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Taking Ponderosa to a new Audience: Founder Richard Midgley on building a £20m-turnover super agency


What single word links Bryn Cartwright’s home in Welsh cult movie Twin Town, the Cartwright family’s Nevadan ranch in TV series Bonanza, and Richard Midgley’s creative agency across the road from Kirkgate Market in Leeds?

The answer, as lovers of slightly obscure cultural references will attest, is Ponderosa.

“After my wife and I watched Twin Town we said that if we could ever afford a big house – and we had our eye on one in Ilkley – we were going to call it the Ponderosa,” says Bradford-born Midgley, 52.

“Well we never got the big house, but we got the agency and we called it Ponderosa.”

Judging by the upward trajectory of Ponderosa the agency in recent years – and the accumulation of a multi-service group called The Audience Collective – the house may follow sooner or later.

A University of Cambridge graduate, Midgley’s 30-year advertising journey began in ignominious fashion with a series of job rejections from London agencies. Eventually he secured a placement as a media buyer at Principles, where he went on to spend 15 years before becoming MD at An Agency Called England, formerly MediaWorks in Leeds.

It was there that his big break came.

Midgley led the Halewood International account at An Agency Called England and became a trusted partner of John Halewood, the Wirral-born multi-millionaire who introduced Lambrini to a generation.

“I got to know him very well and he said to me, if you ever want to set up on your own I’ll back you,” says Midgley, “and I thought, I’m probably not going to get a better chance.”

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“The phrase I always use is ‘every day’s a school day’,” says Midgley. “My pet hate is when people go, ‘just that’s the way I am’.”

That was the start of Ponderosa, initially alongside his former creative director, but quickly Midgley teamed up with Steve Henry, who then owned Prego agency.

Midgley led on the successful launch campaign for Halewood’s Crabbie’s Alcoholic Ginger Beer. “It went massive and that was our break, and they gave us more and more work on the back of that,” he says.

That work, as well as campaigns for the likes of Hisense, Clearly Drinks, Russell Hobbs and Sovereign Healthcare, helped Ponderosa grow to 28 staff by 2020.

A step-change in growth came in the spring of 2020, however, when Ponderosa acquired an ecommerce specialist, Marvellous, and merged with its sister agency, Grapple. Overnight, the agency grew to 52 staff.

But that was only the start. Fed up with outsourcing work to other agencies, Midgley and Henry – with the help of private equity investment from Harrogate-based Newmore Capital – began to build a 160-strong network of businesses that came to be called The Audience Collective.

Described as an “insight-driven group of specialist agencies”, the group includes digital transformation agency Boxharry, insight agency Spark, higher education marketing specialists Unicom, SEO company Rich and media agency Crunch.

The owners of each of the agencies have stayed involved in the bigger group, in exchange for an initial lump sum payment and some shares. “Nobody’s gone off into the wilderness yet,” says Midgley. “The plan is to create something big enough that we can keep building by acquisition or potentially, at some point in the near or far future, we could sell.”

What have been the benefits of creating the bigger group?

“It has enabled us to have bigger, more grown up conversations with people. We’re not just trying to flog what we’ve got to flog here because actually I don’t care where they spend the money. We can do most things now so it means we can give clients the right solution, not the solution that we’ve got to sell.”

Although admitting that the last quarter of 2022 was “tough” thanks to the uncertainty caused by Truss and Kwarteng, as well as an unsuccessful bid to launch in the United States, 2023 has begun much more brightly.

“Everybody was just a little bit shell shocked about last year. Don’t get me wrong, Ponderosa made its record profits last year (around the £2m mark, against turnover of £20m), but that mini budget in October affected us more than the start of Covid.

“Thankfully, we seem to be back on track now. We still have the bigger plan, but have taken a bit of stock just to make sure we’re being responsible and not just rushing headlong into anything. It’s back to basics a little bit, and then we’ll go again.”

Midgley with Ponderosa’s Social Media Strategist, Adeline Deseyne

A big part of the group’s future growth will come from social media, according to Alex Hunter, Group Sales Director for The Audience Collective.

“For a long time social media was the thing that brands needed to do, but didn’t really care about,” he says. “They certainly didn’t see it as a platform for launching anything or doing a major piece of comms.

“Now if we’re doing a campaign for Quorn, for example, they’re going to start with social media first. I think our agency has really grown with that shift in mindset, and that’s partly partly down to younger people getting into senior marketing positions and seeing social as a very serious, credible media platform.”

“Understanding the medium is so important,” adds Midgley. “Quorn would admit that they used to just shove our telly ads on social, and in fact we still come across quite a lot of people who do that.

“I think the great thing over the last few years has been just sticking to your principles of understanding the brand, getting some proper insight, and doing something around that.

“So for example we’ve just done a social campaign for Quorn after their chickenless chicken nuggets beat McDonald’s in taste tests. People’s natural, unstaged reactions when doing a taste test on the streets of Manchester and London were really effective.”

Underpinning all the group’s work is an unswerving dedication to effectiveness, Midgley says.

“I remember winning an IPA Effectiveness award once with Seven Seas Cod Liver Oil, but the entry alone cost £50,000.

“Now when we’re onboarding a new client we make a point that there are processes in place to show that our creativity has an effect. We are not just making them look nice.”

Hunter adds: “I think there’s an increasing weight of opinion suggesting that the effectiveness of a campaign is actually going to decline as more and more people take a cookie-cutter approach – put a cartoon character in it, add a nice little song on it, etc. But this agency takes creativity very seriously, and creativity is what I think will unlock the ability to stand out from the rest of the market.”

The Ponderosa team recently switched to a nine-day working fortnight

Ponderosa is working hard to stand out from the field in terms of its working conditions, too.

After a successful trial it recently implemented a nine-day working fortnight with no loss to staff of salary or benefits. Every other weekend is a long weekend, in other words.

But Midgley takes a more old-school approach when it comes to WFH.

“We realise that people want a bit of flexibility but at the start of my career I learned more from just sitting next to my boss than anything else.

“We won’t get the best work for our clients being 100% away from the office, so we’re all in on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. It means there’s a bit of a buzz on those days we can sit around a table and go, let’s work this out.

“I might be proven wrong, but I think most people probably know deep down that our world still relies on people getting around a table and thrashing out ideas.

“The phrase I always use is ‘every day’s a school day’. My pet hate is when people go, ‘just that’s the way I am’.

“I’m 53 next and every day you can be learning something, and that’s how I want us to be as an agency. Let’s get better and be better. All I ask is that people care – if they stop caring, that’s when it breaks down. People must be willing to ask, how can I do this better? How can we do it better for the clients?”

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