Back in the summer, I met with long-standing client Jason Ayers of MA Design in Cheltenham for a spot of lunch and a chat about business, web design and development, and copywriting. Jason also revealed some interesting things about his background – and an unexpected creative talent. Here’s how the conversation went…
AH: So what are you eating, Jason?
JA: Pasta and chicken with copious quantities of salad, I think.
AH: And how’s biz? Where’s MA Design going?
JA: Biz at the moment is good. It’s enjoyable. It’s busy, which everyone, I think, would say anywhere.
AH: And the biggest challenges?
JA: Google without a shadow of a doubt. Our little furry penguin friend causing headaches. Particularly for lots of people that we don’t work for, so that’s a good thing, because they’re getting headaches and coming to us. It’s a challenge, but I think we’re getting there slowly but surely.
AH: Remind me how you got into the business. I know your background was graphics before the web game, but I’m curious about the background. How did you get to where you are now?
JA: Chris and I started MA Design in 2001. Before that we worked together at a travel company. It was quite a large company so I used to manage their studio which was like, 12 or 13 staff and a lot of traditional printed stuff, brochures, you know that full print remit, dealing with national and local newspapers so all the adverts would go into those. It was as much a mass management project as it was looking at the design aspect of things, so that’s where it started.
AH: Are you a designer who went into management or a marketing person who got into design?
JA: That’s a good question. I guess I’m a bit unusual because I don’t think I excel at design but I like to think that I can cut the mustard…
AH: Did you train in design?
JA: No. I trained in Communication Studies which covered a lot of those areas of design principles, typography, communication, mass communication and different types of media, media history, language and even psychology. It’s stood me in good stead for the management side of things but also understanding principles behind communication. Then the design side of things started to come in with the work in the studio environment. So I’m not classically trained in graphic design or marketing but with a much broader, I guess, understanding of how people work, how communication works as well.
AH: You’re doing all right, aren’t you?
JA: Usually smiling…
AH: So what’s the big secret of your success with MA Design?
JA: OK, I think one of the main things is seeing clients’ businesses through their eyes. We don’t say ‘OK, what do you think you want?’ and then say ‘Oh, well, actually, here’s what we think and it’s gospel’. We prefer to get in your head and see where you are, where you want to take the company, and what your priorities are. Everybody wants to be top of the shop, with a good logo and social media. And lots of people still want printed stuff. So it’s understanding the business rather than understanding what’s best for [us].
AH: Surely everybody says they’re trying to do that, but you’re never going to know a business as well as the owner, so how do you actually do it? How do you really get that insight?
JA: I think you learn from what they’ve done in the past and what’s worked for them before. Then you bring your experience and your understanding with general practices and principles and see what worked for other people and other organisations. I think you’re right. I don’t think you can ever get fully immersed in somebody’s company but over time I think you can get to learn a lot of stuff about specialist subjects – such as hydraulics that I’d never have dreamt of understanding but that just came with building up a relationship with clients and going on a journey with them, spending time to understand them, where they are now and where they’re going.
AH: So how do you use freelance copywriters in your work and what are your thoughts on using them in general?
JA: I think you could extend this to any service that we’d look to supply, to subcontract, use associates or whatever the terminology you want to use. For me, in any relationship with a copywriter, photographer or social media specialist, there needs to be a certain level of professionalism. That’s one of the big things. And their experience. If somebody is a copywriter a photographer, there are a lot of assumptions you can make if they’re in business and have been around for a certain amount of time. That’s very important, but one of the key overriding things is professionalism and trust. We need to be able to trust that person to represent our brand in the best possible way. Price comes into it, obviously, but ultimately if things go wrong, then it looks bad on us so we wouldn’t use that person any further.
AH: What are your thoughts on freelance white labelling? Freelancers being themselves and working for you. Or a freelancer ‘being MA Design’ as it were? This must bring challenges. What are your thoughts on those two extremes?
JA: I think it depends on our client and project. Some clients want one port of call; they want to deal with one company that’s got everything in-house. That’s how we come across. I think you’re right, there are pros and cons to both approaches. We will use people from the white labelling perspective but it can add extra admin time, misunderstandings or misinterpretation of conversations and emails and stuff. But if that’s what the project dictates, then that’s what we’ll do.
