James Roberts - Lloyd-Davies Associate - Marketing

It started under the stairs and now supports a very solid business that has been established 20 years, but that hides an ability to ride the technology waves that constantly hit the vital area of marketing. James Roberts understands his space and has a laser focus on the customers experience of his organisation.

Interview with Don Phillips - September 2023

“James, you have been an entrepreneur in my eyes for the last 20 years because you've founded and run your own business for an extended period of time. Why did you start running your own business and what skills did you have to get before you had a go?”

So I was quite lucky, which not everybody is, in that I could slowly break away from an organization that I was already working with, and they were comfortable in doing that. 

I'm gonna go back a little bit, university is great, but it doesn't prepare you for the real world. When you talk about design or marketing or anything along those lines. University is great to kind of get these life skills and to kind of get an idea of how business works, as soon as you're thrown into the real world, it doesn't work like that at all. You don't have six months to do a design spread and you can go and meet your friends every night and go and have a few drinks and enjoy yourself.

I think everybody needs to do that. But when I came out of university, I realised quickly that you can't go straight into building your own company. You need this real life.

“You say that but university education gives you the skill sets you might need. Is that fair?

Not really, no, no, no,!

This is a big statement and I could quite happily ask anybody who works for us exactly the same question, then they will say exactly the same answer. could do everything that I did apart from the lectures, because you've gotta sit through those. I could do everything that I produced at University in a week now. But I would n’t have missed the social life for anything.


The skills that you are being taught some are valid. Some of the concepts don't really change. Design doesn't really change. It just evolves. But what we were being taught was three years behind in terms of computer equipment, in terms of software, in terms of everything else a minimum of three years behind. 

So we were about four years behind what, when we first suddenly launched into  creative agencies and started to get our jobs. They were so far in front already and the speed that they work at was so far ahead that we had to learn pretty quickly. I would say we learned more in the six months within an organization than we did within those three years at university.

Look, I firmly believe that going to university, everybody should go. I think I learned more about myself and where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, so it's good. But in terms of commercial experience and being able to apply myself in the business world, it had to be done as a real world example.

“So when you were leaving university, was it always, ‘I want to run my own agency - Method’, I'm asking you if there was a plan?”

No, it was very much I wanted to go and work at an organisations. I wanted to go and be part of this group and have all these wonderful experiences with a group of people and essentially a nine or five Because it was the natural progression of what we were being led into. 

I didn't really know any other way, and I thought that was probably the only way you could go was by just straight out of university into a job. You worked at an agency and then you worked up through the ranks at an agency until you got to say director or something along those lines. and that was, as I said, all I knew. So when I started to work at an agency, That's when questions started to come about, I was thinking, well, hang on a minute. I could do a lot of this myself. I also had some friends who were slightly outside, say, marketing or design. They were illustrators, one of them did exploded diagrams of lawnmowers, which was amazing to see because he started off actually doing it by ink, then that slowly they moved into cad, they had no real design background. 

I helped them out and suddenly realised that I could do this! 

Then I was even doing some Photoshop training and it was only through doing these little bits for friends and family I thought ‘hang on’, I could do this myself and maybe have a bit more. It wasn't really thinking about flexibility. It probably would've all been money led at that age, we could earn more money through educating people at that stage. Then fast forward, as I said, I worked for an agency and luckily I was able to break down my days and so I could build up Method while I was still working at this other agency. I didn't have those worries of going from scratch and trying to build it up quickly.

I could actually build up the clients and then as I was able to, I could drop down a day with where I was working, which was brilliant.

“How, do you mind me asking, did you pull that off? Because wouldn't that be detrimental to the business you were in?”

They were quite comfortable because they were dealing with some very, very big blue chip clients. They knew I wasn't just going to go and just start working with them, it was just impossible.

So I wasn't really stealing from their parts. I was creating my own part and they were very, very comfortable with that, at the same time changing their business model anyway. They were going into the content world rather than what we were doing, which was design and web design and the creation of assets. 

As I said I fell on my feet, I don't think it would've happened any other way because you've still got to pay the bills.

