I first meet Head’s Ramsey Khoury at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York where we’re both on a panel discussing the pros and cons of doing transatlantic business.
Ramsey once ran a fashion company out of New York so he knows a thing or two about US/UK cultural differences. We all agree the world’s a lot smaller now that social media means you chat to friends and colleagues across the pond every day, usually without even thinking of the distance involved.
Today, as founder and managing director of Head, one of the UK’s longer-established digital agencies, Ramsey is as equally concerned with what you might call a company’s inner beauty as its outward appearance.
When we hook up again, Ramsey tells me Head prides itself on strategic thinking: “trying to educate our clients to think more long-term rather than short-term, transient campaigns”.
We’re sitting in the boardroom in the townhouse on Percy Street, where Head’s 17-strong team is based. Whiteboards adorn the walls, and the table is half covered by a roll of brown paper and multi-coloured marker pens. Words and pictures are scribbled on the paper – the productive work of a brainstorm that’s recently taken place.
Strategic slow-build is intrinsic to successful social media so maybe it’s not surprising that social media projects now make up a significant proportion of Head’s workload.
Ramsey finds the company spends a lot of its time helping clients get up to speed with the whole culture of social media:
“There’s definitely an education side to it. We run free workshops at the start of projects where we ask clients what their issues and concerns are around the social media space. We’ll run the workshops either here or at clients’ offices. We’ll set out an agenda and share knowledge. We want to hear their stories. It’s important to take the time, do the workshops and have the senior people buy into the process. If you have a client who’s not 100 per cent behind what you’re doing, you’ll run into problems.”
Head famously started life in a ‘broom cupboard’ in London’s Langham Street in 2000. At a time when other digital/ dotcom businesses were boasting swanky shopfront offices and large teams of under-qualified, over-paid VPs, Head chose to grow slowly and organically – possibly one reason why the company is still thriving today.
So why did Ramsey turn his Dolce & Gabbana-covered back on fashion?
“I wanted to get involved with something a little less complex, more intimate, more collaborative. I’ve an equal interest in creativity and technology. Both have a voice at Head. I went to fashion school but I’m also interested in how things work.”
Now, he loves what he does:
“We really enjoy our space and it’s an interesting space [the web] because there are so many different areas. We’re really interested in what start-ups are doing. We go to Minibar every month. You’ve got all the agencies in the NMA top 100 – all evolving, all doing interesting things. There’s so much to understand.”
Ramsey’s enthusiasm spills over onto the corporate website which is liberally sprinkled with words such as ‘loveable’ and ‘marvellous’. The website boasts (not without irony) that Head’s workplace can feel like “the happiest place on earth”.
Certainly the townhouse offices are pleasant with ambient music pumped out over the speakers and, Caroline, the business development manager, dishing out free samples of herbal tea.
How does Ramsey hope to sustain this positive environment?
“I think the ecosystem [you’ve established] stays. You nurture talent. And you choose the right people. As long as you’ve got the right people you can grow the hierarchy without using the culture.”
As mentioned, the emphasis is on long-term, sustainable projects. The task of finding the Next Big Thing is not one that appeals to Ramsey:
“We don’t want to develop the next Youtube. Neither do we want to become a factory just churning out work. We’re experimenting. More and more we’re trying to find our specialist area, which I think is sites that have a long-term dialogue with their reader/user-base. Webcameron was a good example.”
Back in 2006, Head came up with the idea of the UK’s opposition leader, David Cameron, keeping an online video diary – a project which enabled the Tories to grab a piece of the digital limelight and steal a march on Labour, the UK’s ruling party.
Currently, Head is working with Microsoft on building and maintaining a social network for the 1.2m people employed across the NHS. With 20,000 registered users so far, the aim is to get around 70,000 to sign up. Staff can build their own avatar (weemee), form a group or discussion around any topic, as well as be kept informed of NHS events.
Working with big clients such as this can be all-consuming. In order to ensure they don’t miss the more innovative stuff, Ramsey re-invests a “significant amount” of Head’s annual profits into Head Labs, its R&D arm which was set up in 2005.
“We treat Head Labs and clients as projects of equal value. A lot of ideas that start in Labs can be fed back into client work. There might be 2 or 3 people working in Labs at any one time – or we outsource it; I’ve had an outside developer working on Labs for two or three months.”
Ramsey finds he has to tread a careful balance between the two areas:
“If you start to be more of a ‘think’ space you can lose focus and efficiencies, but if you don’t do that you can lose talent. Before Labs, we had to make things in our downtime. Now innovation becomes part of day-to-day operations.”
But it’s important to keep a focus. Above all, Ramsey thinks it’s essential to resist the temptation to be all things to all people:
“It’s very hard for a brand to know what to buy. There’s few agencies that know everything, do everything well. As a client I wouldn’t go to just one agency for everything.”