Data science is key to unlocking digital marketing potential, says Search Laboratory boss

From Yorkshire to New York and back again, Search Laboratory CEO Chris Attewell doesn’t shy away from a challenge and is preparing for further growth, writes Lizzie Murphy.

Chris Attewell, CEO of Search Laboratory in Leeds. Picture James Hardisty.

It takes a bold person to decide to uproot a young family and move across the Atlantic to New York City but Chris Attewell was up for the challenge.

In 2014, as head of sales and marketing at Leeds-based digital marketing firm Search Laboratory, he persuaded the board that he was the man to set up the firm’s second office, which, after some discussion, ended up in Brooklyn.

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“I like a bit of a challenge and I came to the business and said ‘what else can I do? I’d like to move abroad’,” says Attewell, 39.

“I was really keen to show my kids that if you want to move somewhere else and start something then you can make it happen and my wife was keen to move somewhere new.”

“Obviously it was something the business needed, otherwise we wouldn’t have done it.”

He adds: “We’d always had a lot of clients in the US historically but we’d struggled to keep hold of them for a long time, usually because they found somebody in the US who was closer and could do a better job of servicing them. So we knew there was a market there for us.”

“We looked at the east and west coast but the time difference back to the UK is just a bit unmanageable when it’s eight hours because we still deliver a lot of work from the UK for US clients.”

So Attewell moved to Brooklyn with his wife, six year old son, two month old daughter and two dogs for two-and-a-half years.

“I think we underestimated how tough it might be in the beginning. Just with having zero contacts or brand awareness,” he says. “But very quickly, once we got a bit of traction it grew nicely and it was hugely rewarding. We were the gateway through to clients in Europe.”

On a personal level, Attewell says the main challenge was not having a support network. “The challenge isn’t so much living in a city with kids because millions of people do that, you can make it work and it’s great for them,” he says. “But you can’t just ring your parents and say, ‘do you fancy having them for a few hours while we go out?’ Instead you’re paying $20 an hour for a babysitter and your everyone is miles away.”

The US office, which employs 17 staff, is now 23 per cent of the business.

Search Laboratory is a multilingual digital agency that helps businesses generate more revenue through their websites through search engine optimisation, paid media, social media, content marketing, plus analytics and data science.

It works with large clients, particularly in the retail, travel and financial services sectors, including Ann Summers, Moonpig and Mothercare.

It has a particular specialism in working with global clients who require digital marketing campaigns in multiple languages and it employs an in-house team of linguists in Leeds.

Attewell joined the company in 2012 as business development manager. He returned to Leeds after his stint in the US as global sales director in 2016 and became Search Laboratory’s new CEO earlier this year after founder Ian Harris stepped back to become executive chairman.

The company has a turnover of £13.2m, a pre-tax profit of £1.3m and 150 staff across its two offices.

Search Laboratory recently became one of the few UK based agencies to gain Certified Company status for Google’s Search Ads 360.

It is also regularly featured in The Sunday Times best employers list.

The focus of the business now is on what it calls integrated digital campaigns, where it is employed to carry out a number of different services for a client in one project.

“We feel that there’s an increasing demand, in particular with larger advertisers and brands, to deliver across multiple channels in one single engagement and also provide a layer of strategy that sits above that to help the client undertstand where they should be spending their money.”

He adds: “We’ve had real success over the past few years in winning those kind of clients and it’s meant that our average revenue per client has increased, our average size of new client has more than doubled over the past 12-18 months.”

Looking ahead, Attewell believes that data science - the ability to pull valuable insights from data using scientific methods - will play a huge role in improving the efficiency of campaigns.

“The technology is almost there now to enable people to have a much better understanding of what what’s working and what’s not working, and where they should spend their money,” he says. “It’s that area of the business for us where we see a huge opportunity, because we’re really good at that stuff.”

Softly spoken, Attewell describes himself as laid back but adds that he likes the pressure of targets and competition from working in sales.

Originally from Washington, in the North East, he studied French at Sunderland University.

Prior to Search Laboratory, he held a number of roles in sales for technology and recruitment companies.

Search Laboratory is currently growing its turnover by 20 per cent annually. Although Attewell says the current political turmoil and Brexit are worrying, the uncertainty hasn’t negatively impacted the company. He says he has taken steps to support its large team of foreign nationals.

The main challenge, he says is recruiting the right people. “There’s a real demand for good digital marketing skills. There are a lot of people fighting for resources in Leeds,” he adds.

“A big part of our success has been due to the kind of culture we’ve worked hard to build up over time. We like having a good place to work.

“However, it does mean that we’re a bit more selective in the recruitment process where we turn down people sometimes if we don’t think they will fit culturally.”

Another challenge is keeping up with the fast-paced digital marketing sector. “I think the challenge we always have is that the sector moved very quickly and technology changes very quickly,” he says.

“You’ve always got to have one eye on the future and be agile enough to adapt to what’s around the corner and we’ve done a really good job of that over the years. It’s one of the main things that has allowed us to grow over the longer term.”