A series of interviews with the founders of independent + successful ad agencies and creative studios.

Jonathan Smith

Catch

September 20, 2017

Interviewed by: Michael Freedman

In one sentence, can you tell us about Catch?

Catch is a digital agency focused on combining innovative storytelling with technology to deliver digital transformation.

Where did the name come from?

Truthful answer: It’s the name of a bar I happened to be sitting in at the time in early 2007.

Dare, Poke, Glue; these were agencies I respected around 2006-2007 when I was thinking about doing my own thing, so I knew that I wanted a one-word punchy name, and Catch just seemed to fit.

What made you decide to start your own studio?

I’d been working in the digital advertising industry since 2000 (the year that the dot-com crash happened; terrible timing). I’d worked for a range of agencies large and small, both full-time and freelance. While every experience was enriching in some way or another, each had negative aspects as well, usually due to company structure and bureaucracy.

I knew that if I could create the type of working environment that was conducive to creativity—where an entrepreneurial spirit was encouraged, rather than crushed—this would be a compelling offering.

I also wanted to make sure it was something grounded in creating measurable returns for clients. At the time (way back in 2006), most senior brand people were still plowing their money into TV and print first and using whatever scratchings they had left for digital magic and voodoo. Facebook only had 30 million users worldwide as opposed to 2 billion active users today. The internet for business was still very much the wild west.

What were some early challenges you didn’t anticipate beforehand?

I think the biggest challenge we faced was proving ourselves as an unknown startup. Although I’d run the digital department at agencies with fairly high-profile clients before, it’s tough to gain the trust of people who are willing to give you money to build a product, especially when all you have to show them is work you’ve done with a different team and in a different organization.

While I wasn’t entirely naive to that challenge when we launched, I didn’t anticipate walking into business meetings as a 27-year-old and feeling like I wasn’t being taken seriously. Sometimes it felt like the prospect was thinking, “Okay, when is the grown-up going to arrive?” 

How large is your team now? Do you allow them to work remotely?

We have a team of 30 people in London, and in early 2016 we opened a satellite office in Madrid (which has a couple of people in it), with a remit to grow our presence in mainland Europe.

Through the use of Slack, Float, Zoom Meeting, etc. it’s impossible not to justify working remotely, as it’s so frictionless these days. We’re a truly international team, so it’s important to recognize that working from home, either in the UK or elsewhere, is something that everyone should be able to do.

That said, I believe it’s hard to replicate the efficiency and creativity generated by a team that’s working in the same room together. 

Is there a lot of collaboration between your two offices?

There’s a real hub of digital talent in Madrid, and it’s an exciting city to work in. The office has been open for a little over a year and is really focused on bolstering our technical development offering.

We have developers in both offices who collaborate on things together—critiquing each other’s code, working through technical challenges, and pushing code in an agile and iterative way.

What does a typical project look like at Catch?

Variety is the spice of life! That cheesy sentiment is something built into the very fabric of Catch. We like to keep ourselves challenged, and if we’re not learning something new each week, then we feel like we’re stagnating.

The best way to keep learning is to expand your horizons with new challenges as often as possible. That’s something I’m always striving to bring to the agency, and it’s one of the reasons I stay heavily involved in bringing in new business. Each project has its own set of challenges, and we have a very adaptable framework and process to help deliver great work to our clients. 

You recently launched a Game of Thrones chatbot for Facebook Messenger. What’s the response been like for that, and do you have plans to launch other chatbots in the future?

It’s been an incredibly wild ride, that’s for sure.

In the first week of launching GoTBot, we had amazing results in terms of coverage (i.e., 135 articles in 12 languages, 5.5 million estimated coverage views, 3.92K social shares of press articles). GoTBot made the homepage of Mashable and was picked up by a range of online press including The Verge, SyFy, CNet, and Esquire.

In the first two weeks of launch, GoTBot had over 20,000 conversations with 15,000 Game of Thrones fans from all over the world. The longest conversation had 826 messages between GoTBot and an avid Game of Thrones fan.

Spoiler alert: try asking GoTBot the questions/commands below. 

  • Show me Jon Snow naked.
  • Does Varys have balls?
  • How to get Jon Snow’s hair?
  • Will Tyrion become king?
  • Where do you live?
  • When is the next book coming out?
  • You know nothing.
  • What are Cersei’s chances of winning?
  • Does George R R Martin have a heart?

