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What I’ve Learnt: Lou Cordwell, CEO of Magnetic North


Lou Cordwell can remember the exact moment she knew that a career in advertising was for her.

Lou_Cordwell Magnetic North CEO Lou Cordwell

She’d always had a simple interest in “pretty things that communicated” but by the early 1990s had opted for the “sensible compromise” of a degree in economics at York. One day, some besuited men from Saatchi and Saatchi showed up to give a milkround careers talk with the title ‘what’s an account man?’.

While her friends grew steadily more repulsed as the presentation progressed, Cordwell sat enthralled. “I just thought ‘this is me, this is what I want to do,” she remembers. Her mind was made up.

The Butler did it

Born in Canada, Cordwell’s Manchester-born parents moved back to the North West – to Salford – when she was just two, and she was schooled at a comprehensive in Swinton.

She was bright enough to be offered a place at Magdalene College, Cambridge, but after missing the grades ended up with all the other “Oxbridge rejects” at York, which after the bright lights of Manchester seemed deafeningly quiet. Eager to get back to the big city, Cordwell set about chasing the dream presented by the men from Saatchis.

Armed with a copy of the Brad directory, she wrote to the top 300 agencies hoping for “anyone who would take me”. Five London-based job offers materialised, but the prospect of leaving her beloved Manchester for good did not sit well with her. “Around the same time my aunty gave me a cutting from the Manchester Evening News about Bryn Butler at BDH. I didn’t know there were ad agencies in Manchester! I wrote to him and he invited me in, and I knew I would feel much more at home there than in London. I’ve never left.”

Given a “proper old-school grounding” in BDH’s retail division, Cordwell quickly picked up the basics of selling advertising and managing client relationships. Working under Neil Griffiths (now at Driven) – “the hardest boss but the best boss” – she also learned about the importance of succession planning: “You need to mark now the people who are going to run the company in 10 years.” Griffiths’ opinion “was the one I wanted” when weighing up whether to set up Magnetic North.

Daring to be drastic

From BDH she joined JWT to be head of business development, but with digital emerging it didn’t take long for the 28-year-old Cordwell to see the flaw in the new discipline. “You realised that some of the people who were doing this didn’t have a clue about the things had been drilled into me about client service, strategy, concept and brand. They were approaching it from a techy, geeky side of things.”

Neil Griffiths Neil Griffiths

Frustrated by the inability of the bigger ad agencies to grasp the new world, Cordwell was ready to do something “drastic”. “What seemed exciting about the potential of digital was that it was going to be a new creative discipline that would break all the rules again, like TV did in the 70s,” she says.

“When I left with my little box of stuff from JWT, you could hear the whispers of ‘she’ll be back’. Somebody actually said to me ‘isn’t it a bit niche?’ For a long time I think ad agencies took the approach that it wasn’t really going to change anything.

“London was seen as the centre of most scenes, but digital felt different. Maybe you could work from a city you wanted to work from and create something world-class. We began by saying we were going to build up a repertoire of work that could stand on the world stage and win awards in any city, rather than just being the best in Manchester. Maybe there was a chance it wouldn’t always be about London in this particular discipline, and I think that’s happened. MediaCity is testament to that now too.”

Cordwell rallied a small start-up team – a planner from JWT together with two others who had production and sales experience respectively – and plans were made around her kitchen table. Soon, Magnetic North was born: “It seemed to be worth a shot and we didn’t have much to lose.”

Their lucky break arrived before Cordwell had even worked her notice period at JWT. Dashing out in their lunch break to pitch for Kellogg’s Frosties website against two “very, very big agencies”, the newly assembled team found that the cereal giant’s new head of digital was up for a gamble. “We had one dial-up laptop and were working from my mum’s dining room – we didn’t even have any creative or digital people – but she just said ‘don’t let me down’.”

Turbulent times

So far, so scarcely believable. But then problems set in, problems that Cordwell cannot discuss in detail due to the resulting compromise agreements. “Some people clearly felt more comfortable back in the big corporate world where other people change the light bulbs and you got a pension.”

After six months, two co-founders left in what Cordwell describes as a “very turbulent” time. “It was horrible, like a divorce,” she says, “I tend to be the gobby frontman who has the conversation that nobody else wants to have so it becomes ‘she’s done that’, but actually I was talking for the board. It’s never nice, not something I would recommend, but it is very unusual for people who start together to all get on and be there together for a long time.”

Magnetic's first office was in Canada House Magnetic’s first office was in Canada House

Within six months, two of the original team had left, replaced by a creative director and a TV production editor. The growth of the business continued unabated however, and within a year there were 10 staff and Kellogg’s had extended its contract to include all UK digital work, and further new briefs were picked up from Coca Cola and Channel 4.

For a very young agency working out of a Portakabin-style office in Canada House, the global brands were coming thick and fast. Cordwell explains: “We deliberately went for brands you had heard of with a mass audience, and we decided to put a lot of store by our own brand equity – we were going to be about highly creative, highly innovative digital thinking and making. And it paid off – we had a personality.”

