ThinkOTB Agency

Winning the Queen’s Awards for International Trade: Interview with OTB Chairman Mark Davies

October 28, 2020

Here at Think OTB Marketing and Advertising Agency we were pretty impressed when our Chairman announced to us all that we had been awarded the 2020 Queen’s Award for International Trade. So we thought we’d sit down with him and just find out a little bit more about how we did it and what it means for the agency and our clients going forward.

Tell us about the journey to getting a Queen’s Award, was that your intention from the beginning to achieve such an award?

A few years ago, one of our biggest marketing clients asked us to consider opening an office in Dubai. Having worked with this client for 12 years we thought this would be good for them and good for us too, so we set out to look at its feasibility. We had been working remotely with them for a long time, and not just from Dubai because they have other main offices in the USA and in Singapore but we thought it may bring some benefit if we were close by. We contacted the DTI who are really good at supporting businesses who want to export. They were very helpful, providing us with detailed information and offered support in so many areas such as legal contacts and even desk space. As part of this relationship with them they looked at our business in detail, they could see the potential as well as our successes in the past few years.

Along with other potential candidates I was invited to a meeting in Sheffield with a team from the Queen’s Awards – they were really helpful and guided me through all the steps we would need to take. I knew then this would be a long process – but enjoyable and very rewarding. Something I must do. I knew that what we had achieved was worthy of an award – we hoped for a Queen’s Award because it’s the biggest award a company can win – and I always think you should aim high. I knew the team would be proud, I knew our clients would be happy and whilst I knew it would be a stretch, I’ve never been afraid of a challenge.

What followed was a series of meetings with our accountants and management team, we put Karen Spencer in charge of coordinating the process although I personally took control. The application deadline was in September 2018 and as the saying goes “if it wasn’t for the last minute nothing would get done” – we squeezed it in just in time. Good planning!

And then quite soon afterwards we got the news: “your application is not successful”. Turns out that because our financial year end is September too, we had to estimate our year-end figures – and that is just not acceptable. The review process is pretty strict. So, that meant we had to wait another 12 months before re submitting. Which we did in September 2019. 

And no, we didn’t open an office in Dubai because having invested in technology and the team here in the UK – we believed we could operate just as effectively from here at our marketing and advertising agency office in Leeds.

What do you think winning the Queen’s Awards means to your marketing agency and the city of Leeds?

The award is a testimony of a successful company. You don’t get this successful overnight – it takes years of graft. So, I see this as recognition of our team’s dedication to the cause. The award – the financial success of so much overseas sales cannot be achieved unless the quality of what we do is exceptional – we provide world class marketing communications – we are innovators – better than our competitors around us. That’s why we have been recognised for this award. 

Our country’s heritage, story or reputation can be a real selling point when trading overseas and Leeds in particular has an outstanding reputation for finance and digital communications (now, over 33% of the UK’s internet traffic passes through Leeds, making it one of the most important regional internet centres in the UK). We feel we are particularly well placed to help support the reputation of Leeds for being an important exporter – but also for being a centre of excellence for the financial services sector and communications.

Leeds is the largest financial centre in the UK outside of London, and its financial and insurance services industry is worth £2.1 billion with more than 30 national and international banks located in the city, but we feel it’s important for businesses locally to share their export knowledge. We find it easy to work from a distance, and we are excellent at what we do, albeit on a small scale, and if our experiences can help and support other local business (as they support us), then this is a responsibility we enjoy and want to encourage others to do.

Are you surprised that not many other marketing agencies have achieved the International Trade recognition?

I don’t know of any other agency winning this award. And I don’t know why because there are so many good creative organisations in the UK. The value of the creative industries to the UK is up from £94.8 billion in 2016 to £101.5 billion now, and has grown at nearly twice the rate of the economy since 2010*. Our industry is known throughout the world as the very best, and I would encourage other agencies to embrace this.

*According to figures published by the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS)

For Think OTB’s clients, now and in the future, what do you believe the Queen’s Awards experience can give to them?

