30 Years of Grey Matter
2020 hasn’t turned out the way anyone could have predicted, but Grey Matter has still marked its 30th anniversary year with some exciting developments. We caught up with Managing Director, Sean Hampsey, to find out what the secret to success is when it comes to longevity, how things have changed over the years and what the next 30 years might look like.
Can you share a bit more about what the company has been up to this year?
2020 has been a huge year for us, despite the pandemic. At the beginning of the year, we promoted Brendan Hampsey to Director of Client Services. Since then, he has been applying his deep technical knowhow combined with excellent client liaison and project management skills, to secure and deliver many creative and complex digital projects. We have continued to grow our team with the addition of new web developers and content creators. In July, once the national lockdown rules were relaxed, we opened our new Digital Hub in the Sheffield Business Park – a superb location from which we can help more businesses in the region and further afield, to get ahead with their digital and e-commerce solutions.
Reaching this 30 year milestone has really helped us to secure our position as a leader in the field; delivering high-quality, full service marketing solutions that transform and improve businesses.
No one would have blamed you for putting these plans on ice until the economic impact of COVID-19 is fully realised. Why was it important to press on?
We were on the cusp of opening our new Digital Hub when number 10 announced the lockdown. It was a blow (as it was to business throughout the country) and we had to pause our plans temporarily, but as soon as the restriction was lifted, we cracked on. Yes, there is economic uncertainty and things are far from normal, but we cannot recover by standing still. Business must press on, and for Grey Matter, the new Hub is integral to our growth and to achieving the connectivity we want with those in and outside of the region.
Grey Matter was established in 1990. How much has the agency adapted what you do, and who you do it for, since then?
In the early days we were an agency running with the standard model of a handful of essential clients. The problem with that approach is it can cripple an agency if you lose an account. I had seen that happen in my 40+ years in marketing, both agency and client side. It is a sad fact that agencies come and go so, so when I joined in 2001 I set out to broaden our client base in terms of numbers and sectors. This makes you far more resilient, and we always advise our clients to do the same. Reliance for survival on only a handful of customers is a death kiss for all involved. We have over 400 live customer accounts at any one time. That, in itself, is a testament to our own sales, marketing and customer service skills. Because we’re strong, we’ll always be here, and our clients like that certainty and reliability.
How has the business landscape changed in Sheffield since 1990?
We used to be a traditional ‘advertising design’ company, producing logos, brochures and press ads for small manufacturers and home builders. That was really all that clients wanted from their agency. The arrival of the internet changed everything, and customers started to need more and become far more demanding, looking for an integrated and holistic solution. We’ve obviously noticed a huge move from the more traditional business, in engineering and retail, to the rise of technology-lead firms and those that have come along in services, leisure, entertainment and food & drink, and have therefore always kept the door open for organisations of all sizes and in all sectors. The Sheffield city region is now a remarkably diverse place in which to do business.
What are the most significant milestones that Grey Matter has met over the past 30 years? And what are you most proud of?
Our digital capability started in 1993, and since then Grey Matter has built over 2100 websites, continuously adapting our approach to stay up to date with technological advancements.
Our first 10-year client was a significant landmark, and we now have many of those and several who have been with us for some 20 years – which I am particularly proud of. Overall, it is the longevity and consistency that we have achieved and our ability to continue doing what we do for our clients who really appreciate and benefit from our work.
What does 30 years in the business give you, that your competitors don’t have?
I’d say the biggest thing we’ve picked up is experience. You can’t get 30 years’ of experience overnight. I’ve been in marketing for nearly 40 years, 10 of those spent as Marketing Director of Sanderson Group plc, an international success story, established in Sheffield. In addition, the founder of the firm, Julie (my wife) is still heavily involved in the business and keeps us all in check. Her commercial skills are second to none and we still rely heavily on her knowledge and understanding, built up over decades. The team around us is mature and professional. As a result, there are very few things that come along that we haven’t already encountered. Running a business, a successful campaign or building and launching an effective website can be a minefield for anyone without the necessary experience. And I’ve always understood that, if you’re going through a minefield, it makes sense to follow someone else who has trodden the path many times before!
What is the most unusual brief you have received from a client over the years?
There have been many; ten years ago we were tasked by the NHS to build them an Alcohol Screening Tool – and it is still in operation today! In complete contrast, a beauty products manufacture asked us to come up with an alternative method to ‘beauty models’ in order to promote their Olympia Beauty Exhibition stand. We hired seven very lively actors from the ‘MiniMen Agency’ dressed as famous characters from the world of entertainment; from Elvis Presley to Robinson Crusoe. They were fantastic and certainly grabbed everyone’s attention!
In the three decades since Grey Matter launched, technology has evolved rapidly. How have you made sure that your services stay current and up to date with the latest technologies?
Apart from an experienced and well-informed team we are always on the lookout for new talent; those who come out of the universities versed in the latest technologies and skills. We were at the forefront of Content Management many years ago, developing our own CMS system and in more recent years, with the move towards open source software, we’ve been more open to using other platforms, including WordPress, which is so much further on than it was 10 or 12 years ago.
We have also developed our approach in line with the drive for cross platform functionality, where modern sites are required to be responsive in adapting to various screen sizes and shapes, via HTML5 and CSS3. Staying abreast of Search Engine techniques is also a full-time job but vital if our clients are to remain at the head of the pack when it comes to google ranking and positioning.
What advice would you give to businesses that have been badly impacted by this year’s pandemic?
Increase your promotional activity. In fact, ramp up everything around your marketing. This situation will not last forever and you need to be there when we come out the other side. This will only be assured if your brand is ‘top of brain’ when your customers come looking for what you have to offer. Consider how digital marketing and e-commerce techniques can make your business better, more visible, accessible and improve customer experience. We are entering a new era for the use of technology in business and will not let our customers fall behind. So, as we always say, use your head, use Grey Matter!
What next for Grey Matter – how are you paving the way for the next 30 years?
We’ve been preparing for the next 30 years for, at least, the last ten. In 2010 we brought in our son, Brendan, once he’d finished University, to work within all areas of the business. And (I would say this, wouldn’t I?), he is the best technical guy I’ve ever worked with and that includes my 10 years at Sanderson. He is so highly motivated and it’s a joy to see him perform. We brought Brendan onto the Board as a Director a couple of months ago to take care of client services. If I was a customer, with an important project, I’d want to know I was in his capable hands.
In addition, our Creative Director Andrew Marsden is a force of nature, with concepts and layouts that really do bring tears to the eye! Andrew can make even the most inauspicious widget manufacturer look a million dollars. Together, they are a fantastic team and I know the future is looking bright with the two of them on board. They run a highly motivated squad of brilliant developers, designers, artworkers and copywriters. All handpicked for their complementary skills and talent.
We have made a big investment in the new Digital Hub, here at Sheffield Business Park, and we are confident that it will pay off. Quality clients who want to do well will always be prepared to pay that little bit more for proven and superior results. After 30 years trading, I’d like to think that for a business that wants to go places, Grey Matter are the quality option.