Tom Jordan: “From a digital creative point of view from London, Mauritius isn’t on anyone’s radar” 

 Shoreditch, Mauritius and the global digital economy  

Sean Carey For more than a decade, Shoreditch in east London has become a magnet for businesses focused on new media. There are a thousand or so small and medium-sized companies now operating in the area bordered by Liverpool Street, Old Street and Aldgate. Significantly, Shoreditch has recently attracted investment from global players like Google and Pearson, and is being tipped as the “next Silicon Glen”. 

The success of new media companies in this part of the UK capital has spawned a significant leisure infrastructure composed of retail shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, nightclubs, recording studios and art galleries. This interplay between business and leisure undoubtedly provides the area with its creative buzz, which is certain to be a key driver in further development.  

Tom Jordan, 32, is one of the new breed of entrepreneurs who have established businesses in the Greater Shoreditch area. He studied business and accountancy at Exeter University and after graduation joined an internet incubator in the dot-com boom before going on to work for Aol. He founded Acknowledgement, a digital creative agency, in 2003. The company moved to its current premises in Fashion Street, a road adjoining Brick Lane, in 2007.  

Acknowledgement has an impressive client list, which includes Avis, Budget, MTV, Virgin Media and the London Jazz Festival. Here Tom Jordan talks to Sean Carey about how the digital economy works, the significance of location for digital creative media agencies, and how Mauritius could position itself to capture a share of the global digital market. 

Can you explain what the operational focus of Acknowledgement is?

We’re a digital creative agency, which means that people come to us for original creative thinking relevant to digital technologies. This might be in relation to the design of their website, or it might be that they want us to help them sell more product or service in the online space.

How do you assess the shift in selling goods and services from the conventional to the digital economy?

Everything is moving to online – everything is converging. People nowadays walk around with a device like the iPhone in their pockets and with a couple of clicks they have instant access to the digital world. This means that their relationship with brands – goods, services and places — is increasingly moving to digital platforms. And the result is that today ever larger numbers of people in the UK and elsewhere are happy to buy things online from exclusively online companies like Amazon, as well as traditional supermarket groups like Sainsbury’s and Tesco, which have established a significant online presence. Also, in their social lives people are now very happy to make contact with their friends and family online. The days of sending postcards have almost disappeared.

Why did you choose Shoreditch as a location for your business?

We’re a young and ambitious digital agency and we started off life in rented premises in Holborn. We weren’t particularly happy in that location because, as anyone who knows London will appreciate, it’s full of law firms, and as a digital creative agency we had very little in common with these other businesses. For example, we dress differently and we work different hours — really our whole approach to work is quite different. So culturally we felt that we were like fish out of water.

So we moved to our current premises in Fashion Street for two reasons. Firstly, because a number of digital media agencies had already established a presence in the area, and secondly, because the accommodation in this building, and others like it round here, is geared to the needs of smaller companies. They’re not massive spaces and the landlords tend to be quite flexible in terms of leasing arrangements. The result is that in Shoreditch, unlike, say, London’s West End which is traditionally home to many of the big advertising agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi, you will find both the low-end stuff – a one man-band in a serviced office — but also the high-end as well – for example, the hugely successful advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy, which is a few hundred yards from our office. It also helps our business that because there are so many restaurants, bars and clubs around here it’s very easy to find somewhere to entertain clients.

And this has been accomplished without specific local or central government help or funding.

That’s right. In other parts of the UK, like Leeds and Bristol, which both have smaller creative digital scenes, local government and trade bodies have spent quite a lot of time and money in attracting agencies to their areas. Many of these are located in innovation parks near the universities. My experience of these sorts of places is that they tend to be very efficient, but that they are also quite soulless. I think the reason for this, certainly in the UK, is that many universities are located on the edge rather than being located in the heart of cities. In fact, I know quite a lot of people who have started businesses in these sorts of spaces, but once they’re successful they have relocated to somewhere more congenial. But the interesting thing about the growth in businesses in this area is that no one’s ever said: “Come to Shoreditch”. There’s been absolutely no advertising or trade shows – it’s all happened by word of mouth.

