BComm '00, MBS '01
Setting up Zoo Digital right at the start of the recession has ended up being a positive for the creative digital agency, according to co-founder Colin Hetherington, who says the timing made company lean from the start and very focused on what is important to the business. In the seven years since, the agency has built up client list that includes Red Bull, MasterCard, Irish Distillers and Intel, picked up numerous awards, and been named on Forbes.com’s list of ‘Top 100 Global Ad Agencies'.
About Colin Hetherington
Tell us a bit about your educational background
I always had an interest in business – it was my favourite subject in school and at an early age I always found myself organising events or in part-time jobs, trying to make a bit of money. So when it came to selecting a degree course, commerce was an easy choice. In my final year in the BComm (a slightly extended degree as I took a year out to be auditor of UCD Commerce & Economics Society [C&E]), I thought I wanted a career in consultancy so took the management information systems stream. There was a slight issue though in that maths and programming languages were not exactly a forte of mine! So my choice of stream in final year ruled out a career for me, rather than setting me on that path.
I had always been interested in marketing, noticing good adverts and spotting clever communications from brands I liked, and my stint as the Red Bull rep for UCD definitely gave me an insight into how brands work and what needs to be done to get attention. Being auditor of C&E and coming up with new events and weird gimmicks to get the society noticed and to make it money was also definitely a help.
My master’s in e-commerce from Smurfit was chosen after some valuable time spent in the dotcom central of San Francisco. At that stage I knew I was definitely interested in marketing and particularly the then emerging world of online.
Tell us about your career progression and some of the milestones since leaving UCD
There’s probably one key company that really stands out for me that resulted in two major jobs. And for milestones, one key cup of coffee. My job with Agency.com in San Francisco introduced me to the world of digital advertising and marketing. I loved the new thinking and how online was challenging traditional business models and marketing, which is something that we take totally for granted now. But in 1999, this was seriously new and being in San Francisco at the time really did feel like we were at the heart of it.
Little did I realise then that six years later I would be setting up the Dublin office of Agency.com. Establishing the office in Dublin was proper skin-of-your-teeth stuff, as digital advertising was really only starting at the time, in the mid 2000s. I did get to cut my teeth with some brilliant brands like Jameson, McDonalds and the National Lottery – as well as learning the basics of running a company and managing a team.
Now to that cup of coffee. After three years of running a business for someone else, I had a real desire to run a business for myself. Well, it ended up being a business of three very different, but highly compatible, blokes (Agency.com’s creative director, Chris Preston and its technical director, Martin Byrne), who had all been thinking the same thing. Over a cup of coffee, we shared our similar ambitions about going out on our own – and Zoo Digital was born. Our timing was a bit ‘edgy’ to say the least – we ended up starting right at the start of the recession at the beginning of 2008. But, weirdly that ended up being a bit of a blessing – it made us lean, focused on what was seriously important to our business and ensured we were really serious about this and had to deliver. There were many bills that were going to have to be paid when three guys are in it together.
What is Zoo and what sets it apart?
Zoo is an independent digital advertising agency. We’ve been up and running for seven years now and have built an interesting mix of clients, including RaboBank, Red Bull, MasterCard, Britvic Ireland, Irish Distillers, Danone, New Ireland and Intel.
What makes us different? We like to think it comes down to our thinking and the blend of our team. I know a lot of folk in this area talk about ‘innovative thinking’ and all that, but that’s what we really focus on every day. We’ve sent the first Irish tweets to space, we’ve opened Ireland’s first social media pop-up shop for Innocent Smoothies and we created a virtual 80ft cliff dive experience for Red Bull. And it’s shamefaced bragging but we’re very proud of the awards we’ve picked up for that innovation over the last two years: Digital Media Awards, An Post Smart Marketing Awards, APMC Awards, a Kinsale Shark, and being recognised on Forbes.com’s list of ‘Top 100 Global Ad Agencies That Know Social Media and Google’.
We’re still quite a small agency, but we pack a punch.
What is your role and how has it changed over the last seven years?
I’m managing director and head of client services. And finance. And new business development. And for some reason, ensuring the office is stocked with milk. In many ways my role has changed but in many other ways it has not changed at all! At the heart of my job is dealing with people – both clients and the Zoo team. The folk may change from time to time but the work is very similar – listening, understanding, being fair, being honest and hopefully making as many folk happy as is possible.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I have a fairly relaxed and supportive style. My wife calls me Still Water – I’m pretty calm most of the time and it takes a bit to get me riled up. I’m not the first to grab the microphone and start barking orders. However, I like to challenge our team to consistently create and innovate. And if I don’t feel like we’re setting the bar high enough… yeah, the team hears about it.
What is your philosophy in business and in life?
Work hard and be nice to people.
Who or what are your greatest influences?
With the nature of what I do, there isn’t one person or thing that I can or should rely on for influence or else you’d get stuck in a rut. So it’s a lot of things, innovative things. I like anyone who turns an idea on its head, or challenges thinking – like what Jeff Bezos did with the book industry or What Three Words is doing for addresses (Google it, it’s pretty interesting). I will admit to also being a sucker for business books on creative thinking or new ideas. You can keep your thrillers or biographies, there’s only one section I head straight to in the bookstore.
What are your main tips or advice for success?
Does anyone answer this question with anything but a cliché? Treat people the way you would like to be treated. I’m a real believer in being decent in your business dealings with people.
What would you say are your main achievements to date?
Growing Zoo through the recession to a company of 18 people, creating successful marketing ideas for our clients that I’m properly proud of, and helping with some of the biggest brands in the world.
Any particular learning experiences you want to share?
Have coffee with people. You never know what may come of it.
What are your main interests outside of work?
I am going through that standard midlife crisis of taking up running. And I’m a member of 20-person golf society set up in UCD undergrad days that doesn’t play a lot of golf.