Profile: Meet the CEO who is helping to turn Leeds into a digital powerhouse

SOME CVs seem to have been plucked from the pages of a novel.

Gail Dudleston, global CEO of twentysix
Gail Dudleston, global CEO of twentysix

Gail Dudleston’s life story would make a cracking page turner. She’s a workaholic who has galloped across the Masai Mara in Kenya with wildebeest and zebras for company.

Her business career has been defined by a willingness to embrace life in all its richness. This unquenchable enthusiasm (“I’m a typical Leo) combined with charm and a powerful work ethic has taken her to the CEO’s role at twentysix, an award winning, independent, full service digital marketing agency with offices in Leeds, London, New York and Hong Kong.

Twentysix is on course to achieve £16m turnover this year after several major new business wins. Ms Dudleston believes the firm’s impressive portfolio of clients reflects a growing trend for global and national blue chip companies to choose to work with digital agencies outside London, particularly in the North of England. Her working life began when the internet was the stuff of science fiction.

She recalled: “I started work at 13 at Central Restaurant in Cleckheaton as a silver service waitress at 50p an hour. I’ve always had the protestant work ethics drilled into my bones; you work hard to better yourself. During school I had three jobs on the go – I worked in a fruit and veg market for about four years, in the restaurant, in a chip shop, in a pub.

“When I went to Salford University, I went straight to Salford veg market for a job on the stalls as I loved it so much.”

After graduating, she got a job as a trainee chartered accountant but the role didn’t suit her restless spirit. Two weeks before she was supposed to start, she went to Amsterdam for the weekend and came back three years later.

Ms Dudleston said: “I worked in Amsterdam for six months filling youth hostels with back packers from central station but it got so cold that I came home, and hated it, so I immediately bought a flight to the warmest place I could find - Tenerife where I worked in bars.

“I was Banana Bars ladies’ boxing champion and I also sold time share for a few years.”

Time share was at its peak and she said the experience taught her about how to sell, how to close, and also the importance of emotional intelligence.

“It was illegal to work abroad in those days – there was no EU – if you got caught, you got arrested and if you were unlucky, you got deported,’’ she said.

“I remember getting caught working in Tenerife a few times. Once, the police drove me up a mountain and made me walk back down with no shoes on, and another time I had to clean the police van.”

She also spent a night in the police cells waiting to be deported, but managed to talk her way out of it.

“I came back home eventually,’’ she said. “I was about 25 years old and penniless, so I went back to live with my mum in Dewsbury and I got a job in Dewsbury MacDonald’s. MacDonald’s asked me to be a trainee manager at their Leeds branch which I did for a while.

“Then I applied for a job at Damart in Bingley as advertising controller and got it, by fluke, as the interviewer went to the same university as me, so we had a few things in common.”

She later moved on to work for Judith Donovan Associates for two years then to WWAV Rapp Collins in Leeds, where she stayed for 14 years.

Ms Dudleston said: “I was taught by the two greats of DM (direct marketing)– Judith Donovan and John Watson. I was head hunted in March 2005 from WWAV by Jonathan Clarke, then CEO of CMW, to take over what is now the twentysix agency in Leeds.

“My DM skills were perfectly suited to digital as digital marketing is direct marketing on steroids: faster, quicker and cheaper.

“I had never run an agency before so I had to learn quickly, not only how to do the finances, the business strategy, the profit and loss and human resources but sort the blocked toilets out, the dish washer, the plumbing - everything – it was a real shock!

“Working at twentysix has been an amazing experience. We have grown to 148 people in both the Leeds agency, our head office and eight in our London office.”

The agency is a Google Partner, and an approved supplier on multiple Government frameworks for digital and social media. It is opening a digital media operation in New York early next year, so the pace of growth shows no signs of slowing.

She added: “We may be based in Leeds, which is the Northern digital hub, but we work with clients across the world.

“We work with the two P&G (Procter & Gamble) offices in Geneva and Cincinnati and create work in more than 101 markets and languages.”

She added: “I learnt very early on to surround myself with really talented people. Good people don’t need to be managed, they manage themselves.

“It’s attitude that it’s important – skills can be taught but if you don’t have the right attitude then you have lost before you start.

“In business you are making promises all the time. It’s important that you deliver your promises; to have the attitude not to let people down and that you continually strive to deliver. It’s what makes a good business.”

Outside work, she wants to do more yoga and horse riding, and fulfil her dream of self-building a ‘grand design’ house while cracking on with the bucket list, which includes riding across Argentina and opening a greyhound rescue sanctuary. Unsurprisingly, she likes colleagues who share her passion for life.

“I want people who are running up the hill in front of me.”

Factfile: Gail Dudleston

Job title: Global CEO twentysix

DOB: August 9 1964

Education: Whitcliffe Mount Comprehensive School – (head girl, head prefect, house captain, house sports captain). BSC Hons Salford Uni Economics and Stats.

First job: Silver service waitress at Central Restaurant Cleckheaton (13 years old – got 50p/hour!)

Last book read: Chris Carter - An evil mind

Favourite films: Jurassic park

Favourite Tv programme: Monkey World

Favourite holiday destination: Barbados

Car driven: Defender

Thing you are most proud of: My beautiful daughter Georgia (and twentysix!)

My pets: Three horses (Megan, Willian and Joy), two greyhound rescue dogs (Chaz and Fly) plus 15 chickens and Phil the Cockerel.

Hobbies: Horse riding: I’ve even ridden across the Masai Mara on ex -races horses galloping with

Wildebeest and Zebra for 15 days, camping backgammon, yoga and life on a small farm.