain momentum. We have a new website going live, we’ve finally started to market ourselves and find a voice which is really important. We’ve built a fantastic team and are able to offer a range of services that all complement Search Engine Marketing which remains the core of our business.
CA: Good question. SEO has evolved to include so much more than on-page optimisation and gaining links. The biggest shifts have been Rankbrain, Penguin and Panda but it’s ultimately how Google has got rid of poor practice and the ability to cheat your way to the top. User experience is the leading factor of SEO in so many ways now which promotes ethical techniques and punishes black hat. That’s the way it should be.
CA: There are lots of things I would definitely do differently if I knew what I know now at 20 but the journey is what makes us who we are. My main advice would be follow your gut instinct, learn how to say no, don’t be scared to fail and don’t get distracted.
CA: Down time?! My young family keeps me very busy. I enjoy a nice meal out, I love spoiling the kids, I would love to play golf more but I still train at ju jitsu twice a week. I’ve been doing this for 6 years and am currently a brown belt.
CA: When I was younger I wanted to be a tennis player, nothing else really interested me. At the age of 16 I gave up that dream and really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I’m sure this is the case for many young people. What would I be doing? I enjoyed web design so I guess (as long as my life took the same path) I would be doing that but otherwise I would probably have gone into tennis coaching.