Entrepreneur Interview: with Tom Hedley, Hedley McEwan

Posted on the 14 December 2016

Entrepreneur Interview: with Tom Hedley, Hedley McEwan

Tell me a little about your background.

I started in, what you would then loosely call, ‘the marketing industry’ almost 40 years ago as a window dresser in the fashion sector. Back then there was no such thing as ‘display teams’ or ‘visual merchandisers’ working to ‘set templates’ like you have now, and actual ‘artistic and creative ability’ was fundamental to the job. 

I didn’t come through university, I actually went to art school and to find a job coming out of art school which utilised the skills that you had acquired was difficult, but I was fortunate enough find a start with ‘Burtons’ and ‘Jackson the Tailors’, a job I greatly enjoyed.

I then stumbled into something more akin to what we now understand as marketing in quite a strange way; I’d moved on to Wades Furnishing, the head office in London said each region should have a ‘marketing manager’ and the manager of the Sunderland store said, “Oh, the window dresser can do that!”

It was a great grounding and it taught me a set of principles that I have carried into almost every aspect of my working life. Certainly in my business life now, ‘quality presentation’ permeates every element of what we do, it’s critical. 

How did you get started on your own?

I was at Robson Brown for around 25 years and Duncan, my business partner, was there for 28. Six years ago, Robson Brown was bought by an American company, which unfortunately went bust and took Robson Brown down with it.

Duncan, myself and another director tried to buy RB out of administration. That didn’t work out, so Duncan and I hatched the plan that we had talked about for a few years previously, and Hedley McEwan was born. 

When we got together to map out the vision for Hedley McEwan (over several Guinness), we knew what we wanted the company to be; a truly ‘creative-centric’ company.

We don’t pretend we can do everything. The core team that we have here is all about creativity, creating and crafting the ‘Big Idea’ from which everything else then develops. I do believe that we are the only truly, singularly creative company in Newcastle and probably the North East for that matter. 

What was your first business premises?

We had to set up very rapidly, so we moved in with a friend of mine who had a digital business. This introduced us to Ouseburn which was fast growing into what it has now become, the creative and digital hub of Newcastle and the wider region. About 18 months ago we bought where we are now on St Peter’s Marina, it’s a hidden gem, a fantastic location. 

How has the business grown?

There were five of us on day one and there are 14 of us now. Our extensive previous experience told us that there would be a point in our growth cycle where if we got to a position of somewhere between 12-15 great people working with a similar amount of great clients, then that would be the perfect balance; allowing us to invest the time required for each challenge to deliver the best creative product we can. We have been fortunate enough to get to that position sooner than we thought. 

How is your market changing?

The obvious answer is the rise of ‘digital’ and it’s interesting that most people view digital as a kind of sector in its own right. It isn’t really. In our view it’s always just been another media platform, another route to market. For us, it’s always about the core idea. In simple terms, digital means you can communicate more accurately and ‘personally’, and react much quicker, so agility is a great benefit. You can’t change a TV campaign overnight but you can change digital campaigns in minutes; if you see something happening in your market, you can be right on it. 

Our approach to business hasn’t changed and I believe this is because Duncan and I are from a classical advertising background where what matters is the big idea (some would call it the ‘strategic thought’) that works across every platform, not about the delivery technologically, the latest gimmick or the route to market.

What is your Unique Selling Point?

The ability to generate the ‘big idea’ based on rock-solid strategic thinking. An idea that is then extendible into every aspect of a client’s communications, both externally and as importantly, internally; it’s amazing how many companies overlook taking their own people on their marketing journey. If the core idea can only work on a limited level then it is not fit for purpose. 

How do you keep your team motivated?

We try and do that in almost every way that we can. We of course, believe we pay people well, but we also try to make sure that the environment and working atmosphere is the best it can be. Duncan and I absolutely believe that we have provided the best working environment that we can; our people are the best at what they do, so consequently we want them to work on the best quality work we can attract. Unlike most other sectors, within the creative industry people really just enjoy doing what they do and value creative fulfilment, so pay alone isn’t always the biggest motivator.

We want to provide everyone here with opportunities to be creative. Anyone that comes and sees our working environment will immediately understand this. We are a small team, a family, and we make sure that the mixture of personalities is absolutely right to generate the all-important creative energy. 

How does your motivation now compare with that when you started the firm?

Like anyone else, I want to enjoy coming to work. For most of my working career the ability to create a great working environment wasn’t down to me. At Robson Brown I was fortunate, overall it was a very enjoyable experience, working with some amazing creative and project management talent (many of whom now make up the core of the Hedley McEwan team), and for a good deal of that time we were working with the best clients, in the best offices and environment. So for me now, my personal motivation comes from knowing I couldn’t put more in to making this place a great place to work. 

I mentioned the family aspect about Hedley McEwan. It’s a wonderful place to be in life when you only work with people you really like; I don’t exclude clients in this. We only work with clients that we really like. I know that not everyone is lucky enough to get to this position and we have worked hard to achieve it. The mix of personalities within our client rosta has got to be as good as the creative chemistry. It’s great when you get to the stage that when the phone rings you know you’re going to have an enjoyable conversation, regardless of who is at the other end. 

How does mentoring work in your company?

I’m lucky that in my working life I have worked with some really outstandingly talented people and none more so than Duncan, who continually surprises and inspires me (quite something after 30 years of working together!). 

We don’t mentor in a structured way, but because of the make-up of the company with many of the team having worked together for 15 to 20 years plus, mentoring happens on a daily basis. Everybody interacts with everyone else; people learn and are mentored continually.

What does the future hold for Hedley McEwan?

Well, we are always looking at ‘what’s next’ and we are about to launch another strand to our business specialising in film content for online use. We have exceptional in-house expertise and the best available equipment to be able to write, produce, direct and edit, highly creative film content; exactly what all businesses need to promote themselves online. 

We’ve done a lot of this already but have never really pushed it hard as a specialism. Now we are further investing quite significantly in this area. The world communicates through film, it’s our most powerful and persuasive means of communication.