I had a design background and web design experience as well. So all of a sudden now I had found people coming to me for a lot of different things, I was starting to pick up different things because I was not really knowing where I fit. We were doing a lot of different things. I mean, it was only fairly recently that we actually started to say we do marketing. Even though I think we've done it, we just did it as a helpful kind of service because that's just what we did.

Now we isolate it a bit more. The whole messaging is a lot slicker with our clients.

“How fast did you think you built into having, what I'll describe as a real business?Was it James on his own to start with, or James halftime and you slowly added, or did you have, as the world likes to say, your vision, your mission, and tactics to go with it? What kind of planning did you put into it?”

In the back of your head, you always have these ideals, don't you? Of I'd love to have an agency where we have our own business and we have our own big building, and we have the logos, and we have all of the graphics as you walk in and it's all beautiful and it's all London and it's all blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Truth, I was working under my stairs to start off with. Working from there. I slowly progressed into a third bedroom when we moved house, which was great, but it was all slowly over time, growing and growing and growing. It was a lot of word of mouth that was coming along.

I didn't really have that expertise in growing my business. It was more just people coming to me. I was doing the same old thing through LinkedIn back then and connecting with people in a very, very organic way. We were getting jobs that I didn't have the expertise to do.. So I would either learn it or I would call upon somebody who I needed to befriend, who could help me with that part of the project.

But we were always helpful. I say we, and this was the thing. It was, I always felt, that we had to be a ‘we’. I always felt that I couldn't be an I. I had to be a ‘we’. And then over time I learned, now, hang on a minute, people are coming to me here. So I've almost flipped it so I can help these people and even if I don't know the answer, I'll either find it out or I've got somebody who will.

That's how it started to evolve. Over time we slowly built it up where we were getting a lot of people coming in. My wife Laura, she was made redundant from her work. And she had the choice of moving down to Marlow or working in the business, she was doing a bit anyway!

It was almost these little baby steps. Then we took on a few more members of staff and it was this nice progression. We, but we've always come back to, we help. People will always ring us up and we'll always try and work it out and be that helpful resource. Everybody who works for us has got that same mentality. But I think what we've got now is something which is now an organization which has still got those values of really looking after customers and individuals who end up being super flexible. So, for example, we've got Paul who works for us, and, if he wanted to go and collect the kids at three o'clock, he could do and he could wander off. He knows that obviously deadlines are deadlines and certain times things have got to be done. If you're having a bad day, you can have a bad day off.

So we've tried to create this business that's very much harvesting and looking after the individuals within it. Because being in a creative world, if you are having a bad day, there's no point in just staring at a computer because it's just not going to come. We have to be thinking on our toes and working things out and everything we do is a solution. We're trying to find the best solutions. If you're having a bad day, they won't come. You might as well walk around the block and forget about it for a while, then come back a bit fresher. 

I learned this with one of the organisations I used to work with that had a high turnover in staff and they didn’t realise why clients were getting annoyed. It was because they had middle management who were dealing with clients. it was really the people who were doing the work, who the clients were wanting to talk to. So even though they were a bigger organization and they had account managers, a lot of the time organisations go straight past the account managers for quick change.  Going through account managers can just take too long. They just email directly the person who's doing the work. They want the person who does the work, knows our brand, knows what we're trying to get, who's done all of this work. I think I learned these lessons. So now when we take people on, it's very much we try to operate as a family, you can deal with these people directly and they're not going to change.

We try to look after those people and help the client.

“It's an interesting dynamic. Are all your people employees or freelance?”

Both. You'd like to have everybody as an employee. Certain jobs just don't require it, for example, an illustrator, it's becoming less and less of a need. Certainly with AI, stock photography for example. Sometimes it's a quicker and an easier route for clients to go down, and it’s cheaper. So having and employing an illustrator, all of a sudden he's going to be twiddling his thumbs for a while. I mean, we did a lot of video and photography stuff. It's still a big part of our business, but it's moved so quickly now away from that. You have to change how you work.We have some brilliant freelancers, but couldn't ever necessarily employ some of them because of the nature of what they do. I think we are lucky, everybody who works for us is fantastic and that's what's come over time. I try to employ people who can do the job better than I can, so I then appreciate them because they can do it better than I can, which then means I look after them better. 

As a consequence we don't have this turnover and stuff. 

“So you're morphing your organization, your skill sets to constantly find your place in the market. Is that a conscious process?”

