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Meet the maths-loving mum of four who is calculating a bright future for Jaywing

If there was one main takeaway from my hour-long interview with the new managing director of Jaywing, it was this.

Dr Catherine Kelly absolutely loves maths.

Not in a Sunakian everyone-must-learn-maths-now kind of way.

No, Dr Kelly simply has an innate and undeniably authentic passion for the subject that a good deal of us are happy to leave behind in our late teens.

“It’s always been my favourite subject,” she said. “I just love it.”

It’s a love that has taken her to the top of Sheffield-headquartered Jaywing, the data-powered integrated agency that, as it marks its 25th year in business, has set sights on becoming one of the North’s top three (they recently moved up to fourth in the Prolific North Top 50 Integrated Agencies).

Exactly how it plans to do that, we shall return to later.

I meet Dr Kelly at Globe Point, which since late 2022 has been Jaywing’s flatiron base in the Temple area of Leeds, a district currently undergoing a £350m regeneration.

Jaywing’s new flatiron base at Globe Point in Leeds

Although Jaywing’s heart remains in the Steel City, more than half of its staff now work from this striking new building, with its ground-floor cafe-kitchen and impressive views across the city.

“We’ve got a really vibrant and young team so being in the middle of Leeds was really important,” said Dr Kelly, who along with most staff splits her time between the two offices while being mum to four children. 

“We wanted a building where we could collaborate on site more often – data scientists sitting next to creatives sitting next to media teams. We are a people business.”

Dr Kelly’s route to the top table at Jaywing can be traced back to the late 90s, where that passion – and evident aptitude – for maths saw the University of Nottingham invite her to undertake a PhD in the subject.

In what was an early demonstration for the young Catherine of the degree to which maths impacts every part of our lives, her particular area of study was cancer research, and how mathematical modelling can be used to optimise the process by which white blood cells can deliver drugs to tumour cells.

“There was no blueprint, you’re innovating and sometimes you’re failing,” she said. “It certainly built my resilience and gave me a different outlook on trying things and not playing it safe. It was a huge undertaking and meant a lot to me.”

More than half of Jaywing’s staff now work from Globe Point

She was offered a post-doctorate, but after years of solitary study, the extrovert Catherine needed company. “I get a lot of energy from being in a room with other people… when we have a day now when we’re in a workshop and solving something, I feel energised.”

So began her corporate career, first with a nine-month project with drinks giant Diageo in London after they spotted her CV on a careers website.

It gave her a first brush with marketeers and the discipline of marketing in a commercial setting. 

Delightfully for Dr Kelly, there was a familiar touchstone.

“It totally opened up my eyes to how maths could be used within a business,” she said. “I thought wow, this is such good fun!”

From there she moved to Kellogg’s in Manchester – where she appreciated the “rigour” of a “very well run business” – before a more substantial stint at Diageo in London. She was making a name for herself in the field of business intelligence – what we now more commonly call data science – and in 2014 she moved to Asda in Leeds, where within two years she was promoted to head of data science, with overall responsibility for the retailer’s customer data customer data, insight and marketing effectiveness.

It should be noted that this rapid career progression was achieved around three maternity leaves – one of which was for her twin daughters, who are now 16.

Dr Kelly said that mathematics “underpins all the work” at Jaywing

The question of women having to choose between a career and a family remains a regular talking point in the media, with many suggesting the idea of women “having it all” is a myth.

Dr Kelly highlights the support she receives from her husband – who works remotely in cybersecurity for Maersk – as well as a “brilliant” senior leadership team at work. 

“I am passionate about it – I think it’s really important for young women to see inspiring women in leadership positions. I didn’t have a female boss for a long long time, and I hope it’s really good for them to see.”

As for juggling her MD role with four school-age children, she added: “My mum always said – and she was a working mum – never ever feel guilty, and wherever you are, be in that place. 

“When I’m at home I try to be really present, and never let myself feel guilty. That’s what I say to young mums coming back from maternity – stop feeling guilty, you’re not making a choice to be away from them, you’ve got a job and it’s part of your family.”

But back to the career, and it was no surprise when Jaywing, which had originally established its name delivering data analysis services to the financial services industry, came calling in 2017.

Originally approached to head up the marketing effectiveness division, Dr Kelly remembers being impressed by the extent to which the agency walked the walk when it came to the science. 

“It was clear that mathematics underpins all the work here,” she said. “The accuracy and sophistication of it is so high – I was just blown away by the techniques, the capability and the people.”

Initially working as a consultant, Dr Kelly merged her consultancy with the media side of Jaywing in 2020.

“I was asked to build something that was different – a media business that was genuinely powered by data science.”

Lots of competitors have sought to bolt on data science in recent years, but Dr Kelly – who was promoted to managing director in April 2023 – insists it has always been integral to the business.

“It’s right at the start of everything,” she said. “When we get a challenge from a new client or a piece of new business, the first team to sit down includes the data scientists and that informs the initial piece of insight and research.”

She cites a recent campaign with Yorkshire Water, when the agency used data science to create a water-saving campaign with over 400 different variables that changed depending on the weather, geography and water demand. 

Deployed across multiple channels from OOH to paid social, the campaign’s highly personalised approach reduced consumer apathy and achieved its ultimate aim of lowering consumption, and was partly responsible for Jaywing being shortlisted for Integrated Marketing Agency of the Year at the Campaign Agency of the Year Awards in February.

Dr Kelly’s new brief gives her overall responsibility for client delivery, growth, sales and marketing, and strategy.

“My job is to amplify the extraordinary talent we have here, to make sure they have the right environment so they can be brilliant. I have a good grounding in the core disciplines so that I can support and be helpful without being the expert.”

Explaining that she “really loves and believes in this business”, Dr Kelly is confident her team can propel the agency to that coveted top-three position.

“My vision for Jaywing is to be a place where talent thrives and brands grow – helping them to achieve their ambitions is our purpose.”

She’s proud that the agency recently achieved Great Place To Work certification, with 79% of employees thinking it was a great place to work against a benchmark of 54%.

“94% of people say that Jaywingers care about each other which I think is my favourite number,” she added.

Another number is revenue, which has fluctuated in recent years but its most recent annual report showed signs of increased profitability, with EBITDA up 9.2% to £2.4m on total revenue of £22m. 

“It has had a tough time, but this is a business that has genuinely got something special,” said Dr Kelly.

“I think we’re in the best place we’ve ever been. We have a plan that will get us to exactly the right place. We’re united under the same goals and values. We’re really ready to grow.”

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