AH: The integrity of the subcontractor comes into it as well because, at the end of the day, you need the confidence they’re not going to run off with your client and start working directly.
JA: Yeah, and I think that’s a two-way thing with the client as well. People that we work with, we’re transparent with. A lot of people understand the relationship and we’ve not had anybody try and pinch one of our partners and go direct to them intentionally. Sometimes, it does happen just naturally and we trust our providers to say, “Well, we had so-and-so, you know, one client come back and they want X, Y and Z and then, you know, it comes back under our remit.
AH: Let’s talk about the challenge of selling-in professional copywriting services to clients. Now there’s an interesting one because it’s quite a difficult area isn’t it?
JA: Yeah, I think if you’re selling services beyond your own skill sets, that you’re not just selling yourself, then that’s a challenge. Where you’ve got clients who can see value in something it helps. So if people understand the value of a professional photographer, not just somebody just walking round with a camera pressing a button but somebody that sets a scene, strips a scene, you know, and manages everything, then that helps. Similarly with copywriting, if somebody appreciates the added value of having a professionally-written piece of copy as opposed to them just making something up, its easier than when you have to convince people, to educate people. That’s when it becomes harder.
AH: Because we’re in an age, aren’t we, where everyone thinks they can write and take pictures. Especially with the camera technology that’s available to everyone now.
JA: with professional copywriting, I think it comes down to two areas. There’s the obvious benefit of getting the piece professionally written, well-crafted with proper English. But I think one of the big added values comes from the saving of time. That can be a really big factor.
AH: Are you thinking in terms of getting the site going live?
JA: No, I’m thinking more from our customers’ perspective. They can save time. So if you look at, for instance, one of the clients we’re working with at the moment, that means writing blog articles that can be repurposed so one piece does a lot of things. From that particular client’s point of view, though I’m sure he could write a very well articulated, very thoroughly put together article, he hasn’t got enough time in the day to write his blog posts…
AH: I guess his hourly rate is going to be higher than a capable copywriter or photographer. It makes sense.
JA: Again, I think it’s like that with lots of businesses, especially smaller businesses and owner-managers. Everybody has to be an accountant, designer, bookkeeper, marketer or social media person. You’ve got all these different things that you can do yourself but it comes to a point where you’ve got to do what you do best, do your job and grow your business. So, as I say, one of the big benefits of proper copywriting is saving the customer time which is a very big thing for us.
AH: It used to be a challenge getting content off clients for brochures. Now it’s the same for websites and it can actually be a huge show-stopper when you are trying to get a website live or a brochure published.
JA: I think you’re right. I would say 80 per cent of delay on a website project. And it helps to have decent copy from a relatively early stage in the design process too. Loro ipsum placeholder text on the page doesn’t really give the full feel of the site at approval stage. Having personalised content, even just on the homepage, is fantastic. And the speed of completion is definitely faster when somebody is being paid to write. For the clients, there’s always a very good reason for why there’s been a delay. They’re doing their job so the last thing they want to do is to have to sit there and write two or three hundred words of content to go on each page of a website which is now growing into 10, 20 or 50 pages. That’s where professional support helps.
AH: A question for you: how long does it take you to write a page of content for a website?
JA: I don’t know. No, hang on, let’s spin this one round. How about for you?
AH: It depends. If I’ve got free rein on an SEO page that’s set out with a really good page keyword set from someone like Neil Tufano [MA Design’s SEO consultant], who you know I’ve worked with for years. Well, in that case you can probably do it in an hour. More often, for a commercial site, probably somewhere between an hour and two hours per page is realistic.
JA: I think people that aren’t trained in PR and copywriting think they can do it themselves. What makes it harder is giving them 10 or 12 SEO keyword phrases that they have to place into content which is reliant on them using that phrase exactly instead of changing things around and removing plurals and singulars and that kind of thing. I think when people sit down and try to do it themselves, they’d struggle to do it within two hours or even longer.
AH: And you’ve also got to factor-in the preliminaries that go with the work.
JA: Yeah, it’s interesting. People’s perception on how long these things take. I make people very aware that there’s so much work involved. It’s not just a case of, oh, I’ll just put a few words together.