Yes. I think as a person, I don't think I'm that safe. I think I'm quite adventurous. I like to change. We adapt, we take on new challenges all the time. But in terms of the business, in terms of growth, we've grown steadily every year. 

But in terms of what we do, I like to know what the next thing is. I like to just try as much as I can to have that finger on the pulse. Because we're always trying to find the best solution. We're always trying to push ourselves. Can we do this better? We were amending a website that's only about three or four years old today. and everything we do now is completely different to how we build it. I think through trying to optimize ourselves and optimize our clients, we naturally are always trying to find those best solutions.

“Do you regard yourself as particularly skilled in any one technology? I mean, you and I, coagulated, if that's the right word, around HubSpot. Do you regard yourself as a HubSpot guru, or do you regard yourself as a marketing tech guru?”

Hubspot,  it fits into a lot of our clients the problems they need to solve when they come to us and say, we're struggling with this, this, and this. Nine times out of ten HubSpot will be the right fit. So I think it's a tool that for us is the best place for them. We are a HubSpot partner. 

That said, if it's not a good fit, we're not going to push it. It only has certain places where it fits. We probably do 50-50 in terms of HubSpot websites and WordPress websites, which are maybe old hat, but they're still evolving all the time. But Wordpress is where 90% of the web is. So we're not wedded to it, but I think. We have become experts in it because we've had to help a lot of clients take it on board and, and then they'll send you a question, how do I do this? And we'll just record a screen, say, will you do it like this? It's such a big system.

We don't know everything. There's a lot to it that we don't know and we'll hold our hands up, but the chances are we can certainly work together. So yes, I think we are HubSpot gurus, we're also trying to push for that. Is it the best solution? Is it the best fit?  We know it! If it's not, then what is, where can we go to, what can we use, what can we utilize? Do we have to maybe build something which is more bespoke? Then how do we do that? 

I think that should always be the question. 

“Relationship with your customers? Are you consciously aiming at being consultative and trusted? Is that a conscious term you put around it?

We don't have a high turnover. I think it's because of that, because we are always trustworthy. I think a nice little story was where somebody rang up and they were putting some money into Google Ads. He rang me up and he said, I'm willing to take the money out of Google ads and put it into a marketing spend.

This is what we're doing. And he explained the market, he explained where they were, and we had an hour conversation and I said, don't pay us, just keep on doing what you're doing. There's no point because you've got such a limited budget. You're spending that budget the best you could be doing at the moment, and you're getting great leads. He gave us a brilliant review on Google. You know, we've got a few other reviews in other places from him.

At the right stage to take somebody on or to work with a supplier, I would hope that we're at the top of that list. Because we've helped him, we've educated him and that's really how we do try and structure the vision. It's all about education, but helping people with what they want to do first

“Changing subject, you must have come across many, many entrepreneurs starting up. Have you got views of what makes a good entrepreneur, what makes a bad entrepreneur?”

We have a lot because when somebody has an idea, we are generally the first people they call, they want a brand, a logo, or want some design for the product. So, We meet a lot of entrepreneurs or startup businesses, and there is a definite link between the ones that fail and the ones that don't.

If it's a bad idea, it's a bad idea, with the best will in the world, you could have the best person behind it. If it's a bad idea, it will fail. Whereas some people have a good idea but just say, look, we've, I've kind of got this, we don’t know what to do. They can be right at that early level. working at a company, they've got a really good income, but I think this might be something, what do you think? It's great, I love those conversations where you can talk it through with them and you can really get excited about something and you can see the excitement with them.

Then you think, right, to get this off the ground, this is where it all becomes real and it starts to crash down. You're going to have to have this much budget to get, how are we gonna get you there? What steps do we need to take to get this to launch? And having a great idea is brilliant. But it's being able to take that through and having the confidence in your idea, think, to take it through.

Some people will try and do it part-time, which I get, you know, I've been there. 

There has been a big shift between products and services, it's generally now product related rather than service related. People will come to us, say, I've got this product, I've got this idea for a product or for a thing, I am going to try and do it at night and on weekends. I'm married, got four kids. and you think, well, when are you going to be able to do it? And I think those people have a real realisation and generally don't get off the ground. 