Simple – confidence in Think OTB.

We won the biggest award a company can win in the UK, we won it because of our success over many years. And we are successful because we are world class at what we do. So, what does this give our marketing and advertising agency clients? Well, as the saying goes, “success breeds success”. If clients want to be more successful in their marketing communications and engage better with their customers both online and offline they can be confident that Think OTB has a track record of succeeding. We didn’t set out to win an award – we set up the agency to create better ideas, better connections and better results. A creative marketing agency that delivers award-winning work created with a simple premise in mind – whilst we put evidence at the heart of marketing decisions, making an emotional connection between your brand and your customers is the basis for all successful marketing communications.

Since 1988, we’ve brought confidence to marketing teams with our work online and offline and of course we bring creativity – outside the box is not just our name, it’s our philosophy for thinking differently, or from a new perspective. Today, our clients include the world’s leading brands and local SMEs who all aspire to do things better. When organisations are looking for a new agency they need to be confident they have the knowledge, the expertise and also the desire to get the best returns on marketing investment – this award gives them confidence in Think OTB to start a relationship…and see where it takes them.

How does winning the Queen’s Award rank with all your other achievements in your marketing career?

I was told very early on in my career to capture my successes every day – every day you have some sort of success, it could be a new client win, seeing a team member achieve something – many things, often small things, and unless you capture it – you can easily forget it! So my list is pretty long now 🙂 But there are a few highlights:

We have won many awards over the years – but I particularly like the awards from RAR (Recommended Agency Register), it’s voted for by clients. I always think it’s a great achievement to get a pat on the back from a client – and I still love the way we make clients feel – the surprise on their faces – the moment they see the magic we produce every day – that’s the moment right there…the WOW moment, a great idea, a great result – that’s why we are in this industry!

It’s a great achievement to see young people being developed – Jo Waddington joined us over 20 years ago as a young recruit – we developed her and she’s now a director and shareholder – and joint managing partner. 

I’ve travelled the world speaking at conferences and training people in organisations on the front end of innovation and it’s taken me to some amazing places from Tehran and Russia to India, even the Maldives. I’ve been fortunate to write two best-selling books along the journey.

When I first set up this business, I met with other people who ran their own business and I asked them all the same question – what skills will I need to run a successful business? I thought they were going to say accountancy or law – but it was my brother who said it most succinctly “tenacity, that’s all you need – concentrate on doing a brilliant job for clients – but you will need tenacity to ride the waves over the years. He was right of course. Anyone can ride the waves of good fortune – but it’s when difficulties hit you – that’s when you know the sort of person you are. There have been so many times I have had to be resilient – many recessions, many disappointments, and now a pandemic. This is my first pandemic but probably my 4th recession. We are resilient, many bumps and scrapes, sometimes you need to really dig deep. And we have achieved that.

Finally, what is your hope for the future for Think OTB and what are your aims for the future in the world of marketing?

Think OTB has been a part of the marketing industry for many years, we have had to change and morph with the ever-changing needs of clients. But the experience and agility that gives you – the knowledge we have gained will be a part of what helps us succeed in the future. I hope we will thrive, I know it will. I hope Think OTB remains a centre of excellence in marketing – a beacon of creativity. 

The world of marketing has not fundamentally changed. Yes, I know that’s an odd statement. Yes the media we use is very different from even 5 years ago and I know it will be just as different in 5 years’ time.  But the base principles of marketing have not changed.

Marketing experts have to be behavioural experts. Understanding consumer behaviour is paramount. And this has not changed and it will never change, marketing is: “the activity for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers”. 

And the joy comes from the idea – yes, it’s the idea that makes the difference between a successful campaign and something that disappoints. It’s the quality of the idea that gives the greatest return on marketing investment. And that will never change. And that’s the value Think OTB brings to clients every day.

Want to get a Queen’s Awards winning team working for your business? Get in touch


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