Magpie was founded in 2009 by Becky Dam and Ged Savva, who are Cofounding Directors of the agency. They were joined in 2019 by Kim Somerville as Managing Director. Here we sit down with Becky, Ged and Kim to hear about the story of Magpie, the challenges and opportunities of the work they do, and what the future holds…
Magpie was founded back in 2009. Can you cast your minds back to tell us a bit about how it all began?
GED: I met Kim and Becky at Leeds University Union where we were all part of an amazing marketing team. Here I became responsible for running wellbeing and safety campaigns for student audiences that received external funding from NHS, West Yorkshire Police and Public Health. I’d have to co-create with the target audience, work with academics in health sciences and behaviour change and report on impact to ensure more funding.
BECKY: We first met when I was a student designer, Ged a graduate. I absolutely loved my job, the people I worked with and the things I worked on. We all did. I loved that we really cared about every piece of communication, and I loved the constant challenge of coming up with new ideas to get a new message across in the same old space. And there was no hiding from the results – your audience was there, in the same building, providing immediate feedback to your work through their action (or inaction – we learnt fast!).
Working late one night, Ged turned to me and said, “we should do this ourselves, right?” And I said ok then! I suppose if you want to do something and factors outside your control are making it tricky, you just have to take matters into your own hands and find a way. That moment sums up our relationship really – he’s all about the ambition; the big idea, the creative possibility. I’m the one who goes, right then, how do we make it happen?
GED: We had this absolute passion for creating amazing campaigns for student audiences and seeing the impact being made in front of your eyes. We were using our creative skills to deliver an amazing life experience for students and impact positively on their wellbeing, and we’d just been part of a team that contributed towards a national award for our place of work. We decided to set up Magpie so we could do this on a bigger scale.
KIM: I worked with Ged and Becky for a short while around this time, as the Marketing Manager in the same team. Core to what we did in that team was listening to the target audience and getting their views to help make the marketing activity more effective.
“Ged and Becky were part of a set of visionary, creative thinkers who worked really hard because they deeply cared about their work and they wanted to see a positive impact on society. They were always destined to write their own rule book allowing them to involve the target audience and use their creative skills for social good.”
What were the early days of Magpie like?
BECKY: Exciting! We worked in a market we knew and felt confident in, and we got great feedback – we made our clients happy which made us happy. We built up organically, one step at a time using the networks we had. We learnt something new every day, we Googled a lot, we travelled, we met so many great people.
GED: Within three years, we were working across 22 campuses from Edinburgh to Bristol as well as having a student insight network in major cities across the UK and a student PR agency (in partnership with Ptarmigan Bell Pottinger).
We grafted, got out there, made sure one campaign led to the next. We built the business from the two of us, a start up grant from the Enterprise team at University of Leeds, two computers and the inspiration we gained from our former job and the great people who worked there, like Kim.
“From the beginning our approach was to accept the brief only as a starting point – we’re curious, and observant, we’d want to hear things for ourselves. We’d go and speak to people, to listen, to understand what would motivate and use their stories to spark creative ideas. And we’d ask, “where do people go around here?” and we’d walk in their shoes to find the places we could communicate with them directly. The actual touch points in their lives. Where they’re going to notice it.”
GED: From the early days we always insisted on keeping a personable approach, having a small business mindset and, as a small team, we were always on it with people development, performance management and even our own in-house university. This played to our curious nature and thirst for knowledge.
How have things changed since 2009?
GED: With the support of our amazing team we’ve continued to grow, from two of us to three, then six, then sixteen and now more than twenty.
BECKY: And we refined our approach a lot. We worked with a world expert in Social Norms theory, on projects such as a substance misuse campaign and a Yorkshire-wide smoking awareness campaign. It is through this work where you can start to see our approach, combining the collaborative elements – walking in someone’s shoes, listening, being curious – with our creativity and blending it with a deeper understanding of the theory.
GED: Developing campaigns with target populations, being in communities and gaining first hand insights is where the magic happens.
BECKY: Yes, we took this blend into each of our campaigns. All our campaigns would be different, each would have their own identity because each of the communities were unique but with the same principles underpinning.
GED: So we’ve maintained a lot of these principles but have invested in experts in their fields.
