Managing a digital agency, specialising in bespoke web and app development.
Running a digital agency comes with all sorts of challenges. We take some time with Rob Arnold, Clock MD, to discuss what it is like managing the agency, the challenges, the rewards and much more.
Q: You are very busy but thank you for sparing a few minutes of your time to tell us about running a digital agency.
A: No problem at all.
Q: You have been part of Clock for a long time. Can you tell us about your path to becoming Managing Director?
A: I’d love to. It is a long answer just to warn you!…
It was over 17 years ago, whilst at Bournemouth University that I spotted a curious and creative poster advertising a job for someone interested in this thing called the internet.
Back then, I was on a Bachelor of Science, Honours Degree program entitled “multimedia communications” - the web was very much in its infancy - even mobile phones were a fairly new concept, but even back then I was intrigued, excited and frankly obsessed with the internet and what I thought could be done on it.
I applied for the placement at Clock and was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made (short of asking my wife to marry me). I joined a very small team at Clock (5 of us) working on just the most exciting web projects … Eddie Izzard, Bill Bailey, Mobile DJ sites, pub websites - a real mix of everything. The company was just a blast of excitement and fun … it was really hard work, late nights pretty much daily, as most people at startups know. Funny how the world moves on, because the word ‘startup’ I don’t think existed back then.
Instantly I knew I was in the right place. Somewhere I was able to ‘work hard and play hard’ and to throw myself into, the work was always exciting, varied and challenging. The perfect mix.
The culture Syd had created at Clock was one of respect, openness (with flexible working even back then) and overall great fun. I didn’t know it (from having only worked in a select number of places prior to Uni), but Clock was (and is) unique. It was perfect.
Back then I was a developer. I loved my placement so much that I worked for Clock during my final year and frankly could have easily foregone my final year at Uni … except for wanting to gain my degree - that expensive bit of paper!
I went back to uni with a sense of the real world of business with so much knowledge I felt I knew digital even better than the lecturers (the web was so new that it was ‘Columbus in the new world’ back then) - I knew the practical side as well as the theory. I returned to Clock ASAP after uni and spent 10+ good years programming multiple sites, platforms and projects; learning something new every single day, be it about tech, myself, my colleagues or about our client’s businesses.
More and more I found myself not only coding but project managing and looking after the clients. So I slowly transitioned into a project manager/developer - helped grow and recruit a team of project managers and getting more involved in the ops side of the business. Clock was so good at nurturing talent and allowing me to learn every aspect of the business, that I found myself involved in finance, recruitment, sales, projects, marketing, client liaison, in fact everything.
I soaked it up and got stuck in, verging on obsessing!
After growing the PM team, I was doing less and less actual coding and PM’ing and more operations, so I was appointed Ops Director, working closely with the then MD, senior team and founder, Syd.
During my time assisting the MD, I realised I was more than capable of one day being ‘MD’ or ‘captain of the team’ if you like, I loved leading by example and felt I was gaining the respect of the wider business. I just needed to learn more about other businesses rather than Clock to broaden my knowledge. Syd helped me get into other businesses and learn from others. I took on non-exec roles and pushed myself to learn more about the world of business outside of Clock - which by this point (15 years in) I knew pretty much with my eyes shut.
I told Syd that one day I would like to run one of the Clock businesses, and when the opportunity presented itself to become MD, I jumped at the chance. I consider myself extremely, extremely fortunate to be MD of one of the best businesses in the UK. In fact, the best - it’s just most of the UK haven’t heard of us yet, which means my task is nowhere near complete!
Q: In your time at Clock, you have experienced many aspects of the different departments (design, development, project management etc.). So what makes Clock different from the thousands of other web development agencies out there?
A: Short answer: we are the best because we don't have much ego, we constantly challenge ourselves to be better. It helps us to not become complacent.
Businesses are their people. And we have some of the most talented, intelligent, creative and nicest staff going. It makes Clock a very, very special place.
There are lots of good agencies out there and new agencies/startups and talented people joining the technical revolution all the time. Competition is good; it helps to keep things fresh.
What I love about Clock is our ability to face that challenge, enjoy it, and deliver time and again, no matter the task.
We have a beautiful blend of talented people that strive to take amazing ideas, and using our 21 year experience in digital to craft incredibly beautiful and well-functioning web platforms and apps, taking pride in our work and getting to know our clients businesses as well as we know our own.
Q: What do you enjoy most about running a web development agency?
Everything. I know that sounds like a cop out, but I mean it, everything.