AH: It comes back to making best use of your skills and the value of your time. What’s a typical hourly rate for a senior manager or director in a SME?
JA: It’s got to be £80–100 an hour. Even more if they’re an accountant or a solicitor, I don’t know, what will their fees be charged out at? Even a junior solicitor, say, £70-80 an hour. It has to make sense to do a brief and then actually let the creator get on with it and then come back rather than having to sit there and agonise over something that maybe doesn’t come to them too naturally.
AH: What are your thoughts on working long distance? Working remotely with, say, a London-based copywriter, compared with local copywriter? The London guys say, yeah, you can do it all by Skype and email and you don’t have to use a local copywriter or a local photographer if you’re in Gloucestershire. Yet, actually a lot of my clients say they like this face-to-face contact. What are your thoughts on remote working?
JA: I think that from the localised perspective, it’s a massive selling point. I think that long-distance relationships can work. We work with people outside the county and there are some guys that we work with that we’ve never actually met face-to-face. But I think for something that is as personalised as copywriting, which is really reflecting your tone, that face-to-face interaction is very important. I don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all but I think it’s a distinct USP over and above working with somebody that’s too far away that they can’t come across to meet for a briefing at short notice on a Friday afternoon. In any case, you’re going to pay through the nose for it and probably pay double the rate anyhow for using somebody from the Big Smoke. That’s just the way the industry is.
AH: From your experience, are London fees still astronomically high?
JA: Yeah, to my knowledge.
AH: Would a London-based MA Design be horrendously dear compared to the very good value Gloucestershire-based MA Design that we know and love?
JA: I think so. You only have to look at the operational costs involved with London, if your staff are living in London and you operate in a business with business expenses in London. You’ve got to do the maths on it. It’s going to affect what you have to charge.
AH: Moving on, have you any thoughts on the changing nature of copywriting? We’ve seen the rise in the role of the web over the last 10–12 years, but where’s it going next? Where’s the role of the freelance copywriter going next?
JA: I think, looking at it from the commercial aspect and one of your previous questions about selling-in the copywriting, it’s a difficult thing to sell if people don’t see that they need it. But I think that there is a cost that’s associated with it and I think that the future of copywriting is probably going to involve more re-purposing than previously. People want more bang for their buck so where you’ve got social media, and I’m not just talking Facebook and Twitter, you’re looking at Google Plus now, people are expecting to be able to take one article or one page or one project and re-purpose it across several different communication channels or several different items and so I think that’s probably going to be important …
AH: Do you sense that your clients are actually starting to get the Google message about content and quality of content and regularly updating content? You’re there at the sharp end. Have they seen the light?
JA: I think they’re starting to. The British seem to be typically reserved, typically behind the curve, certainly from the Google perspective: build website, make website A-OK, then pay somebody to do SEO on a monthly basis. That way I, as a website owner, just pay somebody to do stuff and I don’t have to do anything. I think the way the web is now evolving, especially in response to recent penguin updates, the whole concept is shifting towards empowering website owners to produce a news-rich experience with content of their website that people will like. Content that people will want to share and find engaging. That is basically what Google’s Matt Cutts is saying: Make it good and we’ll reward you for it.
AH: You know that. I know that.
JA: So do the clients know that?
AH: Are they getting it?
JA: They’re slowly getting it, yeah, and this is again, I think, where people will always look to outsource and get people involved in helping them. And that’s where I think it comes back to the role of the copywriter.
AH: So what is the most important thing for you when choosing a freelance copywriter?
JA: For us, as an agency, it comes back to my earlier point about representation and being able to deal with our clients in a way that reflects us positively. Writing skills are of course very important, but I think that is kind of an assumed; you take that for granted. You’re not a copywriter or a copywriting business for however many years if you can’t walk the walk. But for us, certainly the biggest thing is to know that when we put a freelance copywriter in touch with our client they are going to do the job and communicate with them properly. That’s certainly the biggest thing for us.
AH: Changing tack completely, I want to ask you about something that’s fascinated me for ages. Your sister Tracey runs a local telemarketing business [Jonti Telemarketing in Cirencester] and your partner Lisa has a dog-grooming business with an online presence. You must get involved with these. Does working with partners and family create special challenges?