“We’ve brought in specialist skills and have focussed our plans around being leaders in life-changing campaigns for social good.”
How did your approach develop over this time?
GED: As Becky mentioned, it was based on principles that existed from the beginning. In 2011 we launched Europe’s biggest social norms smoking cessation intervention across Yorkshire and the Humber, shared in lecture theatres around the world, and we grew in this area of health and well-being with national clients – always working with academics, behavioural science principles and design-thinking.
BECKY: When you’re building a business and have responsibility for team members it’s easy to be steered by where the work is. There was a time when we were less focused, so our expertise didn’t shine through. We always tried to apply our campaign thinking and we did a good job, but we weren’t always the best in the world. And you need to be if you really want to make a difference. So we had to be brave. We looked at everything we did, and we saw that it was the behaviour change campaigns where we really excelled, where we could apply the best of our creative skills and make the greatest impact. That’s what we’re really good at. That’s the work that’s inspiring. So we phased out all the other stuff and focused on creative behaviour change campaigns.
GED: There is a fine balance between designing to make something look good and making something that is cut-through and causes action. At the heart of this is ensuring we test, learn, evaluate, get ever better and do not alienate our audience by creating something for ourselves rather than for them. This is where we put our ego aside and make sure we are always led by our behavioural insights.
We do a lot of what we used to do and then some. There is much more intelligence behind our projects and understanding of nuances that help us overcome barriers for change. This now comes from our behavioural insights team, our campaign consultants, our community engagers and campaigners. We consult more and work more strategically.
The scale of our work is much bigger and we are continuing to grow and diversify into new clients and populations. The scale of our work is much bigger and we are continuing to grow and diversify into new clients and populations. Our campaign reach has grown across the country.
Our client retention and feedback is incredible and we are all driven by a passion for healthier and happier communities – so growth for us is about our potential to make more impact rather than more money or a boost in reputation and awards. The challenge here is sustaining this in a commercial way.
KIM: I watched Magpie and Ged and Becky develop and grow (in awe) over 10 years and always wondered what it would be like to have such creative freedom and work with a collective of people where you get to choose the causes you work on to create change for good.
Which brings us to 2019, and Kim – you joined Magpie. What was it that drew you to the agency?
KIM: So many things drew me to Magpie! It probably stems from being a client and seeing the positive work Magpie produced for me. I moved on from Leeds University Union where I met Ged and Becky to become the Director of Marketing at Leeds Trinity University. I needed creative help from an agency that listened and understood the communities I worked with and would deliver creative campaigns to attract a wide range of potential students. That’s when I became one of the first clients of Magpie. The Magpie team were full of positive energy and were able to take a standard campaign brief and turn it into a question about ‘what behaviour do we need to change’? It is the intelligence behind the approach and the commitment to co-creating answers with the communities being targeted that has always been so special. Magpie has always been really great at that, and it’s when I first started thinking that I wanted to be more involved in this way of working!
I left Leeds Trinity almost a decade later feeling like I wanted to do more hands-on campaigning, for a cause close to my heart in the charity sector. I was a mum to two girls at this point and was convinced by the power of the outdoors on their health and wellbeing, and mine! I was appointed to run a national campaign which promoted the many benefits of learning outside the classroom for children. Again my go-to agency for creating intelligent campaign materials and helping me to generate real advocacy was Magpie.
At this point Ged and Becky’s portfolio of clients had grown and their focus was very much moving into wider creative behaviour change to benefit people and the planet. Meanwhile I was promoted to the Head of Charity and then the CEO of the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom. I was doing lots of travel, and lobbying for children to have more education in the outdoors, but it was taking me away from Leeds and my family. I was also really missing the creativity of my campaigning work and impact of broader causes. So in 2019 when Ged and Becky approached me about a new Director role it didn’t take long for me to put my hat in the ring and place an application. Now I get to work every day on campaigns really close to my heart and with a purpose-driven, bright and creative team of people.
As you think about the past, present and future of Magpie, what do you see as the biggest challenges the agency currently faces?
BECKY: Growing in a way that is sustainable in every sense of the word. We’ve always tried to do right by the people we employ, the clients who choose us and the communities we work with. We are continually filling our brains with knowledge about how to have a more positive impact on the world, and use entrepreneurship to find better, more balanced ways of doing business.