I’m remaining tight-lipped on the opportunities that have come out of GoTBot’s initial success. I’ll just say it’s opened a number of surprising doors and continues to be a lot of fun to work on!

Few people have mastered the art of creating viral content that catches on with a large audience. Is there a secret formula for engaging people online?

While we set out to create a genuinely useful chatbot experience for Game of Thrones fans, we strategically created GoTBot to capitalize on the perfect storm of chatbots and the release of the penultimate season of Game of ThronesWe gambled that the combination of these two hotly talked about items into one experience online (that was both funny and useful), would gain some traction.

I think creating an online experience that captures the imagination can often be attributed to luck, but it can be a science too.

We started by using Google Search trends data as the basis for the answer content to ensure that GoTBot could answer the most common queries, but we found that the end user experience from these stock questions was a little flat. For GoTBot to be a success, he had to appear as if he was having a conversation with the user, responding appropriately to a huge myriad of questions. So GoTBot’s natural language processing is powered by the A.I service Wit.ai.

Our hope is that it gets people talking about both the technology and Daenerys Targaryen.

You’re using Float to manage your team’s forecast. Can you tell us how you plan your team’s time across a mix of client and internal projects?

Managing a growing resource allocation in a fast-paced environment is key to our successful delivery model. It’s a full-time job, which at times can feel like spinning many plates at once (if the plates are also on fire and keep multiplying each month).

It’s essential we have the right tools in place to manage our resource allocation, and the right delivery framework internally to track project progress. We have a dedicated weekly resource allocation meeting, where the project management team sits in a room together and talks specifically about resource allocation over both the short and medium term. We also have a dedicated Slack channel where delivery team members can input their resource requests ad-hoc. The channel is monitored by a member of our team who triages the requests and updates Float accordingly.

It’s important that our resource planning and allocation is entirely transparent to the project management team. That helps us avoid unnecessary squabbles, while also ensuring that the most suited team members are working on the right jobs at the right time. 

Is there a technology trend you’re particularly excited about?

Every 12 months or so, a tech trend will come along that gets us thinking about how it might be useful (or harmful) to our clients. The ladder occasionally occurs, where a bandwagon technology is released, and a client will ask us to help them jump on it. In that situation, a considerable amount of our time is usually spent explaining why it’s not a very good idea for them!

I’m taking a punt that 2018-2019 will be about cryptocurrency, as it emerges as a legitimate way to pay for goods and services online. If I’m right, I’m looking forward to the opportunities it will create globally, and the challenge of integrating it into the user experience of our clients’ purchase pathways.

If you’ve got the controls of the office Spotify, what are we likely to hear?

Catch has our own dedicated Spotify Premium account for as long as I can remember, so music is super important to us as a team. We sit in one large, open-plan space in London with a bunch of big Sonos speakers, and there is no room for terrible music choices!

I’d like to think that as one of our resident DJs (and a music snob), I choose suitable music for each phase of the day when I’m in the office, but I know that’s not always the case! I try to play a lot of new music directly from Spotify’s Discover Weekly and tend to use a lot of artist radio (the busy/lazy man’s way to office DJ). Some of my go-to’s are Frank Ocean, Broken Social Scene, Lower Dens, Thundercat, and Buddy Ross.

Friday afternoon tends to be a crazy free for all—where people put on whatever gets them in the mood for the weekend—and it gets cranked right up! 

What advice would you give someone who is looking to launch their own creative studio?

Success doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You can’t be an expert in all things human resources, project management, finance, etc. You need to be open to getting help right from the get-go.

You have to believe that your vision is unique, and you need to be single-mindedly committed to that idea. 

The administrative stuff can get distracting, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re saving money by trying to be all things to all people and tasks. I’d wager a Bitcoin that you’re not using your time efficiently if you are.

Validating your ideas means you need human interaction. If starting up feels lonely, you probably aren’t speaking to enough people. Get experienced friends, people you’ve met on forums, consultants, family, etc. that understand your objectives and are able (and unafraid) to give you constructive criticism. Building out a support network is important to your sanity and productivity.

Lastly, success follows happiness, so don’t neglect your team or yourself while running on the agency treadmill. Feeling fulfilled and happy at work is important to your employees, and it should be for you too! 

Check out more exciting work from Jonathan and the Catch team here: http://www.catchdigital.com/

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