‘Digital’ was still a new discipline, however, and most marketing directors at the time misunderstood it as a tool best reserved for youth audiences. Magnetic’s portfolio, therefore, somewhat accidentally came to be dominated by youth campaigns. Reluctant to be pigeonholed in such a way, the agency made the conscious decision to redefine itself. “We went out and had conversations with very grown-up brands and almost had to prove ourselves all over again,” Cordwell adds. “Re-engineering ourselves has stood us in good stead ever since.”

Projects for Diesel and Radio 1 Extra followed, the latter beginning a relationship with the BBC that continues to this day, with recent work for Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, BBC Sport, Radio 2 and CBeebies.

Time to scale up

You certainly wouldn’t accuse Magnetic of being pigeonholed now, with a portfolio encompassing everything from WebRTC technology to outdoor touchscreens to plain old websites. So what are they exactly? “We describe ourselves as a digital design company,” says Cordwell. “We’re not an agency in the sense of making ads, but we sit on agency rosters. We’re designers in the sense of going through strategy, concept and making. The thing that probably describes us best is the work.” A big specialism for the agency is smart city technology, working with the likes of Manchester City Council.

Magnetic worked on the BBC Sport app Magnetic worked on the BBC Sport app

Staff at Magnetic’s stylishly retro HQ on Princess Street now number 25, so what’s the big vision? “I’ve worked for networked agencies so I understand what happens when you go bigger, and at the moment it works very well in the sense that there’s an optimum creativity. We’re big enough to take the big projects, like Desert Island Discs, but we’re small enough to change direction if we need to, and that regularly happens here. To try and do that with 500 people is quite difficult.”

She’s had “lots of offers” to sell up and admits that they are hiring and planning to scale up (they’re about to announce a “very senior hire” to help with growth). She’d “never say never” to a merger, but hasn’t met the right partner yet. “To do the things we want to do over the next two years, we’ll definitely need a bit of scaling up. In some cases that might be holding hands with somebody who has that scale, but definitely we’ll need to scale up – without losing our culture. Culture is all we’ve got, it’s where the creativity comes from. Any exit will probably in the end be accidental.”

For Cordwell, success is not all about the numbers. Although many of her contemporaries are delighted to trot out the key figures from the latest balance sheet, Cordwell won’t disclose a bean. We do know that she’s the majority shareholder, with over 72% of the company. We also know that co-founder Brendan Dawes left the company in late 2012, and that shareholders’ funds fell from around £1m in 2009/10 to around £300k in 2012. Cordwell won’t comment on either Dawes’ departure or the drop in shareholders’ funds “for legal reasons”, however.

She will say: “We’ve never judged our success on financial success, we’ve always done well and survived, but we’ve never gone ‘let’s double turnover in a year’ or ‘let’s hire 10 more people’. We want to be judged by the work, not turnover. Are we a profitable business? Yes. Have we got a body of work that we’re proud of? Yes. Mission accomplished.

“We never borrow a penny. I’m an economist, so I love numbers and a healthy balance sheet. The right balance is a really good balance of commerciality and creativity and that’s the line we always have to walk. Too much either way is really bad. My job as chief exec is to always walk that line. What I do believe is that if you focus on doing great things for the right reasons with great people, commercial success follows. Some of our competitors are always looking to double again and double again – that’s brilliant and good for the economy, but really different to why we exist.”

Cordwell commutes daily from Ilkley Cordwell commutes daily from Ilkley

Part of the establishment

And despite two young children and a daily commute from Ilkley (the West Yorkshire spa town is “utterly amazing”, she says), the passion first ignited in a York lecture theatre remains intact.

“It feels like we are just getting going,” she says. “We’re not new kids on the block, we are the digital establishment whether we like it or not. The point when I didn’t enjoy it anymore is when we’ll stop. We’re still just working digital out, the doors that are opening up to us now are so different to three years ago… and what else would I go and do? I’m too young to retire, and anything I create again would just be this.”

As well as the digital establishment, Cordwell is increasingly becoming part of Manchester’s. A board member on Greater Manchester’s Local Enterprise Partnership, she’s also chair of Future Everything and has just joined the board of CityCo.

Leaving her mark, but enjoying yourself along the way, seems to be at the heart of the Cordwell constitution.

“I watched my dad die at 62 two months before he retired, 20 years older than me,” she adds. “He never had a lot of money, but he loved what he did for a living, and his advice was go and find something that you love doing. Yes you need to pay the bills and feed the kids, but when you look back at your legacy, did you provide people with a job they loved coming into work to do? The rest of it is kind of insignificant.”

Other interviews in our What I’ve Learnt series include Bryan Adams/Ph. CreativeNicky Unsworth/BJL, Rob Morrice/Stein IAS, Cat Lewis/Nine Lives Media, Neil McKay/Lakestar McCann and Jim Smith/Clear Communications.

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