I guess that once there is a significant degree of clustering, combined with the fact that the digital economy seems to be recession proof, further growth is almost guaranteed.

Exactly. I think that there is another point to be made as well. It’s like digital creative media is in its teenage phase, and as every parent will know is the last thing teenagers want is people telling them what to do. In fact, there are other parts of London with better connectivity or better value office space, but there is no other part of London which is as cool to work or hang out.

I assume that digital creative agencies operating in places like Leeds and Bristol are primarily serving the needs of the local economy. Is that correct?

Broadly speaking, that’s right. Some will of course have clients from further afield and some will also have client teams in London and base their production staff in places like Leeds and Bristol, but there is a significant demand from local economies too. And it’s worth bearing in mind that these universities in these cities are producing significant numbers of graduate students, and not all of them want to move to London. So if there are jobs available then people will stay in those areas.

But in Shoreditch the focus of digital creative media agencies is not really about the local economy but the UK, Europe and other parts of the globe.

Yes. Frankly, I think it would be difficult for us to do the job we do if we were in another part of the UK. The companies that we deal with – our clients — want a London based agency for the most part as that is where their other agencies are based and often where they themselves are based. I think that there is also a perception – call it snobbery if you will – that a London agency will do a better job than a provincial one. You’ll even find that some companies where most of the workforce is located outside London will maintain a London office address, even if there’s only one person there, to maintain the idea that they are a London-based business.

It’s interesting that digital technologies were meant to abolish the constraints imposed by space, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at least in your segment of the market. Face-to-face meetings still seem to be an important part of the way digital creative media is produced. Why is this?

I think it very much depends on the sector. There are some firms operating in the digital sector which can get away with video conferencing and other ways of communicating, but in our business face-to-face meetings are still very important. Of course, it’s not necessary all the time, but if, for example, there needs to be a discussion or exploration of a creative idea, then it’s really important to pull everyone together – ourselves and our clients — and get them in the same room. We know from experience that we won’t get the same input without that happening.

Observation suggests that the majority of people working in the digital media sector are male. What’s the reason for this pattern, and is it in any way problematic?

That’s true. And it is especially the case at the operational level of digital media – the people who are the programmers and designers are more likely to be male, although women are more represented in the client servicing part of the industry In fact, we go out of our way to hire women because it’s good to have a diverse workforce and different people have different things to contribute to the business. But women are very hard to find in the current labour market. However, I am sure that this will change over time, not least because more girls are getting involved in digital education at school. It’s also the case that both boys and girls are using things like iPhones. This should mean that because digital technology and its applications are becoming increasingly mainstream and familiar to a younger generation this will almost certainly change the gender pattern in the workforce in years to come. I think that this can only be a good thing.

How exactly does what your agency and others like it in Shoreditch connect to the global digital scene?

The bit of digital world we work in really is global. Something we turn out might end up being viewed in New York, Prague, Sydney, Tokyo or Bangkok. And we will also be looking at output from agencies in those places too. Good digital creative work spreads in seconds thanks to digital technologies like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter which are global phenomena. The internet has totally changed the way communications happen nowadays.

A great deal has been heard recently about the success of India in attracting ICT services. How do you see it from a UK, and especially from a Shoreditch perspective?

This is very interesting. We’ve had numerous examples of clients who have tried to send work to India—building websites, for example – in order to save money but who’ve not been happy with what’s been delivered. What they’ve found is that while the websites function – someone can register and buy stuff and all the rest of it – they won’t be enjoyable sites to use because they’re not very intuitive or don’t quite match the original designs. The end result is that they don’t provide a good consumer experience, and that can seriously impact on the company’s bottom line.

What’s missing, then?