This is just personal experience over the people who will then go, you know what? I'm throwing everything into this. I'm going to leave my job, I'm gonna go and get some funding, I'm going to hit it hard. They have that vision of I'm just gonna go and get it done and this is what's going to happen. They tend to be the ones who get it done. That idea will take off. ones who kind of try and do it, the softly, softly approach might happen but it will take a long time to happen. It's probably a safer option, but generally it will dwindle away and then you'll speak to them in a few months time and they'll be saying, no, I've just gone back to the nine till five. 

I think it's that. I think all it is is just a commitment to your idea. 

I think where we were lucky is we had this, ‘we wanna help people’. And that's what everything in our business is now. If you ask anybody who works for us, what do we do? We help people through creative ideas or through creative solutions. 

I think if you have that drive of I'm building this product, or I'm gonna make this thing, or I'm gonna do this because I want to help these people or I’m going to make this person's life better, I think that becomes a big drive and gives you the momentum to build a successful company.

“James on your journey where have you looked for support? Support in the sense of coaching or advice?”

I think because of the way we've grown, I've had a few close friends over the years who have been great sounding boards. Now friends always say take friends with a pinch of salt. you've got a friend who always says yes, that's a good idea. Even if it was a bad idea, we'll put money in because they want to support you. They want to help. They'll generally back you and go, yeah, I think it's a good idea. 

So I've been quite lucky and I've had a few friends who aren't like that. They're very much, no that's wrong. A friend that I've got in my head was perfect timing to come into my life. I probably was at this point of we how do we grow now? Where do we go now? I think he came in and just got me thinking slightly differently. and it was only just through conversations we had together, very open questions and we worked quite well together.

Unfortunately, now I've got to a stage where I certainly couldn't be employed.So that's the flip side of being an entrepreneur. I don't think after so long you can actually ever go and get a nine to five job.

I always come back to why we're doing it and if I can still stay true to that. 

“So what, so what does further look like in your business then?”

We're getting bigger, but we're not getting big.  We want to grow but we never wanna lose sight of having this small group of people who are all invested in each one, each of our clients. We don't want to be this engine where all of a sudden I'm sitting on this high pedestal. We want to have this smaller agency where if somebody phones up and if I'm on the phone, whoever does answer the phone can have a conversation with them. 

We're taking on new people, not all the time, but occasionally we're taking on new people and we're growing as we can. 

“That's good. So you and I have worked as we've been developing the Lloyd-Davis Associates brand and capability. What's your view of the potential of the LDA brand and the platform that we're underpinning it with?”

If we roll this all back to where I started, I came out of university I was with an agency life experience but no commercial experience. But from that point, I think, right, I want to build up my own business.

 I was sitting under the stairs with a computer, with slow internet, hoping the emails are going to land in and making another cup of tea, maybe doing a little bit of design also setting up a business.

I'd gamble that 99% of people can relate to this when they start the business. I'll go onto LinkedIn. Knowing where to go and those first steps is tough, right? Because you've, you're just starting off. You don’t know who to trust. You haven't got a budget. You haven't got a huge amount of overspend because you've got to pay the bills that come. So you've gotta find now how you can grow your business? Where should you be going? What should you be doing? You've gotta trust in it. But who can you turn to?

I think that me is where the whole L A platform just wins. You go on and have a communication with people who you can trust. Where you're just banging your head against a wall and they can see it, things that you just can't see. They've just got this life experience, they've got this work experience. They've probably been through it. They'll just give you a, have you looked at this?  I think that if I'd had that then I would've been able to grow, it would've just happened a lot quicker. I think that's where its advantages are.

“Last question. Who pushes you now?”

It's probably the kids. It's come full circle. As soon as I broke away, I had to pay the bills. Then I wanted to  enjoy life and I've gotta pay the bills. So finding something that you loved doing that is going to pay the bills.

Now it's the kids, it's switched. I'm at that age now where I've got the kids and I want to spend time with them. Again, this is probably where our business has taken that slightly more nurturing way around the staff. The drive for me now is having something that the kids are proud of in a way. And I know that it sounds a little bit weird, but I'm proud of it. 

“So it's leaving a legacy of an exciting lifestyle that pays the bills?”



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