JA: I think it can do, yeah. There’s the level of expectations. For instance, in the case of my sister’s business, having a website delivered and two weeks later, saying ‘why am I not top of the shop in Google for all of my key phrases?’ That’s something we see a lot of with everybody and I think there’s a different kind of pressure when it’s people that are closer to you… One thing that comes out of working on those projects is that you get to see closer to home the impact and the importance of getting it right. So, with Lisa my partner’s website, for her dog-grooming business, Blossoms Pet Care, she’s now fully-booked for her services until the middle of July. She now literally hasn’t got anything left free until the August Bank Holiday with her new business, so to be moaned at that ‘I’m too busy…
AH: You get moaned at?
JA: Yes, I’ll get moaned at that she’s too busy. That’s a good moan to have, I think. If things weren’t in place that are in place, then she would quite possibly be struggling with generating new business, going round the old routine of banging on doors, pushing things through letterboxes, advertising in the local printed magazines. Yes, so it’s work, but bang for buck, when you see the enquiries that are coming through, ‘Oh, I found your website…’, ‘Oh, I’m just on your website…’ so when you see it close to home and you see what it can generate, then you realise that you’re doing the right thing…
AH: Interesting. Now, Do you fancy a bit of dessert?
JA: Oh God no, or I will be asleep, I won’t…
AH: What are you going to do when you get back to the office? Apart from have a sleep…
JA: Yeah. Have a sleep followed by check what will probably be about twenty or so emails.
AH: So tell me, before we finish, what do you do to unwind when you’re not at work? What’s your thing? I know you like photography.
JA: Yeah, I do a little bit, a tad…I think for me it’s music.
AH: What, do you play? Guitar?
JA: As in DJ’ing, yeah. I used to own a nightclub as well
AH: In Cheltenham?
JA: No, in another area of Gloucestershire, shall we say? I’ve been involved with clubs since I was about eighteen. I’ve DJ’d in Greece and in Melbourne, Australia.
AH: Did you live in Melbourne?
JA: Only for six months.
AH: Who are your musical influences, or is there no-one quite like Jason?
JA: No, no, no.
AH: Did you DJ under your real name?
JA: No, as Fat Boy Fat.
AH: As distinct from Fat Boy Slim?
JA: Exactly. That was a nickname my mother gave me.
AH: I’m guessing that was the early 90s?
JA: Yeah, so I mean, I started in ‘89, the year before I went to Australia.
AH: So Greece, Melbourne…when were you out in Melbourne?
JA: ‘89–‘90. Twelve months out there. Six months living in Melbourne, five months travelling and another month back in Melbourne.
AH: So who do you really rate in the business? Who are your influences?
JA: That’s hard. A lot people try to pigeonhole each other. Oh and you do this and you do that…
AH: Is that dangerous?
JA: It can be, yeah, like with EDM in the States and the superstar DJ explosion and people jumping on the bandwagon, like David Guetta. And Calvin Harris is another example. You know, pop-wise they’ve exploded and done really well and then you’ve got others coming from a more purist sort of DJ perspective.
AH: So it is now just for amusement and relaxation at home?
JA: Yeah, and also, I do the odd wedding, strange as it may sound, but that’s more to do with a wedding which is dance music-orientated as opposed to classic.
AH: What’s on your turntables at the moment?
JA: I don’t know names of many tunes. Just if it sounds good, it goes onto a disc and I play it.
AH: Really, as simple as that?
JA: Yeah. I’m available to hire for weddings and bar mitzvahs. I did get asked once if I’d come to play at a funeral. Yeah, so in my spare time, playing music and relaxing.
AH: That’s brilliant and a fascinating way to round off a very interesting insight into your world. There’s loads of great material. Thank you very much for taking time out to talk so candidly.
JA: It’ll be really interesting to see the end result.
For more information about MA Design’s online and print design services, or their widely-acclaimed free SEO training seminars:
MA Design Solutions Limited
Cheltenham Film Studios
Gloucestershire, GL51 6PN
Phone: 01242 220320
Email: enquiries[substitute’@’ here]ma-design.biz
Or come along to the Gloucestershire Chamber Networking Breakfast on Wednesday 20 November 2013 where Jason will be taking his successful SEO seminar on the road and presenting Google Search, SEO and you…