Well, the important thing to realise about a website is that the way it is designed and the way it behaves, including the language used, determines whether someone trusts it or not. This means that at the creative end of digital, moving work offshore to people who don’t understand the nuances and subtleties of branding in a particular social context or culture rarely works. If on the other hand, say a bank has a lot of repetitive tasks like handling data of one sort or another then it’s fine to send that kind of work to India and similar destinations.

Nevertheless, the economies of India and China and others like them are growing extremely rapidly – China has just overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, for example –so it seems reasonable to assume that as domestic consumption grows in these countries there will be an increasing demand for the sort of services that your agency currently provide for the advanced economies of the UK, Europe, North America and the Far East.

That’s true. And it’s undoubtedly the case that an Indian or Chinese agency would be in the best position to service their clients because of their local knowledge.

Cultural differences within the different segments of the global economy are still important then?

Yes. And it’s also worth pointing out that the technologies are always changing within different global markets. For example, the services we provide this year are quite different to those we were providing a few years ago or even last year. Five years ago companies were coming to us asking for a website or they wanted us to improve their existing website. It’s certainly the case that there is still demand for this sort of operation, but the vast majority of our clients have taken that kind of work in-house. So now they come to us for something a bit more creative and cutting-edge like mobile applications or augmented reality, which is about combining the real world and the virtual world. This is something that seemed like science fiction a few years ago but is now becoming mainstream.

Let’s now turn to some of the smaller international players. As you know, Mauritius is trying to gain a foothold in global ICT services so how successful has it been in positioning itself?

From a digital creative point of view from London, Mauritius isn’t on anyone’s radar. It’s just not there.

Could Mauritius get on to the radar?

In digital anything is possible, so I would never say never, but I don’t think the creative end of the global digital spectrum is the easiest part to compete in, but I think that there are opportunities elsewhere. In general terms, there are lots of different specialisms within digital technology so I would suggest that a country like Mauritius might need to take a punt and try and specialise and target a sub industry rather than being a generalist and trying to do everything.

What sort of digital work could Mauritius capture?

Anything that involves a templated process really – customer service is a good example. Any business where there are a lot of e-mail enquiries or queries is suitable. Analytics is another area. Also testing websites and mobile apps. And I should mention that there is an obvious opportunity concerning the way skills migrate from companies like mine to an in-house service, which we talked about earlier. It’s entirely possible that Mauritius, if it had the necessary expertise, could position itself in the middle of that pathway so that it could do various tasks before they are taken in-house by companies.

Can Mauritius’s tourist brand help here?

Yes. But I think it’s worth pointing out that Mauritius is perceived as more of a “classic” holiday destination rather than somewhere that’s cutting edge or avant-garde like, say, Berlin. Still a classic brand can be a positive if it’s played in the right way – for example, that a country has a reputation for being credible, reliable and trustworthy.

How about the concept that Mauritius is the gateway between Africa and Asia?

There’s no doubt that this could be a great selling point. A lot of people in Europe and the US know that Asia is developing economically extremely rapidly, and they are now beginning to appreciate that Africa is also on the move. However, many of them won’t know much about this apart from the news headlines, and certainly not from a cultural point of view. So if Mauritius has genuine expertise in this area, it would be foolish not to use it. Mauritius positioning itself credibly as a partner that understands both American and European culture and African and Asian culture, and can help the former reach the latter would be very powerful.

So from your vantage point in Shoreditch can you sum up how you think Mauritius should position itself in relation to the global digital economy?

At the moment, Mauritius seems to be positioning itself as a generalist. But in the digital world you’re not going to succeed if you try and do everything — it’s just not a tenable proposition and people won’t believe it. I think Mauritius would be better to target certain sectors within digital – to realise that even in places like London and New York it’s all about being niche, being a specialist in other words. Then it needs to show that it’s a place which is credible and has a good track record. When that happens people will start to listen and respect Mauritius.


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* Published in print edition on 15 October 2010

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