David v Goliath: How do you compete with the big dogs of digital?

19 Sep 2017

Martin Casey, managing director at Arekibo. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

As managing director for digital agency Arekibo, life moves pretty fast for Martin Casey. How does he keep on top of it all?

Prior to Arekibo, Martin Casey co-founded digital consultancy Zartis in 1999, which was acquired by Breakaway Solutions in 2000.

He is an ex-board member of the Irish Internet Association and is Ireland’s representative on the World Summit Award, an international award that recognises the best digital content globally.

Casey has an MA in interactive media from the University of the Arts London and Dublin Institute of Technology, and a BA in design from Limerick School of Art and Design.  

‘Arekibo is an evolving business and we can never stop reflecting on how we can improve. If we stop wanting to be better, we won’t last very long’

Describe your role and what you do.

I’m co-founder and managing director of Arekibo. Arekibo is Ireland’s largest independent digital consultancy. We work with government, enterprise and fast-growing companies to plan, design and co-manage their digital presence.

We also have recently launched Ireland’s first user-testing agency, X Communications, to help companies test their digital product through the development life cycle, and we have a modest seed fund through Arekibo Ventures.

My role has two parts: to work with our clients to develop their digital strategy, and to build a dynamic and expert team to support them to realise their digital ambition.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

My schedule each week is predominantly focused on working with our team and clients. Our team is all in the office on Mondays. This gives everyone the opportunity to catch up, discuss projects, plan for new client opportunities, report to clients and review long-term delivery schedules.

Throughout the week, I make myself available to meet the teams as often as possible, where we discuss and review the finer details on projects and I provide feedback and direction where required. Continual assessment of our work is very important and this is the reality of working in an agency.

In regard to priorities, the most important task needs to be done first and, as we operate in a deadline business, there are always a number of priorities each week that keep the momentum and meet our clients’ own deadlines. Our Monday model helps the team to check back into base and assess their plans and focus for the coming weeks – think of it like agency confession, cleansing your soul at the start of the week.

As often as possible, I drop my sons into school and have a coffee in town with my wife before I head into the office. This is really important to me and provides a great balance between family life and work.

Every night, I review my week’s progress, plan for meetings, and catch up with internal actions and emails.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Digital – be it strategy, creative, marketing, technology or analytics – is critical to the success and long-term viability of all businesses. We are therefore very fortunate that we work and deliver services in a vibrant and dynamic industry. The rapid acceleration of the industry means that we always have to keep our focus on how we can deliver and tailor our services to provide more value to our clients. Our team is very passionate about what we do and the diversity of our team means that there is always discussion on where we can optimise our delivery process, harness new technology or work closer with our clients.

Arekibo is an evolving business and we can never stop reflecting on how we can improve. If we stop wanting to be better, we won’t last very long.

The last nine years of economic turbulence have impacted all businesses in Ireland, and their confidence to fully invest in new initiatives, especially digital, has been affected. We are now seeing a return of confidence and, as a result, the desire and, most importantly, the executive backing for digital is evident.

Arekibo has entered a new phase of our evolution where we are now competing day in day out against much larger international firms – think David v Goliath. These global agencies and consultancies will continue to muscle into the market but we are ready and equipped to battle for the business.

Services businesses are built on relationships and trust. Arekibo’s reputation and track record provides our clients with the reassurance and confidence that we will always deliver for them. We are very passionate about this and without the wonderful relationships we have, our business would never have grown to what it is today.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Digital is disrupting every business and this disruption will only continue. Our role is to support our clients to plan for and manage this disruption so they can capitalise on the opportunities available to them.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

There are many factors that helped me and, in all cases, it includes many great people who gave me the push and support when I needed it.

As far as my road into digital, after finishing my design degree, I decided to go back to college to do an MA in interactive media. This was in 1996 and the internet was just beginning. As part of the MA, we had to create a project for our final assessment. I developed Born with a Broken Tongue, an interactive CD-ROM that gave you the experience of having a stutter. The project went on to win numerous international awards and was the catalyst to my career in digital.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

My biggest mistakes are where I ignored my gut. I trust my gut much more now and I believe this is a very important element that isn’t utilised by people. As a result, I don’t think you make as many mistakes, or feel the regret as much.

I spend a lot of time reflecting on decisions before I make them but once I do, I rarely second-guess myself or analyse the decision. I try to immediately move on and whatever happens, good or bad, is OK. Hindsight isn’t anyone’s friend. Mistakes are there to be made and if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. Unfortunately, you only learn by making mistakes, as the frustration and pain provide lasting knowledge.

There are several ventures I didn’t invest in – even though my gut told me to do so – that went on to sell for millions. I’ll keep learning the hard way.

How do you get the best out of your team?

We are a creative company and our team therefore needs to have the latitude and independence to perform to the best of its ability. We are continually evolving and the team’s input in helping the business grow is critical to our long-term success. There are too many moving parts in digital to not allow our team to contribute and influence the direction we take.

Nobody wants to be pigeonholed and, in Arekibo, our team is exposed to the entire business. This is critical in helping the team understand how its contribution helps the entire business. Everyone has to be client-facing and, even though for many this is daunting, the experience makes them better and more aware of their role and influence in the company.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to be more inclusive?

The digital and creative industry has always attracted an eclectic and diverse collection of personalities. I’ve been very fortunate to have been taught and mentored by great women and men, and am very aware of the benefits of diversity in the workplace.

The STEM sector is behind the creative sectors but there is a wave of talent that will eventually occupy senior leadership in the future, or will go on to build very successful companies. Our children won’t be held back and the opportunities for them to work in industries that were once exclusively dominated by men won’t be a barrier.

Who is your role model and why?

The honest answer here is my parents. They busted their gut to give my sister and I the best education and opportunities they could. Also, my wife Josette – we met in college and have been inseparable since. She is a dynamo and takes no crap from me.

In business, I like Richard Branson’s attitude and focus, and I had the pleasure of meeting him a few years ago.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz – a book every business person wants to write.

Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman. Read it slowly and take it in.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

I have a Mac Air laptop, iPad and iPhone as my devices of choice. I have at least one of these always on me.

I use Evernote for notes, and the product helps me to keep track of my train of thought, and I log any ideas and actions as and when I think of them. I use Gmail and Handle for my emails and daily actions. I use Drive to store all documents, and Hangouts for quick internal comms. I use Pocket to track and log any articles I read, and index these by category and theme – this is my resource library that I use for projects and research. I keep all devices continually synced to access all of these tools. This is critical and reduces any time wasted looking for content.

When I’m travelling, I use Spotify and Netflix, and I max my download limits to have access to as much music and video content as possible. I dip in and out of Twitter and Instagram to access cycling, design and technology content, but try to keep this to a minimum.

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