GED: Behaviour change takes time and our projects are typically public sector and government funded. We are able to plan for at least a year, and whilst some of our projects have been having an impact for six or seven years, our work can be affected by political instability.
This brings uncertainty as to whether we will achieve the final destination change we want to see. We’ve had some fantastic projects lose funding after a few years of gaining momentum and showing great impact, but working with the public purse-string in a volatile political time means we can’t always be certain we will be able to see change through.
BECKY: We must become a calm business, one which continues to learn about ourselves and the landscape in which we operate. In doing so things can be more predictable in a volatile world. We must understand our value and find the balance between the needs of all who are on this journey with us – the agency and the team, our clients and the communities we are working in.
GED: The challenge is staying commercially viable while making localised impact or taking our local approach to national needs. We can, and do, use our principles across national projects like the work we are doing for the Met Office, but often the trust and relationship you need to establish to create everyday change comes from working with local networks and influencers and personalising the approach for a target population. In addition to this, constantly striving to reach those who are seldom heard and championing unheard voices takes time and budget that isn’t always readily available.
There are amazing changemakers out there who we are working with but we’d like everyone to get paid for their efforts and where this isn’t possible, the additional challenge is trying to be more joined up in our approach so we aren’t duplicating efforts and making the most of what is available.
Finally, this is not so much a challenge, but there is an opportunity to get bigger brands to partner with us, join forces and invest in the type of work we do for the wellbeing of their populations.
KIM: It always comes back to what we are trying to achieve. The work we do at Magpie is hard, it certainly helps having easy people to work with, but the hard topics we take on drive us. We know there are significant challenges ahead, but I feel with the people at Magpie by my side we could overcome anything, pivot our plans, find a new route and continue on our mission of campaigns for social good.
It is the stories of real people that drive us and the belief in our skills to make small everyday behaviour changes that will improve lives. When we hear of the man who was facing suicide but reached out to a friend because of our campaign, we know we are transforming lives. When we discover that a woman has had her cancer detected in the early stages because she was persuaded in her native language via one of our translated adverts to go to a breast cancer screening appointment, we know we are creating change for good. When we read the reviews of a child who says that the education resources we developed to help them swap time on their screen for time playing outdoors has ‘changed their life’, we live in hope!
“Hope drives us, and a deep belief in what we do.”
What is it that makes Magpie different?
KIM: It’s the blend Becky and Ged were talking about earlier. And the blend of people and our shared sense of purpose, using all that we’ve learned and the expertise and skills we have gathered to work with clients to do things with their community or target audience, rather than for or to them.
“So we bring together the science, the insight and the creativity – the three pillars of our approach – to give power to communities and ensure seldom heard voices are heard.”
And finally… what does the future hold for Magpie?
BECKY: We will continue to build and grow our calm business, working with changemakers on campaigns that have a positive impact. So specific things are in the works too. We’ve recently won grant funding to become a ‘creative catalyst’ and bring our expertise to thousands of organisations in a way that is really accessible, by breaking the agency model.
We are looking at – as Ged mentioned earlier – how we can use our techniques for behaviour change on a national level. We will also be bringing more events, thought leadership and training to the ever-growing movement of organisations and individuals looking to make meaningful change through the work they do.
GED: We are just launching our growth plans for the next five years, centred on our vision of becoming the choice of the changemaker and the UK’s leading agency for life-changing campaigns for social good.
We’ll be investing heavily in additional expertise and developing our internal training programme that builds on 14 years of Magpie magic and the knowledge and talents of everyone in the team. Getting this right will have a massive and positive impact for our collective experience and truly strengthen our approach to campaign development.
We’re having conversations about growing campaigns in new locations and exploring the possibilities of an open source campaign offering. We have ambitious plans for how we gather, share and publish insight. And we are planning how we can lead in the area of creative behaviour change through future events, consultation and thought leadership, as well as a new training offer.
“Future success will always be about working with organisations to make change possible, first by changing perceptions that leads to inspiring positive action. This ensures people are able to make the change they want to see in their lives. So the future will also include being even more rigorous when it comes to impact reporting.”
We will continue to play our part, working to create healthier, happier, greener and fairer communities.