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From startup to established agency: McCann Leeds Managing Director Olly Sowden on taking the advertising powerhouse into Yorkshire

Olly Sowden

Olly Sowden was working as a Commercial Director at Jaywing in Sheffield when he got the call that was to change the course of his working life.

He was invited to a meeting with Dean Lovett, CEO of McCann Central in Birmingham, who was looking for somebody to spearhead McCann’s first move into Yorkshire.

Sowden had enjoyed a 15-year career in agencies, working with the likes of Iris Associates and Ripe Design, but a move from the relative safety of a £30 million turnover agency like Jaywing to one that did not even have an office yet was a risk.

The interview went well, and when Lovett asked if Sowden knew of a good creative director who could potentially join him at the new launch, Sowden instantly thought of Gavin Shore, his friend and ECD at Jaywing.

The pair returned for a follow-up meeting in Birmingham. “We thought it would be silly not to go and at least have a chat with Dean,” remembers Sowden. “But it went well, and we thought we were quite likely to be offered something when he introduced us to [then McCann UK and Europe president] Mark Lund who was in the office that particular day.”

Their instincts were correct, and the pair headed up McCann Leeds’ four-person launch team in August 2019.

Fast forward four years, and from that standing start with no founding client, McCann Leeds has quickly established itself as a force both regionally and as a respected cog in the globally renowned McCann network.

Growth has averaged 35% per year, with headcount currently standing at 22 and further recruits in the pipeline. Clients include Benenden Health, Entain Group, Dettol, Nurofen, NHS Digital, Slumberdown and Howdens.

Looking back, Sowden considers the “startup mentality” of those first few months as key to the growth of the business.

“We were really fortunate that in the first six months, we basically won a client a month, so we had six clients going into the Covid lockdown in March 2020.

“A very easy option at the time would have been to have been just to shut the doors and cut the costs. Fortunately, the type of clients we had won had no reason to stop working and marketing because of Covid.”

While the pandemic represented a “big learning curve” for the new team – and made pitching a whole lot harder – it also had a galvanising effect.

“We’ve still got the core senior team from that time, every single one of them,” Sowden said.

That team now includes client services director Zoe Sinclair, head of design Tom Smith, strategy director Coral Cranmer, business development director Howard Hesling, and media business director Helen Payne.

The latest additions to the agency’s service offering, PR & social, and media, have reflected the agency’s ambition to be McCann Worldgroup in Leeds, not just McCann Leeds.

Helen Payne joined McCann Leeds as media business director earlier this year

“The ambition was always to add different disciplines, but do it in a kind of natural, integrated way,” Sowden said. “As creative and advertising grew we were being asked more and more about PR and social. We don’t really think of them as silos, but as channels that can activate and amplify the idea.”

The addition of media as a service means that Leeds can now tap into the group’s wider media operation, known as Universal McCann.

Sowden believes they are now more self-sufficient than ever before, but can reach into the deeper McCann talent pool when the situation requires it.

“We did a pitch in London recently and we needed support from London. Some clients still like the perceived reassurance, and glamour, of working with a London agency, and that’s where we’ve got the ability to be the best of both worlds. We can pull in specific experience and resource from across the network as and when we need an alternative or supplementary perspective, whether that be from London, Munich, New York, Kuala Lumpur or Sydney, but service clients locally. That’s a very unique offer in the Yorkshire region.”

He added: “Also, if you look at McCann in the UK, it’s probably one of very few large networks that has got a fully established presence outside of London. We’ve got Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol, and there’s a lot of value in that for a couple of reasons. 

“One is obviously the close proximity to clients and the convenience of that, but it’s also about not being too London-centric in your thinking, and appreciating there is an audience out there beyond the M25 that thinks in different ways.”

Growth at McCann Leeds has come from both existing and new clients.

The agency’s second client, Huddersfield-based John Cotton Group, has allowed it to demonstrate the effectiveness of its integrated approach. 

John Cotton’s main brand, Slumberdown, is a challenger brand in a category where the Goliath is Silent Night, so the underlying strategy has been focused on eroding some of that market share.

Boldly, McCann Leeds developed a brand and positioning that centred on Slumberdown “owning sleep”, or at least becoming an authority on what it really takes to get a good night’s sleep.

“All the insight told us that bedding is actually one of the last things that people think of when they think of getting a good night’s sleep,” said Sowden.

“All the stuff in the press is about not looking at your mobile phone or the temperature of the room or noise or whatever. People don’t actually understand that your bedding plays a big role in the quality of sleep that you get.”

Benenden Health was McCann Leeds’ very first client

The work has encompassed an initial brand relaunch, paid social campaigns and retailer activation. A more recent campaign has seen McCann Leeds introducing “real sleepers”, celebrating the many different ways that real people actually get their shut-eye rather than the dream-like models in nice white bedding who populate most campaigns in this space.

“We’ve worked with the team at John Cotton to bring an increased appreciation of the value of brand and the importance of defining your proposition, and having that as a constant thread through absolutely everything. It’s been hugely successful for them.”

Another client, York-based Benenden Health, has the distinction of being McCann Leeds’ first client.

The relationship has been a mutually transformative one since those early days.

“It’s work we are very, very proud of,” said Sowden. “The net result of what we’ve done is to have made the business much more confident in their brand and what it stands for, making them more confident with what they can do with it and consequently how much they invest in it. What started out as a modest brand evolution project has developed into them negotiating an incredible, fame-driving partnership with Channel 4. One that is, and continues to be, a huge success.”

“From a commercial point of view it’s been crazily successful for them, with brand and conversion metrics as high as they’ve ever been. As a result, we’re in the process of moving the brand on again, and developing a new brand campaign for them to launch and reflect that shift on. We have a really great relationship with the team there, and we’ve become really ingrained in their business from what was a standing start a few years ago.”

After a very encouraging first half of 2023, Sowden insisted he is now “more excited now than I have ever been”.

“We know who we are now and who we want to be as a team,” said Sowden.

“We’re confident in our self-sufficiency and our strengths as an agency, but then we also know when to leverage the experience and talent in the network. This is encouraging us to broaden the scale of both the projects and the clients we go for.”

Sowden said the agency’s “sweet spot” was the “depth of strategic thinking that informs our creative work”. 

“Creating beautiful, aesthetically pleasing creative work is easy. Creating effective brand and campaign activations that move an audience, create memory structures, that have longevity, and ensure a brand has a meaningful role in people’s life is much harder. 

“We don’t create creative veneers, we create meaningful roles for brands and activate them in people’s lives, which requires a lot of strategic thought and audience understanding.”

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