I like the fact that every day I learn something new, that there are new challenges to face and the varied nature of our work. Technology is changing, and at break-neck speed, and it is wonderful to ride that wave.
Q: Do you find it difficult to recruit talent and how do you go about it?
A: Yes, we do.
That’s because we are very picky.
We would much rather take our time to ensure that anyone that works for us, is correct. We are slow to recruit (which sometimes actually means we sometimes miss out) but when we do select we want/aim for them to be ‘lifers’.
We have different answers depending on what role we are recruiting, but one thing that has worked very well for us, is nurturing talent and watching it grow within our business. I guess I am biased though!
Q: What traits do you look for when employing someone for Clock?
A: As I said previously we are quite picky, so quite a few things really, and specific things depending on the role obviously. Overall I’d say:
Able to fit into our culture
Talent (or promise)
Knowledge or appetite for knowledge
That they are interested about Clock or our clients (beyond just wanting a job)
They must be driven
The candidate must have something they are passionate about. Personally I find nothing worse than someone who lists extra curricular activities that, when questioned, they haven’t done for a while and just wrote as they couldn’t think of anything else to write.
I often flip the CV and ask about the person about their interests first. I got excited one year when someone wrote Stamp Collecting. I thought wow that’s cool, tell me more … but they said they did it as a child and wrote it down as they couldn’t think of anything else.
I pushed and asked about their favourite stamp or how big their collection was back then, or why they were interested in the first place - did they like collecting things, and they then seemed to say they wish they hadn’t mentioned it because they really didn’t care that much. I knew immediately that they weren’t destined for Clock. If the candidate doesn’t respect their own CV/story, why expect a business to?
Q: All technologies have a fad period where everyone becomes obsessed. What was the worst technology fad you have seen and why?
A: I am a sucker for new tech - I love anything that remotely looks like the latest and newest tech.
I thought wearables would be much bigger than they are. I bought crypto, I am still waiting for VR and AR to go much more mainstream. I own 4 different voice-activated assistants.
So basically, I’m afraid I am a sucker for tech and digital fads. I am not sure which is the worst, because frankly I still love them all!
Q: What advice would you give clients when putting together a brief for a web development agency?
My main bit of advice would be, don’t give the solutions inside the brief, write the challenge and give an indicative budget. Then let the agencies compete on ideas and solutions, and pick the agency you think can deliver the solution with the best results.
Too many briefs (in my opinion) attempt to ask for a specific solution (e.g “We need a forum”, “We need a social media integration”. “We need X, Y or Z ‘thing’”.)
A good agency, in my opinion, really wants to understand the problem and to come up with innovative ways (or proven methods) to solve that problem. There is no point paying experts, if you are going to tell them what needs doing. For that, you should just get ‘guns for hire’.
Q: How do you think design and development agencies can adapt and thrive in a world where automation is becoming more and more prevalent?
A: Automation is great, it solves problems in a repeatable and stable manner. At Clock we love automation. It creates value and can drive great efficiencies.
However, I think too many people are slightly over-stating automation - it is not always needed and is not always the silver bullet. Technology, whilst improving at a rapid pace, is still miles and miles/years behind the intelligence, experience, nuance and complexity of humans. Therefore, agencies (which are made up of humans) have a pivotal role.
In fact, even where automation is required, it often takes agencies to spot that automation is needed and to implement it on behalf of clients.
Q: And finally, you love dabbling in code and you love Spurs. If you could programme anything for Tottenham, what would it be?
A: Yes, that would be my dream project I guess.
If I can allow myself to stretch that question... given no restraints on budget or brief, I’d go to town on it!
Not wishing to diss others work. I know Clock would deliver a, dare I say it, better website and app than they currently have. I would go ‘all in’ on ensuring fans can utilise single-sign-on functionality to allow them to interact with all the parts of the club - e.g buy a ticket and shirt at the same time (in the same basket) for instance.
I’d ensure the app goes further in it’s pursuit to drive better fan engagement and also revenues for the club. I’d speak to the fans about what they want more of and deliver that. I’d speak to the club and players and find out what they need, and deliver that.
All the while conscious that, as the story goes.. Mr Ford once said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” (although apparently that might be fictional)
I’d bring new tech to their platforms, such as reffeeds, VAR, commentary and other audio feeds. I’d look to streamline purchasing journeys and have the app and site deliver more behind-the-scenes content. I do enjoy Spurs Instagram feed, they have done a great job there.
I’d bring AR to the app. Have you seen this?
After all, more money for Spurs means more investment and more exciting players :)